Okay, so 45 would be ridiculous. But 12 sounds good, right?
What follows are a dozen impressions from the spring game formed by play on the field as well as postgame interviews and rumblings. Not every bullet point will hold true all the way through to the Tigers’ opening game versus McNeese State on Sept. 5, but these tidbits reflect how things are left at the close of spring camp.
---------------------------1. Boutte’s grasp on starting spot most tenuous of first offensive line
For the second half of LSU’s spring camp, the first-team offensive line remained the same. Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander (more on him below) played left and right tackle, respectively. Redshirt freshman William Clapp lined up at center while Ethan Pocic was at left guard and Josh Boutte at right guard. The staff loves Clapp and his versatility, ensuring his current spot among the first four. Boutte may be on thin ice at right guard, and the likely culprit to take his spot, should it happen, is K.J. Malone. Cue position coach Jeff Grimes after the game: “I’m not necessarily sure that the way we did things today is the way we’ll do things moving forward.”
2. When everyone is healthy, Neal starts ahead of Bain at defensive end
No guess-work needed here as Les Miles stated as much clearly in his postgame remarks. Maquedius Bain, a redshirt sophomore, has come a long way this spring in his transition from tackle to end. But the reality is junior Lewis Neal, who sat out the spring game with a right ankle injury, leaves spring as a starter at end opposite Tashawn Bower. Multiple people in Tiger Stadium Saturday retold a story from a previous spring scrimmage in which Neal apparently chased down and tackled Leonard Fournette in the open field. By all accounts it sparked a lightbulb-type moment for first-year defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, who is bullish on Neal.
3. Dural is experienced but just as talented as precocious sophomores
A weird thing happens these days when a player comes back to LSU for his fourth season. We assume, relative to the younger starters, he’s not all that good. Well, La’el Collins debunked that theory last year. This year redshirt junior Travin Dural is that guy. While many point to the Tigers’ up-and-coming sophomore studs (Adams, Fournette, Godchaux) as the premier players on the team, Dural is unequivocally on their level in my opinion. His numbers were almost matched by Malachi Dupre’s yesterday, but, as Miles correctly pointed out, Dural is the more polished receiver and route-runner. In a different offense Dural could be an All-American. Even in LSU’s he’s got a chance to be among the SEC’s best wide-outs.
4. Jefferson, Jones enable easy transition into nickel for Steele
The first-team LSU defense started in nickel and operated extensively from that personnel grouping for much of the first half Saturday. Shuffling in the secondary was predictable: Jalen Mills came down into the box as the nickel back while Rickey Jefferson replaced him in the back, opposite Jamal Adams. On the defense’s second level the two linebackers that remained in were Kendell Beckwith and Deion Jones. Strongside ‘backer Lamar Louis hit the sideline in these 4-2-6 looks. Most are familiar with Jones’ quickness and speed, making him a great blitzing candidate, but the first-year starter will be tested in coverage as one of the linebackers in on nickel sets.
5. Walk-on Moore exits spring as the Tigers’ starter at fullback
The last two offseasons for LSU have seen three fullbacks depart the program – starters J.C. Copeland and Connor Neighbors exhausted their eligibility while Melvin Jones was cut loose by Miles & Co. That’s left a rather large void in front of a sterling stable of tailbacks, and heading into the summer it’s being filled by a walk-on. John David Moore, who served as a shotgun pass protector in 2014 and can also play tight end, is currently ahead of early enrollee David Ducre and second-year player Tony Upchurch on the depth chart. Another fullback will enter this summer in freshman Bry’Kiethon Mouton, but position coach Frank Wilson has taken to Moore, a 6-foot-3, 229-pound sophomore.
6. Chark, Diarse provide two different but effective options in slot
Dupre and Dural each hauled in two touchdown passes and over 100 receiving yards, but if you watched closely, two potential compliments to those presumed starters made statements as well. Sophomore D.J. Chark, a 6-foot-2 speedster, caught a 45-yard heave over two defenders while redshirt sophomore John Diarse, a 6-foot tank of a receiver, totaled four grabs for 27 yards and an impressive first down catch on third-and-13 from Brandon Harris. Diarse has the game experience to be a proven chain-mover for LSU this fall while Chark is destined for special teams action. If he keeps climbing the way he did this spring, Chark could see time alongside the three D’s (Dural, Dupre and Diarse) as the fourth receiver.
7. “Trey L.” is next up at defensive tackle while Valentine’s still absent
Among the players that didn’t suit up Saturday was Quentin Thomas, still recovering from a bicep injury. Thomas, a fifth-year senior, will be in the defensive tackle playing rotation this fall behind starters Davon Godchaux and Christian Lacouture. After the spring game it seems likely redshirt freshman Trey Lealaimatafao will join Thomas on the second team, a group that traditionally gets a good bit of run in LSU’s defense. Trey L was with the White Team while redshirt sophomores Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron played for the Purple Team, mostly comprised of reserves. Miles also updated Travonte Valentine’s status following the game, simply saying he’s suspended and being encouraged to go to class. Sure doesn’t sound like they’re counting on him playing in 2015.
8. Garrett was M.I.A, sort of, while Feist again excelled in spring game
Going into Saturday’s scrimmage the expectation was set that Clifton Garrett would be the lead middle linebacker for the Purple Team. By my watch, and that of several sports writers near me in the press box, the second-year ‘backer didn’t play in the first half and, we thought at the time, at all during the ballgame. Pressed on the subject afterward Miles said that was puzzling to him as well, that he anticipated Garrett would go and aimed to look into it. Upon further examination Garrett is listed with a tackle, for loss, by the official postgame statistics distributed. Either way the projected backup to Kendell Beckwith was an afterthought, which doesn’t exactly help Garrett’s momentum. On the other hand veteran Ronnie Feist, who started for Purple instead of Garrett, showed again that he’s a spring game monster, finishing with a game-high six tackles, five solo. The question is: Can he carry it forward into August?
9. Alexander got right-tackle refresher, but nothing’s set in stone
Vadal Alexander came back for his senior season to raise his NFL Draft stock, something more easily accomplished at tackle. This spring he got back to his freshman-season roots, switching over to a familiar place at right tackle from left guard, where he’s been the last two campaigns. Position coach Jeff Grimes indicated Alexander could still play either position this fall, with the determining factor being which younger player develops best around Alexander. More from Grimes: “What we ended up with for a good bit of the spring is due to putting Vadal in position to get a little more experience at tackle . . . Knowing what he can do at guard, we wanted to give him a chance to show what he can do at tackle.”
10. Thomas, cleared on Saturday, ready to roll into important offseason
Like Travin Dural at wide receiver, Dwayne Thomas is entering his redshirt junior season in the secondary. Thomas, who’s been rehabbing a torn ACL he had surgery on in October, reported Saturday that he’s been medically cleared for full contact. I’ll have more soon on TSD from Thomas, but here’s a taste of what the 2014 dime back had to say. “I just got cleared today, so I’m going to be back in action 100 percent with the team now. I’m honored to be back. I’m happy to be back. I’m just ready to get back on the field . . . I’ll be ready for Fall Camp 100 percent.”
11. Depth will be an issue in several places, most notably in secondary
This time last year it was evident that LSU’s receiving corps was a step or two behind the curve, with a number of young players still adapting to the next level. Leaving this spring that same sentiment can be associated with the offensive line and in the defensive backfield. Time after time the Purple Team secondary conceded long uncontested completions, multiple times for touchdown. It was not the finest hour for Russell Gage, but he was by no means alone. Early enrollee Kevin Toliver had an interception in the second half, a lone bright spot. The Purple Team offensive line had Brandon Harris running for his life early, a good sign for the starting White Team defensive line but a damning statement about several backups up front for Grimes. In both cases, secondary and offensive line, there are available spots for capable freshmen, making for realistic chances to dent the two-deep.
12. Harris closing gap on Jennings in more open competition this time
Going with the impression everyone most wants to read last to make sure you’re still with me. The take is two-fold: First, that Brandon Harris is more realistically entering the picture to play than he was as an early enrollee at this time last year. Second, to concede that Harris is closing the gap on Jennings is an admission that Jennings is out front, which I believe he probably still is. They both had memorable moments Saturday, but the truth is it’s hard to judge with the overwhelming advantages the White Team had in pass protection and in receiver/defensive back matchups. What was obvious was how much better Harris got when he jettisoned the second-team offensive line. In fact playing for the White Team, Harris was a perfect 7-of-7 for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
Still, Jennings overcame some early overthrows to post significant numbers of his own. The job was his coming into the spring and the vibe is it’s still his with summer on the horizon, but Harris is coming along and, I believe, the coaches are more open to the idea he still could win the job. That door was more or less closed this time last year. According to Miles, Harris has progressed most in some of the least athletic areas, advancing with some of the basic things that “function” LSU’s offense – from cadence to checks to play calls. Miles also dismissed the notion that the Tigers were tailoring the offense to Harris, but it’s hard to ignore how often he was in the Shotgun during his first-half reps with either team.