Beginning next week I'll kick off a 30-part "Summer Session" series that will take us all the way to SEC Media Days in mid-July. The aim of those stories is to dissect the 2014 LSU football team from every angle – position battles, strongest units, youngsters playing early, assistant coach impacts, schedule review and much more.
Before all the in-depth gridiron talk starts in earnest, though, I want to set a baseline, dropping my expectations for how the starting 11 will look on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. These are my picks for who will start the season opener versus Wisconsin barring injury, suspension, etc.
Without further ado . . .
PROJECTED STARTING OFFENSE
QB: Brandon Harris
RB: Terrence Magee
FB: Connor Neighbors
WR (X): Malachi Dupre
WR (Z): Travin Dural
TE: Dillon Gordon
LT: La'el Collins
LG: Vadal Alexander
C: Elliott Porter
RG: Fehoko Fanaika ("Hoko")
RT: Jerald Hawkins
Now, before anyone gets too hot and bothered that they didn't see a name or two they expected, here is my quick breakdown of the Backup/Platoon Factor with some accompanying notes.
Also, as I go from position to position, I'll assign a numerical value (1-10) to each backup/platoon player, indicating how much I think they'll factor into the in-game rotation. The higher the number, the more I believe that person will play (platoon). The lower the number, the less I believe that person will play (more of a reserve).
QB: Anthony Jennings (3)
- To be certain the quarterback battle will rage on into Fall Camp, but I believe Jennings is now playing catch-up with Harris, who not only turned in the better performance in the spring game (by a wide margin) but is also developing a rapport with Dupre and is a better scrambler when the pocket breaks down/receivers can't get open. Jennings may well play versus Wisconsin, but I believe Harris will start the game.
- If Fournette blows everyone away in Fall Camp, he could actually be the starter, but I'm not going to discount Magee's past production, experience and familiarity in Cam Cameron's system. Still, I believe Fournette will be the ultimate platoon guy offensively for LSU in 2014. It's my expectation he may start the season off closer to a 7 on this scale, but as time goes on he'll match Magee stride-for-stride, giving LSU a mean duo. As for Hilliard, he'll have value in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Frank Wilson loves to spread the wealth to his backs, so don't think Hilliard will be a forgotten man.
FB: Melvin Jones (5)
- The Lake Charles native is right on the border, in my opinion, between backup and rotational player. Due to the fact Neighbors is the only other scholarship fullback, Jones will play some out of necessity. Now, that's not a bad thing for LSU as he brings a physical edge, but it's my understanding Jones still has a way to go in grasping the offense. Neighbors is the clear-cut starter, but Jones' development over the next 3-4 months will tell how much time he commands.
WR (Z): Quantavius Leslie (5)
- I'm going to lump all my receiver commentary into one space. The reality is outside of Dural, there's not a proven guy returning to the corps (and even Dural has a checkered injury history). Diarse was the favored No. 2 wide-out heading into spring, but he struggled mightily with consistency. Given the staff loves his physicality, I'll give him the slight nod currently to be the third receiver, but there a number of newcomers who will challenge. Quinn is probably chief among them, but I also continue to hear good things about Tony Upchurch. Position coach Adam Henry told me recently that Upchurch will start off at receiver but could also move to a number of positions in LSU's offense. If he and/or Quinn develop early, you won't see much of Leslie, Kevin Spears, Rob Bolden or Avery Peterson in 2014. A lot is subject to change here.
- LSU has a lot of tight ends who are either good blockers or good pass-catchers but perhaps not any who qualify as SEC-caliber at both. Gordon is the closest, although he's clearly a better in-line blocker, so he gets the nod. Smith is just an incredible athlete with good route-running ability and great hands. It's hard to imagine LSU won't use him in the passing game, even ahead of Dickson, a redshirt senior. Stokes will play behind and occasionally alongside Gordon in heavy sets.
- Addressing the offensive line all at once, I believe Washington and Pocic are the only two non-starters with a chance to play significant minutes (barring a lot of injury to the starting five). Actually, taking a step back to clarify, Washington could well beat out Fanaika still as the starter at right guard. Along with Magee/Fournette, it should be the closest position battle of Fall Camp on offense. Difference is only one guy can start and play at right guard. Pocic's value is in the fact he can play anywhere, literally, along the line. Austin played some in 2013 in goal-line and field-goal sets, and he remains an option at guard or tackle, although Danielle Hunter ate his lunch when he played left tackle during the spring game. Then there's Boutte, who continues to add size and is growing into a monster at right tackle. He'll be a reserve, but one poised to play in the near future.