Saban provides summer update on Tigers

The LSU football coaching staff is in the middle of its last lull before full-fledged preparations begin for the 2002 season.<br><br>Head coach Nick Saban met with reporters Thursday to discuss where his Tigers stand heading into their defense of the Southeastern Conference Championship.

The news was mostly good from Saban regarding the status of injured players on the 2002 roster. Linebacker Bradie James, center Ben Wilkerson and running back LaBrandon Toefield have all been given clean bills of heath and are participating in off-season conditioning.


"I don't considered them injured guys anymore," said Saban.


James, who suffered a kidney contusion in spring practice, could be making a full-time move to middle linebacker depending on how a replacement develops for him at weakside linebacker. Saban said the transition for James is an easy one since both positions are on the inside.


Wilkerson suffered a sprained knee in spring drills but has been involved in condition work throughout the month of June.


Toefield, who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee in the SEC Championship game, is expected to be available for fall camp and the season opener. He and Domanick Davis are expected to share the running workload in 2002.


A mid-September return was Saban's optimistic prognosis for quarterback Marcus Randall and defensive end Kenderick Allen. Both are continuing rehabilitation from their respective injuries and are making good progress.


Randall tore his ACL in the spring game and underwent surgery to repair his knee. To make up for the vacancy in the quarterback depth chart, Saban was able to sign Michael Harrison to a scholarship. Harrison comes to LSU from Cerritos College in California after playing one season at the University of Hawaii.


"Because our circumstances at quarterback changed, we needed to look for an insurance policy," said Saban. "We looked for a guy who played in a college of junior college and found a guy who did both."


Saban feels better going to into fall practice with Harrison on board in case of emergency.


"If Matt Mauck hits his thumb on somebody's helmet, we've got somebody to go to and we don't have to rely solely on a redshirt freshman, Rick Clausen, and a true freshman (Lester Ricard)."


Allen injured his knee in off-season conditioning and had a wire placed through his tendon to stabilize the joint. Doctors were going to shorten the wire but decided to take it out recently because Allen's recovery was going so well.


Saban discussed Allen's misdemeanor summons for theft with reporters. While making it a point to say he wasn't defending Allen's actions, the coach did take issue with The Advocate for reporting the story well after the alleged incident took place. Allen was cited in May for conspiring with a cashier to take alcohol from a local grocery store without paying for it.


Saban said he would like to see more attention placed on the positive things his athletes are doing in the community rather than the negative. Allen, for instance, has read to students at Highland Elementary School in Baton Rouge for the last few years and continues to do so following his legal transgression.


"He's probably going to be upset for me for telling you about that - he doesn't want the attention," said Saban. "But these are the kinds of things you never read about."


The internal probe into alleged academic fraud involving student-athletes is another subject Saban feels is being blown out of proportion.


"I'm not concerned about the investigation," he said. "I'm pleased with the progress, and I don't lose sleep at night worrying about the academic integrity of our student-athletes.


"We may have created some road kill in trying to find the problems, but it's worth it to make sure things about being done right here. I'm all about doing what's right – not only because it's what the NCAA says but because it's right for our student-athletes."


Saban has not made official dates for fall practice yet because LSU is still trying to determine how the its season-opening contest against Virginia Tech, scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 1, in Blacksburg, Va., affects the number of workouts allotted by the NCAA.


The Tigers would usually report on the second Saturday of August, but the NCAA may count some of the final sessions of fall camp as two-a-day practices. This means LSU may have to start fall camp on Monday, August 12, and could be allowed fewer than the 25 sessions they have held in the past.


Since a day for players to report hasn't been set, LSU Fan Day and Media Day have not been scheduled.


Saban updated the media on the status of a few players with question marks hanging over their heads for disciplinary reasons.


Defensive end Donovan Grayson is on behavioral suspension following his arrest for rape in May. The investigation of his case continues following a female students claim that Grayson forced himself upon her after she drove to his campus apartment after "meeting" him in an Internet chat room.


There has been no new information provided in the case, according to Saban, and no developments in substantiating or refuting the allegations.


Linebacker Tim Pope has flunked out of LSU and is no longer a part of the program, and safety Brandon Williams will not be academically able to be a part of the team either.


Offensive tackle Brad Smalling was placed on academic suspension toward the end of spring practice and will have to meet certain requirements in order to practice with the team, said Saban.


The academic news was better concerning LSU's incoming freshman class. According to Saban, just one player was considered questionable and another might slip into the same category. Otherwise, the rest of the class will be eligible for the fall - including 12 players who are already enrolled in summer school.


Saban said that about five of the incoming freshmen are taking part in the "bridge" program that helps marginal qualifiers prepare themselves for college-level classes. Two more are enrolled in the scholars program for advanced students, and two more decided to attend summer school on their own.


It was mentioned that running back Dominique Owens was qualified for the fall, but Saban has a policy of not naming players who have yet to qualify.


Three-time LSU signee Nate Livings has his academic house in order and will be eligible to play for the Tigers this year. Saban said he wants to give Livings a chance to try the defensive line during the freshman orientation period, starting him at end and moving him to tackle if necessary. If he doesn't find a fit on defense, Livings will likely be moved to offensive tackle.


"When we recruited him out of high school," said Saban, "we thought he was the best lineman in the state on either side of the ball."


With or without Livings, Saban said he feels his defensive line in 2002 will be better than last year's and gave the same compliment to his secondary. Although the lack of depth is a concern, he is very happy with his starting three players at linebacker.


There is a good chance, he said, that a couple of true freshmen could find themselves in the "two-deeps" at linebacker for the start of the season.


On the offense, Saban expects there will be some adjustments following the loss of 3,000-yard passer Rohan Davey and All-American and Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Josh Reed.


But instead of finding replacements for these two former players, Saban says the Tigers will have to work to get the most out the talent currently on the team.


"There is a fine line between… coaches who will put their system ahead of the team and running certain plays that will give your team the best chance to win," he said. "We're going to continue to run a balanced, wide-open offense that will make the most of the talent we have."


While Davey and Reed are gone, Saban says he is still very happy with the ability of his offense.


"Our identity is going to be a little different," Saban explained. "We have less quarterback experience but our running backs are excellent… I think we still have pretty good skill guys on the outside, and we'll probably be a little better on the offensive line one the season gets started."


In addition to finalizing LSU's fall strategy, Saban and his staff also devote a

big portion of the summer to recruiting. The Tigers are drawing interest from more recruits across the nation after ending the 2001 season with four games that had an exclusive national television audience, including the SEC Championship Game and the Sugar Bowl.


Saban has established recruiting routes throughout Louisiana, Texas and the Southeast and says he will continue to broaden LSU's influence throughout the country, especially as needs warrant. California has become a regular stop for members of the LSU staff, and other states are joining the itenerary.


"Our top priority will always be to do a great job in Louisiana," he said. "But the reason you have to have outreach is because you don't always have everything in state that you need to fill out your recruiting needs.


"The exposure we get on television helps us establish in-roads with these outside recruits."


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