Perhaps the most persistent question surrounding the Tigers since spring practice opened was whether sophomore Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris would take the first snap in Saturday's opener against Wisconsin. But no matter which inexperienced quarterback Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron choose to start against the Badgers -- Miles has already said both will play in the game -- that will resolve only the first phase of this competition.
Since neither player has run away with the job, their battle will play out publicly over the next several Saturdays.
Here's the main dilemma No. 13 LSU's coaches face against a difficult opening opponent like No. 14 Wisconsin. This isn't some directional school that the Tigers are likely to push around regardless of who plays quarterback. Wisconsin is capable of beating LSU, which is why the Tigers probably can't afford to take many chances with this decision.
Despite some unimpressive performances in his first couple of starts, Jennings at least has actual game experience. He came off the bench to lead the Tigers' game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive to beat Arkansas and appeared in a total of nine games against opponents like TCU, Florida and Ole Miss. But he also went 7-for-19 for 82 yards and tossed an interception that should have been a pick-six as a starter in LSU's 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa. In the Tigers' spring game, Jennings had two interceptions that went back for touchdowns.
"I know a lot more of the offense [than last season], I'm more comfortable in my skin, I have guys around me that I've known for a year now," Jennings said. "So it's easier now to talk to the guys and to get them going as opposed to last year when I didn't really know anybody and I was staying to myself."
Without question, Jennings possesses the intangibles to become a successful college quarterback. But at some point, the Tigers will need someone under center who is capable of striking fear in opposing defenses.
The running game should be superb, but the Tigers must pose at least a threat with the pass to keep opponents from focusing solely on stopping Leonard Fournette & Co. on the ground. During LSU's spring game, it didn't require a coach with Cameron's experience at molding quarterbacks to see which player possessed the more electric skillset.
The freshman boasts a next-level arm and is also a shifty runner, providing a nice balance to the bigger Jennings, who can bowl over a defender if necessary. But he's also a true freshman quarterback -- a group not known for their down-to-down consistency.
"You know any young quarterback is going to have a setback at some point in time and that's where the team comes in," Cameron said. "We've got to make sure that when they have that setback, it's not one that gets us beat."
So, for now at least, plan on seeing both quarterbacks play until one of them shows he deserves to take the lion's share -- or maybe even all -- of the snaps.
"I think eventually one of them is going to end up separating himself, but right now I think they're on an equal playing field and both having great success throughout fall camp and the scrimmages we've been having," running back Terrence Magee said.
Beyond Wisconsin, LSU plays Sam Houston State, Louisiana-Monroe and New Mexico State in September -- with the Sept. 20 SEC opener against Mississippi State crammed in between -- so the next several weeks will play a huge role in settling this battle before the Tigers fully dive into conference play. They can compete in real games without the probability of a major screwup costing LSU a victory.
That won't be the case on Saturday, so if Miles' history with such decisions is any indication, he might play it close to the vest against the Badgers and then let the competition continue in the ensuing weeks.
"I think our system lends itself to allowing young quarterbacks to play well against quality opponents because we believe in the running game and we believe that we can take the ball back, hand it off to a running back, give him a three-way break and we can be successful running the football in a way some people can't," Cameron said.
"Les and I cut our teeth in this system that way. We believe in it."
Since both teams have defensive fronts with questions to answer, that only makes this point more clear.
Both offenses return key pieces that will allow them to hammer most opponents into submission. It starts with four returning starters from two offensive lines that frequently had their way in 2013.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, opposing defenders didn’t make first contact with a Wisconsin ball carrier last season until he had already gained an average of 3.95 yards per carry -- an average that ranked fourth in the nation behind only Oregon (4.28), Ohio State (4.28) and Auburn (4.23). LSU finished 23 in that category, with Tiger runners averaging 3.03 yards before contact on each rush.
And with the star power either returning or added to the Badger and Tiger backfields, there is no reason to believe this season will be much different for either team. Freshman phenom Leonard Fournette joins the senior duo of Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard to give LSU what should become a phenomenal running game. And it will have to be exceptional to match what Melvin Gordon brings to Wisconsin’s backfield. The Heisman Trophy candidate ran for 1,609 yards, 12 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall.
The key, said LSU strongside linebacker Lamar Louis, is to respect Gordon’s explosive game, but not to be in awe of his abilities. After all, the Tigers have faced plenty of top-tier backs in SEC play and even in their own practices.
“He’s a good back, speedy back, makes good cuts, good decisions. I think he’s up for the Heisman Trophy, so he’s a good back,” Louis said. “I’ll say what [defensive coordinator John Chavis] tells us all the time, it’s not someone who we haven’t faced in these past years. It’s not someone who we don’t practice against in Terrence Magee, Leonard Fournette, Jeremy Hill. So we’ll be ready. But yeah, we’re not taking him lightly.”
The Tigers and Badgers have plenty to prove up front on defense, so they can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.
LSU must replace both starting defensive tackles and will break in new starters at two different linebacker positions after an offseason retooling. And Wisconsin’s roster turnover was even more severe, as it loses every starting defensive lineman and linebacker from a 2013 defense that ranked fifth nationally against the run, surrendering 102.5 yards per game.
That means focusing more on Wisconsin’s general defensive tendencies instead of on specific personnel during game preparation.
“It’s kind of weird not being able to have any film to really watch on guys that’s new to [starting], but the thing that we have to do is make sure that we prepare ourselves for the scheme that those guys run,” LSU offensive tackle La’el Collins said. “I think we’ve done a great job of that, and I think we’re still doing a great job with it. Just pretty much prepare, when you look at the program and the tradition of the team, nothing really changes.”
Wisconsin must also do the same thing when preparing for Chavis’ defense. The philosophy remains the same, but it’s more difficult for the Badgers to know much about Louis in his new spot at strongside linebacker or how Kwon Alexander fits at weakside linebacker after playing strongside in 2013. And it’s even tougher to know what to expect from the host of redshirt defensive tackles -- most notably Frank Herron -- who will make their college debuts on Saturday.
The possibilities probably excite Gordon if he hopes to build Heisman buzz, Louis admitted.
“I think it’s going to be more big for him than us,” Louis said. “If I’m a Heisman Trophy running back, and I play LSU for the opener, it doesn’t get any bigger than that. So we know what’s at stake for us and for him and what he can benefit from, so we’re going to have our head on a swivel, and we’re going to be ready.”
And it works the other way, as well. Wisconsin boasts what should be a great offensive line and one of the nation’s best backs. Shutting down a bunch like that would legitimize all of the preseason happy talk surrounding an LSU defense that is reportedly on the rise.
“We have great players on our defensive line, maybe guys that didn’t play last year, but I think we’re going to get a chance to see them on Saturday,” Stokes said. “Frank Herron and guys like that didn’t play last year and were redshirted and have been doing nothing but making plays since fall camp started. So we’re going to get a chance to see those guys. I’m looking forward to it.”
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The funny thing is, having participated in two sets of spring and preseason practices, Diarse is actually one of the longest-tenured wide receivers on No. 13 LSU’s roster.
“Seeing that I am a redshirt freshman, in some ways it does [feel absurd],” admitted Diarse, whose team opens the season against No. 14 Wisconsin on Saturday. “But I think I’m a vet in my mind, mentally, because I’ve been through the program and I know what it takes and the hard work that has to be done on and off the field. So in my mind I’m a vet, but as far as stats-wise and playing time, not really.”
Once 2013 star juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry decided to enter the NFL draft, the Tigers’ wideout depth chart now features that couple of inexperienced veterans and a host of guys like Diarse, who either redshirted last season or who will be enrolled in college for the first time this fall.
“We always joke about that in the receiving room about me being the oldest, but I take pride in being an older guy,” said Leslie, who finished with one catch for 11 yards last season. “I just tell them what’s right. I’ve been through this, so this is not my first year going through it.”
But Leslie is unique in that regard at LSU. Many Tigers, like arguably the nation’s top group of 2014 wideout signees, have only been on campus for a few months and still have plenty to learn.
Leslie and some of the older players like Diarse have learned all three wideout positions by now, but they only played one in their first seasons at LSU. That’s a common trajectory for a newcomer, so a true freshman like Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre or D.J. Chark -- all of whom are in the Tigers’ plans for 2014 according to coach Les Miles -- would be well ahead of the curve if he becomes functional at more than one spot this fall.
“We’ve got a lot of smart guys,” Diarse said. “Once these younger guys kind of catch the feel for it, they’ll be able to do both inside and out.”
Although he missed a portion of preseason practice, one skill that Dupre -- RecruitingNation's No. 1 wideout prospect for 2014 -- believes will help him contribute this season is his blocking ability. He played in a run-first offense at John Curtis in New Orleans, so clearing a path for running backs will be nothing new, even if the Tigers figure to put the ball in the air more frequently than what he’s accustomed to seeing.
“I think that made me better coming into a situation like I am now where the ball will be in the air more,” Dupre said. “But still remembering where I came from and thinking I had to make the best out of any opportunity I got in high school because I might not get another opportunity will definitely help now because I’ll get more opportunities.”
The greatest factor in the newcomers’ development, though, will be time. They’ve had the summer and preseason practices to get a taste against all-conference-caliber defenders like Tre'Davious White, Rashard Robinson and Jalen Collins. Producing in games will be a different achievement.
That said, the freshmen have their veteran teammates excited about what they can accomplish in the future.
“All of them make plays. I was surprised at all of them,” Leslie said. “They’re not playing or practicing like no freshmen. They’re practicing like they’ve been here.”
And don’t forget about Diarse’s fellow redshirt freshmen Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears. Between those three and the Tigers’ four true freshman wideouts, LSU has a huge group of pass-catchers preparing for their first college games on Saturday.
With that in mind -- plus the still-unannounced starting quarterback adding further uncertainty to the Tigers’ passing game -- it would not be a surprise if offensive coordinator Cam Cameron plays it close to the vest on Saturday. But LSU’s wideouts believe their summer practice time against a solid group of defensive backs has prepared them for this first test, even against a Wisconsin secondary that largely remains intact from a season ago.
“Everyone says that we’re a young group and we have a young quarterback, whoever it’s going to be, so it’s like everyone says we’re not going to be able to pass the ball,” Dural said. “Being able to pass it in camp against our defense is exciting to us. We’re moving the ball.”
Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller missing the season could hit the school, retailers and Nike in the wallet.
Only four players in all of college football are more merchandised than Miller, according to jersey options matched to the most marketable players that are being sold on official school website stores.
Oregon is selling 25 different jerseys, counting colors and sizes, of No. 8, quarterback Marcus Mariota.
Michigan offers 17 different versions, in blue and white, in infant, youth, toddler, women's and men's cut, of No. 98, worn by its quarterback Devin Gardner.
Notre Dame has 15 different jerseys of its quarterback Everett Golson, who wears No. 5.
The University of Alabama website features 10 different jersey choices of No. 4, the same number worn by its star running back T.J. Yeldon.
Ohio State's official store is selling seven versions of Miller's No. 5.
That's even more jersey options (six) than Florida State fans have of No. 5 to choose from, the number worn by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.
The NCAA and its schools have long contended that numbers don't necessarily correspond to current players, but common sense, as proven by all the cases above, suggests otherwise.
While players one day might be able to realize a percentage of the business from their jersey sales, the recent O'Bannon ruling did not include commentary on this area.
It's not known how many No. 5 Ohio State jerseys have been produced for this season, but Miller's absence will be the biggest hit to the college jersey marketplace in two years. In August 2012, LSU safety Tyrann Mathieu was dismissed from the team weeks before Baton Rouge retailers got their shipment of No. 7 jerseys. The number is finally fashionable again thanks to it being given to Leonard Fournette, the nation's top running back recruit.
The Established Star
Nick Marshall, Auburn Tigers
2013 in review: Marshall made a huge splash in his first season as the Tigers' starter, rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns and passing for another 1,976 yards and 14 scores as Auburn stunned the college football world by reaching the BCS championship game. He also completed one of the most memorable plays in Auburn football history when his tipped pass to Ricardo Louis went for the game-winning, 73-yard touchdown to beat Georgia.
What to watch: One of the Tigers' big points of emphasis since the end of last season has been improving the passing game. Marshall and the rushing attack are lethal, but there were times Marshall was simply not accurate enough when the Tigers desperately needed a completion. If he shows in the opener against Arkansas that he's more than just a runner who can occasionally pull a rabbit out of his hat with one of his highlight-reel completions, Marshall might actually contend for the Heisman.
Projected 2014 grade: A
Click here for 13 more SEC QB breakdowns from David Ching.
But that could come in handy now, not just when they try to find homes on NFL rosters. Just as in the pros, should anyone go down with an injury, it will be extremely helpful that Tigers such as La'el Collins, Vadal Alexander, Ethan Pocic and Evan Washington are all capable of working at multiple positions.
“It’s not easy to know how to snap, play guard and play tackle and play left side, play right side,” senior center Elliott Porter said. “It’s confusing to know the right side of the play and the left side. It gets confusing, so it gets hard. But we do hard things, and in the NFL that’s what they do, so you have to prepare for it. I have to prepare to play guard. If I don’t, you don’t know how long you’re going to make it.”
At 6-foot-7, Pocic seems awfully tall for a center -- the average SEC starting center last season was 3 1/2 inches shorter -- and he might eventually land at guard or tackle, but Pocic’s impressive athleticism allows him to fit well at any position along the line.
“When you bend like Ethan Pocic bends, it’s easier for him,” Porter said. “He has great hips. He’s a phenomenal athlete. You ain’t hearing me, he’s phenomenal. He does everything right, and I expect him to be a great player and nothing less.”
Pocic said he started working at multiple positions this spring after Jeff Grimes came on as the Tigers’ new offensive line coach. He said his time at center made shifting to other spots an easier proposition.
“At first [it was tough]. And then as you mature and get older, you learn to do it,” Pocic said. “I think just playing center, you’ve got to know what everyone’s doing and that’s what’s helped me the most.”
Collins and Alexander are entrenched at left tackle and left guard, respectively, but they provide excellent insurance policies in that they have started at other positions in their careers. Collins started at left guard as a sophomore before moving over one spot to tackle last season. And Alexander started nine games at right tackle as a freshman before moving to left guard in 2013, clearing the way for Jerald Hawkins to enter the starting lineup at right tackle.
It helps to be able to do both, but tackle is the most lucrative professional position. That was one factor in Collins’ decision to return for his senior season -- to prove that he can play tackle in the NFL -- and it’s part of the reason why Alexander wouldn’t mind moving back out to the edge someday.
“I’d love to play tackle again,” Alexander said. “If the opportunity presents itself, I think I can still play it. I played my freshman year, so I know every position. I’ve actually been taking some snaps, so I can play center, too. I can snap the ball. But I’m more of a guard-tackle guy. So I think I can play. If the opportunity presents itself, I can definitely do it.”
Likewise, Washington played both guard and tackle in games last season and, while he’s competing with Fehoko Fanaika for the starting spot at right guard, Miles hinted this week that LSU’s coaches are willing to play him at any position except center.
“The one thing about it is Washington is going to play in four spots, so it’s still … both guys will play,” Miles said of the right guard battle after Tuesday’s team scrimmage.
That’s the name of the game with this group. Not only does LSU return four starters and a couple of reserves from a solid 2013 offensive line, but the group’s improving versatility will be a great insurance policy for Grimes if injuries occur -- as they inevitably do on the line.
Combine that with the group’s collective experience and it’s clear why LSU’s coaches seem to feel comfortable with the line as the opener approaches.
“It’s critical,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said of the line’s experience. “Now if we didn’t have it, I’d be sitting here saying we’ll find a way. And we would. We really would. I think the best friend of any young quarterback, freshman or sophomore, any young running back, any young receiver, the best friend is a running game. And there’s nobody running the ball out there week in and week out against good teams, much less in the SEC, without a dominant offensive line. So we’re excited about our offensive line.”
A superstar from the city's rec leagues, Fournette's legend had begun to spread years before he ever became the nation's most heavily recruited football prospect.
"He and my brother were in the same grade and I went to one of his games. It was really a man amongst boys," said Porter, a senior center who is now Fournette's teammate at LSU. "He didn't get much bigger from that because he was huge back then. I was like, 'Really? That's really an eighth-grade kid?'"
Since then, little has changed for Fournette. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds, he's still bigger than many of those he competes against. He's still stronger than most, and LSU coach Les Miles has already speculated that the freshman might be the fastest player on an incredibly athletic roster.
Here are five items from the Tigers’ third week of preseason camp:
1. Both QBs will play: Les Miles has been incredibly tight-lipped about LSU’s quarterback battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. But this week he offered a few nuggets about the Tigers’ plans for the quarterbacks.
For one thing, Miles said on his weekly radio show that he expects both of them to play in the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin. A day earlier, Miles said after a team scrimmage that he expects to inform the contenders who will start against the Badgers when the coaching staff nails down the specifics of the game plan next Thursday.
2. Pocic makes a move: Miles hasn’t out and out said Ethan Pocic will start at center against Wisconsin, but it’s evident that Miles believes that he could. Each time the versatile sophomore’s name has come up in news conferences in the last two weeks, Miles has said something along the lines of, “I think Pocic is looking forward to playing a lot of football in the first game.”
Even if he he splits time with senior Elliott Porter, the more Pocic plays this season, the better. The Tigers will lose a ton of experience from this line after the season. Porter, La’el Collins, Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington are all seniors and underclassmen Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins will be eligible for the NFL draft after the season.
It would be highly beneficial for what could be an explosive 2015 team if offensive line coach Jeff Grimes can get players such as Pocic and some of the other linemen who will play next season on the field this fall.
We probably won’t see a perfectly even time-share in the Tigers’ backfield, but it seems clear that both Hilliard and freshman Darrel Williams will get their touches, too, alongside Fournette and senior Terrence Magee.
4. Highlight of the week: Have you ever wondered whether teams practice the crazy lateral plays that sometimes occur at the end of games when one team is aiming for a last-second, desperation score? They do. In fact, LSU worked on that very scenario in practice this week. I off-handedly talked to a handful of players after Thursday’s practice about memorable events from the week, and one that came up was how quickly an offensive lineman motored with the ball after catching one of those laterals. The lineman whose speed caught teammates’ attention? Mr. Pocic. All 6-foot-7 and 300 pounds of him.
5. Valentine on his way?: Defensive tackle signee Travonte Valentine’s eligibility case might finally wrap up in the next several days. He told The (Baton Rouge) Advocate that he tentatively plans to arrive at LSU on Saturday, pending clearance from the SEC office. He hinted that another SEC program might have presented a case to the league office that delayed his enrollment, even after the NCAA recently cleared him academically. Miles said after Tuesday’s scrimmage that he expected the big defensive lineman – the No. 164 prospect in the ESPN 300 and the No. 11 defensive tackle – to be on campus within the next several days, so perhaps the case will be resolved shortly.
All-Access: LSU running backs
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