When asked after the opening afternoon of the Tigers’ 2009 spring if there were any players not up to par with their performance, head coach Les Miles remained silent in thought before breaking into his trademark grin.
“There was not a guy that I was disappointed with,” said Miles with a smile when he met with the media on Thursday evening. “It was a good first day, it really was.”
Not a bad start giving the state of the program the last few months.
Fresh off their worst finish since 2002, the Tigers are picking up the pieces to a runaway season while attempting to adjust to a defensive coaching staff that replaced both defensive coordinators and the line coach.
Still, the Tigers’ headman remains all smiles after the group’s first run through.
“I thought today’s practice was a good one, because it was tough with a lot of new that went in,” he said. “There was some new defensive terminology, and we are looking at some quarterbacks who don’t quite understand how we call the formation. Still, it was very productive, and I liked it all along.”
Miles points to the workouts that preceded the practice as one of the main factors to the smooth start.
“We had eleven coach’s workouts, and they were basically a morning conditioning,” he said. “That led to some anticipation by our players, and it was evident. They enjoy being out there. I really enjoyed what I saw, because the attitude is right.”
The headman spent a majority of his time watching the play of his quarterbacks, an area that Tiger fans are anxious to see shake out.
“I think the veterans, obviously, know more about what is going on and are making better reads because of that,” Miles said. “They are making better throws and looking crisper than the younger guys, but the young guys have plenty of talent and are ready to develop, so it should be fun.”
With the return of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, coupled with the addition of Russell Shepard and Chris Garrett, the depth chart remains purely speculation up to this point.
“We’re going to let it play out,” Miles said. “The guys will get reps, and all four quarterbacks are getting their share. There is some development that needs to take place before the young guys can step on the field, but right now we are going to look at the spring in a timeframe where we will allow competition to play that out.”
Of course, after the showing that the Destrehan-native had in the Tigers’ win over Georgia Tech in Atlanta, the quarterback taking the first team reps would not be hard to take a gander at.
“If we had to play a game today, absolutely [Jordan] would start,” Miles said.
With that said, Miles pointed out that he has made a point to sit down with Jefferson over the past few months to ensure that he is making the transition from third string to starter in a comfortable fashion.
“I have talked with Jordan several times, because the quarterback position is one where it’s necessary to have leadership and toughness,” he said. “If you step on the field, you better have thick skin. You have to be demanding and be ready to fight and understand what is going on so you can put people in position.”
Where does that leave Lee, who was replaced by Jefferson before the team’s final regular season game against Arkansas?
“Jarrett is getting out there and competing, and he understands what it takes to be a quarterback in this league,” Miles said. “I think there is a real cooperative spirit among them, and they root for the next guy in. I saw it today. They really want to help out and know their only responsibility is making themselves the best.”
What approach is Miles taking with Shepard, who has become the talk of the town following the Tigers’ top ranked recruiting class?
“We won’t do much except let him get comfortable at quarterback for the first few practices,” he said. “If we choose to look at a couple of other things for him, then it would take place after that. We want him to get comfortable and improve, first.
“What appears to be a bad throw is really the anticipation of the throw and the ability to move your feet. After he has some more knowledge then some of those throws will be better. I also think Chris Garrett looked pretty good for the first day. Really though, Jordan and Jarrett are more comfortable with the offense and they completed a lot of the throws today.”
As for the protection up front, Miles sees progress coming quickly after a disappointing outing last year. Yet, with injuries and off the field issues taking out a number of Tigers over the past three seasons, the unit enters the spring with just 11 men in the rotation.
“With us having eleven linemen we are out there with no threes,” Miles said. “The guys who come in this spring can compete for a spot on second team and we will develop a third team once the new freshmen arrive. The lack of depth hurts, but it certainly gives those twos a chance to improve, because those guys will grow a lot quicker.”
As for a preview of what to expect from a somewhat depleted unit, Miles said that things should shake out as the spring carries on.
“At center we are looking at Will [Blackwell], P.J. [Lonergan] and T-Bob [Hebert], and they are all out there competing,” he said. “At left guard we have Josh [Dworaczyk], because he certainly is someone that played a lot of football last year and will see a place to start in there.
“You just never know if Will is going to be first team left guard or center, so the depth is keeping it competitive. On the other side it will be easy with Lyle [Hitt] and Joe [Barksdale].”
One Tiger looking to make a position move to expedite the time between the bench and playing time is Deangelo Peterson, who joined the tight end group after spending time with the Tigers at both running back and wide receiver.
“We want to see if Deangelo can develop at tight end and give us another playmaker behind Richard Dickson as a receiver and blocker,” Miles said. “Where he needs to develop is his physicality, and he needs to put on some weight, but we are pushing him in that direction.”
As for the receiving corps, the headman said to keep an eye on the development of freshman Tim Molton.
“What I expect out of Tim is what he did today,” Miles said. “He ran great routes, made nice catches and showed great speed. He looked good today, and I expect him to play a lot of football for us.”
One thing that Molton hopes to gain an edge off of is the prior connection between he and Jefferson, both of whom were members of the 2007 Destrehan Wildcat state championship team.
“We hope the connection benefits him, but his speed and ability to run routes should benefit us more,” said Miles with a laugh. “He has something special, and I watched him during scout team and I realized it. He showed it again today. He has the speed and can make you miss. If the ball is thrown to him, he will catch it.”
As for the defensive line, first year coach Brick Haley was not short with his words, giving the unit a stern verbal awakening despite only gearing up for the season’s first practice.
“I think the new coaches certainly enjoyed being there,” said Miles with a smile. “There was certainly a lot of enthusiasm among them, and I think the players enjoyed it as well.”
As for standouts, Pep Levingston made a mark on the headman after he totaled just six tackles out of a reserve role in 2008.
“Pep looked really good,” added Miles. “I think our defensive line, for the first day, felt pretty strong. Rahim Alem is moving into an every down role, and he is becoming a strong and very capable player. I think he is going to be a leader and real productive guy, so it’s going to be difficult not to give him a lot of playing time.”
As for newcomers to the scene, Miles made quick note of a pair of freshmen
“I think the two young ends, Chase Clement and Lavar Edwards, both looked good for the first day.”
In the backfield, the Tigers worked to words from new defensive coordinator John Chavis and defensive backs coach Ron Cooper.
“Perry Riley, Jacob Cutrera and Kelvin Sheppard look pretty strong at linebacker,” he said. “Harry [Coleman] is still looking at the strong safety spot, and we are looking at some linebacker roles for those guys, because [Harry] and Danny [McCray] are pretty strong physical guys that can really get after you downfield.”
After forcing a pair of fumbles and recording one recovery out of special team’s duties last year, Ron Brooks looks to make a splash this spring en route to earning time on the field at corner. Yet, with the Irving-native’s athleticism, Miles said that Brooks should see the field in more than one role.
“Ron is certainly a guy that participated well in special teams and had a great coach’s offseason,” he said. “I think he is going to get an opportunity to play and I also think he will start in our kickoff return unit.”
With a group of senior talent gone from 2008, who does the headman expect to step into the leadership role as the spring moves into summer?
“I think Ciron, Kelvin and Lafell are showing a difference in their demeanor,” said Miles. “They are showing the attention to detail, and all the guys are going out and working hard. Guys are not playing perfectly, but they insist the mistakes get corrected.
“It was a great start. It met my expectations, and the key was effort. The goal is to really reestablish our dominance. We are going to practice our way and prepare for the future.”
As for injuries, Miles confirmed that Kentravis Aubrey and Stefoin Francois will remain held back from practice this spring.
“Kentravis has a bad back so it does not look like he will return, but that is still up in the air. Stefoin had a really bad knee injury in the bowl game, and I don’t think he will be back in the spring.”