Despite the fact that his football team was relegated to working out within the confines of the LSU indoor facility, head coach Les Miles brought an optimistic tone – typical of the headman this time of year - with his description of the day’s events.
“The first practice was a fast-paced one,” Miles said following the workout. “The responsibility to wear just a helmet certainly curtails the activity, but it was good. It was nice to get back on the field. A football team does not improve in football unless they’re on the field practicing.”
Miles, who pushed the start of practice back from Thursday to Monday to accommodate the addition of newly hired tight ends coach Steve Ensminger, worked his Tigers out with a full staff – highlighted by new names in Billy Gonzales and Frank Wilson.
Gonzales, who on Monday showed off how animated his approach to coaching could become, will serve as the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach. In the previous seasons that offensive coordinator Gary Crowton has handled the play-calling duties, the Tigers worked without a passing game coordinator.
Wilson, a native of New Orleans who has already made an impact on the recruiting trail, worked the running backs and fullbacks out on day one. Wilson was hired to fill the void that Larry Porter, now the headman at Memphis, left at running backs coach.
Big changes have also come on the player side.
On offense, Stevan Ridley and Richard Murphy worked out as the top two tailbacks, with Dominique Allen running as the No. 1 fullback. Mike Ford, who is coming off a redshirt season, was the third scholarship back carrying the ball.
At wide receiver, Gonzales worked out Terrance Toliver, Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard as the top three. The starting names were trailed by Jhyryn Taylor and Chris Tolliver, two young Tiger wideouts who hope to make a big splash with their opportunities this offseason.
Shepard, who worked out at quarterback during the 2009 spring and fall camps, said that the decision to move positions permanently came midway through his freshman campaign. A dual-threat quarterback in high school who relied heavily on his ability to run, Shepard has only lined up as a wide receiver during a game a select few times in his life.
“I approached coach Miles two days after the Florida game last year and told him that I think it's time I make a position change,” Shepard said. “He really fought me on it and told me to wait another year and see, but I said I think I will be better suited for this team at a skill position.
“The biggest challenge is catching up,” he added. “Learning the receiver position in six or seven months is a huge deal. I've been able to pick it up pretty easily because coach Gonzales and I spent a lot of time working on it. Learning concepts is probably the biggest thing.”
Quarterback Jordan Jefferson ran as the number one man throughout the afternoon, trailed by Chris Garrett and Jarrett Lee. Many expect that Garrett, with a strong offseason, could jump Lee for the backup spot.
“I liked our quarterbacks, and all three of them threw the ball pretty well – Chris Garrett, as well as (Jarrett) Lee and our starter in Jordan Jefferson,” Miles said.
The line, perhaps the position on offense that struggled the most in 2009, appears to be in the rebuilding process – a time where pieces are going to be moved until everything fits to Miles and offensive line coach Greg Studrawa’s liking.
“We are probably going to be working out new guys in new places for the first few days,” said Joe Barksdale, who recently made the switch from right tackle to left tackle. “It’s about finding out who our best five are.”
On Monday, the starting names (left to right) were Barksdale, Josh Dworaczyk, P.J. Lonergan, Will Blackwell and Alex Hurst. T-Bob Hebert also worked out at center, with Josh Williford and Cordian Hagans backing up both guard spots. True freshman Evan Washington and Greg Shaw worked out as the backup tackles.
On the opposite side of the line, new faces occupied spots on both the inside and out.
At defensive end, Chancey Aghayere worked out as the starter on the left side and Lavar Edwards as the starter on the right side. Pep Levingston and Drake Nevis were the starting names inside, rounding out a unit that appears poised to have a much better showing than the 2009 line had. When it comes to bringing speed to the rush, this is a group that can get up field in a hurry.
The top linebackers were Kelvin Sheppard in the middle and Ryan Baker and Stefoin Francois on the outside. Francois, who added plenty of bulk to his frame, appears the top candidate to replace Harry Coleman on the strong side. Both former safeties, defensive coordinator John Chavis appears happy with the athleticism that these hybrid players bring to the equation.
Add to that young names like Kevin Minter and Lamin Barrow at linebacker and Mike Brockers and Chris Davenport on the line, and there is little wonder why Miles is so confident in what the spring holds for the defense in Chavis’ second year with the team.
“Some of the veterans, Kelvin Sheppard and Lavar Edwards looked pretty good,” Miles said. “It was also nice seeing some of the young players on the field playing for an opportunity to get to the field on Saturdays; guys like Sam Montgomery looked pretty good.
“It’s going to be a very productive spring,” he added. “We’ll be moving guys around. We’re going to look at some different things.”
Something already different about the defensive backfield is the move of Jai Eugene, a cornerback for the previous three seasons, to safety for his senior campaign. Brandon Taylor, who started at strong safety in 2009, worked opposite Eugene. Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne were the top two cornerbacks.
“At safety, Brandon Taylor is a guy that will certainly be starting back in there and we’re going to look at Jai Eugene a little bit at safety; we feel like his abilities and experience may be best served there,” Miles said. “Craig Loston will certainly be a guy that battles for playing time.”
Loston and Derrick Bryant were the second string safeties on Monday, with Ron Brooks and Ryan St. Julien working as the second team cornerbacks.
LSU is scheduled for another helmets workout on Tuesday followed by shells on Wednesday and Thursday. LSU will have its first practice in full pads on Saturday.