Starting with an open-but-refined race to replace Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M, here are some of those QB battle updates and what they might mean for the 2014 season.
Texas A&M Aggies
Contenders: Kenny Hill, Kyle Allen
In the space of three weeks at A&M recently, Hill, a sophomore, had been suspended for a minor arrest, and veteran Matt Joeckel let his coaches know that he intended to transfer. Hill will eventually be reinstated, but for now that leaves Allen, a freshman, as the only true eligible option to replace Manziel.
Jake Spavital, approaching his first full season as the Aggies’ playcaller, tells me that the message for the two young quarterbacks is very different. And it remains to be seen how each receives that summer counsel and where Allen and Hill land by preseason camp in August.
For Allen, now four months into his time in college, it’s clearly a matter of education. But the staff saw enough mental and physical aptitude to know Allen is a legitimate candidate to start from day one.
“He came pretty far [during the spring],” Spavital told me Monday. “I’m telling you, he’s very mature for being 18 years old. I threw the entire offense at him. . . . We threw him in and tried to see how he learns.”
For Hill -- suspended for allegedly passing out in a flower bed outside a bar in College Station -- it’s a matter of growing up.
“Kenny’s been through it all,” Spavital said. “He’s just got to mature and be a leader. He has the tools to do it, but he has to show to the entire team that he can do it.”
Unlike Allen, Hill does at least have some experience. He played in four games last season, completing 16 of 22 passes for 183 yards and a score. Only one of the games featured an SEC opponent (Vanderbilt), and all of his snaps came in blowouts.
Still, it’s something. And Spavital said Hill has shown strides in terms of comprehension.
“He knows how to operate the whole entire [offense],” he said. “He knows what’s right and wrong. He doesn’t make as many rookie mistakes as Kyle.
“It comes down to a leadership standpoint with Kenny. Is he capable of leading the team?”
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The position battles that started in the spring will continue through summer workouts before resuming in front of coaches in August. Let’s take a look at what happened in a few of those spring battles and what we’ll be watching between now and Aug. 30, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin.
Defensive tackle: The spring was as much a feeling-out process as anything for defensive line coach Brick Haley. He mostly rode two departed veterans last fall while using youngsters Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas in spot duty. LaCouture and Thomas jumped into leading roles during the spring, and Haley also tested Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron (at times) in the middle. Haley has probably established a mental pecking order with the group, but August and the early-season games will certainly play important roles in cementing the coach’s opinions. It will also be worth watching how signees such as Travonte Valentine perform once they arrive on campus, as they might allow Haley to utilize a true rotation in the middle.
Quarterback: Surely you’ve heard by now that the battle between Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris appears to be wide open entering the summer months. Jennings has a slight experience advantage, but Harris was the more effective performer in the spring game. Both players made plenty of mistakes, however. Their offseason preparation in the next few months will be enormously important once August arrives.
Right guard: This is another battle that the coaches said was wide open once the spring concluded. Evan Washington shifted from tackle to guard and seemed to take the leading role in the competition. Fellow senior Fehoko Fanaika and sophomore Ethan Pocic are lurking, however. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see all of them play some scrimmage downs against Wisconsin -- or in Weeks 2 and 3 against Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe -- as new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes weighs his options. Coach Les Miles complimented all three players after the spring game, so it seems that the coaches would be comfortable playing any of the candidates.
Safety: Injuries caused this position to remain as a bit of a mystery during the spring. Jalen Mills remained in a starting role, and Ronald Martin seemed to be faring well in a return from a fractured right foot. He was injured again by the end of the spring, however, joining Corey Thompson (knee surgery) on the sideline by the time the spring game rolled around. Mills and Rickey Jefferson were the top options in the spring game, but the Tigers could use any number of combinations when the season arrives -- especially once highly-rated safety prospect Jamal Adams and the other signees make it to Baton Rouge this summer. Once the Tigers are back to full strength in August, this should make for one of the most intriguing position battles.
Tight end: This will be a fun position to track in the fall. They had plenty of playing time last season, but barely made a blip as receivers. They seem to be confident that they will make a more well-rounded contribution in 2014. Sophomore DeSean Smith and signee Jacory Washington possess intriguing receiver skills, and Dillon Gordon, Travis Dickson and Logan Stokes worked this spring to prove that they are well-rounded players at the position. It’s a big group, but all of them should have roles to fill during the season.
Wide receiver: They were the walking wounded for much of the spring, with Avery Peterson, Kevin Spears, John Diarse and Quantavius Leslie all spending time in non-contact jerseys. That was a tough blow for a group that has a lot to prove after Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone and James Wright all left the roster after last season. Travin Dural -- who had an outstanding spring game with five catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns -- seemed to solidify his spot as the No. 1 receiving option for now. But this will become one of the Tigers’ most interesting position battles in August once a star-studded signing class, led by Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, arrives to challenge the returning wideouts.
We’ve discussed plenty of LSU’s key spring position battles here in the last few weeks and speculated about who might become the starters at those spots. But what about some younger players who haven’t played much or at all? There are several who made an impression during the Tigers’ spring practice and, even if they don’t become starters, we should see them make an impact in the near future.
Here are five of those spring movers:
Maquedius Bain: Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas mostly handled the first-team snaps at defensive tackle this spring, but Bain was among the youngsters who made it seem likely that the Tigers will utilize a deeper rotation in the middle this fall. Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron -- all redshirt freshmen -- sat out last season while veterans Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson played most of the important snaps. We should hear all three players’ names quite a bit in 2014, particularly Bain, who tied with Herron for most tackles (four) among second-team defensive linemen in the spring game.
Brandon Harris: The big question entering spring practice was whether Harris could threaten Anthony Jennings for the starting quarterback job. The big question afterward concerns how quickly he will overtake his sophomore competitor. An early enrollee, Harris is understandably raw and mistake-prone. He’s extremely talented, however, blessed with an outstanding arm and impressive quickness. Harris will become LSU’s starting quarterback and, based on what we saw from Harris and Jennings this spring, it might happen sooner rather than later.
Melvin Jones: Is he going to play tailback at LSU? No. But a shortage of scholarship tailbacks this spring gave Jones a chance to learn a bit more about how to function in the running game. The sophomore switched from linebacker to fullback last season and even caught a touchdown pass against Furman. He has yet to record a carry in a game yet, however, so the opportunity to carry the ball some during the spring will be helpful when he splits time with senior Connor Neighbors at fullback this fall. Jones led the backup offense with 38 rushing yards on 12 carries in the spring game.
DeSean Smith: After catching just one pass last season (for 14 yards against UAB), Smith seems primed to play a much larger role in 2014. The sophomore tight end possesses valuable pass-catching skills and is nimble enough to split out wide as a receiver. If he proves himself as a capable blocker, Smith’s three catches for 45 yards in the spring game -- including a 19-yard touchdown catch from Harris -- should be only the tip of the iceberg in terms of his offensive production.
Teams that turn it over consistently don't win very often, and teams that force turnovers typically find ways to win.
Looking back at the SEC in the last three seasons, it's not surprising that Alabama and LSU lead the way in turnover margin. The Tigers are plus-36 and the Crimson Tide are plus-24 during that span. They've combined to win two of the last three SEC titles and played each other for the national championship in 2011.
Alabama has been especially good at not turning the ball over. The Crimson Tide haven’t turned it over 20 or more times in a season since 2007, Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa. Alabama and LSU are the only teams in the league that haven’t had a 20-turnover season at least once over the last three years. During that three-year span, Alabama has turned it over just 44 times.
By contrast, Ole Miss has turned it over 75 times during the last three seasons, which is the most in the league. Arkansas is right behind the Rebels with 74 turnovers, and the Hogs have forced the fewest turnovers in the SEC since 2011 (47). Ole Miss and Texas A&M are the only SEC teams to turn it over more than 20 times in each of the last three seasons, although Texas A&M was a member of the Big 12 in 2011.
In the last three seasons, South Carolina's defense has led the way when it comes to creating turnovers. The Gamecocks have forced 86 turnovers. LSU is second with 82. The Gamecocks have intercepted an SEC-high 52 passes in the last three seasons. Vanderbilt is second with 48 picks during that span.
Ole Miss has thrown the most interceptions (44) in the last three seasons, just one more than Tennessee (43). Alabama has thrown the fewest picks (18).
Below is the turnover margin for all 14 SEC schools in the last three seasons. Missouri and Texas A&M were in the Big 12 in 2011.
1. LSU: 82 gained, 46 lost -- plus-36
2. Alabama: 68 gained, 44 lost -- plus-24
3. Mississippi State: 78 gained, 55 lost -- plus-23
4. South Carolina: 86 gained, 64 lost -- plus-22
5. Missouri: 77 gained, 57 lost -- plus-20
6. Georgia: 77 gained, 66 lost -- plus-11
7. Vanderbilt: 77 gained, 69 lost -- plus-8
8. Florida: 62 gained, 61 lost -- plus-1
9. Kentucky: 52 gained, 55 lost -- minus-3
10. Tennessee: 60 gained, 64 lost -- minus-4
11. Ole Miss: 67 gained, 75 lost -- minus-8
12. Auburn: 55 gained, 65 lost -- minus-10
13. Texas A&M: 53 gained, 66 lost -- minus-13
14. Arkansas: 47 gained, 74 lost -- minus-27
BATON ROUGE, La. -- If LSU’s tight ends do in fact play an increased role as receivers this season, DeSean Smith is sure to play a vital role in the added workload.
He’ll have plenty of company from a deep group of veterans at his position, but a newcomer with a similar skillset, freshman Jacory Washington, might become Smith’s closest competition.
To learn why, take a look at snippets from their ESPN prospect evaluations:
On Smith, whom ESPN rated as the No. 141 overall prospect and No. 5 “H” tight end in the 2013 recruiting class: “Smith is a physically good-looking prospect. He is essentially a big wide receiver at the high school level and is at his best when he can play flexed out. ... What Smith does well, he can do really well, but he needs to keep developing to become a more well-rounded and versatile player at the position. At this stage, he has the tools to make some plays in the passing game and looks best suited for more of a spread attack.”
Sounds fairly similar, right?
Smith anticipates that being the case once the freshman arrives with most of his fellow signees this summer.
“Me and Jacory, I think we’re pretty much the same type of tight end,” Smith said. “He did the same kinds of things that I did in high school and when he gets here, he’s probably going to have to pack on a couple more pounds -- which I had to do the same thing -- and stay lean because he still needs to be able to run and keep his speed. I can’t wait until he gets here so I can teach him everything that the veterans taught me.”
Smith actually packed on too much weight before he arrived on campus last summer. Listed at 225 pounds as a prospect, Smith said he weighed 255 when he reached Baton Rouge -- and he said the added weight affected his mobility.
“I was able to move, but not as good as usual,” Smith said. “But working with Coach [Tommy] Moffitt and my strength coach, I’m definitely much more lean than I’ve ever been in my life. I feel great, I’m eating right and just need to stay around 240. That’s where they want me, so I’m staying there.”
While Smith’s story is a cautionary tale on how he can’t overdo it, Washington definitely needs to add to the 215 pounds that LSU listed as his weight on signing day. LSU regularly has one or two tight ends on the field, but they must be able to function as blockers as well as receivers, so some extra bulk would come in handy.
Both players seem to have the receiving part down pat, however.
“I think I can be a big-time threat,” Smith said after catching three passes for 45 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown pass from Brandon Harris, in LSU’s spring game. “Being 6-5 over certain linebackers and going up for everything, I can make those big-time plays. And I just have to run crisp routes, have to give them a little something off the ball sometimes, and I think I’m able to do that.”
LSU’s coaches have certainly identified that potential from the two prospects, as Smith’s working at a slot receiver position at points during the spring seems to indicate. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s scheme has historically utilized tight ends in such a capacity, so perhaps Smith and Washington will continue that tradition.
“We’ve used them in the past and I think that any time that you have a position that is used to block and he can also receive the ball, it makes a tremendous difference in your attack,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “And it’s another quality receiver. I think both DeSean Smith and Jacory Washington will be guys that we’ll use in the fall.”
Jalen Whitlow is leaving Kentucky, and Matt Joeckel is leaving Texas A&M. Now, the reality might be that neither one of those guys was going to win the job. But in both cases, the Wildcats and Aggies are going to put a quarterback on the field in the fall who has very little experience.
They're hardly the only ones in that boat in the SEC.
Only three teams in the league are bringing back an established quarterback who started all or most of the season a year ago. Auburn returns Nick Marshall, while Dak Prescott is back at Mississippi State and Bo Wallace at Ole Miss. Fifth-year senior Dylan Thompson returns at South Carolina, but most of his work to this point has been coming off the bench in relief, although he did have the memorable performance against Clemson two years ago in a start when Connor Shaw was injured and couldn't play.
The bottom line: There aren't a ton of rock-solid quarterback situations in the SEC as we exit the spring.
Your homework assignment (the fans) is telling us who has the most precarious quarterback situation heading into the 2014 season. So go vote in our SportsNation poll, and we'll unveil the results in the next few days.
Obviously, the landscape can change pretty dramatically. Did anybody really know what Texas A&M had at quarterback with Johnny Manziel entering the 2012 season?
The five schools we've come up with as candidates all have some major question marks.
At Kentucky, sophomore Patrick Towles and true freshman Drew Barker are now battling it out. And at Texas A&M, it's down to a redshirt freshman (Kenny Hill) and a true freshman (Kyle Allen). Hill has already been in trouble this offseason, too.
Brandon Allen is the guy at Arkansas, but struggled through an injury-marred season a year ago. The Hogs finished last in the SEC in passing offense.
True freshman Brandon Harris outplayed sophomore Anthony Jennings in LSU's spring game, so this summer and the preseason should be quite interesting on the Bayou.
And at Alabama, the Crimson Tide's starter for the 2014 season might well be attending classes at another school. Jacob Coker is transferring from Florida State and won't be on Alabama's campus until he graduates from FSU in May. Fifth-year senior Blake Sims has taken the lead this spring in the Tide's quarterback derby as he adjusts to Lane Kiffin's pro-style offense, but will have to hold off Coker. Whoever wins the job at Alabama will have very little, if any, meaningful game experience.
DESOTO, Texas -- With all the multiple camps, combines and special events happening each spring, DaMarkus Lodge chooses not to be a regular on the circuit.
It’s not that Lodge is against them, or that he thinks he’s above them. The ESPN 300 receiver has simply prioritized his life as a student-athlete. The camp circuit happens to be a middle-of-the-pack priority.
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- You might wonder how much Colby Delahoussaye can improve upon the results from his freshman season. He missed only one field goal and one extra point, after all -- but that was his focus during LSU’s spring practice.
“I don’t want to say [I was seeking] perfection because nobody’s perfect, but just to hit the ball as well as I can and after each kick -- whether it’s a perfect kick or something’s wrong with it -- I just want to know what did I do wrong each kick without even looking at tape,” Delahoussaye said. “I’m going to look at tape, but I just want to know what did I do wrong at that instance. I want my body to be so conformed to doing the right thing that it knows whenever it does the wrong thing.”
“I’ve been kicking the best I’ve been kicking in probably all of my life,” said Delahoussaye, who booted six PATs and did not kick a field goal in the Tigers’ spring game.
The question facing Delahoussaye is not whether he will be the Tigers’ 2014 place-kicker -- that seems to be highly likely -- but whether he will handle other kicking duties. For instance, coach Les Miles recently expressed a preference that another kicker replace James Hairston as the kickoff specialist to reduce Delahoussaye’s workload.
A lifelong LSU fan, Delahoussaye said he also would like to be the kickoff man but will be happy to specialize only in the kicks that result in points.
“I really enjoy kicking field goals. I’ve never complained about wanting to do more. Whenever I’m kicking field goals for LSU, I’m never going to complain about that.”
Besides, the Tigers have some other options who could keep them from relying on the sophomore too heavily.
“There’s a young man named [Cameron] Gamble coming in who has a pretty good leg,” Miles said. “We’ll also look at some other guys we have on the team at kicker that have ability. Trent Domingue would be that guy.”
Domingue was that guy this spring, and he also rotated with 2013 starter Jamie Keehn, who averaged 41.0 yards per punt last fall, as the first-team punter. Domingue punted eight times in the spring game and averaged 39.9 yards per attempt, and Keehn averaged 41.5 yards on four kicks.
“This is probably the biggest opportunity I’ve had, but I’m just going to keep working hard and not let it pass me up,” said walk-on Domingue, who has yet to appear in a college game.
Even if Keehn holds onto the punter job, there will still be plenty of turnover on the Tigers’ special teams units this fall under first-year coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto. Aside from the kickoff job, someone must replace Odell Beckham as the return man on kickoffs and punts.
Miles said some members of the Tigers’ star-studded 2014 recruiting class might be able to step into that role -- one that requires steady hands and breakaway speed, which are always in full supply on LSU’s roster.
“A number of guys can catch it. I think [tailback Terrence] Magee may very well be one of those guys,” Miles said. “I think there’s a likelihood that we’ll have some of those fast guys in that spot, as well. I think there’s some guys that will show up here in June that may also have an opportunity to do some return damage.”
The first game between the teams will take place Sept. 26, 2015, at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y. LSU will host the second game on Sept. 9, 2017.
"We are thrilled to enter into this home-and-home agreement with a premier program like LSU," Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross said in a statement. "Student-athletes come to Syracuse to play on the biggest stage possible, and this gives our coaches and young men the chance to battle one of the standard-bearers of the SEC on our home turf.
"It is a complicated process to arrange games of this magnitude, and I couldn't be happier for our fans and for all who will be involved in this upcoming series."
The 2015 game will be the first regular-season contest between the schools. They have met twice in bowls -- Syracuse won the 1989 Hall of Fame and LSU won the 1965 Sugar.
The Tigers will face the Orange at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., on Sept. 26, 2015, during the fourth week of the season. Syracuse will make the return trip to Tiger Stadium on Sept. 9, 2017.
"This is another attractive nonconference series that our fans will enjoy and our football program will benefit from," LSU athletic director Joe Alleva said, according to the school's website. "To be able to bring LSU football to the northeast part of the country for a football game will be a unique experience and then to have Syracuse return the trip to Tiger Stadium in 2017 will be a nice addition to our home schedule."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- A year ago at this time, not only was Logan Stokes preparing for his rookie season in SEC football, he was also a virtual rookie at his position, tight end.
And yet the junior college transfer played in every game and even started three in LSU’s tight end-heavy offense last fall.
Stokes had other options when he picked the Tigers more than a year ago, but he knew he’d have a chance to play immediately despite his relative youth at the position. There were only a couple of tight ends on campus when he arrived last January, and all of them -- plus freshman DeSean Smith -- played once the season rolled around.
Stokes played a role as a blocker but never dented the stat sheet with a reception. He made improving as a receiver one of his priorities during spring practice. In fact, Stokes said all of the tight ends worked to diversify their games so they could fill all of the roles required of a well-rounded tight end.
“Obviously DeSean’s more of a deep threat than I am. I’ll just face the facts there,” Stokes joked of Smith, who is enough like a receiver that the Tigers might flex him out into a slot receiver position at times. “I mean, I can get out on the routes and I can do what they ask me to do in the route game and DeSean is getting to where he can do what they want him to do in the blocking. Now when we play teams and we’re in the game, they can’t be like, ‘Oh, they’re running the ball’ or ‘Oh, they’re throwing the ball.’
“Now we can kind of mix it up on people and they won’t know what’s going on. I feel like this year we’ve all been catching balls in the scrimmages and we’ve all been active in all aspects of the game.”
All of them were active in the passing attack during the Tigers’ spring game. Smith caught three passes for 45 yards, including a 19-yard touchdown from Brandon Harris. Dillon Gordon caught two balls for 32 yards and Travis Dickson one for 8. Stokes hardly looked like a guy with limited receiving skills when he went over the middle to make a pretty, 26-yard grab from Anthony Jennings in the second quarter.
“The tight ends you saw involved more [in the spring game] than you’ve seen. I thought our tight ends did an outstanding job,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said after the game. “I thought Dillon Gordon did a good job, DeSean Smith really an outstanding spring, Logan Stokes, Travis Dickson, that group. So they’re doing some things today that we enjoyed and I thought our guys did well.”
The Tigers’ tight ends echo Cameron’s optimism and expect their increased involvement to be a trend that lasts beyond the spring, thanks in no small part to the progress they made during the 15 spring workouts.
“I think we’ve had a great spring,” Stokes said. “Everyone’s gotten better at their weaknesses. DeSean’s improved a lot on his blocking, I’ve improved a lot on my receiving game – me and Dillon both. Me and Dillon are both still strong blockers. Travis is good at both. So right now, we’re all working on our weaknesses and we’ve all made improvements.”
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says the dismissal of wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham was about more than football.
- Success runs in the family for Mizzou linebacker Michael Scherer.
- Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray says he's "ready to go" as he prepares for Georgia's pro day.
- Auburn is having "ups and downs" at the H-back position this spring.
- Former LSU linebacker Tahj Jones' condition improves after he was shot in the abdomen last Friday.
- LSU quarterback Brandon Harris will head to California in May to train with former LSU quarterback Craig Nall and quarterback guru George Whitfield.
- Kentucky's defensive line gets some positive feedback.
- Florida safety Marcell Harris left his mark on the Gators this spring.
- Here are five young Texas A&M players who could make an impact for the Aggies in 2014.
- "Freaky talented" Tennessee wide receivers end spring on a high note.
- After early-spring criticism, Alabama coach Nick Saban assesses his defensive line entering the final week of spring practice.
BATON ROUGE, La. – Danielle Hunter had a fine first season as a starter, but he had a problem. Mentally, the then-sophomore couldn’t get out of his own way.
“I was thinking too much,” Hunter said. “I know you could watch games and you could see me just, like, I’d stutter myself out of sacks and all that. I was thinking too much last year. I need to just let go and just play.”
But Hunter finished the season with just three sacks (tied for second on the team), eight tackles for a loss (second) and five quarterback hurries (second). The Tigers’ total of 27 sacks was the program’s fewest since 2009.
That’s why he identified improving as a pass rusher as one of his top goals during spring practice.
“All of us, we’ve got to do better than last year because last year we didn’t do as well as we thought we were going to do,” Hunter said.
If Hunter’s spring was any indication, expect rapid improvement this fall. For one thing, Hunter is no longer out-thinking himself.
“Coach Brick [Haley] has been telling me I’m starting to do that,” he said. “The young guys are starting to do that.”
Hunter recorded sacks on back-to-back plays in a standout effort during the Tigers’ spring game and was credited with two more quarterback hurries.
He made sure to share the credit with defensive tackle Quentin Thomas afterward for occupying blockers, but it was Hunter who blew past the offensive tackle to record the two sacks.
And as his confidence continues to build -- and as he learns to “just let go and play,” as he put it -- the 6-foot-6 junior might emerge as one of the SEC’s better pass rushers in 2014.
“I think he’s a very talented guy,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think he has range and speed and I think the more snaps he gets, the more significant he’ll be and the more impact that he’ll give us in the fall. I think he’ll start fast and I think he’ll finish fast.”
No. 2 CB Sheffield Talks Recruiting
TBD Temple Vanderbilt TBD Texas A&M South Carolina 8:00 PM ET Boise State Ole Miss
TBD Arkansas Auburn TBD Idaho Florida TBD Clemson Georgia TBD Tennessee-Martin Kentucky TBD South Dakota State Missouri TBD Southern Miss Mississippi State 3:30 PM ET West Virginia Alabama 9:00 PM ET LSU Wisconsin