With the goal of bringing younger and inexperienced players closer to the level of the veterans and returning starters, Saban said his staff starts at square one in the spring with hopes the entire team will retain what it learns in the 15 spring workouts once fall camp begins in August. Helping him in that regard is a healthy stock of players who already have knowledge of what they will be asked to do.
"We don't assume anybody knows anything in the spring," said Saban. "In the fall, we assume everybody has the same resource of information to work with."
The Tigers appear to have adequate resources to replace the nine starters lost from their 2001 Southeastern Conference championship roster. Even without the signees for 2002 who will join the team in the fall, there are three units working at virtually every position.
Wide receiver, where LSU moves on without All-American and 2001 Biletnikoff Award winner Josh Reed, is the only thin area on the squad. Michael Clayton took part in today's helmets-only workout despite battling back spasms that have him designated as a day-to-day player. Reggie Robinson, who underwent season-ending neck surgery last August, was available but, like Clayton, worked out in a no-contact jersey.
Jack Hunt and Corey Webster, both receivers last season, worked with the defensive backs. Webster was cross-trained briefly as a cornerback last season when injuries depleted the Tigers' depth.
Bennie Brazell missed practice Saturday to take part in the SEC Triangular track meet being held across the street at Bernie Moore Stadium, and Drew Hixon, the son of receivers coach Stan Hixon, has reportedly decided to transfer from LSU to a Division I-AA school.
This left Jerel Myers as the only fully cleared scholarship receiver at practice, although running backs Devery Henderson and Shyrone Carey worked exclusive with the receivers during the one-hour portion of practice open to the media.
Carey struggled a bit with his route drills, while Robinson and Clayton showed little effects of their respective injuries.
Including Hunt in his comments, Saban said he was pleased with the development of players in the secondary where he has three returning starters and some experienced hands at his disposal.
"There are a lot more guys (in the secondary) who have played in games," he said. "Norman LeJeune and Damien James have played and played good football. (Demetrius) Hookfin has started a lot of games. Randall Gay got a chance to play a lot last year and Travis Daniels was involved in the game plan every week and didn't have his development slowed by what was almost a redshirt year for him."
Daniels lost his redshirt in the SEC Championship game due to an ankle injury James suffered in the game. At today's practice, James was used at free safety with LeJeune at strong safety, and Hookfin and Gay were the first unit corners.
Daniels, Webster and Ronnie Prude were used as second unit corners with Adrian Mayes and Travis Moses at the safety spots. The first and second unit designations are somewhat blurry in the secondary due to the number of personnel groups the Tigers use based upon the scheme and situation they have to defend.
Former West Monroe teammates Bradie James and Jason LeDoux played side-by-side again at the Will and Mike linebacker spots, respectively. Returning starter Jeremy Lawrence joined them at the Sam backer on the first unit.
Although the Tigers mixed up their linebacker formations to allow for extra defensive backs, Lionel Turner took the field at No. 2 Mike and Dorsett Buckels played at No. 2 Will.
New defensive line coach Lance Thompson got work with his charges for the first time in an official practice session. He placed a lot of emphasis on footwork in the individual drills. Comparing his communication and coaching style to former LSU line coaches, Thompson falls on the end of the spectrum closer to Pete Jenkins and Jerry Baldwin and further away from Joe Cullen and Mike Tolleson.
Thompson's first defensive line consisted of Chad Lavalais and Byron Dawson at tackle and Kenderick Allen and Marquise Hill at end. The next group had Torran Williams and Brandon Hurley in the middle with Marcus Spears and Bryce Wyatt on the outside. Melvin Oliver, Brandon Washington and Donovan Grayson worked with the third string.
The offensive line was also three-units strong to start the spring. Returning starters Rodney Reed (LT), Stephen Peterman (LG) and Ben Wilkerson (C) were back at their old spots, while Rob Sale (RG) and Brad Smalling (RT) made up the rest of the first line. The second line featured Andrew Whitworth (LT), Rudy Niswanger (LG), John Young (C), Jonathan Autrey (RG) and Kade Comeaux (RT).
Saban said on Friday he was pleased with the experience along the offensive line but would like to have more depth. One of the players who will lend depth along the line, three-time signee Nate Livings, was on hand to watch Saturday's practice from the sidelines. Saban said Livings has received approval from the NCAA Clearinghouse and can enroll as a student at LSU as early as this summer.
Also watching from the sidelines was linebacker Dave Peterson, who is nursing a hamstring injury.
Redshirt freshman liebacker Tim Pope, who was suspended from the team for disciplinary reasons in the middle of last season, took part in Saturday's practice. Saban met with Pope prior to the workout to discuss Pope's status on the team. While Saban didn't divulge his conversation with the player, he said that Pope's future largely depends on his progress in the classroom and staying out of trouble.
"He has a significant amount of work to do academically," Saban said. "We're going to help him develop as a person to get his character, priorities and habits where they need to be for him to be successful as a person, a student and a player."
Saban said the goal of his staff and academic support personnel is to give Pope an opportunity to regain normal status with the team, adding that he felt Pope was bright enough to overcome his "tough background and the tough adjustments" he's had to make since coming to LSU. Pope was arrested last July near Panama City, Fla., for evading police by automobile.
Playing football is being used as a carrot, in Saban's terms, to encourage Pope to get his academics in order and avoid off-the-field problems.The future of two other individuals with the LSU football team is also very cloudy. Offensive lineman Terry Phillips has decided to quit playing football and defensive back Brandon Williams is "dealing with personal issues" according to Saban. Part of Williams' situation appears to deal with his academic standing.
As for LSU's offensive backfield, the expected cast performed well in their roles. Quarterbacks Matt Mauck and Marcus Randall were accurate in passing drills, and Rick Clausen has made up considerable ground from where he was as a mid-term high school graduate last January.
Domanick Davis worked exclusively at running back after being used on defense last season. His practice time will be considerable in the absence of LaBrandon Toefield, who continued his rehab while the rest of the team practiced on Saturday. Working with a team trainer, Toefield ran short pass routes at a decent speed without favoring his surgically repaired knee.
Joseph Addai and Ryan Gilbert worked in the backfield behind Davis.
LSU will practice three more times this week before taking off nine days for spring break. It the first time Saban says he has scheduled spring practice around the vacation period. He explained that he didn't want to start any earlier because it would have forced players to begin their five-week off-season program too soon after having played in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1.
"The positive is that you will get some players back who get nicked up this week," Saban said regarding the weeklong break. "The negative is you may not have the carry-over with some of the younger guys relative to what we're trying to teach them."
The next practice for the Tigers is scheduled for Monday at 3 p.m. NCAA rules allow 15 sessions of spring practice and only ten can be in full pads. The allotment also includes a maximum of three scrimmages, one of which will be LSU's Spring Game on April 27.
NOTE: All first unit, second unit and starting designations listed in this update are based on observations of Tiger Rag and not official designations from LSU.
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