Matt Mauck won the hearts and minds of LSU fans everywhere with his gutsy performance in the SEC Championship Game. Mauck had a couple of QB draws for scores that put the game away. Mauck had some difficulty passing the ball, but looked good handing off. Mauck struggled in the spring game by throwing 5 interceptions. To say that LSU may be more of a running team, would be pretty wise speculation. Mauck is a gritty competitor, but lacks the passing skills of Rohan Davey and most other SEC QB's. This is a huge factor for the Tigers. Most teams will stack the box and force Mauck to make plays through the air. To date, he hasn't had to.
Marcus Randall could be the next Herb Tyler. He is recovering from knee surgery and should take a redshirt, but reports are that his rehab is ahead of schedule. If available, he'll be the #2 guy. Rounding out the depth chart will be Rick Clausen, younger brother of Casey from UT. Clausen may be the distant future, but he should see some snaps this season.
The second big question mark for the Tigers is LaBrandon Toefield. "Teaux" has the build and talent to be a star in the league, but he is coming off major knee surgery for the third time. He hasn't completed a full season since his sophomore year in high school. Teaux is a great back and if healthy should challenge for postseason honors. Domanick Davis carried the mail in Teaux's absence and did well. Davis runs hard on every play and punishes the tackler or in some cases attempted tackler. LSU has other depth at this position, but these two will provide one of if not the toughest tailback tandem in the conference.
Michael Clayton lived up to expectations a year ago and had a monster freshman campaign. The challenge will be more difficult this year as defenses no longer have to double cover Josh Reed. Clayton will be the go-to guy. He has the body and speed to stretch defenses, but his position mates must step up. Reggie Robinson returns after missing all of 2001 with an injury. Robinson is steady, but is not a big-play guy. Jerel Myers has been a severe disappointment after his strong freshman campaign in 1999. Myers lacks discipline on the field and makes his biggest impact with hits well after the whistle. Myers plays out the string this season after a career of drops. The SEC began to crackdown on the dead ball fouls a year ago. The biggest question with Myers will be whether he has more cheap shots or catches? (LSU fans save your e-mails, you know I am right.)
The offensive line for the Tigers got better with every game last year. True freshman Curtis Wilkerson earned freshman All-American honors for his efforts at center. Rob Sale was the part-time center, but was moved to RG where he played well. Stephen Peterman and Rodney Reed both return on the left side. Brad Smalling should be the new starter at RT, but his career has been a little bit of a letdown after he signed with LSU as a blue chip prospect out of West Monroe. He has dropped some weight and appears to be ready to play ball for one last season.
The LSU defense had a Jekyl and Hyde complex most of the season, but played well enough down the stretch. There were some heavy losses on this side of the ball. Gone is run-stopper Trev Faulk who bolted to the NFL early only to be undrafted. Captain and safety Ryan Clark is gone and will be missed. CB Robert Davis graduated and CB Erin Damond transferred to Southern. The DL took a few losses as well, especially with big Jarvis Green.
The DL returns Kenderick Allen who should be solid. Chad Lavalais had a strong season from his DT position and should be a steady contributor this year as well. Juco All-American Toran Williams has been relegated to 2nd team status and may not be the player most expected him to be. Byron Dawson and Marquise Hill look to start this season down front and both have the ability, but Hill needs some snaps.
Bradie James stayed in school for his senior season. He needs a stellar one if the Tigers are to challenge. With Faulk gone, Lionel Turner should take the outside spot, but lacks the size of Faulk. Jeremy Lawrence was kind of an unsung hero on the defense a year ago, but did his job and seldom got beat outside. Jason Ledoux, a transfer from Texas A&M, will see action in short yardage and obvious running downs.
The secondary is in disarray. Demetrius Hookfin wrestled a starting spot away from Robert Davis before the season was half over. He is the lone returning starter. Travis Daniels broke his redshirt and made a touchdown saving play against Tennessee in the 4th quarter of the SECCG. He was good enough to emerge as the starter opposite Hookfin. Damien James played some in relief a year ago, and should be solid at free safety. Norman LeJeune, who has had an on again off again relationship with playing time throughout his career, will be the strong safety. Norm has been underutilized and many expect a strong season from him. Ronnie Prude and Randall Gay will be the nickel backs and should contribute on special teams as well.
@ Virginia Tech
Miami of Ohio
UL of Lafayette
The season gets off with some bite with a trip to nationally ranked VA Tech. This game will set the tone for the season. You'll know if the Tigers are for real after this one. It'll be the 1st game with Mauck as the bona fide starter, so who knows. It'll be Va Tech's 2nd game, so they'll have Blacksburg rocking. The rest of the non-conference is sad. Citadel, Miami of Ohio, and USL. They could probably combine the three and still not have a team capable of beating LSU at Tiger Stadium. LSU at best will be 4-2 when Holtz and South Carolina visit Death Valley. They may be 3-3, but the USC game is crucial to the season. LSU has had difficulties winning on the road, and this season may not be much better. The Tigers have won a road conference game a season over the last two. UF is a sure loss. The Auburn game has been one of the better ones over the past few years. UK gave LSU all they wanted in 2001. The Tigers go to Commonwealth Stadium this year with a revamped secondary.
LSU should go 5-3, maybe 4-4, in conference. To expect the Tigers to win the West again is not a sure beat. 5-3 was good enough a year ago, and may be this year. 8 wins looks good, but it could be as good as 10 or as bad as 6 depending on the health of Teaux, the development of Mauck, and the chemistry of the secondary. The West is always wild and the Tigers proved that in earnest last season. It should be a wild season for LSU as well as they look to rebuild on the fly. The expectations are high and the tolerance for disappointment is low in Baton Rouge. For Saban's sake, hopefully the fans won't run him off if he doesn't win the Fiesta Bowl.
Until next time,
Steve Robertson is a free-lance correspondent who writes The Robertson Report for the premium site portion of Gene's Page. Steve's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.