30 days, 30 topics inside the world of LSU football.
TSD is previewing and analyzing the 2014 edition of the Tigers from every angle, bringing you a daily dose of "Summer Session" each weekday through June 11, three days before the unofficial kickoff to football season at SEC Media Days.
TODAY'S SESSION: OFFENSIVE UNIT RANKS
Over the next two days TSD will roll out our unit ranks for the LSU offense and defense, examining which position groups are in the best and worst shape, comparatively, in terms of talent, depth and a number of other factors heading into the 2014 season.
The five units being ranked today on the offensive side of the ball – Quarterbacks, Backfield (RBs and FBs), Receivers, Tight Ends and Offensive Line. Here's how we rank ‘em.
1. Offensive Line
LSU was one early NFL defection away from bringing back arguably the best offensive line in school history. But, even with Trai Turner vacating his post at right guard, the 2014 starting front five has a chance to be up there among the best to wear the purple and gold. Consider the experience the Tigers' four returning starters have compiled: LT La'el Collins (32 games played, 25 starts), LG Vadal Alexander (26 games played, 22 starts), C Elliott Porter (22 games played, 13 starts), RT Jerald Hawkins (13 games played, 13 starts). All-told that quartet has played in 93 games, starting 73. Collins and Hawkins are versatile bookends that will make life on any new starting quarterback easier, particularly in the pocket, while Alexander is an absolute road grader in the run game. There's an ongoing position battle for right guard between Fehoko Fanaika ("Hoko") and Evan Washington, and the "loser" will bolster a young, but promising second team that includes Ethan Pocic and Jevonte Domond. This, to me, is hands-down the best unit within LSU's offense and a real strength of the '14 team.
Think LSU may run the football a little this fall? Much like 2011, when they rushed on 591 of 870 plays (67.9%), the Tigers are strongest at the point of attack and in the backfield. Senior Terrence Magee and freshman phenom Leonard Fournette headline a tailback stable that also includes two physical options in Kenny Hilliard, another senior, and Darrel Williams, another freshman. But what helps throw this group over the top, and ultimately vaulted them over the next unit in my mind, is what LSU brings back at fullback. Namely senior Connor Neighbors. The one-time walk-on has proven to be a real asset in Cam Cameron's offense, able to clear holes in the run game and catch the ball with little effort in the flats. 2014 should be fun to watch in the backfield for LSU.
3. Tight Ends
I thought long and hard about putting Steve Ensminger's tight ends at No. 2, but one reality kept surfacing: They have a lot of guys who are above average to great in one area – run blocking or pass catching, but not one who's really that caliber in both departments. The depth, however, is stunning. All five position players should take the field in some capacity this fall. There are two seniors in Travis Dickson (better in passing game) and Logan Stokes (run blocking); a junior in Dillon Gordon (run blocking); a sophomore in Desean Smith (passing game); and a true freshman in Jacory Washington. The youngest member may be the best fusion of blocker and pass catcher, but he's got an uphill climb to play major minutes over the four experienced tight ends. One thing's for sure – Ensminger will have a guy for just about every situation, be it pass protection near the quarterback in shotgun sets, route running from an in-line position or in the slot, double-tight blocking sets and much more.
We all know the lay of the land by this point. All but two scholarship quarterbacks have vacated the premises, transferring out due to the writing on the wall that this is a two-man race between freshman Brandon Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings. So depth is obviously a major concern, as is experience (the two combined have attempted 29 passes on the collegiate level), but there's enough upside to keep the signal callers slightly ahead of the rebuilding receiving corps. LSU also has two players at the position capable of giving a dual-threat look, making the Tiger offense potentially more varied in 2014. It won't always be pretty behind center this fall, but here's betting there will be glimpses of the spectacular from time to time. The only question is how often?
This is a ranking earned fair and square in spring ball. The returning receivers were inconsistent and at times dreadful – dropping balls, not getting separation on routes, miscommunicating with the quarterbacks. Travin Dural was the only stand-out, and even he admittedly only shined during the spring game. So entering August the wide-outs coming back, particularly John Diarse, Quantavius Leslie and Kevin Spears, have a lot to prove. The good news is four new targets will enter the fold in freshmen D.J. Chark, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn and Tony Upchurch. If one or two of those newbies develops quickly on the fly, perhaps the receivers can move up a notch. This group will be a handful in 2015 and 2016, but they may go through some rough patches in 2014 while getting there.