Players welcome return to practice

The second day of spring practice for LSU involved a bit more shouting from the coaching staff, but it was music to the ears of players who are glad to have the winter strength and conditioning program behind them. According to the Tigers who talked with <I>Tiger Rag</I> after practice, the team welcomes any chance it gets to improve heading into the 2002 season.

LSU started its off-season preparations for 2002 in mid-February, concentrating on improvements in strength and conditioning. Head coach Nick Saban labeled the five-week period the most successful the program has had since he's been at LSU. But after having made such great gains off the field, the Tigers are ready to start reaping the benefits on the field

"It's good to get back out there and start doing some football-type drills," said offensive tackle Rodney Reed. "All that lifting and running kind of gets old after a while. You want to get back into some kind of competition and get around all the guys, things like that. That's what really makes you better for next year, having a good spring.

"The lifting's not bad (but) the linemen don't like all that long-distance running," Reed continued. "That's what's bad for us. I think everybody likes practice more because you can get out there and get better at something that's relevant to the game and the upcoming season."

The intensity of Monday's practice increased compared to Saturday's opening spring session. Head coach Nick Saban and his assistants scrutinized individual technique more carefully and offered open criticism or praise depending on what the player in question had earned.

Saban's area of emphasis - as it has been the last two seasons - is the secondary, where the Tigers are enjoying more depth than in recent years. Thanks to a few position changes, there are more bodies to work with in the secondary compared to last fall. But until the newcomers adjust to their new jobs, the veteran defensive backs are treating the situation like there is no depth improvement.

"There's more depth at the corner spot but not really at safety," said senior free safety Damien James. "We're still in spring ball and we're going to move guys around to see which guys can play at which positions. That's what spring's all about. We're really focusing on putting guys in the right position to help the team."

Saban can continue to work hands-on with the defensive backs as a result of promoting Will Muschamp to defensive coordinator. As Saban explained when asked last week, he never considered taking over coordinator's duties himself since it meant he wouldn't be able to work with players at their individual positions during practice or in film study. Saban once attempted to coach a position and serve as defensive coordinator when he was on the Cleveland Browns staff, but he stop splitting time when he realized he couldn't divide his attention.

Linebacker Bradie James puts it another way. He believes putting Muschamp in charge of the defensive allows for continuity in defensive philosophy. Had Saban brought in an outside coach to be defensive coordinator, the new staff member would have been on a learning curve.

"We've got to have some kind of consistency in there," James said, "and Will Muschamp possesses that. He helps all of us, the coaches as well as the players, go out there and know what you're doing. When you know what you're doing, you can fly right after the ball."

PRACTICE CAPSULE: Michael Clayton worked out in a red no-contact jersey Monday along with defensive backs Travis Moses and Demetrius Hookfin. Linebacker Dave Peterson was also practicing after missing Saturday's workout with a hamstring pull.

The Tigers moved past the fundamentals covered in Saturday's practice and dealt with specific aspects of their offensive and defensive game plans on Tuesday. In the abbreviated team drills open to the media, the emphasis was still very basic.

Outside practice reports have created some confusion about how the Tiger secondary is shaping up. While some sources are placing Damien James at strong safety, he is in fact the No. 1 free safety. James played nickel back and cornerback last season and told Tiger Rag after Tuesday's practice that having played at more than one position in the secondary helps him at free safety since he has to call coverages for the entire unit.

The rest of the secondary consists of Norman LeJeune at strong safety and Randall Gay and Demetrius Hookfin at the corners. The unofficial second unit: FS Adrian Mayes, SS Travis Moses, CB Travis Daniels, CB Ronnie Prude.

NO QUARTERBACK CONTROVERSY: Popular belief is that Matt Mauck has the best odds of starting at quarterback for LSU in 2002, and head coach Nick Saban is saying nothing to sway that opinion.

In fact, Saban is saying very little about the quarterback position.

The coach refuses to create a quarterback controversy where there is none. So while Saban's not saying that Mauck has the job locked up, he's also not saying the competition is wide open.

It may not be until the first scrimmage of spring practice on April 13 that any separation takes place between Mauck and the other contenders at quarterback – Marcus Randall and Rick Clausen.

"(I'm) basically going out to compete hard every day in practice," said Randall. "Going out in the scrimmages that we're going to have coming up, playing hard and leaving the decisions up to the coaches to make about who's the first team, second team and third team player."

Mauck says he's concentrating less on the competition and more on improvement this spring. He feels he and Randall are both showing positive results from having worked with the same offensive game plan for the past two years.

"Coach (Jimbo) Fisher has such a good system in that it's really (easy) for a quarterback to succeed in it once you learn it, once you get it down," said Mauck. "I think we both feel really comfortable in the offense right now."

TOEFIELD ON THE MEND: It's said that experience is the greatest teacher. If that is indeed the case, consider LaBrandon Toefield a professor of physical therapy.

The Tigers' junior running back is recovering from his second ACL surgery in five years (different knees) but says he has never been discouraged since suffering his most recent injury in the Southeastern Conference championship game in December. Toefield said his successful rehabilitation following his first torn knee ligament has given optimism that he can pull off another comeback.

"It's easier for me because I know what to do," he said. "I know what steps to take and when to take them. It's a little easier for me because I've been through it. I can go in there and tell them (team trainers) what to do. The hardest part is waiting through that long process. It's only been two months and I'm ready to get out there already."

Toefield actually has been out there, running rounded pass routes on the practice field while the rest of the team goes through spring drills. He hopes to start cutting on the grass before the end of April.

"Right now I feel like I wasn't even hurt," said Toefield. "I can do a lot of things right now but doctors won't let me do it. I'm just waiting on their say-so and I'll be the first one out there on the practice field."

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