TSD will run a story a day over the coming week-plus, combing through each position with a detailed look at who and what is being lost, via publisher Ben Love, and the names/games of the 2015 targets that will be groomed as replacements in the short- and long-term, via recruiting analyst Hunter Paniagua.
The first position up: Offensive Tackle.
LEAVING A VOID
LSU is going to miss La’el Collins something fierce from the moment the bowl games ends in about a month. The 6-foot-5, 321-pound senior from Baton Rouge has not only been the Tigers’ best offensive lineman in 2014, he’s been the team’s best player. Collins has played in 44 games at LSU, starting 37 times. He’s contributed in some fashion since his true freshman season and, this fall, led the way for 2,634 yards rushing, a huge chunk of which LSU achieved by running behind the left-side duo of Collins and Vadal Alexander. He’s also a big reason the Tigers were able to deploy their chosen style – running often and methodically, which led to LSU chalking up almost eight minutes a game more possession than its opponents.
Collins came onto campus from Redemptorist HS as one of the nation’s top offensive tackles, and that’s the way he’ll leave it. Even after a stint starting at left guard as a sophomore, Big La’el moved back out to his customary blind side in advance of last season and now is a projected top-five OT in this spring’s NFL Draft, a surefire first-round pick. He’s gotten better with each season and, in his absence, position coach Jeff Grimes will have to identify a player capable of protecting the quarterback as a first-year starter at a tough position to learn on the fly. It’s almost a given that whoever is selected won’t possess the same run-blocking chops as Collins, so that’s another thing to consider for 2015. The “run left all day” plan will have to go back to the drawing board.
Losing Collins is a certainty. LSU’s starting right tackle, redshirt sophomore Jerald Hawkins, following Collins to the NFL is a possibility, but in this reporter’s estimation it’s leaning more toward a probability. The 6-foot-6, 309-pounder from Baldwin has played and started in all 25 LSU games after taking a redshirt in 2012. Hawkins, a former three-sport star on the prep level, is a way-above-average athlete for a player at his position and has arms that extend for days, allowing for unbelievable reach as he keeps pass-rushers at bay. He’s serviceable in the run game but excels as a pass-protector. Should “Hawk” bolt he’ll be easier to replace than Collins, but it’s a dilemma Grimes would just as soon not face – having to backfill for both starting offensive tackles.
It should also be noted that LSU will lose redshirt senior Evan Washington. The 6-foot-6, 334-pounder was a career reserve in his time in TigerTown, but the versatile backup did fill in multiple times over the last season and a half at offensive guard and tackle when injuries arose. If Hawkins leaves early, LSU will be utterly and completely starting over at tackle. Should he stay, the Tigers will have a nice building block but will still have to fill Collins’ shoes and establish depth on par with Washington, who has started the last two games for LSU at guard.
FILLING THE VOID
La'el Collins' replacement for the 2015 season is already on the roster. Whether it's Ethan Pocic, K.J. Malone or Jerald Hawkins if he sticks around, it's more likely the Tigers turn to a veteran than a true freshman to start at left tackle from Day 1. But Jeff Grimes has taken on the challenge of building depth and a foundation for the future at offensive tackle since he joined the coaching staff. So there are a number of candidates from the 2015 class to monitor for 2016 and beyond.
LSU already has three offensive linemen committed for 2015 — two guards (Adrian Magee, Maea Teuhema) and one tackle (Matt Womack). All three are massive at 320-plus, so with the remaining spots, the Tigers are targeting "leaner," more athletic linemen that would project perfectly to left tackle. That's not to say a 325-pounder like Womack — whom LSU must continue recruiting to hold off outside competition — can't be a left tackle, but the other targets are in the 275-300 pound range.
Two of the Tigers' OT targets are currently committed elsewhere. Notre Dame commit Jerry Tillery (pictured above) has been one of LSU's top in-state priorities throughout this cycle, and the Tigers are still working to make that flip. He intends to enroll early, so time is running out, but LSU's put itself in great shape at this late stage. The other big flip LSU hopes to make is North Carolina commit William Sweet. Rumblings after his official visit last month were leaning heavily in LSU's favor, and that hasn't changed. With the Tar Heels having a disappointing season, the Tigers are confident Sweet lands in Baton Rouge.
A pair of other prospects high on LSU's board are expected to be on campus at the end of the week. Martez Ivey, the nation's No. 1 OT, has planned to take an official visit to LSU this weekend. Considered a lean to either Auburn or Florida, the Bayou Bengals are on the outside looking in, but a visit could change that. The other one to watch is Florida commit George Brown. With the coaching change in Gainesville, Brown's taking a more serious look at other schools. A cousin of Spencer Ware, he's long been high on the Tigers, and he too plans to take an official visit this weekend. These two are considered longer shots, though, so if you're looking for the next great LSU left tackle, keep a closer eye on Tillery or Sweet with Womack having plenty of potential as well.