Season report card: LSU Tigers

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BATON ROUGE, La. – The 2014 season was one of growing pains at LSU – which was to be expected because of the massive draft hit the Tigers absorbed the last two years.

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.

Our favorite plays of the year

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It was another season of record-setting performances, unbelievable finishes and very large men scoring very big touchdowns. And, yes, the Fainting Goat.

Here are our favorite plays of the year:

Hail Marys

Bahamas Bowl miracle

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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.

Central Florida wins a share of the AAC

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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.

Solomon stuns Cal

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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 touchdowns

Come to Arkansas, where linemen throw TDs

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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.

The biggest of big-guy touchdowns

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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


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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


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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


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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 RB

Leonard Fournette runs over Texas A&M

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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.

Dalvin Cook runs past Miami

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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.

Royce Freeman can do it all

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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.

Samaje Perine an Oklahoma bright spot

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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.

Nick Chubb shatters records in Belk Bowl

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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 plays

Nebraska's behind-the-back catch

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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.

Ohio State DE ends game like a Bosa

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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.

Mariota strikes a pose

Marcus MariotaBrian Davies/The Register-Guard Marcus Mariota looked the part of a Heisman Trophy winner in Oregon's win over Oregon State.

Ohio State reverse touchdown pass

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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.

Gordon leaps into record books (briefly)

video 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.

Air Maxx

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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.

Shaq brings it baq

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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.

Position that needs improvement: LSU

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BATON ROUGE, La. – When it comes to the position that LSU most needs to improve in 2015, there is only one reasonable choice.

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.

LSU position breakdown: Tight end

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Editor's note: We broke down LSU's need to improve at quarterback as part of our SEC blog's positional series two weeks ago. This week on the LSU blog, we continue our position-by-position look at the 2015 Tigers.

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."

BREAKDOWN

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.

Recruit breakdown: DE CeCe Jefferson 

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What he brings: CeCe Jefferson possesses a nice blend of size and athleticism that can allow him to be a disruptive and versatile front-seven defender. This is a prospect with very good height, bulk, and strength at this stage, and coupled with his first-step quickness and range he can create problems as both a run defender and pass-rusher. A physical player, he has the size and strength to set the edge when he stays low, and is also quick enough to shoot gaps and disrupt plays in the backfield at times. He needs to continue to develop, but has the tools to be a handful coming after the quarterback, with the ability overpower blockers or quickly work around them. When he keeps his 'foot on the gas pedal' he can be a factor in pursuit with very good redirect skills and range for his size. Jefferson moved around defensively quite a bit in high school, and a more singular focus should help aid his development in the little things, though he will likely continue to be aligned differently some at the college level to take advantage of his athleticism and create mismatches. The five-star did miss most of his senior season with a shoulder injury, but it shouldn’t take long for him to shake off any rust. Once healthy and with full maximization of his ability, Jefferson can be a disruptive defensive playmaker at the college level.

In the 100 days leading up to signing day 2015, RecruitingNation will be looking back at our ESPN recruiting rankings from 2006 to the present and counting down the best player of the past 10 years at each ranking position, No. 100 to No. 1.

Quin Blanding, No. 10 in 2014 class

There wasn’t much drama around the recruitment of Blanding coming out of Bayside High in Virginia Beach. He committed very early to Virginia in February of 2013 after considering offers from many of the nation's top programs, including Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Auburn, UCLA, Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan. Blanding was one of two five-star defenders to commit to Mike London in the 2014 class, along with defensive tackle Andrew Brown.

It's rare that a freshman makes this list, but that is how good Blanding was as a freshman at Virginia. He started the season by becoming the first Cavaliers true freshman to start a season opener at safety since 1976. He was also one of 10 Virginia players to start all 12 games, and finished second in the ACC in tackles with 123. Those 123 tackles also led the nation for all freshmen. He also filled the stat sheet with six pass breakups, three interceptions, 2.5 tackles for loss, and one sack.

Following the special freshman season, the 2014 Under Armour All-America Game standout was named the ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year, All-ACC second team by the league coaches, and to numerous freshman All-American teams.

Entering the 2015 season, the 6-foot-3, 215-pound Blanding is a good bet to appear on most preseason All-American teams.

Though Blanding still has two years to play in Charlottesville, he is already on the radar of NFL scouts following the 2016 season.

Honorable mention: Rueben Randle, No. 10 in the 2009 class. Randle played at LSU and was a second-round (No. 63 overall) NFL draft pick by the New York Giants. Eddie Goldman, No. 10 in the 2012 class. Goldman just finished his junior season at Florida State, and has entered the 2015 NFL draft after posting 35 tackles and four sacks in 2014.
You learn pretty quickly in the realm of college football to never say never.

So I won’t go that far, but with the first College Football Playoff in our rear-view mirror, I will say that I have a hard time seeing two teams from the same conference ever getting in, at least as long as it remains a four-team format.

And that’s bad news for the SEC.

When it became obvious that a playoff was coming, the initial thought in SEC locales was that the league would be strong enough to merit two teams in a lot of years.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban and Alabama had to survive a challenging SEC schedule to earn a playoff berth.
After all, this was the big, bad SEC, which had won seven straight BCS national championships (with four different teams) and had played in eight straight BCS title games.

But the College Football Playoff is a different animal, and those of us who thought the SEC might get two seats at the table every couple of years were dead wrong.

The most iron-clad unwritten rule going is that conference champions will get first dibs every time, and I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing.

Ohio State was the fourth team in this season and earned its spot by destroying Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. I’d say the Buckeyes were a worthy participant with the way they mowed down Alabama and Oregon in a span of 12 days.

Once given the stage, they proved they were the best team in the country and did so with a team that many thought was a year away.

Now, could they have navigated their way through the SEC with just one loss and even been in position to make the playoff?

That’s a story for a different day, but it brings into perspective the dilemma the SEC faces in the playoff era.

The grind of the league is what makes it so treacherous. As we saw this bowl season, particularly with regard to the Western Division teams, all bets are off in a one-game season. The West went a very humbling 2-5 and lost every one of its high-profile bowl games.

The SEC West had been hailed all season as the deepest division in the country, and some in the league speculated that it might have been the toughest division in college football history.

At the end of the day, the SEC didn’t have any dominant teams this season. It did have a handful of teams capable of winning a national championship, but most of those teams beat up on each other.

Let’s not forget that Alabama had to survive by one point at Arkansas, pulled out an improbable overtime win at LSU and beat Auburn at home in the regular-season finale despite giving up 630 total yards.

What you saw this season in the SEC is going to be much more indicative of what you’re going to see in the league going forward. That doesn’t mean Alabama is going anywhere, and it also doesn’t mean that Mississippi State is going to win 10 games every year.

What it does mean is that the SEC is going to continue to cannibalize itself, and that’s not good for business in a four-team playoff system.

The East is going to bounce back at some point, and maybe its 5-0 record in bowl games this season is a sign that it may occur sooner rather than later. When it does, the pathway to a national championship will become an even steeper mountain to climb for the SEC.

With that kind of balance on both sides, simply making it through the regular season in the SEC will be harrowing enough. Then comes the SEC championship game and two playoff games.

I remember vividly coaches in the league grumbling when the SEC championship game was created in 1992. A lot of them said then that having to win an extra game would severely hurt their chances of winning a national championship.

They were proved wrong. From 1992 to 2013, the SEC won 11 of the 22 national titles.

Maybe this will be a similar deal, and if (or when) the playoff moves to eight teams in the coming years, the landscape is sure to change again.

The mere fact that a national championship game was played this year without an SEC representative was surreal. And yes, refreshing, too, for all those coaches, players and fans who grew weary over the last decade of hearing about the SEC’s perceived dominance.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson might as well have been speaking for everybody outside the SEC’s footprint when he chortled, “At least we don’t have to hear about the SEC for a while,” following the Yellow Jackets’ win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.

Nobody’s suggesting that the SEC’s party is over. It’s still the best conference in college football, and privately, those who’ve coached in the SEC in the past and moved elsewhere will confirm as much.

But now that we’ve had a taste of the playoff, seen how it works and processed it all, it’s not necessarily a party the SEC is going to host every year.

And in some years, the SEC (gasp) might not even get an invite.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

January, 27, 2015
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This was one of two remaining weekends for recruits to take visits until national signing day. The weekend was full of news including over 10 commitments in the SEC. Here’s a closer look at some of the top news from around the conference this weekend.


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SEC morning links

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1. There will be six new offensive coordinators in the SEC next season. Five have already been hired while Tennessee is still looking to find a replacement for Mike Bajakian. So far, it’s a diverse group -- different ages, different backgrounds, etc. Brian Schottenheimer (Georgia) came from the NFL; Dan Enos (Arkansas) was a college head coach; and the others took the more traditional route, moving up and accepting the same position at their new school. The AJC breaks down the five new coordinators and gives you a chance to vote on which one you think was the best hire. To me, Schottenheimer is the easy choice given his background, but I also think the Enos hire was an underrated one for Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks. He brings expertise at the quarterback position and could do wonders for Brandon Allen.

2. Speaking of coaching changes, Alabama announced two new hires to the defensive staff on Monday. First, Tosh Lupoi was promoted from within to become the new outside linebackers coach, filling the void left by Lance Thompson. The former Pac-12 assistant coach spent last season as an analyst for the Crimson Tide. Then, maybe two hours later, multiple reports indicated that former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker would join Alabama’s staff as the defensive backs coach. The addition of Tucker, who has spent the last 10 seasons in the NFL, means that defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will go back to coaching the inside linebackers. Both new coaches should provide a boost on the recruiting trail.

3. The other big coaching news in the SEC on Monday wasn’t who was leaving, but rather who was staying. Late Sunday night, it looked like Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was leaving for Illinois. On Monday, he had a change of heart. That’s significant news for the Tigers considering the success of their defensive line in recent years. The players like to call it “D-Line Zou,” but with names like Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson, Michael Sam and this year’s stars Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the more appropriate name is “D-Line U.” The news of Kuligowski staying should also help Missouri’s chances with five-star defensive end Terry Beckner Jr., who is scheduled to visit Columbia this weekend.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day

Editor's note: We broke down LSU's need to improve at quarterback as part of our SEC blog's positional series two weeks ago. This week on the LSU blog, we continue our position-by-position look at the 2015 Tigers.

LSU's growing pains at quarterback made for the biggest storyline in the Tigers' 2014 season, causing similar issues at wide receiver to fly under the radar somewhat.

But if the Tigers are to improve upon their underwhelming passing numbers, it will take more than development from Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris under center. The young receiving corps will have to make big strides as well.

[+] EnlargeLSU's Travin Dural
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty ImagesTravin Dural delivered for LSU's passing game in 2014, but he'll need help from fellow receivers next season.
"I see a lot of guys who can help us produce next year," said Travin Dural, the Tigers' only consistent weapon in the passing game last fall. "We're going to be a little deep receiving corps next year and we're going to be more mature than we were this year. Everyone's going to have that game experience, so we can't really say no one knows what it feels like to play in this game or play in that game. That's going to be something we've done before and we're going to know how to handle these situations."

Perhaps that was the biggest issue for the Tigers from a receiving standpoint. Star freshman signees Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn were playing big roles in their first SEC season. Same for redshirt freshman John Diarse, who was in line to play in 2013 before a season-ending injury.

Even Dural was playing a much bigger role, taking over as the Tigers' go-to target once Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry jumped to the NFL after standout junior seasons in 2013. But Dural largely delivered, leading the team with 37 catches for 758 yards and seven touchdowns.

Considering that the Tigers passed for just 2,118 yards all season, Dural needs assistance from his fellow receivers -- and stronger play from his quarterback -- if the passing game is to improve in 2015.

The good news is that Jennings said he witnessed signs of growth throughout the season from some of the others.

"John Diarse is getting better, Trey Quinn is getting better," Jennings said. "All those guys that we're going to need in the offense are getting better each and every day. I think those guys are going to be a force to be reckoned with."

Same for Dupre, ESPN's No. 1 wideout prospect in 2014, who was second on the team with 318 receiving yards and five touchdowns. He will be a key figure if the Tigers' passing production increases, as his 6-foot-3 frame makes Dupre a potential target for downfield throws and jump balls at the goal line.

However, fans should also keep an eye on another 2014 freshman, Dural said. D.J. Chark did not record a reception in six games, but Dural said he was impressive in practice and could be next in line to claim a bigger role in the position rotation.

"He's a guy who can help us stretch the defense out because he's a guy who runs 4.4., 4.3. He runs real fast and is long and athletic and can really jump," Dural said. "So coming into spring, if he has a good spring, he can be a guy who can really help us out next year."

The Tigers could use the help. If Jennings or Harris don't get it together between now and September, the receivers' improvement might not matter much. But assuming the Tigers put the ball in the air more than they did last fall -- and they almost certainly will after only 11 FBS programs averaged fewer passing yards per game than LSU in 2014 -- those still-developing quarterbacks need a more consistent effort from their receivers this fall.

After learning on the job last season, the group could be in for a season of major growth.

BREAKDOWN

Returning players: Travin Dural (37 catches, 758 yards, 7 TDs), Trey Quinn (17-193), John Diarse (15-275, 3 TDs), Malachi Dupre (14-318, 5 TDs), D.J. Chark (no catches), Avery Peterson (no catches), Kevin Spears (no catches), Tony Upchurch (redshirted).

Departed players: Quantavius Leslie (no catches).

Committed prospects: Tyron Johnson (No. 3 WR, No. 30 overall on ESPN 300, four stars), Jazz Ferguson (No. 52 WR, four stars). ESPN lists verbal commit Lanard Fournette as a running back (No. 100 RB, three stars), but he could play receiver in college.

Outlook: The Tigers return every significant contributor from a year ago, plus they will add Johnson, who has the ability to play immediately. Dural is the veteran of the bunch after a breakthrough redshirt sophomore season, but Diarse, Dupre and Quinn all got valuable experience as freshmen in 2014. It will be interesting during spring practice to see whether any of the youngsters who didn't play much last fall will begin to make a move.
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It's tough to imagine a more exhausting and stressful conclusion to a recruiting process than the one Iman Marshall orchestrated. Over the past 10 days, Marshall has taken official visits to Florida State, LSU and Michigan, as well as hosted several coaches at his home and school. But just like on the football field, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect doesn't appear to be fazed at all by what's being thrown at him.

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Recruit breakdown: DE Arden Key 

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video What he brings: Arden Key is a quick and rangy prospect capable of being a disruptive front-seven defender. He needs to continue to fill out his lengthy and lean frame, but he has begun to add some good size since his junior year and is wiry with better-than-expected strength for his build. At this stage he is best playing on the move and getting after the quarterback. The top 25 prospect possesses excellent first-step quickness and with his length can develop into a disruptive edge rusher. He can also be a factor in pursuit with his range, effort and ability to use good angles. He can play with a physical and fiery style, which he might need to control at times. Key needs to continue to physically develop to help him more consistently take on bigger blockers, but this is a talented and versatile prospect who could project and develop as a DE or 3-4 OLB.


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LSU position breakdown: Running back

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Editor’s note: We broke down LSU’s need to improve at quarterback as part of our SEC blog’s positional series two weeks ago. This week on the LSU blog, we continue our position-by-position look at the 2015 Tigers.

Leonard Fournette did not live up to preseason Heisman Trophy buzz last fall, but he still set LSU’s freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards. Now, with seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard working to earn NFL roster spots, Fournette is in position to become the Tigers’ feature back as a sophomore.

“I talked to Leonard and his mindset is very strong right now,” offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said on Jan. 16 after announcing his decision to return for his senior season. “He’s ready to go back to work. I talked to him actually today walking from class and he’s ready to go. We’re ready to make this offense explosive. Along with him and the whole offense, we’re ready to do big things.”

During his freshman season, Fournette displayed glimpses of the potential that made him ESPN’s top overall prospect in the 2014 recruiting class. His 264 all-purpose yards (including 143 rushing yards and a 100-yard kickoff return touchdown) in a bowl loss to Notre Dame made for one of the most dynamic performances in LSU postseason history, and his power running was the driving force in key SEC wins against Florida and Texas A&M.

If he and fellow sophomore Darrel Williams take a step forward like their former teammates expect, LSU’s running game should remain in good shape.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesLeonard Fournette will shoulder even more of the load for LSU in 2015 after an outstanding freshman season.
“I expect a lot out of those boys, especially with Leonard and Darrel,” ex-Tigers fullback Connor Neighbors said. “They probably could be the two best backs we’ve ever had. Leonard’s shown flashes of what he can do, and so has Darrel in some cases.

“But I know once Kenny and Terrence leave, Darrel’s role is going to expand. He’s a hell of a back just like Leonard is. He just has to wait his turn. It’s hard when your classmate is the same age and gets a little more playing time. I know how that feels. But once he steps up, it’s going to be great.”

Williams was the less-heralded prospect out of LSU’s 2014 running back signees but became a valuable reserve, particularly in short-yardage situations. Magee agreed with Neighbors’ assessment that Williams’ role should expand, partially because of LSU’s traditional philosophy of spreading around the carries and partially because of Williams’ ability to avoid fumbling.

“It’s always running back by committee here,” Magee said. “Since he’s been here, the biggest thing that I’ve seen about him, he does a great job of taking care of the ball. Since he’s been here, I can only remember him fumbling the ball twice. That plays a big part in playing running back -- you’ve got to take care of the ball. He does a great job in pass protection, so I think he’s going to find his way on the field very easily next year on third downs as well as first and second down.”

The biggest question surrounding the group will be depth. Neighbors and Melvin Jones are out of the picture, leaving John David Moore as the Tigers’ only player with game experience at fullback. And with Magee and Hilliard completing their eligibility, Fournette and Williams will be entrusted with helping verbal commits Derrius Guice and Nick Brossette get ready to play as freshmen.

“I know they’re going to bring in two great young freshmen and hopefully they can learn from Darrel and Leonard and be able to contribute to the team next year,” Magee said.

It helps that David Ducre, who can play fullback and tailback, is already on campus as an early enrollee. Perhaps he wasn’t as high-profile a prospect as LSU’s tailback commits, but LSU believes it got a steal in Ducre, whose versatility could make him an immediate weapon.

The most important figure will be Fournette, though. He should be the centerpiece of LSU’s offense in 2015, and based on his performances when LSU continuously fed him the ball in 2014, that should be a good thing for the Tigers.

BREAKDOWN

Returning players: TB: Leonard Fournette (187 carries, 1,034 yards, 10 TDs; 7 receptions, 127 yards; 1,786 all-purpose yards), Darrel Williams (64-302, 3 TDs; 6-63 receiving). FB: John David Moore (No carries).

Departed players: TB: Terrence Magee (112-571, 3 TDs; 17-171 receiving), Kenny Hilliard (90-447, 6 TDs; 4-35 receiving). FB: Connor Neighbors (No carries, 4-27 receiving), Melvin Jones (4-12; 5-22 receiving, TD).

Committed prospects: TB: Derrius Guice (No. 8 RB, No. 96 overall on ESPN 300, four stars), Nick Brossette (No. 12 RB, No. 121 overall, four stars). FB: David Ducre (No. 35 RB, four stars, early enrollee). ESPN lists Fournette's younger brother Lanard, who committed to LSU over the weekend, as a running back (No. 100 at the position, three stars), but it's possible that he will play receiver in college.

Outlook: This will be a young bunch with seniors Magee, Hilliard and Neighbors completing their eligibility. Fournette’s presence obviously solidifies the position, but the Tigers will enter the season with very little experience at fullback and only Fournette and Williams with on-field work at tailback. Ducre will get a leg up by participating in spring practice and tailback commits Guice and Brossette should have a chance to contribute as freshmen should they sign with the Tigers next month.

Best of the visits: SEC

January, 25, 2015
Jan 25
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This is the second to last weekend before signing day and there was a ton of big visitors around the Southeastern Conference. Here is a closer look at some of the top social media posts by prospects who visited SEC schools over the weekend.

Three-star defensive tackle Tyrell Jacobs gave his verbal commitment to Missouri over the weekend. He tweeted out a few photos of himself posing in a Missouri game jersey.

Georgia safety Rashad Roundtree posted a photo of himself and Georgia head coach Mark Richt during his visit to Athens over the weekend.

Five-star defensive end CeCe Jefferson and ESPN 300 outside linebacker Jeffery Holland took a visit to Ole Miss over the weekend and tweeted out a photo.

ESPN 300 wide receiver DaMarkus Lodge tweeted out a photo of one of the most impressive cakes you will ever see. Lodge took a visit to Ole Miss and had this impressive culinary masterpiece waiting for him upon his arrival.

Auburn linebacker commit Richard McBryde posted a photo of himself with head coach Gus Malzhan and another two photos of himself with new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.

Georgia athlete commit Terry Godwin posed a for a picture with his family during his Alabama visit.

Miami running back commit Jordan Scarlett and uncommitted running back Jordan Cronkite both visited Florida this weekend and posed together for a photo in Florida's locker room.

Five-star defensive back Iman Marshall tweeted a photo of himself and LSU defensive line coach Ed Orgeron during his visit to LSU over the weekend.

South Carolina commit Jalen Christian tweeted a photo of himself and head coach Steve Spurrier during his visit to Columbia.

ESPN 300 wide receiver Brandon Martin confused some people on Saturday when he tweeted that he was not committed to Missouri despite several reports. He quickly corrected the tweet and meant to say "I am now committed to Missouri." The error gave Missouri fans a scare for a few minutes.

Miami running back commit Mark Walton had maybe the most interesting wardrobe on his weekend visit to Georgia.

































BATON ROUGE, La. -- Ed Orgeron complimented his LSU predecessor Brick Haley -- in fact, he said the improvement Haley’s defensive line made over the course of the season "might have been one of his better coaching jobs" -- but there is a glaring hole in the line’s production.

After recording just 19 sacks in 13 games, the Tigers' average of 1.46 per game tied for 102nd nationally. They were only slightly better at generating negative-yardage plays, as their average of 5.8 tackles for loss per game tied for 64th.

That’s a far cry from even a few seasons ago, when Orgeron’s Ole Miss teams had difficulty completing simple center-quarterback exchanges because of LSU’s disruptive defensive line.

"Anytime you think about LSU in my opinion, you think about the great defensive lines that they had, the guys dominating," Orgeron said. "As a coach playing against LSU, I remember when we couldn’t take a snap. The center came out the game and said, 'Coach, I can’t snap the ball,' and the quarterback said, 'If he don’t snap it, I’m quitting.' So I’ve been against these guys."

Now he’s with them, and he will be charged with building a more productive pass rush in 2015 without both of last season’s starting defensive ends, Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter. That duo played the vast majority of downs at end, although sophomores Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal, and freshmen Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema also gained on-field experience as reserves.

That foursome includes the most likely candidates to take over for the departed veterans.

"Those guys, they got a lot of reps earlier this year and throughout the whole season," Rasco said. "That’s a good look for next year, because if you don’t get too many game reps, you’ll never get the pace of the game, because it’s a lot different from practice being on the field."

Rasco and Hunter both pointed to Bower as the Tigers’ next stellar pass-rusher, and Bower said that he feels a responsibility to become that player because he has received the most playing time out of the group.

"Yeah, I feel that way, just based on experience and being here I guess the next longest. I’d say so," Bower said. "But we’ve got a bunch of great guys on the D-line who are learning and getting better each time. And you can see it on film, so there’s a bunch of great guys who are ready to step up and get in that spot."

Hunter said Teuhema could also be a name to watch, chuckling as he described the freshman’s mentality as a third-down pass-rusher.

"Sione, he plays pass-first all day. He doesn’t play no run-first at all," Hunter said.

Under Orgeron and new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, the pass-rush burden will probably not rest solely on the shoulders of the defensive line. With Steele likely to install elements of a 3-4 defensive scheme, his outside linebackers will play larger roles in chasing down quarterbacks, as well.

The Tigers have a number of speedy linebackers on the roster who could excel in such roles.

But it will be Orgeron’s responsibility to get more out of the line -- and he plans to do that by teaching, building depth, and coaching the group with his trademark aggressiveness.

"I think it’s drill work, film work, knowledge," Orgeron said. "I’m going to show them NFL film, I’m going to show them film of J.J. Watt, I’m going to show them how to get better, how-to-rush sets, great technique, get in great shape, and also coach them with an attitude. I believe the players play with the attitude of the football coach."

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