LSU Preview 2001: OL

If LSU football fans were concerned about one area of their team more than any other after spring practice concluded April 28, the offensive line was probably it. Injuries, attrition, and lack of desire all played a part in a frustrating off-season for the Tigers, leading head coach Nick Saban to voice his concern over lack of quality and depth in the trenches.

"Some of the young guys that we have don't seem to have the sense of urgency to learn what to do, how to do it and why it's important to do it that way," said Saban. "There's too many times out there with our twos that … they can't get lined up right (and) can't play the right technique. It's not a matter of physical ability. It's a matter of execution."

But rewind to one year ago. Almost as many — if not more — uncertainties existed along the trenches.

The tentative pre-season starting lineup for 2000, from left tackle to right tackle, read as follows: Brandon Winey, Bob Wynne, Louis Williams, Dwayne Pierce and Trey Langley.

After Williams moved back to right tackle, allowing John Compton to start at center, Trey Langley blew out his knee against Houston. Soon afterward, Williams moved back to center, Winey moved to right tackle and Rodney Reed became the starter at left tackle. Wynne suffered a neck injury and was done for the year, and soon afterward, Rob Sale became a starter at left guard.

Before long, the LSU offensive line was almost completely re-shuffled. And more amazingly, before long, the linemen were dominating opponents. By the time Mississippi State came to Tiger Stadium, the starting five were explosive enough to manhandle the No. 1 rushing defense in America, gaining 220 yards in four-plus quarters.

Make no mistake, last season's turnaround doesn't automatically translate to similar success in 2001. For one, position coach Rick Trickett has moved back to his home state of West Virginia for a similar job with the Mountaineers.

George Yarno, a 13-year NFL veteran, takes over for Trickett as the offensive line coach and commands respect with his fiery style. But at spring practice, Yarno found that his cupboard was nearly bare.

Sam Forehand and Jason Daire, both reserves who signed with the Tigers in 1998 and '99, respectively, had long since left the team.

Williams and Winey have moved on to the NFL. Wynne, a mean run blocker when healthy, finally decided to leave the team after his neck injury (he continues to pursue a degree in history, by the way).

Daniel Leon, a member of Saban's first recruiting class, was AWOL for an April 18 practice and eventually transferred to Southern.

Chris Henry, who switched from defensive tackle at the beginning of spring practice, didn't make the grade at LSU and headed for Southwest Mississippi Junior College.

The wave of attrition has left Yarno's troops severely undermanned, but help has arrived. Five offensive linemen — Steve Arflin, Jonathan Banks, Rudy Niswanger, Andrew Whitworth and Ben Wilkerson — signed to play for the Tigers in February, and only Banks won't come to campus (transferred to Grambling).

They will all lend depth to an area that sorely need it, and it's not inconceivable that one or two could play immediately in some capacity.

Reed will stay at left tackle, where he played the final five games in 2000 after moving from left guard. Behind Reed is Terry Phillips, an erstwhile defensive lineman who moved to left tackle during the spring.

"I just felt like we were so thin on the offensive line that we needed a big body and a good athlete to be able to go over there and be a potential starter for us," Saban said. "I think he's making progress there and he has the ability to be a good player there. He's a long way off, technique-wise."

Phillips changed jerseys from No. 90 to Winey's old No. 68 in April. Winey saw Phillips in the spring and told him not to disgrace the digits.

"Just like when you go back to your high school," Phillips said. "You hope nobody sorry is wearing your number."

Sale held the left guard position from mid-October through the end of the season (see page 42). He figured to do so again, but Williams' departure at center prompted the need for an experienced replacement. John Young, a junior, got the first look there, but Sale eventually took over in spring practice. Jonathan Autrey backed up Sale at center with varying degrees of success.

Wilkerson's arrival from Hemphill, Texas, may help at center. He was widely considered the nation's best high school prospect at the position and committed to LSU in late December. On film, he looked devastating but undersized. Wilkerson has put on extra weight since signing day and will try to make a push for playing time, even if it's unreasonable to ask from a rookie.

Back at left guard, a battle brewed between Young and redshirt freshman Kade Comeaux, who practice at tackle during his rookie season. Coaches' comments in April seemed to suggest they'd like Comeaux to emerge as a clear-cut starter, but both men got a fair shot in fall camp and were forced to yield to transplanted sophomore tight end Stephen Peterman.

Dwayne "World" Pierce, who came forward from obscurity (or at least, the kind of obscurity a 316-pound man can find) to start the final nine games last season, will again play at right guard in the fall. Though Young also played some on the right side, Pierce didn't have a backup Peterman volunteered to play his third different position in less than two years. Young and Comeaux could also materialize behind Pierce.

The fifth position on the offensive line, right tackle, was up for grabs. In the spring, Brad Smalling and senior Jason Baggett split time with the first team, but neither did enough to solidify himself as a dependable starter. Smalling had troubles moving laterally in pass blocking, while Baggett was pushed around on occasion. Baggett has made the most substantial improvement in August and enters the Tulane game as the starter, while Smalling continues to improve heading into his junior season.

IN 2000: The offensive line started out shaky at best, as questions remained at center and guard. In stepped Louis Williams at center, Sale at guard and Reed at tackle, and soon played amazingly by the middle of the season.

IN 2001: Again, the offensive line might start out shaky. Attrition has ravaged the corps and left it thin, just as injuries had done in 1999. Whether the line finishes shaky or stable may wreck or strengthen a potentially brilliant season.

ON THE SPOT: Brad Smalling. He has slimmed down significantly since he came to LSU, but hasn't been able to crack the starting lineup. Georgia Tech's stud defensive ends blew past him in the Peach Bowl, revealing his chronic problems as a pass blocker. Smalling will have a shot to turn that around this fall.


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