While it may be true that there's relatively little to be gained from the 20 minutes of media access at the beginning of each practice, there's plenty on display to interpret and even more scuttlebutt behind the scenes to help piece together how this 2014 team is coming together.
After taking in the first few spring practices, here is my interpretation of the latest in Tiger football, coupled with some insight gained from various sources.
Seeds of an offensive transformation are being sown
What seemed inevitable leading up to spring ball has indeed begun to take form on the Charles McClendon Practice Facility. Second-year coordinator Cam Cameron is, at the very least, adding a new dimension to the LSU offense, installing the basics of and drilling his quarterbacks on the read-option.
During our time in practice, we've witnessed and taped (see below) the Tigers practicing a basic read-option look just involving the quarterback and running back. We've also seen them show action where the quarterback has the slot receiver as a pitch option in what amounts to a triple-option play. All three scholarship quarterbacks – sophomore Anthony Jennings, redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig and early enrollee Brandon Harris – are being schooled on and running the play, and you'll notice wide receiver Travin Dural is one of the players LSU used as a slot-receiver pitch man.
Cameron, Les Miles and the LSU offense almost had to move in this direction, or at least partly in this direction. Consider the factors: In the post-Mettenberger Era, the top two projected signal callers (Harris and Jennings) both have considerable mobility and can hurt opponents on the ground … Both also happen to have a combined one start under their belts and 29 total passing attempts on the collegiate level. One way or the other, this 2014 team is going to have to rely more heavily on the ground game than in the past two seasons … Then there's the big-picture understanding that the Tigers have been recruiting and developing players to this end since Cameron came on board in the first place.
So it's no surprise LSU has busted out a new look at practice. The big question now becomes just how much do the Tigers rely on it as a staple of the offense?
Lamar Louis has moved to outside linebacker, starting lineup
On top of wearing a green no-contact jersey, Louis, a junior, has also been conspicuous in practice because of his spot in the opening starting linebacker trio of the spring, slotted in on the strongside. It's not a surprising move from coordinator John Chavis, who usually gives his veterans first crack on the defensive second level. Louis played in all 13 games a season ago, totaling 25 tackles and recovering a fumble while backing up and occasionally replacing D.J. Welter at middle linebacker.
With Louis now at first-team Sam linebacker, there's been a ripple effect through the rest of the corps. Rising junior Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 TFL in 2013) has swapped sides, now wearing a new jersey – No. 4 – and manning the starting weakside linebacker position occupied by Lamin Barrow the last two seasons. Sophomore Kendell Beckwith, who featured more as a rush end last fall, has backfilled Louis' post as the back-up to Welter at Mike linebacker. It's yet to be seen if Beckwith will be a reserve or if he can elevate himself to the 1-A to Welter's 1.
The other revelation with Louis moving over and up is that junior Deion Jones and sophomore Duke Riley will still have to wait their turns to get in the top three. Both are lightning-quick but definitely on the lighter side, which further illustrates where Chavis is trying to go with his current starters – stronger and bigger. The Chief is aiming to stop the run better in 2014, and Louis, a guy who's earned the nickname "Hammer" from his teammates, should help in that regard.
Evan Washington is currently the starting right guard
From the moment Trai Turner announced his intentions to turn pro, right guard became one of the biggest question marks on the field for LSU, primarily because of how many varying options were available to new position coach Jeff Grimes. To begin camp, Grimes and the Tiger staff have gone with the most veteran option in Washington, set to begin his fifth tour of duty in the purple and gold in 2014.
Washington spent all of last season as a back-up tackle and did log meaningful minutes at different points on the right and left sides when injuries struck LSU's starters. What's clear at this point is Washington is being given a chance because senior Fehoko Fanaika, who transferred in prior to last season, is still battling weight issues. It is worth noting that Fanaika has rotated in with the first team at right guard intermittently during the first few practices. Consider these the Tigers' top two candidates to start at right guard, and in the order they're currently in, unless something unforeseen occurs.
In the wake of Washington's ascent, here's how the LSU first- and second-team offensive lines have looked in the past few days.
FIRST: Collins, Alexander, Porter, Washington, Hawkins
SECOND: Pocic/Austin, Austin/Pocic, Dodd, Fanaika, Boutte
On the second line sophomore Ethan Pocic and redshirt junior Jonah Austin have spent time alternating at both positions on the left side. Redshirt freshman-to-be Andy Dodd is being groomed as Porter's back-up at center while rising sophomore Josh Boutte, who has looked absolutely massive, is the second-string right tackle.
Two young defensive linemen are putting a good foot forward
A lot was expected from LSU's deep defensive line class of 2013, and at least two of those players are beginning to deliver on their promise and impress on the practice field. One, defensive end Tashawn Bower, will come as no shock to anybody. Bower saw brief stints of action as a true freshman and has the most SEC-ready body of any of the '13 D-Linemen. The other, defensive tackle Maquedius Bain, was a bit more of an unknown, but he's reportedly moved ahead of Greg Gilmore on position coach Brick Haley's pecking order.
Both Bain and Gilmore are getting their shots this spring, playing next to each other on the second-team defensive line with veteran Mickey Johnson out. It's obvious at practice Haley rides Gilmore more than Bain, and there are more questions about conditioning with Gilmore as well. All of that has positioned Bain in a good spot to vie for time after current starters Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas, and the word is he's begun to grab the attention of the coaches.
LSU will benefit greatly if Bain and Bower are ready-to-go members of their respective rotations this coming fall. It also wouldn't hurt if Lewis Neal continued to develop as a pass-rusher with Beckwith moving back to middle linebacker.
Injuries giving a few older defenders another chance to shine
One of the interesting storylines this spring is the prolonged absences of injured defenders Jermauria Rasco, a senior defensive end, and Corey Thompson, a junior safety, and the trickle-down effect that has on LSU's remaining players at those positions this spring.
Several veterans – namely safety Ronald Martin and ends Jordan Allen and Justin Maclin, all seniors – are seeing more time and reps as a byproduct. In the case of Maclin, a long-time reserve, the pay-off come this fall may be minimal, but it's a different situation altogether for Allen and Martin, both of whom have played a good bit in their careers but have also been lapped by younger guys. This opportunity to build some confidence back before Rasco and Thompson return can only be a good thing for the Tigers' defensive depth.