In the final couple of months before the college football season kicks the media to the casual fan will hang on every complimentary word from a head coach.
So when Les Miles made a preseason comment that his 2009 offensive line was the best in his time in Baton Rouge, expectations were that an inexperienced Jordan Jefferson would have time to kill in the pocket and veteran running backs Charles Scott and Keiland Williams would have daylight for days.
Instead offensive coordinator Gary Crowton’s side stumbled to a 112th-place finish, seeing only eight teams in the NCAA finish with fewer yards a game. With the pressure on to bring a 180-degree performance in his fourth season with the program, Crowton said that his observations of the group’s past few months have yielded nothing but positive marks.
“I’m pretty optimistic about the front,” he said. “I feel that (Barksdale) is solid as can be coming back on that left side as he was on the right side.”
On a line that returns just two starters, Barksdale – the senior and most experienced name in the group – could turn out to be the piece that makes the puzzle fit. A two-year first-team man at right tackle, Barksdale has since moved to the opposite end of the line to defend quarterback Jordan Jefferson’s blind side.
“He had a spring to worry about getting into the left stance on the left side and the right stance on the right side, and he has been able to work on that adjustment all summer,” Crowton said.
Other changes to the line include P.J. Lonergan in for T-Bob Hebert at center, Will Blackwell in at right guard and Alex Hurst in at right tackle. Left guard Josh Dworaczyk is the lone name of the group to return to the same spot that he occupied on the field a year ago.
That kind of inexperience – on top of the lesson learned from 2009 pre-season hype talk – has Miles biting his lip when asked about how the team has looked thus far this fall.
Sure, missing are the games upon games of starting experience in SEC play. Yet, present is a wealth of confidence that the hours spent together off the field will translate into production.
While he’s kept his true view closest to the vest, Miles isn’t hesitant to hold back his praise for their cohesiveness.
“It’s good chemistry on the offensive line, and I think that the group is a great mix between the veteran who knows what to expect and then Alex Hurst and Will Blackwell.”
As Blackwell put it, “we’ve come together and played off each other instead of just playing our assignment.”
A primary reason the group feels so quick with their steps of progress lies in their recruiting classes. While there have been misses that fed attrition, two straight signing classes saw Miles put together the current line. In 2007 the Tigers snagged Barksdale, Blackwell, Hebert and Dworaczyk. 12 months later, Lonergan and Hurst signed on.
“The guys last year were kind of spread out in age,” Blackwell. “It’s a little bit easier to play and have more of a bond with guys around the same age as you are.”
While the team’s three fall camp scrimmages were closed, the unit – less than seven days removed from their opener and not nearly as hesitant as their headman to shower a bit of praise – sees marked progress from a season ago.
“Those scrimmages must be 100 plays, so that’s definitely enough time for us to get things going,” Blackwell said. “It’s just chemistry and hard work.”