BATON ROUGE, La. -- Cam Cameron apparently didn't take it easy on LSU's defensive players at the start of spring practice while that group adjusted to new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele's adjustments.
But as the Tigers passed the midway point of the spring -- today's afternoon practice will be their ninth out of 15 on the schedule -- Steele's new terminology and checks were no longer so confusing.
"Everything is starting to finally click in and everything's moving faster," linebacker Duke Riley said last week. "At first it was slow for the first couple days. But now everything just started to move fast and it's going real good."
That's a far cry from the first week or so, which senior safety Jalen Mills called "frustrating" because Cameron, LSU's offensive coordinator, was throwing the kitchen sink at the defenders and forcing them to adjust.
"I hate not knowing, because now we have Coach Cam, knowing that we have a new defense, he's throwing all type of formations at us and all different types of motions and we have to make all types of checks," Mills said shortly after the start of spring practice. "I just want to be the guy, since I am a vet, to know everything, so I kind of put that pressure on myself."
Of course it's Cameron's job to test the defensive players, especially during spring practice after a coordinator change. The best way to prepare them for the high-pressure scenarios that will arrive in the fall is to put them through the ringer now.
It's apparently helping accelerate their progress.
"Cam, he's bringing all he can at us," Riley said. "We're adjusting to him and doing what we can. Everything's going good. Everything's clicking."
Not that Steele completely remade the defensive scheme from what predecessor John Chavis ran over the previous six seasons. LSU's players said things haven't changed considerably, but any new coordinator will bring a handful of new wrinkles.
"The real big thing with that was just the terminology: the new terms and stuff like that," sophomore linebacker C.J. Garrett said. "But for the most part, a lot of the scheme is based off of the same thing. It's definitely some new stuff in there, but it was really the terminology that I had to get down."
Unlike Mills, who is entering his fourth season as a starter, Garrett didn't have many old habits to break from the previous defensive scheme. He said he struggled throughout his freshman season to grasp his role in Chavis' defense, which is not unusual for a freshman who was accustomed to playing a relatively simple role in high school.
"When I was in high school, the plays I had, I had a little packet that big and I learned it in one day and I was done. Didn't look at it the rest of the year," Garrett said. "So that was something new that I had to learn -- learn how to watch film, learn how to go over my plays and actually understand it."
Understanding it is the goal this spring as they adjust to what Steele will ask of them this fall. And they seem to be progressing nicely, as LSU coach Les Miles said after last Saturday's scrimmage that, "I thought [the defense] had the better of the day."
Steele's defense has more than five months before it has to be game-ready, so there is still plenty of time to get things exactly right. But the Tigers seem to feel confident about the direction they are heading.
"Everybody's just got to get together and study," linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. "We've got to study together and then study individually and we'll get it."
What LSU doesn't need any more of is speed, but that's exactly what the Tigers are getting from sophomore D.J. Chark. The young, very speedy receiver played in six games last year, but didn't record any catches for the Tigers. However, that should change this fall, as he's really started progressing this spring. He caught a couple of touchdown passes in LSU's last scrimmage and is really starting to click with LSU's quarterbacks.
"I'm gaining chemistry with my teammates, the quarterbacks and receivers," Chark said. "The receivers are helping me. I feel like everybody pushing each other, we're getting better and better and its showing in practice and scrimmages."
You can read more about Chark's progress at The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
The pretty boys got their turn on Wednesday as Georgia running back Nick Chubb headlined the SEC's top skill-position players heading into the 2015 season.
But those guys are nothing without a good offensive line.
You don't see their faces unless something is wrong and their stats aren't kept in any public file, but the big uglies doing battle in the trenches are really the driving force to national championships.
With that said, here’s our early look at the SEC’s top offensive linemen heading into the 2015 season. They’re listed alphabetically:
Vadal Alexander, OT, LSU, Sr.: He thought about leaving and said it was "back and forth for a while" where one day he was going to declare for the NFL draft and another day he was coming back to LSU. And much to Les Miles' joy, it ended up being the latter. Now the Tigers have the Coaches All-SEC first-team selection to build around, although this year he'll slide from guard to tackle.
Evan Boehm, C, Missouri, Sr.: Tired of Boehm yet? It would be hard to blame you seeing as he already has started 40 consecutive games in his career. Surely there are a few flustered defensive linemen in the SEC who are ready to see him go by now. But Missouri's coaching staff is on the other end of that spectrum, lucky to have a center with so much experience to lean on.
Denver Kirkland, OT, Arkansas, Jr.: Shifting the junior from guard to tackle this spring could pay huge dividends for him and the Razorbacks. It not only gets him in better position for the NFL draft, but it provides quarterback Brandon Allen a 6-foot-5, 337-pound upperclassman to protect his blind side. Alongside Sebastian Tretola at left guard, look for coach Bret Bielema to play a lot of left-handed football this season.
Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama, Soph.: Some freshmen take time to get acclimated to the college game. But Robinson is not some freshmen. The former five-star prospect played from Day 1 at Alabama, starting all 14 games last year. And even more impressively, he was one of the Crimson Tide's most consistent linemen, leading the team in knockdown blocks while allowing just three sacks all season.
Laremy Tunsil, OT, Ole Miss, Jr.: Think of Tunsil as Robinson, only a year older and a year closer to making a boatload of money in the NFL draft. He, too, saw the field as a true freshman, starting nine games while earning All-SEC Second Team honors. As a sophomore, he did more of the same, starting 11 games and earning a spot on the Coaches All-SEC squad. A broken leg he suffered in the Peach Bowl soured the season, but he's expected to be back in the starting lineup come Week 1.
Five more to watch:
One day, Brandon Harris will look back at 2015 and either smile or wonder what could have been. This is the year that will potentially make or break his LSU career.
If the Tigers are going to take a stab at the SEC Western Division, Harris has to be the starting quarterback. The sophomore is too talented as a passer and too gifted an athlete, and LSU is in desperate need of a spark under center.
With all due respect to Anthony Jennings, who went 8-4 as a starter last year with 1,611 passing yards, Harris is the present and the future for LSU at quarterback. He just has to be. Yes, most of this has to be based on potential and his schooling of high school kids, but we saw glimpses of brilliance from Harris at times last year. There was the valiant comeback attempt against Mississippi State in which he threw for 140 yards on 6 of 9 passing and had two touchdowns. A week later he overwhelmingly out-dueled Jennings in a win over New Mexico State with his 178 yards and three touchdowns on 11 of 14 passing.
But there was also a dark side, like his dreadful 3 of 14 performance a game later against Auburn, which was his first -- and only -- start of the year. After that, Harris threw just one more pass during the Tigers' final seven games.
Harris not seeing time in other games is on him, and he knows it. His preparation wasn't good enough to beat out Jennings during practice, and it certainly wasn't good enough for him to try and best him in games.
That has to change because there's just no getting around the fact that he's more physically gifted than Jennings. He might not have had the mental part down last year, but Harris' throwing and running ability can't be wasted this season. For as admirably as Jennings played at times this season, he's held back in ways that Harris isn't when it comes to arm talent, and he isn't a consistent passing threat for defenses to fear. Jennings' 47. 1 percent completion percentage on third downs is a problem, especially when he's completing just 40 percent on third downs between 7 and 9 yards. Completing less than 48 percent of your passes in the second and third quarters of games just won't cut it either.
There's no reason Jennings can't grow and evolve too, but Harris has all the physical tools needed to be a bigger threat for LSU. The decision-making part is yet to be seen, but Harris appears to be progressing this spring.
"I’m going into my second spring. Obviously I know everything I need to know now," Harris said earlier this spring. "I feel more comfortable with everything we’re going to run. Obviously it’s a wide-open quarterback position, quarterback job, so everything is still even reps-wise. Again, going into my second spring, so I’m more comfortable. I don’t have to have someone telling me what to do or this and that. I’ll get everybody on the same page ... I expect to help this team win. I just expect to play more this year. I think with the ability God’s blessed me with, with Cam [Cameron] and them teaching me, I think I’ll play a big role this upcoming season."
Last year, the younger, more immature Harris was both wide-eyed and a little carefree during his first year at LSU. The supposed next big thing at quarterback for the Tigers was everything but that, as he watched his hype sink into the bayou from the sidelines for most of the year.
The No. 2 dual-threat quarterback by ESPN's RecruitingNation arrived with a mountain of hype strapped to his back, but started just one game and saw time sparingly during a season of passing ineptitude that left the Tigers at the bottom of the league when it came to throwing the football.
When a highly-touted prospect can't do better than a starter who completed just 48.9 percent of his passes and averaged a paltry 123.9 passing yards per game, something's wrong. Harris clearly wasn't ready to be the guy.
Say what you will about how LSU's coaching staff used its quarterbacks last year, but even Harris knows he wasn't fit to be LSU's starting quarterback in 2014.
"Looking back, I would say I wasn’t ready," Jennings said.
And that's fine. For every freshman phenom, there are hundreds who just aren't ready or don't even see playing time. But for LSU to advance in 2015, Harris has to be the guy.
There's a reason Harris was one of the most sought-after quarterbacks back in high school, and everyone picked him to come out of last spring as the starter. Harris now has the chance to take the huge steps needed from Year 1 to Year 2, which are crucial for both he and LSU.
So far, Harris' play has been met with mixed reviews this spring, but improvement is there, and so is a drive he hopes propels him this spring and beyond.
"I’ve always carried a chip on my shoulder, and I carry a chip on my shoulder now," he said. "People are going to talk about you until the day you die. I’ve always carried a chip.
"My thing is not letting me be my downfall, improving, overutilizing our coaches and looking for every way to improve."
Will Be Making My College Choice April 3rd! @ Ocean Lakes High School 6pm... Anyone Can Come, No Charge Decision, Decisions, & Decisions.=— Levonta Taylor (@iamlevonta) March 24, 2015
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Replacing starters is typically an imperfect process. But if Jeff Grimes has to replace two starters on LSU’s offensive line, he has the line set up to make the transition as painless as possible.
Should Grimes stick with his current setup, with returning starters Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander at the tackle spots and Ethan Pocic at center, the line’s newcomers at guard will have a veteran on both his right and his left.
“We all try to come together and really stay on the same page,” said Garrett Brumfield, a contender to take over one of the guard spots. “So it is good having veterans on both sides of you -- and even without it, whether it be the center, left tackle, right tackle, everybody’s always communicating, so it’s really good that way.”
Brumfield -- last season’s No. 1 guard in ESPN’s prospect rankings -- and William Clapp both redshirted last season but worked with the starters at right and left guard, respectively, when LSU opened spring practice earlier this month. They will face competition for the starting jobs from a number of candidates, including K.J. Malone and a handful of signees who LSU coach Les Miles said could “vie for some playing time.”
Not that their competition for playing time is restricted to one specific position.
For instance, Clapp said after last Tuesday’s practice that he had worked exclusively at center that day. Malone said he has worked at right tackle and left guard after backing up La'el Collins at left tackle last fall. Alexander and Pocic have started games at multiple positions, as well.
Detect a theme yet? The group’s versatility gives Grimes plenty of options.
“[Grimes is] doing a first-team A group and a first-team B group just to see how we look at each position,” Malone said. “So one time in A group, I’ll play right tackle and in B group I’ll play left guard. So he’s just seeing where he likes us."
That will likely continue throughout the spring, at least if Miles' comments following Saturday’s scrimmage were any indication.
“Right now it’s still early in the spring where you still want to look at a number of guys and see who’s who. No decisions really have been made at this point,” Miles said. “What we’re doing is it really allows us to have some time at other positions. So it gives us the opportunity to put guys, should injury occur in a game, in another spot. That’s really going to benefit us long term.”
It seems to be benefiting the linemen as well. Clapp practiced at both guard spots and at center during his redshirt season -- mostly while practicing with the varsity squad, not on the scout team -- and said he now feels comfortable at all of those spots. Those reps were particularly important at center, since that is the position typically responsible for making pre-snap calls and setting protections.
“When I first started playing center, it was a little overwhelming,” Clapp said, “but Ethan and Elliott [Porter] both helped me out a lot, and Coach Grimes is real understanding and was patient with me getting the snaps right and really making all the calls on the line.”
As Miles mentioned, Grimes’ theme of the spring is experimentation, so the young linemen realize that they probably can’t lock down a starting spot until August. LSU’s star-studded class of freshman linemen will be on campus by then, and it will obviously become more important for Grimes to make lineup decisions with kickoff approaching.
“He’s trying to see who can do what and who is talented at what to kind of feel out and see which five will be the five that he wants to play or rotate -- whether it’s six [players rotating] or seven,” Brumfield said. “But I think it’s good right now having guys who are versatile. We have a lot of different combinations that could possibly happen, so we’ll see how it plays out.”
The main thing right now, Clapp said, is realizing that a goal is within reach, even if the contenders must wait several months to achieve it.
“I knew that the starting five won’t be determined until camp’s over in August, so it’s a constant battle,” Clapp said. “We all know that it’s a competition every day. We all love knowing that the spot is there for us. We just need to go out there and take it.”
It's no secret that the most popular narrative when describing what makes the SEC tick in recent years has revolved around defense. It wins championships and it's something the SEC has been really, really good at for a number of years, especially during the conference's string of seven straight BCS national championships.
But like most things in this universe, football is evolving. Defense is great, but offense is greater, and slowly, the SEC is having to adapt and become a more offensive-friendly league. In the last two years, the league has had at least eight teams average more than 400 yards per game. From 2008 to 2012, the SEC never had more than six teams reach 400 yards per game in a single season.
This year, the league has a pretty impressive list of skill-position players to keep an eye on. We're taking a look at the top players a few positions around the league, and Wednesday we're starting with offensive skill players, listing the top players at running back, wide receiver/tight end, and we're looking at the top all-purpose player heading into the thee 2015 season.
Here's our list of the top skill players in the SEC:
Nick Chubb, So., Georgia
Chubb was outstanding as a true freshman last year, as he had to fill in for star running back Todd Gurley during Gurley's midseason suspension and his eventual season-ending knee injury. All Chubb, who stands a chiseled 5-foot-10, 228 pounds and renders arm tackles futile, did was rank second in the SEC with 1,547 rushing yards and tie for first with 14 rushing touchdowns. What's more impressive is that Chubb started just eight games -- all 100-yard performances -- and the All-SEC first-teamer saved the best for last. He registered a career-high, school bowl-record and SEC bowl-record 266 yards on 33 carries vs. Louisville in the Belk Bowl, the second-best total in a game in school history.
Leonard Fournette, So., LSU
Fournette was supposed to make an immediate, Michael Jordan-like impact for the Tigers last season, but needed some time to feel out the college game. In a why-haven't-you-won-the-Heisman-Trophy-now college football society, Fournette was viewed by some as a bust, despite being fresh out of high school. Still, a late-season surge and his menacing physique put Fournette firmly in this position. After shedding some weight and increasing his speed this offseason, there's no doubt the sophomore-to-be will shoot past his 1,034 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns from last year. Fournette averaged 98 yards in his final five games and blossomed into a fine player who should really take off in 2015.
Wide Receiver/Tight end
Pharoh Cooper, Jr., South Carolina
The Gamecocks didn't have a lot to smile about last season, but the offense set a handful of records last season. One reason for that was because of the play of Cooper, who finished the 2014 season third in the SEC in receptions (69), second in receiving yards (1,136) and receiving yards per game (87.4), fourth in receptions per game (5.3), and ninth in all-purpose yards per game (108.5). He also led the team in all receiving categories and was fourth with 200 yards rushing. He's the SEC's top returning statistical receiver, and while he registered only three 100-yard games, Cooper will be the go-to receiving threat for the Gamecocks yet again this fall.
D'haquille "Duke" Williams, Sr., Auburn
It's hard to find a more physically gifted receiver in the SEC. Williams had every chance to leave Auburn early for he NFL, but he decided to come back and really enhance his skill. Williams led the team with 45 receptions and had 730 yards and five touchdowns. Those numbers don't impress you? Well, consider the fact he missed two games because of a knee injury and was suspended for the bowl game. Yes, we're dealing in hypotheticals, but hypothetically speaking, Williams likely would have come close to or topped the 1,000-yard mark.
Evan Engram, Jr., Ole Miss
If you're looking for a Jimmy Graham-type tight end, look no further than Engram. He wasn't just the SEC's best tight end last year, he returns in 2015 as arguably the nation's best tight end. He wasn't overly praised when that historic 2013 class made it to Oxford, but plenty of eyes are all over him after a breakout sophomore year in which he led all SEC tight ends with 38 catches and 662 yards. Engram is a total mismatch because he's too big for most corners to handle and too fast for linebackers and safeties to consistently contain.
Laquon Treadwell, Jr., Ole Miss
He's another player who should have had better numbers in 2014 but had his season was cut short. The physically imposing specimen was a star as a freshman and was on his way to first-team All-SEC honors before suffering a horrific leg injury on Nov. 1. Treadwell's season ended with him catching 48 passes for 632 yards and five touchdowns. Despite playing in four less games than he did in 2013, Treadwell registered more yards on nearly 30 fewer catches. Treadwell isn't going through contact this spring, but he should be healthy come the fall. Oh, and then there's this from last month: Yikes!
Speedy Noil, So., Texas A&M
Noil arrived in College Station with a ton of hype attached to his name, and he did a good job of living up to it. Noil led all SEC true freshmen in receptions (46), receiving yards (583) and receiving touchdowns (five). Noil led the Aggies in all-purpose yards (1,418), punt return yards (180) and kickoff return yards (645) despite missing the SMU game due to injury.
More to watch:
Who's the one player that each SEC team will miss the most from last season? That's the question we asked this week. On Tuesday, we looked at every team from the East. Now, it's time to set our sights on the West.
Alabama: WR Amari Cooper
How valuable was Cooper? The Heisman finalist accounted for over 40 percent of the team's receptions and receiving yards last season. He took the term "go-to target" to another level. Now it's up to a group of talented but inexperienced youngsters to replace him. Chris Black might be the most proven at this point, but there's a trio of sophomores-to-be -- ArDarius Stewart, Cam Sims and Robert Foster -- that should all earn more minutes this fall. The talent is there, but it's going to take a team effort to fill the void left by Cooper. One guy can't do it alone.
Arkansas: DE Trey Flowers
The defense won't be the same without players such as Flowers, Darius Philon and Martrell Spaight, but Flowers will be especially missed because of the leadership he provided. Brandon Lewis backed up Flowers last season and therefore should be considered the front-runner to win the job, but he's had to sit out this spring due to injury. That's opened the door for Deatrich Wise to take over the defensive end spot opposite JaMichael Winston, and both Wise and Winston have made it a point to take on more of a leadership role with Flowers gone.
Auburn: C Reese Dismukes
As good as Nick Marshall and Sammie Coates played the past two seasons, Dismukes was the real MVP for this Auburn team. Fifty career starts, and every play started in his hands. The position itself might be overlooked by some, but it's a critical element to Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle offense. That's why the coaches have moved former right tackle Austin Golson, arguably the best lineman on the roster, to center in hopes that he can pick up where Dismukes left off. He and Xavier Dampeer are battling for the starting job this spring.
LSU: OT La'el Collins
Fans are going to miss Collins and Vadal Alexander on the same side, mauling opponents in the run game. There wasn't a more formidable tackle-guard combination in the SEC last season. But Collins has moved on, and Alexander is moving from left guard to right tackle. Meanwhile, LSU's former right tackle, Jerald Hawkins, will be moving to the left side to replace Collins. At 6-foot-9, 309 pounds, he certainly looks the part. And he's already come out and said that left tackle feels like a natural position. But replacing Collins will be no easy task.
Mississippi State: LB Benardrick McKinney
You can't blame McKinney for leaving school early, not after the season he had. But it leaves a gaping hole on that defense. McKinney was not only the team's most productive linebacker, but he also served as the leader for the entire unit. However, the Mississippi State coaches are confident Richie Brown can be that guy. He finished sixth on the team in tackles last season and who can forget his memorable three-interception performance against Texas A&M? The Bulldogs will also get a boost this summer with the addition of freshman Leo Lewis.
Ole Miss: S Cody Prewitt
Senquez Golson put up the numbers last season, but Prewitt's play and leadership on the back end will be missed even more. He defined that Landsharks defense. To replace him, the Rebels are having to make some changes in the secondary. Senior-to-be Trae Elston is moving from strong safety to free safety where he'll take over for Prewitt, and cornerback Mike Hilton is moving to the now vacant strong safety position. C.J. Hampton is another guy who can play both safety spots and should have a bigger role as a sophomore next fall.
Texas A&M: WR Malcome Kennedy
The Aggies are loaded at wide receiver. Even with Kennedy graduating, they still have Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil, Ricky Seals-Jones and Edward Pope all coming back. But Kennedy provided the intangibles for this team last season. He was reliable. When the team needed a first down, he was there. When he sat out against Mississippi State and Ole Miss, the team struggled with drops and lost both games. There are some things you just can't teach. The hope is that Kennedy set an example for the younger receivers heading into the 2015 season.
It's OK everyone, the NCAA tournament will continue in a few days and "Empire" will return soon enough!
- Florida's offense isn't exactly moving at the most appropriate speed this spring, but while that side of the ball continues to fall behind the defense, Geoff Collins' group is just out there fired up and having fun.
- At South Carolina, there's no more delegating ball plays by the Head Ball Coach.
- Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell says he "feels great" nearly five months after his gruesome leg injury he suffered in the Rebels' home loss to Auburn.
- Former Alabama tight end Brian Vogler hopes to see more pass-catching opportunities for tight end O.J. Howard with the Crimson Tide this season.
- New Georgia offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer doesn't plan to change the Bulldogs' offensive philosophy this year, but he is changing the terminology.
- Fast riser Dontavius Russell is in position to start on Auburn's defensive line this season.
- LSU quarterback Anthony Jennings says he feels his confidence and ability growing this spring.
- Texas A&M returned to practice on Tuesday. Here are some notes and here's a little of what coach Kevin Sumlin had to say about the day.
- Former coaches believe in new Missouri athletic director Mack Rhoades.
- Head coach Butch Jones said the host of injuries is the biggest setback for Tennessee's football team this spring.
Tweet of the day
— Christina Long (@christinalong99) March 24, 2015
Alabama returned from a 10-day break from practice on Monday, and one of the Crimson Tide’s most intriguing players this spring worked at two different positions. Kenyan Drake, who broke his leg during a game last season, worked at both running back and at wide receiver during the media viewing periods on Monday. Drake flashed impressive rushing and receiving skills last season before suffering the devastating leg injury, so it’s not exactly a surprise that he took some practice reps at both spots. What might be a bit surprising is how quickly he’s already back on the field, roughly five months after the injury. If he returns to previous form by the time the season starts -- and those at Alabama seem optimistic that he will be -- his unique set of skills will make Lane Kiffin’s offense much more dangerous this fall.
Add another chapter to the John Chavis-LSU squabble. LSU’s legal team lobbed some grenades at Chavis -- the school’s former defensive coordinator -- and his new employer, Texas A&M, in response to his lawsuit claiming that he does not owe LSU a buyout. According to a story in the Baton Rouge Advocate, LSU’s response said that “Chavis happened to defect to Texas A&M to begin working for A&M before his service to LSU was complete. Notwithstanding the Aggies’ dire need for defensive help, Chavis could have defected to a college or professional team in any state, or even a foreign country.” Dang. “Dire need for defensive help?” Not that such a statement is false. A&M’s defense has been atrocious for the last couple of years. But this situation has officially gotten ugly, with Chavis claiming that LSU owes him back pay and LSU insisting that he violated terms of his contract by refusing to pay a $400,000 buyout when he bolted for A&M after last season. It’s going to make for an interesting subplot when these two programs meet in November.
Around the SEC
- With his team set to open spring practice today, Tennessee coach Butch Jones addressed the media on Monday to set the stage. Find the official transcript and video from the presser here.
- Sometimes 6-foot-7, 325-pound recruits don’t know their own strength. UGA offensive line commit Ben Cleveland accidentally crushed a glass bottle in his hand last week during science class, forcing him to get stitches that caused him to miss two prospect camps and time with his high school baseball team.
- Bryson Allen-Williams started at linebacker and moved to defensive end as a South Carolina freshman, but he’s back at linebacker for the Gamecocks this spring.
- Jonathan Jones says he won’t become complacent after earning All-SEC honors at cornerback for Auburn last season.
- Athlon’s Braden Gall delivers a spring breakdown for Florida.
Tweet of the day
When Peyton met Hulk... pic.twitter.com/Lufop5S7kF
— Tennessee Football (@Vol_Football) March 23, 2015
BATON ROUGE, La. -- One of the leading questions for LSU's spring practice is how the Tigers' defense might function differently with Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator.
We probably won't have an answer there until a few weeks into the season -- LSU has no incentive to reveal anything before then -- but here's a small twist. Apparently the linebackers will be more involved when the Tigers shift into a nickel defensive package.
Under previous defensive coordinator John Chavis, the strongside linebacker (nicknamed "Sam") left the field and the Tigers used five defensive backs in the nickel along with the middle linebacker ("Mike") and weakside linebacker ("Will"). But strongside linebacker Duke Riley said he has started working at the "Money" position since spring practice started.
"Usually I wasn't in the nickel when Chief [Chavis] was here when I was at Sam," Riley said. "Me or Lamar [Louis] would go out and just the Will and the Mike would be in at the nickel, so I'm the Money now."
That shouldn't come as an enormous surprise. At Steele's previous stop, Alabama, Nick Saban's defenses frequently repped an assortment of linebackers and defensive backs at the Money position. Riley and Louis seem like obvious candidates for the job since Sam linebackers typically possess strong coverage skills in addition to tackling ability.
Such personnel adjustments frequently accompany the changes in philosophy that come with a new coordinator hire. But LSU's linebackers said they haven't noticed many major changes between the Chavis and Steele defensive schemes.
And in the meeting room or on the practice field, Steele's methods seem to be meshing well with the players from the position he also oversees, linebacker.
"He's not the type of coach that hollers and is just on you, on you, on you," Riley said. "He'll treat you like a pro and make sure you understand. It's hard to focus out there when a coach is [yelling], 'rawrrr rawrrr.' Steele is just the kind of coach where he'll pull you to the side, talk to you, tell you what you've got to do and everything goes from there.
"It's actually better for all of us. I've been having some of the best practices. Everybody has been having some of the best practices since we've been here."
The starting lineup seems set -- at least for now -- with Louis at Sam, Jones at Will and Kendell Beckwith at Mike. However, a key for LSU's linebackers this spring will be developing depth behind the three veterans.
Garrett, one of LSU's most highly recruited signees last year, believes he is better prepared to contribute than he was last fall, when he appeared in just three games.
"To be honest, toward the end of the season I was still a little bit confused," Garrett said. "I never really got the whole scheme down, so this year when Coach Steele got here, we got a chance to go over some of the new stuff and things like that, it kind of started clicking to me. I felt like I got a chance to really get a chance to sit down and actually look at it and understand it more."
It will be a tall order to steal snaps from Beckwith, though, after the junior linebacker developed into a star once he joined the starting lineup midway through last season. He finished the year with 77 tackles -- second only to Kwon Alexander's 90 -- and 7.5 tackles for loss.
Beckwith said during bowl practice that he was ready to take ownership of LSU's defense this season, and he insisted after a recent practice that it is now "his."
"I already own it. They know it. The guys on defense know it," Beckwith said with a grin. "I've been trying to just get the hang of everything right now, so I've kind of been keeping to myself and just helping people if I can. Once we start rolling and we get deep into this thing, they know. It'll be mine."
That certainly will not be a bad thing. Beckwith looks like a star in the making, and the veterans at the top of the depth chart should be fine in starting roles.
Yes, depth is a concern -- and it could become a greater issue in 2016, particularly if Beckwith plays well enough to enter the NFL draft after this season, since Louis and Jones are both seniors. But should the Tigers avoid any major health issues, Beckwith has high hopes for what LSU's linebacking corps can become this fall.
"I think we'll be the best three in the country, so I don't really have no concern about us," Beckwith said.
BATON ROUGE, La. – At about this time a year ago, John David Moore first shifted from tight end to fullback. Now he’s the most experienced blocking back on LSU’s roster.
Because of the Tigers’ shallow depth at fullback last season – especially compared to their talent-rich tight end group – Moore saw the move as his best opportunity to play. It paid off when he appeared in eight games in 2014 and put himself in position to become a backfield regular this fall.
“It was really just a need that needed to be filled. They were just kind of shallow at that position and deeper at tight end,” Moore said. “I’m willing to fit in where I can get in. I’d play punter if they’d let me, and I’ll do whatever to get on the field.”
The departures of last season’s top two fullbacks, Connor Neighbors and Melvin Jones, left Moore as the Tigers’ only player at the position with any game experience. He has company in the fullback rotation this spring, but the other leading contenders are also new to the position.
Ducre and Upchurch have a lot to learn about playing fullback, which places some teaching responsibility on their more experienced teammate’s shoulders as well.
“We’ve got some young guys that just need to learn the classroom stuff so they can apply it on the field,” Moore said. “So that’s where I can be helpful in that role.”
Ducre, whom LSU recruitniks have dubbed as the Tigers’ fullback of the future, and Upchurch are also working together to gain a better grasp on their new position. Learning new blocking techniques, how to hit holes and how to read defenses from the backfield is no simple feat, so they’ve become a tag team as they navigate the transition.
“We’re actually working together as far as in the team meeting room,” Upchurch said. “We kind of quiz each other on what we’ve got on this, what we’ve got on that, so it’s going to work hand in hand.”
It’s unusual to see a player with a jersey number in the 80s – typically a numerical range reserved for receivers and tight ends – lining up in the backfield. But Upchurch is still wearing No. 81 as he learns to block for Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris instead of catching passes from the Tigers’ two quarterbacks.
Nonetheless, he still expects to catch a pass here or there.
“Fullback, I feel like I can be moved around just as well,” Upchurch said. “I have hands; I can contribute to the team as far as catching-wise. So I think it’s going to be a pretty good position for me.”
Upchurch’s move was partially dictated by the depth issues at the position and partially due to his own problems with his weight. Listed at 230 pounds on LSU’s spring roster, Upchurch was a big-bodied receiver, but that size makes him a more natural fit at fullback.
He said he quickly adjusted to the heavy contact at the position, although his only previous backfield experience came at tailback in high school.
“It took a good while for me to get the weight down, but it’s all right,” Upchurch said. “Fullback is kind of a good position for me. I kind of like it so far.”
Upchurch’s switch from receiver is a new twist on a years-old storyline at LSU. The Tigers’ fullbacks in recent years frequently arrived at the position after starting their careers elsewhere. Neighbors and Jones were both linebackers when they started at LSU and former starter J.C. Copeland signed as a defensive lineman before shifting to the backfield.
“I learned a lot from Connor just about how to be a student of the game and then technique,” Moore said. “Blocking is very different from tight end to fullback, so [I focused on] just learning those techniques and nuances, learning from him, who is one of the best in the game.”
Now he and Upchurch are trying to make the switch as effectively as Neighbors, who developed into one of the nation’s top fullbacks – as evidenced by his invitation to the Senior Bowl at the end of last season – by the time he completed his college career.
Neighbors and the new fullbacks’ other predecessors certainly proved that a switch to fullback can work out well for all involved. At least one of the new players at the position seems likely to carry on that LSU tradition.
It didn't turn out how I thought it would. Then again, it never does when it comes to NCAA tournament time, so why should my fictional SEC football bracket be any different?
In what's become an annual tradition on the blog, Edward Aschoff and I seeded all 14 SEC teams to play out our very own spring tournament. Aschoff published his bracket earlier today, so now it's time for me to get in on the action.
It was a painstaking process -- filling out my 64-team bracket for the actual NCAA tournament was easier -- but I eventually got the seeding down and let the matchups dictate the rest.
I had upsets by NC State, UAB and Georgia State on my mind, so it's no coincidence that the underdog came out on top a few times.
Note: Since this tournament is based on the spring, injuries are taken into account.
- Georgia Bulldogs
- Auburn Tigers
- Alabama Crimson Tide
- Tennessee Volunteers
- Mississippi State Bulldogs
- Arkansas Razorbacks
- Ole Miss Rebels
- Missouri Tigers
- LSU Tigers
- Texas A&M Aggies
- Florida Gators
- South Carolina Gamecocks
- Kentucky Wildcats
- Vanderbilt Commodores
In Memphis, Tennessee
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: Who's Nick Saban's quarterback? Who cares? With one of the best D-lines in college football and an O-line that should come together nicely, Alabama has the right ingredients to control games where it counts most: in the trenches. The Commodores are better than in 2014 and they're benefitted by Alabama being without starting cornerback Cyrus Jones and starting linebacker Denzel Devall, but in the end they don't stand a chance. Winner: Alabama
No. 6 Arkansas vs. No. 11 Florida: Losing Alex Collins for the first round due to an appendectomy hurts, but Jonathan Williams is more than capable of carrying Arkansas' offense. And with an even bigger and better offensive line, the Hogs impose their will on the Gators, who are still learning the ropes under new coach Jim McElwain. Winner: Arkansas
In Kansas City, Missouri
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Butch Jones' Vols might be a year away from competing for a national title, but the SEC East is another story. With a slew of talented pass-catchers (Marquez North, Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf) and a running back that's a safe bet to reach 1,000 yards (Jalen Hurd), quarterback Josh Dobbs orchestrates an offense that leaves Kentucky feeling dizzy. Winner: Tennessee
No. 5 Mississippi State vs. No. 12 South Carolina: Steve Spurrier crumpled up his 2014 defense and threw it in the trash, bringing in a new co-coordinator and a number of junior college transfers. But it won't be enough to stop the SEC's leading Heisman Trophy contender, Dak Prescott, who wills the Bulldogs to a first-round win. Winner: Mississippi State
In Jacksonville, Florida
No. 7 Ole Miss vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: The Aggies' defense doesn't need to be the best in the conference to win games. It takes some time, but John Chavis coaxes marginal improvement out of that side of the ball, enough that Kyle Allen and the high-flying offense earn the upset over the Rebs. Winner: Texas A&M
No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 LSU: This is a bad matchup for Missouri, which should find itself in the thick of the SEC East race yet again in 2015. But it hits a buzzsaw as Leonard Fournette negates its pass-rush by running right at it and its QB struggles by throwing too many risky passes into LSU's opportunistic secondary. Winner: LSU
In Charlotte, North Carolina
No. 1 Georgia vs. No. 9 LSU: All the wins and all the NFL-level talent don't mean much when put up against Georgia's nine-year drought of failing to win an SEC title game. Losing the big game has become all too familiar, whether you look at a loss to Georgia Tech last season or go further back to a four-point loss to Alabama in 2012. And in this matchup, it will be more of the same as Nick Chubb's 200 yards isn't enough. Fournette breaks the century mark rushing, Travin Dural hits a few long-balls over the top of the defense and a field goal in overtime sends LSU to the semifinals. Winner: LSU
In Orlando, Florida
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Mississippi State: You can't give a team like Tennessee an inch, because when they start believing and gaining confidence in themselves, they're scary. Mississippi State will learn that lesson the hard way as its defense struggles and its quarterback is dinged up early, putting it in a hole it can never quite come out of. Winner: Tennessee
No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 10 Texas A&M: Change out the light bulbs in the scoreboard before we get this one started. It's going to be a barn-burner. Neither team plays much defense and in the end, it's Auburn's balance on offense that tips the scales in the Tigers' favor as Jeremy Johnson throws for 300 yards and Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas team up for 200 yards on the ground. Winner: Auburn
In New Orleans
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Remember what I said about who the QB is, not mattering for Alabama? Scratch that. In a close game it will. Arkansas runs the ball to control the tempo, keeps it a low-scoring affair and gets a late interception to sub out last season's one-point loss for this year's one-point win. Winner: Arkansas
In Arlington, Texas
No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 9 LSU: This is the game where Will Muschamp earns his paycheck, stacking the Auburn defense against the run and forcing LSU to be one-dimensional. Brandon Harris is pulled in favor of Anthony Jennings early, but it makes no difference. Auburn's offense struggles to less than 300 yards, but wins the turnover battle to advance. Winner: Auburn
In Nashville, Tennessee
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 6 Arkansas: Ground-and-pound works, but only if you have the defense to back it up. And as it turns out, Arkansas doesn't against Tennessee. The Vols jump out to a two-touchdown lead in their home state and the Razorbacks don't have the firepower in the passing game to claw their way back, falling just short of a Cinderella season. Winner: Tennessee
No. 2 Auburn vs. No. 4 Tennessee: The Tigers have been on the big stage before and the Vols have not, and that's no small matter. So while Tennessee is able to score quickly against Auburn and jump out to another double-digit lead, it's not enough. Jones' offense goes stale in the second half while Gus Malzahn's uptempo attack gets hot, demoralizing the young Vols with a 21-0 run in the fourth quarter to win. Winner: Auburn
The NCAA tournament has hit the SEC, even if the conference just has one team to root for in the Big Dance.
But we here at the SEC blog are all about the madness and wanted to continue a fun tradition that gives us our own fictional March tournament. Today, we are unveiling our SEC football brackets in honor of this week's Sweet 16.
Esteemed colleague Alex Scarborough and I have seeded all 14 SEC teams in a tournament of our own to crown our rightful spring SEC champion(s).
The first College Football Playoff did a great job of exciting the masses, but imagine if we had even more teams. I'll show off my seedings and bracket first, and Alex will post his later.
After letting my cat Meeko take over most of the responsibility with this whole thing, here are my seeds for all 14 teams:
- Ole Miss
- Texas A&M
- Mississippi State
- South Carolina
In Memphis, Tennessee
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 14 Vanderbilt: This year's NCAA tournament saw two 14 seeds topple No. 3 seeds. That ain't happening in our bracket. Both teams are trying to figure things out at quarterback, but Alabama just has too much talent all around. Bama running back Derrick Henry will make quick work of Vandy's defense, giving OC Lane Kiffin the option to play every QB the Crimson Tide has. Winner: Alabama
No. 6 Tennessee vs. No. 11 South Carolina: The Vols are a trendy pick in the SEC East this year, and it makes sense when you realize Tennessee brings back 18 starters. South Carolina was a mess on defense last year and has its own quarterback battle to worry about. The Vols have rising star Josh Dobbs at QB and stud running back Jalen Hurd to lead the offense. The Gamecocks will have flashbacks of that horrendous fourth quarter against the Vols last fall. Winner: Tennessee
In Kansas City, Missouri
No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Kentucky: Shocker, another SEC team with a quarterback issues, but we expect Chad Kelly to get most of the snaps in his game. Not having Laquon Treadwell (leg) will take a major part of the passing game away, but Cody Core will make a couple of big plays on Kentucky's defense, which will open things up for Jaylen Walton to slice up Kentucky's rebuilt defensive line. Winner: Ole Miss
No. 5 Arkansas vs. No. 12 Florida: Ah, the classic 12-5 upset. This has been such a fun pick to make in the NCAA tournament, but like this year's Big Dance, we'll have no 12-seed waltzing into the second round. Florida's offense is under construction, and even with Alex Collins recovering from an appendectomy, Johnathan Williams will tire out Florida's front seven, and the Hogs will force a couple of turnovers. Winner: Arkansas
In Jacksonville, Florida
No. 7 LSU vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: These aren't the same Bulldogs who pulled off an upset in Death Valley last year. However, LSU doesn't have the best quarterback situation. I think Brandon Harris gets the majority of the snaps and Leonard Fournette wears down the Bulldogs' line, but in the tournament you need a solid point guard, and that's where quarterback Dak Prescott comes in. LSU's lack of a pass rush gives Prescott the time he needs to lead a game-winning drive. Winner: Mississippi State
No. 8 Missouri vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: We get a little Big 12 feel with this game. The Tigers have won back-to-back SEC East titles, but don't have elite talent at defensive end this spring, and quarterback Maty Mauk has a completely rebuilt receiving corps to work with. The Aggies got a major defensive upgrade with the hiring of John Chavis, and he'll be the difference. Quarterback Kyle Allen will make some plays, and we'll finally see a defensive stand by the Aggies! Winners: Texas A&M
In Charlotte, North Carolina
No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 9 Texas A&M: Oh baby, we have a battle of new defensive coordinators. Chavis vs. Will Muschamp. This one should be one of the more exciting games of the tournament, but the Tigers will have a more balanced offense with Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas beating down that A&M front and quarterback Jeremy Johnson making plays on the Aggies' secondary. Winner: Auburn
In Orlando, Florida
No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 10 Mississippi State: Georgia will start the game with Brice Ramsey at quarterback, but will use Jacob Park in special packages. But does it really matter? With Mississippi State trying to figure some things out up front, running back Nick Chubb will have a field day with that defense. Georgia won't need to throw much with Chubb going to work and the defense forcing key turnovers. Winner: Georgia
No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 5 Arkansas: Last year's game didn't go so well for the Rebels, and they'll have another tough go down in H-Town. With Ole Miss' defensive line clamping down on the Hogs' running game, Arkansas will have to get more out of Brandon Allen. This is where we see the maturation of Allen's game inside new offensive coordinator Dan Enos' more spread-out passing offense. Winner: Arkansas
In New Orleans
No. 3 Alabama vs. No. 6 Tennessee: The Vols haven't beaten Alabama since 2006, but the Tide will have to settle on a quarterback in this game. I'm going with Jake Coker, who will have his hands full with pass-rusher Derek Barnett and one of the SEC's best secondary duos in Brian Randolph and Cameron Sutton. A Dobbs to Marquez North touchdown late is the difference in Tennessee's upset win. Winner: Tennessee
In Arlington, Texas
No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 5 Arkansas: This could be the best game of the bunch: Auburn's potent uptempo offense vs. Arkansas' downhill, sledgehammer approach. Quarterback play will be essential in this game, and the key matchup to watch is Auburn edge rusher Carl Lawson against Arkansas LT Denver Kirkland, who just made the position switch this spring. Lawson is coming back from an ACL injury, but he's up to speed. Auburn's line will hold Arkansas' rushing attack back -- even with the return of Collins -- but Auburn's ability to force turnovers will be the difference. Winner: Auburn
In Nashville, Tennessee
No. 2 Georgia vs. No. 6 Tennessee: A great SEC East rivalry makes it to the Final Four, and Georgia's questions at quarterback remain. This will be the battle of pass-rushers, with Barnett trying to frustrate the Dawgs' backfield, and Georgia's trio of Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Carter hunting Dobbs. The Dawgs will get to Dobbs a few times, but having four reliable receivers in the fold will push Tennessee's offense. Dobbs works some fourth-quarter magic to pull another upset. Winner: Tennessee
No. 1 Auburn vs. No. 6 Tennessee: Will time run out on our Creamsicle-colored Cinderella? To this point, Dobbs has been exceptional through the Vols' run, but Auburn's defense is getting more comfortable with Muschamp's scheme and teachings. Running the football will be a major advantage for Auburn with that pace and space. That's where the Tigers put it away. With Robinson and Thomas wearing down Tennessee's line, Johnson makes plays with freak receiver Duke Williams, bringing an SEC title back to the Plains. Winner: Auburn
Though the performances of the prospects were at the forefront, there were plenty of recruiting notes and some subtle messages delivered by prospects before the event began.
One of the best pictures of the day was ESPN Junior 300 wide receivers Tavares Chase and Kyle Davis. They could become rivals at the next level with Chase being committed to Clemson and Davis to South Carolina. The kink in the chain is the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Davis being a very "soft" verbal to the Gamecocks with Georgia, Auburn, and Tennessee all being in the mix. Though Chase was decked out in Clemson gear, Davis was very neutral. In this case, a picture is definitely worth a thousand words considering Davis sounded like anything but a solid pledge Sunday.
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