LSU head football coach Nick Saban will meet media members Thursday to answer their questions about his team heading into the spring practice period. He will undoubtedly provide some informative commentary, but he knows that most of the answers being sought won't come until after the Spring Game on April 27 – and perhaps not until the Tigers suit up for their season opener against Virginia Tech on Aug. 31.
Prior to the first session of spring practice on Saturday, Tiger Rag takes a look at some of the questions that will be addressed in the four weeks of workouts.
1. How will spring break affect the Tigers' progress in spring practice?
The football team will practice for one week before getting the week on April 1 off for LSU's spring break period, and its affect on the team could be anywhere from beneficial to negligible.
If you have to take a week off, it is probably better than it falls early in the four-week period rather than late. Any players injured in the first week of practice have a better chance of recovering in time for the Spring Game. Plus, the three straight weeks of practice will allow the team to build continuity heading into the intra-squad game.
2. Does Matt Mauck have the starting job locked up?
Mauck's performance in the Southeastern Conference Championship game clearly establishes him as the man to beat, but that doesn't mean he will not have to assert himself during spring practice. But barring a total meltdown, it looks like Mauck has the job heading into the 2002 season.
This doesn't lessen the pressure on Marcus Randall, however. He has to firmly assert himself as the No. 2 because redshirt freshman Rick Clausen is now in the picture. In fact, it's probably in the best interest for both back-ups to assert themselves so that incoming freshman Lester Ricard can enjoy a smooth orientation in the fall.
3. Who will have to get ready if LaBrandon Toefield's not 100 percent by the fall?
Obviously, Domanick Davis will get the majority of the work as the No. 1 tailback, and the coaching staff will continue to work Devery Henderson behind him. Although some think Henderson is destined to be a wide receiver, his performance late in the Sugar Bowl provided a glimpse of his value in the backfield.
The onus is on one of the redshirt freshmen to step forward and develop into a dependable back. Joseph Addai and Ryan Gilbert will get their chance along with sophomore Shyrone Carey.
4. Who will be the replacements for starting offensive linemen Dwayne Pierce and Jason Baggett?
Baggett and Pierce didn't earn all-conference recognition in their time at LSU, but they evolved into dependable players who made major contributions in the Tigers' 10-3 campaign. What will be hard to replace is the experience they brought to the game.
A combination of veterans and redshirt freshmen will get the chance to fill the voids at tackle and guard. Senior Rob Sale leads the pack at guard, and Andrew Whitworth is a favorite at the tackle position. John Young, Steve Arflin, Rudy Niswanger and Brad Smalling should also figure into the mix.
5. Who will become to the go-to man with Josh Reed's departure to the NFL?
The natural choice is Michael Clayton, who caught exactly half the number of passes as Reed in 2001. But keep in mind that Reggie Robinson will return after a redshirt season in 2001 and has 77 catches to his credit.
Even though Clayton looks to have the potential to post Reed-like numbers in his LSU career, it is vital for Robinson, Jerel Myers and the rest of LSU's receivers to become viable options.
6. How will the loss of Robert Royal and Joe Domingeaux affect the tight end position?
Any time you lose your top pass-catching tight end and your best run blocker at the position, you are not the same team. It could take a year or two before for the Tigers develop another pair of players with the assets Royal and Domingeaux brought to the table.
Eric Edwards is the only full-time tight end for the Tigers with game experience; Marcus Spears may continue to see spot duty but will probably focus on defensive end. Spring practice is an optimal time for redshirt freshmen Kory Hebert and David Jones to develop into LSU's next catch-and-block combo. Walk-on Jacob Guidry may also receive consideration, and don't rule out Demetri Robinson being moved back over from defensive end.
7. Who picks up the slack on defense in the absence of Trev Faulk?
You can't really ask Bradie James to do more than he already does in terms of statistics. He's been among the top two tacklers for the Tigers the last two years but will enters his final season without the support of Faulk. While James should once again be the main cog for the LSU defense, the other components will have to perform to keep the machine running effectively.
In addition to Faulk's athletic ability, the Tigers have to replace his leadership on and off the field. The former will fall to the athlete with the greatest recognition of LSU's scheme and the latter will become the responsibility of the veterans on defense.
There's been speculation that James will be considered for a move to middle linebacker, but that isn't absolutely necessary in terms of James being asked to assume the play-calling duties.
8. Will moves be made along the defensive line in an effort to get the best players on the field?
There's little doubt that the line is headed for an overhaul, especially since Jarvis Green, Howard Green, Kyle Kipps and Muskingum Barnes are no longer available. The Tigers need bodies to replenish the loss of depth, and practice time should force the talent to separate from the pack.
Kenderick Allen, who enjoyed a strong finish to his junior season, may finally be moved over to defensive tackle in order to get players like Marcus Spears and Marquise Hill on the field. Even if Allen makes the move, it could be situational rather than permanent.
In addition to Hill and Spears, redshirt freshmen Brandon Hurley, Melvin Oliver and Brandon Washington will be given a chance to show their progress in spring. Bryce Wyatt can state his case for additional playing time, and Torran Williams might show why he was a hot prospect in junior college.
Chad Lavalais and Byron Dawson are solid players at tackle, but it will be important to find reserves for situational play.
9. How will the secondary be juggled to replace starters and improve the overall quality of the unit?
Saban liked the way his secondary was playing at the close of the season, and he hopes to continue the unit's improvement heading into the 2002 season. Everyone tends to focus on the cornerbacks on their islands, but the Tigers have to find a new free safety to replace Ryan Clark.
Damien James has occupied the No. 2 spot on the depth chart at free safety for the past couple of seasons, and he's played virtually every position in the defensive backfield. Don't be surprised if his role remains flexible throughout his senior season.
Norman LeJeune supplanted Lionel Thomas at strong safety, giving the Tigers another adaptable defensive back on the field. He's capable of playing the corner but better suited for a safety's role.
The progress of Brandon Williams will be interesting to watch. The Port Allen product got a redshirt in his first season at LSU, allowing him to fully mend from the injuries that plagued him through high school. Many feel he could be a factor in the secondary in 2002.
Back to the corners, the Tigers will turn to veteran Demetrius Hookfin and up-and-coming junior Randall Gay. Hookfin, who was showing marked improvement at the end of the year, has taken his lumps for shaky play in the past. His senior year would be the perfect time to finish with a flourish. Gay developed into a playmaker as a sophomore and has the potential to be an All-SEC player.
10. Were there any defections or position changes since the Sugar Bowl?
Demetri Robinson's move back to tight end is speculation, but offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher told a booster group two weeks ago that Jack Hunt was being considered for a transplant from wide receiver to safety.
There were unconfirmed reports that offensive tackle Terry Phillips has opted to transfer. His duty in 2001 was largely limited to place-kick protection on special teams.Linebacker Tim Pope, who was suspended near the midpoint of the season for disciplinary reasons, is reportedly in school at LSU. His status with the team may not be determined until the start of spring practice.