There is less than a week until national signing day and while the No. 1-ranked player in the country, Byron Cowart, is not visiting anywhere and another five-star prospect Martez Ivey is taking a cruise this weekend, there will be several other ESPN 300 prospects taking visits to SEC schools on Saturday and Sunday. Here’s a closer look at some of the top expected visitors from around the SEC.
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Perhaps no position group at LSU progressed more over the course of the 2014 season than the defensive line.
That group was a problem early in the season when opponents like Mississippi State and Auburn rolled up two of the biggest yardage totals ever accumulated against the Tigers in the Les Miles era. But by the time the season ended, the line was a strength.
The biggest question facing the group in 2015 will be whether the Tigers' front can do a better job pressuring the quarterback, particularly without Hunter and Jermauria Rasco. The Tigers did not record many sacks -- they had just 19, second-to-last in the SEC -- even with those two ends, but now it might fall on younger players like Tashawn Bower, Sione Teuhema and Deondre Clark to make quarterbacks sweat.
"It would be great to get all the sacks, but we definitely got a lot of QB pressures and a lot of quarterback hits and things of that nature," Bower said. "So we're definitely happy with where we're at, but we're not content."
New position coach Ed Orgeron also has work to do in developing depth. Predecessor Brick Haley got a lot out of interior linemen Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux, but the Tigers have a number of heavily recruited tackles who struggled to make much of a difference.
Entering their redshirt sophomore seasons, tackles Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore could help Orgeron build better depth, as could redshirt freshmen Travonte Valentine and Trey Lealaimatafao.
The two redshirt freshmen might be able to make an immediate impact, in fact.
"Trey Valentine, he's a true run-stopper," Rasco said. "He's got some juice in him in the pass rush. You'll see him in a game and you won't be expecting him to be able to move as good as he moves. And also with Trey Lay, for a guy to be so little, he's real powerful and he brings a lot to the table. Those are going to be the secret weapons for next year as long as they do what they have to do on and off the field."
It will be a huge benefit that LaCouture and Godchaux both return after locking down starting jobs last fall. That should help LSU's front seven remain strong against the run while Orgeron nails down the ends he can rely on to generate a better pass rush.
Some of those players might not even be on the roster yet. LSU continues to pursue several top-tier end prospects, some of whom would be capable of providing an immediate lift should they sign with the Tigers on Feb. 4.
"Those guys, I don't see no letdown," Rasco said during bowl practice. "The only thing that'll happen, I don't know who they're bringing in, but they'd better get with the program early if they want to play. That's the only thing I can say."
Returning players: DT Davon Godchaux (42 tackles, 1.5 TFL), DT Christian LaCouture (40 tackles, 4 TFL, 2.5 sacks), DE Tashawn Bower (16 tackles, 2.5 TFL), DT Quentin Thomas (9 tackles, 0.5 TFL), DE Deondre Clark (9 tackles, 0.5 TFL), DE Sione Teuhema (7 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks), DT Maquedius Bain (6 tackles), DT Greg Gilmore (4 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks), DE Lewis Neal (3 tackles, 1.5 TFL), DT Mickey Johnson (3 tackles), DT Frank Herron (3 tackles), DE M.J. Patterson (1 tackle), DT Trey Lealaimatafao (redshirted), DT Travonte Valentine (redshirted).
Departed players: DE Danielle Hunter (73 tackles, 13 TFL, 1.5 sacks), DE Jermauria Rasco (71 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 4 sacks), DE Justin Maclin (3 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks).
Committed prospects: Isaiah Washington (No. 72 DE, three stars)
Outlook: Orgeron will need to fill holes at defensive end after Rasco and Hunter left -- a position battle that should rank among the most intriguing for LSU in the spring and preseason. The good news is that tackles LaCouture and Godchaux developed into solid starters, which should help the line be more stout against the run than it was early last season. If Orgeron can help the Tigers' front produce more sacks and negative-yardage plays, 2015 should be a solid season for the line.
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Patrick Peterson, No. 8 in 2008 class
Coming out of Blanche Ely High in South Florida, the nation's top cornerback prospect went by the name Patrick Johnson. Originally a Miami (Fla.) commit, he opened up his recruitment during his senior year and ended up coming down to Florida, Florida State and LSU with the Tigers winning out. Johnson was a member of a 2008 LSU class that included Deangelo Benton, Jordan Jefferson and others.
Peterson appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman, including four starts to end the season. He finished his freshman campaign with 41 tackles and one interception.
As a sophomore in 2009, Peterson was awarded All-SEC second-team honors after starting 13 games and totaling 43 tackles and two INTs. He was also tabbed as a second-team All-American by the Sporting News following the season.
Peterson’s junior season would be his best. Not only did Peterson tally 33 tackles and four INTs in 11 games, but he also totaled 1,106 yards and two punt return touchdowns. He took home a number of awards following the season, including the Thorpe Award, Bednarik Award, first-team All-American, All-SEC first-team and SEC special teams player of the year.
Peterson entered the 2011 NFL draft following his junior season. He was selected No. 5 overall by the Arizona Cardinals, and has been selected to the Pro Bowl each of his four seasons in the league.
Honorable mention: Taylor Mays, No. 8 in 2006 class. Mays chose USC out of O’Dea High in Seattle, and lived up to his billing as an elite athlete at the safety position. After a standout career for the Trojans, he was selected in the second round (No. 49 overall) by the San Francisco 49ers.
La'el Collins sat down to review LSU practice film late last season and eventually noticed something familiar. When his backup K.J. Malone got reps at left tackle, he was using many of Collins' blocking techniques.
"He's going to be a great player. He's learned a lot," said Collins, who won the SEC's Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference's top blocker in 2014. "I watch film on him in practice and I see some of the stuff on his tape, I can tell that he's been watching my film. I asked him, 'Karl, have you been watching my film? Where'd you get that from?' [And he said], 'Yeah, I watched it.'
Collins leaves an enormous void at left tackle, but he is confident that LSU's offensive line will remain strong thanks to youngsters like Malone and Andy Dodd. And it doesn't hurt that right tackle Jerald Hawkins and left guard Vadal Alexander decided against entering the NFL draft, giving LSU three returning starters along with center/guard Ethan Pocic.
'Y'all haven't gotten a chance to see the young guys, really, at all, and y'all will be pretty shocked at how athletic and strong and talented the guys are coming up on the offensive line, from Garrett Brumfield to Josh Boutte, K.J. Malone," Alexander said.
Alexander started at right tackle as a freshman before shifting to left guard for 2013 and 2014. After announcing he would return for his senior season, he said he expected to move back to tackle this fall -- although he didn't know which side he or Hawkins might play. He predicted that rising junior Pocic and other young players would fill in the interior spots.
As for Hawkins, he definitely has earning the starting job at left tackle on his mind.
"I definitely see it as my objective," Hawkins said. "Any lineman, when we play as tackles, always wants to play left tackle."
A possibility at one of the interior spots is Dodd at center. Dodd said he spent 95 percent of his time at the position during practice last season and the other 5 percent at guard, although he played only center during games.
Dodd said knowledge of the playbook is one of the most important factors at center – a lesson that his time behind departed starter Elliott Porter reinforced.
"You have to be confident. You've got to know your stuff," Dodd said. "You just have to be able to think during the game. Like whenever something's not exactly how it is in practice, you have to be able to adjust to it. It's not really hard. You just have to focus."
Pocic is capable of playing any position on the line, which will give second-year position coach Jeff Grimes plenty of flexibility. With Boutte, Malone, Brumfield -- ESPN's No. 1 guard prospect in 2014, who redshirted last season -- Jevonte Domond, Will Clapp and Jonah Austin all back, Grimes will also have multiple lineup options.
"It's going to be a lot of room for learning," Malone said. "We're going to be really young because we're losing a lot of veterans, maybe. La'el, he's going to be a great loss to the O-line. But I think learning from all the veterans right now, I think we'll be ready for it."
Entering his third season as a starter, Hawkins agrees with Malone's assessment. He said he has been impressed by the potential he sees from the group of players who will begin fighting to grab starting spots this spring.
"All our young guys -- from Garrett Brumfield to K.J. Malone, William Clapp, especially Andy Dodd -- they're just coming up like they want it," Hawkins said during bowl practice. "I can see it in their eyes like they really want it. They want to play, and you can tell in practice. They're going after it each and every day."
Returning players: Starters: LG Vadal Alexander, RT Jerald Hawkins, C/RG Ethan Pocic. Reserves: OG Jonah Austin, OG Garrett Brumfield, OL Josh Boutte, C/OG Andy Dodd, OT K.J. Malone, OL Will Clapp, OT Jevonte Domond.
Departed players: Starters: LT La'el Collins, C Elliott Porter. Reserves: RG Fehoko Fanaika, OL Evan Washington.
Committed prospects: Maea Teuhema (No. 2 OG, No. 71 overall on ESPN 300, four stars), Adrian Magee (No. 41 OT, four stars), George Brown Jr. (No. 67 OT, three stars).
Outlook: LSU got welcome news in mid-January when Alexander and Hawkins announced they would return next fall, giving the Tigers three returning starters. No doubt, it hurts losing star left tackle Collins, but the Tigers have some promising youngsters waiting for their shot. It will be interesting to see where Pocic lands during spring practice -- either guard or center, most likely -- and which players get the first shot at the other two starting jobs on the interior line, assuming Alexander and Hawkins occupy the tackle spots. The ground should remain a strength for LSU in 2015.
2. One of the most compelling quarterback situations to watch this offseason and heading into next season is at LSU. Anthony Jennings started 12 of 13 games this season while Brandon Harris started just one while appearing in eight games. Harris was a highly touted recruit who arrived in Baton Rouge with much anticipation but it was Jennings who maintained a grip on the starting job after Harris' lone start in a loss to Auburn. Harris' high school coach at Parkway High in Bossier City, Louisiana, said he tried to talk Harris into transferring to a junior college for a season but that Harris is "all in" for staying and wants to "compete." It'll be interesting to see what results.
Around the SEC
- Plenty of fresh faces are likely to emerge as starting quarterbacks in the SEC in 2015. AL.com ranks the projected starters.
- A look at Georgia's recruiting class heading into the final week before national signing day.
- South Carolina running back Mike Davis, one of the top backs in the SEC in the last two seasons, received an invitation to the NFL scouting combine.
- Another combine invitee is Alabama quarterback Blake Sims, who will have a chance to prove whether he has a future as an NFL quarterback.
But LSU fans are not accustomed to seeing the Tigers finish with an 8-5 record, and that’s exactly what they got when Les Miles' team lost three of its last four games. Let’s recap:
Offense: D. There were times where the running game was clicking, the offensive line was shoving around opponents and LSU’s offense looked decent. But on those days where Leonard Fournette & Co. couldn’t carry the Tigers, Cam Cameron’s offense could be truly unpleasant to watch. Anthony Jennings had a rocky first season as the starting quarterback and the passing game was the nation’s worst. Vanderbilt (17.2 points per game) was the only SEC team to average fewer points per game than LSU’s 27.6.
Defense: B. It’s tempting to award LSU a better grade here because of the progress it made over the course of the season. After all, the Tigers led the SEC and ranked ninth nationally in total defense by allowing 316.8 yards per game. But let’s remember, the group also put together two of the worst defensive outings in the Miles era – they surrendered 570 yards in a loss to Mississippi State and 560 in a blowout loss to Auburn – and that drags down the overall grade.
Special teams: C. This grade was higher for most of the season, but a late-season downturn at place-kicker hurt the Tigers’ score. There was a time where Colby Delahoussaye was nearly perfect as a field-goal kicker, but he missed three of his last four field goals and eventually gave way to Trent Domingue. Punter Jamie Keehn had a solid season (44.9 yards per punt), but the Tigers struggled in punt coverage at times. Overall, it was an OK season on special teams. Not great, not awful.
Coaching: C-minus. LSU matched its worst record in Miles’ decade as the Tigers’ coach, so the season overall was a disappointment. To their credit, however, LSU made obvious progress over the course of the season. The Tigers easily could have been a 10-win team had they not allowed possible victories to slip away in the closing minutes against Alabama and Notre Dame. Instead, a young team struggled mightily at times and finished the season with a thud.
Overall: C. The season was a disappointment considering the lofty standard that Miles has set at LSU, but there are signs of potential here. The defensive line improved greatly throughout the season and the defense wound up becoming the strength of the team. Quarterback play was largely atrocious, and the passing game in general struggled throughout. We can’t give an eight-win team a grade any higher than a C, but this looks like a group that could fare better in the fall after learning on the job in 2014.
Here's a look at how programs in the SEC are faring on the recruiting trail heading into national signing day on Feb. 4.
ESPN 300 commitments: 19
Who they have: The Crimson Tide are working on a four-peat atop the class rankings, and they continue to build a big lead with 20 ESPN 300 prospects, headlined by five-star CB Kendall Sheffield. Calvin Ridley, the No. 1- ranked receiver in the ESPN 300, leads an offensive group that includes five-star quarterback Blake Barnett and four-stars such as running back Damien Harris, tight end Hale Hentges, guards Lester Cotton, Brandon Kennedy and Richie Petitbon, and center Dallas Warmack. The first tackle in the class committed Dec. 14 when three-star Matt Womack flipped from LSU. Alabama also snagged running back DeSherrius Flowers. Da'Ron Payne is a massive defensive tackle in the defensive class, which includes linebackers Adonis Thomas, Mekhi Brown and Joshua McMillon. In the secondary, Deionte Thompson and Shawn Burgess-Becker join No. 27 overall Minkah Fitzpatrick.
Who they want: With 27 commitments already, Alabama's class is almost full. There are, however, a few remaining targets. Former Arkansas wide receiver commit K.J. Hill took an official visit to Alabama recently, and Holton Hill will take a visit this upcoming weekend. Former commit Daylon Charlot is still in play, but the Crimson Tide will have to battle with LSU for his services.
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Here are our favorite plays of the year:
Hail MarysBahamas Bowl miracle
Central Michigan trailed by 35 points entering the fourth quarter. It trailed by seven when it pulled off a 75-yard, three-lateral Hail Mary as the clock struck :00. The Chippewas failed on the two-point conversion, but their comeback and miracle finish was the craziest play of bowl season.
After blowing a 26-9 fourth-quarter lead, it looked as if Central Florida was done. But East Carolina mismanaged the clock -- taking three knees and a sack -- before giving the ball back to the Knights with 10 seconds left. One 51-yard score later, George O'Leary's crew was celebrating a share of a conference championship.
Arizona scored an absurd 36 points in the fourth quarter, capped by Anu Solomon hitting Austin Hill in the end zone on a 47-yard touchdown that gave the Wildcats a 49-45 win.
Big-guy touchdownsCome to Arkansas, where linemen throw TDs
Who said Bret Bielema offenses were old school? Arkansas' coach loves his linemen, and here he lets 350-pound guard Sebastian Tretola throw for a score in a 45-17 win over UAB.
Tretola's pass was nice, but how about seeing a 400-pounder go up the seam for an 18-yard score in a New Year's Six bowl game? That's what Art Briles and Baylor dreamed up, as Laquon McGowan scored to give Baylor a 20-point lead before Michigan State stormed back to win 42-41.
Boise goes back to the future
Everyone remembers Boise State's introduction to a national college football audience, upsetting Oklahoma with the Statue of Liberty in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl. Well, the Broncos brought it back for this year's game, as Jay Ajayi scored from 16 yards out in a 38-30 Boise win.
Fainting Goat gets its own category
Arkansas State can lay claim to the best worst fake punt ever. In theory, one player falls down, draws the attention of the defense and the Red Wolves get a first down. In reality, he got clobbered and Arkansas State's pass was intercepted. But that only made us love it more.
So does this Nebraska false start
Poor Jake Cotton. The Nebraska lineman was just trying to hold his stance, but once all 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds of him starting going backward, there was no turning back.
Year of the freshman RBLeonard Fournette runs over Texas A&M
It was an up-and-down year for the heavily hyped Fournette, but he certainly showed signs of why such big things were expected out of him. Just ask Howard Matthews, who got bowled over on Fournette's way to the end zone in LSU's 23-17 win.
Florida State had fallen behind again. This time, it was 23-10 to rival Miami. But Cook saved the day, with 44- and 26-yard scores to guide the Seminoles to a 30-26 victory.
Freeman could be a game-changer for the Ducks, the kind of every-down power back the team hasn't had in the past. And he can throw it too, as he proved with this touchdown toss to Marcus Mariota against Arizona.
Oklahoma's year certainly ended poorly, but the Sooners have hope for the future following the emergence of Perine. He set the single-game rushing record with 427 yards (and five scores) in a win over Kansas. This 64-yard TD scamper jump-started a comeback win for Oklahoma.
No Todd Gurley? No problem for the Bulldogs, who saw Nick Chubb announce himself as perhaps the best of all the freshman runners with a dominant 266-yard performance against a tough Louisville run defense. It was the most rushing yards by a Georgia back in a bowl and also a Belk Bowl mark.
More top playsNebraska's behind-the-back catch
It was all the way back in August, but this held up as one of the best plays of the year. Wide receiver Jordan Westerkamp went behind the back to grab a pass during a 55-7 Cornhuskers win over Florida Atlantic.
A running back on Joey Bosa? Yeah, that's not going to end well. As dominant as Ohio State was down the stretch, it wouldn't have happened had the Buckeyes not taken care of Penn State. Bosa made sure they finally did, with a 31-24 double-overtime win.
Of all the plays on this list, this is the most important. Trailing Alabama 21-13 in the final seconds of the first half, Evan Spencer took a handoff on a reverse and somehow found Michael Thomas in the corner of the end zone for a touchdown. The lesson? Even Ohio State's receivers are great quarterbacks.
Melvin Gordon's stay atop the record book for single-game rushing yards may have lasted only a week, but that does nothing to diminish his magical performance against Nebraska, when he ran for 408 yards and four touchdowns in a 59-24 rout of the Cornhuskers.
Minnesota may have lost its bowl game, but the Golden Gophers still had the highlight of the game, as tight end Maxx Williams hurdled two defenders en route to a 54-yard touchdown. So it's probably no surprise that Williams declared for the NFL draft after this game.
You can't do much more than a 99-yard touchdown return, and that's exactly what Shaq Thompson did for Washington to kick off the scoring in a 31-7 win over Cal.
Sure, we could discuss the wide receivers or the pass rush off the edge, but if the Tigers are to contend in the SEC West, they have to perform better at quarterback.
Position to improve: Quarterback
Why it was a problem: LSU has had some mediocre seasons in the passing game under Les Miles, but 2014 was the low-water mark. The Tigers had the worst passing offense in the SEC (162.9 yards per game) and ranked 114th nationally. There were times when they struggled to complete even simple passes that should have kept drives alive, but instead resulted in punts. For the most part, if a defense was able to slow down the Tigers’ running game, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris were completely unable to move the chains with completions. The blame largely falls on Jennings’ shoulders, as he started 12 games but passed for at least 200 yards just once (in the opener against Wisconsin) and completed more than 50 percent of his passes in just four games. Harris, a true freshman last season, received far less playing time – and he gave a couple of promising early performances – but there were also times when it looked like he had no idea what he was doing on the field.
How it can be fixed: By this point, it seems as though we know what Jennings can do. He might be able to progress if he gets a second season as a starter, but his strength at quarterback seems to be in his leadership and rapport with his teammates, not his skills. Granted, he was largely able to avoid catastrophic errors – he threw only seven interceptions – but Jennings was not accurate or aggressive enough as a passer. LSU’s offense would likely be more dangerous with Harris under center, as he clearly possesses more electric skills. The question is whether he can put it all together and win the job. It appeared as though he might do that after back-to-back strong efforts against Mississippi State and New Mexico State, but Harris’ disastrous start in a 41-7 loss at Auburn put an end to his playing in any important situations. This will be a huge spring for both players, as Miles has said the starting job is open again.
Early 2015 outlook: There has been offseason buzz about LSU accepting a quarterback transfer from a high-profile program – and we can’t rule out that possibility with any certainty – but for now it appears that the starter will be either Jennings or Harris again. With Leonard Fournette in the backfield, it seems reasonable to expect LSU to remain a run-first offense, but it has to do a better job in the passing game to become a championship contender. There were times last fall when LSU’s offense was completely awful, and Jennings’ shortcomings as a passer were the biggest reason why the problem existed. It will be a major issue for LSU if one of two things doesn’t happen: one, Jennings wins the job again and plays at a much higher level; or two, Harris proves he has a grasp of the offense, claims the starting job and allows Cam Cameron to open up the playbook. Either of those outcomes would signal progress. The status quo will not be good enough.
Although he won't be around to make a difference in the fall, Logan Stokes sees great potential from his former position mates at LSU.
Tight end was one of the deepest positions on the team last season, and even without Stokes and fellow 2014 senior Travis Dickson, it should remain a valuable group this season.
"I expect nothing but the absolute best from those guys," said Stokes, whose lone reception at LSU went for the game-winning touchdown last season against Ole Miss.
Stokes' specialty was blocking, but the Tigers have several tight ends with receiving skills. The question is whether they will actually get many balls thrown their way. LSU tight ends accounted for just 12 receptions last season, including seven by Dickson and one by Stokes. DeSean Smith accounted for the other four (for 66 yards), all of which came in a bowl loss against Notre Dame.
Perhaps that's a sign that Smith will play a bigger role as a receiver this fall, or that tight ends Dillon Gordon, Colin Jeter or redshirt freshman Jacory Washington might also get some looks.
"[Smith is] just going to continue to grow and get better and I think that he could definitely be one of the best tight ends in college football next year," Stokes said. "Jacory could be one of those guys, too, him or Jeter. All three of those guys bring something special to the table."
Gordon is the veteran of the bunch after starting 25 games in the last two seasons, but he is predominantly a dominant blocker.
"We can put him over there by one of those tackles and there's a bang on that side," LSU coach Les Miles said.
If the tight ends account for more passing production, it will probably come from Smith, Washington and Jeter.
Rising junior Smith might be the frontrunner to get the most looks, but Washington will also be an intriguing player to watch in the spring and preseason. He redshirted last fall because of the Tigers' considerable depth at the position, but his athleticism will make him an asset moving forward.
"I think Jacory's going to be a monster one day," Stokes said. "He's big, tall, strong. Just coming here, they wanted him to put some size on and get used to the system and we had a lot of older guys in front of him, so they redshirted him. But it's definitely benefited him a lot. He looks a lot more comfortable out there at practice, especially blocking. I don't think he had ever blocked before he got here and he's actually going to be a very good blocker."
The Tigers already have commitments from two tight ends for this recruiting class -- one of whom, blocking specialist Hanner Shipley, has already enrolled.
But the Tigers will again be led by veterans at tight end, and they will benefit from the versatility that exists within the bunch.
"They all kind of have what the other one doesn't have, I guess you could say," Stokes said. "They're going to work out perfect next year."
Returning players: Dillon Gordon (no catches in 2014), Colin Jeter (no catches), DeSean Smith (4-66), Jacory Washington (redshirted).
Departed players: Travis Dickson (7-60), Logan Stokes (1-3, TD).
Committed prospects: Bry'Kiethon Mouton (No. 6 TE-H, four stars), Hanner Shipley (No. 120 DE, three stars).
Outlook: Will this be the year where LSU makes greater use of the tight end in the passing game? The Tigers finally looked to the position a bit in the bowl loss to Notre Dame, but their tight ends mostly served as blockers in 2014. There is a good mixture of skillsets in the group, with Gordon easily the top returning blocker and youngsters Smith and Washington as candidates to contribute as receivers.
Best recruiting classes in the past 10 years
TBD San JosÚ St Auburn TBD Ole Miss Florida TBD Alabama Georgia TBD Eastern Kentucky Kentucky TBD Eastern Michigan LSU TBD Vanderbilt Middle Tennessee TBD South Carolina Missouri TBD Arkansas Tennessee TBD Mississippi State Texas A&M