The 2009 campaign ended on a bit of a sour note when LSU fell short to Penn State in the Capital One Bowl on New Year's Day.
That was the ending to what many felt was a disappointing 9-4 season for a program that had won two BCS National Championships over the last seven years.
A 9-4 record, New Year's Day bowl appearance and No. 17 final ranking would be considered a great year for nearly 90 percent of the 120 schools in the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks.
However, for Les Miles and the LSU fan base in general, more was expected from the Tigers in 2009.
Miles and the Tigers went to work on 2010 shortly after returning from Orlando and the workload will pick up significantly on Friday when LSU goes through the first of its 15 spring practices.
In some cases the spring is a tryout for some of the players who are trying to win a position for the upcoming season. But in LSU’s case these next 15 practices will be an open audition for just about everyone.
“Competition will be at every position and I think you’ll find that that is the best way to go,” said Miles during a briefing on Wednesday afternoon with a handful of members of the media who cover the Tigers on a regular basis.”
“What we’ve got accomplished here is that guys expect to be a dominant football team,” added Miles. “They expect it every year and so with that in mind I think competition will be great.”
Miles said that the days the Tigers are going to practice is set but the daily practice schedules are still being reviewed so that they can get the most out of each practice and incorporate some new drills.
One of the main goals for LSU in the spring will be making strides on the offensive side of the ball as the Tigers struggled mightily in 2009.
Out of 120 schools in the FBS ranks, LSU finished 112th in total offense and last in the Southeastern Conference with 304.54 yards a game.
One of the glaring problems for the Tigers was their inability to run the football as they finished 90th in the country and rushed for an average of 122.77 yards a game.
Injuries depleted the Tigers’ stable of running backs as Richard Murphy was lost for the season when he tore his ACL in week 2 against Vanderbilt. Things only got worse down the stretch as Charles Scott suffered a broken collar bone against Alabama in week 9 and two games later Keiland Williams suffered a season-ending injury.
Entering the spring, Murphy, who will now sport No. 18 on the front and back of his jersey, will not be hindered by the injury but will be limited in contact drills as a precaution only according to Miles, and he will join Stevan Ridley and redshirt freshman Michael Ford in the battle to see who emerges from the spring as the No. 1 back.
“I kind of see it Ridley first, Murphy second and Ford third, but again, it’s going to be who’s the best,” said Miles. “I wouldn’t be afraid to see Michael Ford take a lot of snaps.”
Miles noted that he has been impressed with what Ford has accomplished off the field including school and off-season workouts, and he thinks that will translate to the field for the redshirt freshman.
A lot of emphasis will also be placed on the passing game this spring and there is work to be done on that front.
Jordan Jefferson returns for his junior season and he had his share of struggles in 2009 as he had a tendency to hold onto the ball too long and was reluctant to throw the ball downfield.
The Tigers were 97th in the nation in passing at 181.77 yards a game and had problems converting on third down. LSU’s opponents racked up 26 more first downs in 2009 and for comparison’s sake the Tigers were +43 in that department in 2008 and +85 in 2007.
Miles brought in former Florida wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales to replace D.J. McCarthy and in addition to coaching the wide outs Gonzales will also serve as the passing game coordinator.
“I think Jordan Jefferson is certainly a guy that with a year under his belt he can reap some of the rewards of his experiences,” Miles said. “To me, that is a spot where we have to be better. He’s seen the position the best and I think he will continue to progress and give us better quarterback play.”
Jefferson will be pushed by junior quarterback Jarrett Lee and redshirt freshman Chris Garrett but it was clear that Jefferson was No. 1 heading into the spring.
“I think Jarrett Lee and Chris Garrett will provide competition and we’ll let that play out,” Miles said. “I can tell you we will play the best guy and if one of those two guys start to emerge then that will be felt.”
Last season the quarterbacks had Brandon LaFell to lean on and now someone must step up to fill the void that the senior wide receiver has created.
“I think Terrance Toliver and Russell Shepard have had really good coaching sessions and Rueben Randle came on like a real quality young player who needed to understand what the intensity was like in those coaching sessions,” said Miles. “A guy like Chris Tolliver has really stepped up and had the best coaching sessions since he’s been here. He’s maturing some and then DeAngelo Peterson appears to be ready to be a real contributor.”
Getting Shepard on the field more is a priority for the staff as last season he was used more as a quarterback in the Wildcat set with limited touches as a receiver and running back.
Miles said that LSU will continue to use the Wildcat to some extent but Shepard will get more opportunities in other facets of the offense.
“Russell Shepard is all wide receiver in his mind and he will get ball handling and running back play as a side thing to his receiver position,” he said. “This gets him on the field on every down and we think this allows him to get more opportunities.”
Another objective for Miles this spring is replacing two starters on the offensive line as Ciron Black and Lyle Hitt have graduated and vacated their left tackle and right guard spots, respectively.
The line play last season was less than stellar as the front five could not open holes consistently for the backs and Jefferson was sacked 37 times which ranked 105th in the country. More than a handful of those sacks fell on Jefferson’s shoulders, but for LSU’s offense to get back on track it will take better and more physical line play in the 2010 campaign.
“If you look at personnel I think the five guys up front will be Alex Hurst or Will Blackwell or one of these young guys like Josh Williford, who just cannot be kept out of the lineup,” explained Miles. “We’ll have the opportunity to move guys around to see who the best fit is, assuming that (Josh) Dworaczyk, (Joe) Barksdale, and maybe P.J. Lonergan or T-Bob Hebert, either one, would be best at center, respectively, or somewhere in there as a starter.”
Miles also singled out three more young linemen in Chris Faulk, Evan Washington and Cordian Hagans as players who could push for some time with Hagans being one who seems to have made great strides since moving over from defensive tackle.
“Cordian Hagans has had great coaching sessions at guard,” said Miles. “He’s probably one of the more athletic and one of the stronger interior linemen. I guess my point is even though I look quickly to the guys that will make the easiest lineup there is going to be great competition…I promise you this, we will be rotating guys during the lineup routinely and there will be great competition.”
Note: Check back later for comments on Miles on the defensive side of the ball.
On the offensive side of the ball, Miles noted one position change in particular in Chase Clement going from defensive end to tight end.
“We just think that for his future this is where we need him,” Miles said of Clement’s move. “He’s tall, athletic and has good ball skills. Frankly, he’s good and he should play a lot.”
The emergence of Clement, who is expected to push Mitch Joseph for the blocking tight end’s role, could also give projected starting tight end DeAngelo Peterson a chance to move around some.
“He’s a tight end but I wouldn’t be afraid to widen that man out and let him catch a pass as a wide receiver,” Miles said of Peterson.
AM Coaching Sessions
In addition to the weight training and running that the Tigers have gone through since the Capital One Bowl, the team has taken part in morning coaching sessions that get started at 5:55 a.m. three days a week and consist of eight sessions of drills.
All of the coaches can participate since no football is used and Miles feels that was a great springboard to the start of spring practice.
“These AM coaching sessions have been really good and maybe even the best since I’ve been here,” said Miles. “It’s reflective of about the same number of snaps you get in a game and reflective of being able to think while you’re tired and taking instruction; sprinting, change of direction, pro agilities.”
Miles still hasn’t named a replacement for Don Yanowsky, who coached the tight ends last season before accepting a position on Larry Porter’s staff at Memphis earlier this month.
“We feel like we’ve taken good time to make a quality hire,” said Miles. “We looked at a number of guys and just because it’s taken some time to get the right guy in the spot it doesn’t mean that he will not have input or an impact.”
Miles indicated that he may have a better idea on Thursday as to whether or not he will have someone in place by Friday but hinted that there was a good chance that it would happen. He also gave an idea of what he was looking for in the candidates he interviewed.
“I was looking for a guy that could recruit and cold coach the tight ends as well as it’s been coached here in the past and that he would bring us experience in the league that we operate in,” Miles said.