After a 9-4 finish, the LSU football team takes to spring practice looking to build upon each area of their game. From the veteran faces to the new coaching names, here are the five things that have stood out from the practices and scrimmages thus far:
1) Thank You, Kelvin Sheppard
During his sophomore season in 2008, Kelvin Sheppard was a weak side linebacker who ranked second on the team with 64 total tackles. Under first year defensive coordinator and linebackers coach John Chavis the following year, Sheppard led the team and ranked third in the Southeastern Conference with 110 total tackles.
Big improvement, but that was only the middle of the story. The ending, from all accounts, will be the best part of the ride.
When he turned down the NFL Draft and decided to return for his senior campaign, Sheppard became not just one of the best linebackers in the SEC, but the entire country. Through the first couple of weeks this spring, there is no doubt that Chavis goes to sleep each night thanking his lucky stars.
In one of the thinnest groups the unit has seen in some time, the 6-foot-3, 240-pound Sheppard is a diamond amongst unpolished stones. With 40 games of experience under his belt, Sheppard – who has flashed an unmatched speed during the past 10 workouts – is poised to break out his biggest season yet. If he outperforms his 2009 totals, Sheppard’s name will be tossed around with the LSU linebacker greats.
2) Rueben Randle is NEXT
Watching LSU’s star senior receiver (Terrance Toliver) work through the spring with a broken left hand hurts, but the blow is softened in a big way when you turn and see Rueben Randle.
The media is always quick to pin a rising athlete who is “NEXT”, the best name that hasn’t completely landed on the national stage. If LSU had to offer up a guy, put the money on Randle.
Given that he was the nation’s top receiver coming out of Bastrop High, Randle’s promise is no secret. Yet, the reality is that the production that comes with being the best is less than six months away. With Brandon LaFell gone, Jordan Jefferson a year older and a new coach (Billy Gonzales) in his ear, Randle knows the sky is the limit.
The 6-foot-3 receiver, who has yet to put a ball on the ground during the media’s 20-minute sessions, has the long body and leaping ability to take over most any cornerback in the conference. Playing opposite of Toliver, opposing teams will have to pick their battles carefully. The two big bodies – both top-ranked wideouts coming out of high school – should be the best combination in the conference.
However, becoming a complete player remains Randle’s main focus. Randle served primarily as a blocking receiver during his freshman campaign, recording less than 200 receiving yards by season’s end. The practice paid off. One of the best blocking wideouts on the team, Randle put fellow five-star prospect Craig Loston onto his back during this past week’s Big Cat Drill.
3) The Quick Riser
While Rueben Randle was the big name that fans followed from the 2009 class, Morris Claiborne was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Ranked as the No. 90 receiver prospect, Claiborne didn’t pick up an LSU offer until three months prior to National Signing Day (he immediately committed). When he arrived to camp in the fall, the Shreveport native stood out alongside Randle as one of the top young receivers. When the staff switched him to cornerback a few days later, Claiborne stood out as one of the best players in the group.
Behind Patrick Peterson, Chris Hawkins and Jai Eugene, Claiborne – a true freshman – still managed to see action in seven games as a backup on the right side. With Hawkins out of the picture, Claiborne has moved to the left side. And in a change from how Miles has approached the starting names on his units, the rising sophomore bumped Eugene – a senior – out of the second spot. Eugene, looking to stay on the field, moved to safety to help fill the void left by Chad Jones.
While Peterson is rightfully viewed as one of the premier cornerbacks in the country, don’t let the plays from No. 7 outshine those from No. 17. Just one year younger, Claiborne’s talents aren’t far off.
4) Jefferson’s Big Push
In workouts last spring and fall, Jarrett Lee was the best passer that LSU had. Coming off a 16-interception season, Lee wasn’t going to be the starting quarterback when the Tigers took the field. As would be the case at most schools, the fact that the backup outshined the named starter didn’t sit right.
After an 8-4 finish where Jefferson – in his first year as a full-time starter - threw for 2,166 yards and 17 touchdowns, the spring practices have offered the look that fans have longed for. Jefferson looks sharper with all of the throws during the media sessions, drawing praise from offensive coordinator Gary Crowton nearly twice as often as Lee and Chris Garrett, Jefferson’s main two competitors. According to the players, the LSU signal caller has aged tremendously since this time last season.
That maturation, which has seen Jefferson become both more vocal on the field and more active in the film room, seems one of the only steps left for the former Destrehan High product. The talent and winner’s mentality has always been there, but understanding of the game – from the playbook down to leadership – is what Jefferson will use this offseason to polish up. So far, the players and coaches are all in agreement: job well done.
5) Change of Scenery
In 2009, LSU welcomed new assistants John Chavis (defensive coordinator, linebackers), Brick Haley (defensive line) and Ron Cooper (defensive backs) to the team. This offseason, the Tigers brought assistants Billy Gonzales (wide receivers, passing game coordinator) and Frank Wilson (running backs) to the offensive side of the ball.
The overhaul has brought some of the most intense offseason workouts during the Les Miles era. Ask the players (everyone has a new position coach outside of the offensive line and quarterbacks), and this staff is more hands-on with their instruction than any team that they have been a part of.
If you are standing close to these coaches at practice, bring a good set of earplugs. Haley and Chavis, the most vocal staff members, helped light a fire under the 2009 defense, which turned out a solid performance given the 2008 finish. The hope from the players on the offensive side is that Gonzales and Wilson can bring that same spark, which is needed from a unit that finished 112 of 120 teams in production last fall.
Will all the movements translate to wins? While that is to be determined, rest assured that the LSU football team will be more prepared than ever.