NCF Nation: Connor Neighbors

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jalen Mills wasn’t even sure what position he would play if he returned for his senior season at LSU.

But regardless of whether he plays cornerback or safety this fall, Mills had greater concerns when he decided the join the unusually large -- by LSU standards, anyway -- group of draft-eligible players who decided to turn down the NFL for at least another year.

He and the other returning Tigers want to be remembered for more than simply staying just long enough to earn a pro football paycheck.

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoJalen Mills decided against entering the NFL draft so he could make a run at a national championship.
“We have a little group text message between us guys, just us, and that’s all we talk about. That’s the reason why we wanted to come back,” said Mills, already a three-year starter in LSU’s secondary. “Of course you want to get your degree, but for the most part, you want to win a national championship.”

Seated in the Tigers’ team meeting room, Mills looked up toward the collage of former Tigers greats such as Glenn Dorsey that borders the room’s massive film screen and pointed.

“You want to be those guys in the meeting room where you have these guys up there,” Mills said. “You want to be those guys that are always talked about. You want to be those guys in the record book, ‘This is the team that won the national championship, these are the guys who came back and made that happen.’ You want to be those guys, and I feel like that is really what put all these guys over the edge to come back.”

It says something about how hard LSU has been hit by early draft entry in the last couple of years that losing just three juniors to the NFL this year -- linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Jalen Collins and defensive end Danielle Hunter -- was cause for celebration.

Only three college programs (Florida State with five and USC and Florida with four apiece) lost more underclassmen than LSU, but this was nothing compared to the Tigers’ draft hit following the 2012 and 2013 seasons. A whopping 11 LSU underclassmen entered the draft after the 2012 season and seven more players with college eligibility remaining made the jump after last season.

Perhaps that makes Mills’ championship goal more realistic since the 2015 Tigers will have fewer glaring holes to fill. In fact, he might be a candidate to fill one of those holes since Collins and fellow cornerback Rashard Robinson have both left the program. Mills spent nearly all of his first two college seasons at cornerback before shifting to safety to address depth concerns.

“When the safety numbers are low and the corner numbers are high, I moved to safety. And now the corner numbers are low and the safety numbers are high, [so] it’s a possibility I could move to corner,” Mills said. “I haven’t really met with the defensive staff yet. I’m pretty sure something is going to happen pretty soon with spring ball right around the corner.”

Several factors could impact that outcome. How will Dwayne Thomas bounce back from a torn ACL? And who will the Tigers land on the recruiting trail? They are still in the running for some coveted defensive back recruits, and ESPN’s No. 10 overall prospect Kevin Toliver II (Jacksonville, Fla./Trinity Christian) is already on campus and will practice at cornerback in the spring.

Mills said he was encouraged by Toliver’s response when he approached him shortly after LSU’s spring semester classes started and invited him to participate in drillwork with several veteran DBs.

“I told him, ‘Hey man, I know you like that room, I know you like that bed, but it’s time. You’re not in high school no more,’” Mills said. “And he kind of told me, ‘All right, just give me a call when you guys want to do drills or whatever.’ So we’re going to get him rolling.”

Otherwise, the Tigers’ most important holes to fill are at offensive tackle – Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander expect to fill those spots and defensive end, where starters Hunter and Jermauria Rasco are both gone.

In December, Hunter pointed at Tashawn Bower and Sione Teuhema as possible replacements.

“There’s a couple of guys down there,” Hunter said. “You’ve got Sione, you’ve got Tashawn. Those guys are guys that we look up to, guys that we can see coming to be the next great pass-rusher here at LSU.”

Lastly, LSU will once again feature youth in the backfield. Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams distinguished themselves last season as freshmen, and the Tigers will rely on first-year players once again at both fullback and tailback.

Senior tailbacks Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are both gone, as are fullbacks Connor Neighbors and Melvin Jones, so this will be an important class to address backfield depth.

The good news is that versatile David Ducre (Mandeville, La./Lakeshore) is already on campus, plus the Tigers have verbal commitments from homegrown ESPN 300 backs Derrius Guice (Baton Rouge, La./Catholic) and Nick Brossette (Baton Rouge, La./University Laboratory).

Of course with last year’s No. 1 overall prospect Fournette already on campus, those freshmen will not face immense pressure to produce immediately. He seems prepared to take another step forward after setting a freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards in 2014.

“That dude there is ridiculous,” Hawkins said. “I just can’t wait to block for him. All our running backs, but especially him. There’s just something special about him. He’s going to pretty much shock the world this year.”

LSU still in running to play in Atlanta

November, 4, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Believe it or not, LSU has an outside shot at representing the West Division in the SEC championship game even after an 0-2 start in league play.

Not that the Tigers have turned their focus toward playing in Atlanta on Dec. 6 just yet. They realize there are still so many games left that dwelling on hypotheticals is largely a waste of time.

“I haven’t looked at it. I just would say we just have to keep winning,” LSU receiver Travin Dural said. “As long as we keep winning, they can never count us out because people are going to lose, so you can’t just say we’re out of it. As long as we keep winning, we’ll still have a chance.”

[+] EnlargeLogan Stokes
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertIt's something that seemed ridiculous to think about a couple weeks ago, but LSU can still go to the SEC title game if it wins out and gets help.
Indeed, it might happen as long as LSU follows Dural’s advice. It would require that the No. 19 Tigers (7-2, 3-2 SEC) win each of their last three games -- starting with Saturday’s visit from No. 6 Alabama (7-1, 4-1) -- and they’d still need a boatload of help to create a four-way tie atop the division standings.

It’s not entirely implausible, though. LSU would win the division tiebreaker and represent the West in Atlanta if:

A. LSU beats Alabama on Saturday and wins at Arkansas and Texas A&M.

B. Alabama loses at LSU and beats Auburn and Mississippi State in Tuscaloosa.

C. Mississippi State loses at Alabama and Ole Miss.

D. Auburn loses at Alabama and either at Georgia or at home against Texas A&M.

In that scenario, Ole Miss, Alabama, Mississippi State and LSU would all be 6-2 in SEC play, and Auburn would finish 5-3.

The conference’s first tiebreaker is head-to-head record between tied teams. Since LSU and Ole Miss would both be 2-1 against the other tied teams and Alabama and Mississippi State would both be 1-2, the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs would be eliminated. Then LSU’s 10-7 win over Ole Miss on Oct. 25 would be the determining factor in LSU facing the SEC East champ in the Georgia Dome.

A problematic scenario for the SEC office -- particularly in this inaugural season of the College Football Playoff -- would be if Auburn also finishes 6-2 (losing to Alabama and beating Georgia and Texas A&M) and creates a five-team tie atop the division.

Not only would that make a mess of the selection process for playoff and bowl spots, but it would be an unsatisfying conclusion to one of the most memorable division races in memory.

At this point, though, fullback Connor Neighbors prefers watching “Trailer Park Boys” on Netflix during his downtime to hashing out what has to happen for the Tigers to reach Atlanta.

“I just like to think about if we win out, then what happens happens,” Neighbors said. “We played our best football in the latter half of the season coming off those two losses.”

Neighbors might not want to think about it, but let’s do it anyway just for fun.

If all five teams finish 6-2 in league play and their only losses come against each other, it’s entirely possible that the SEC’s newest tiebreaker -- combined record of each team’s SEC East opponents, which replaced BCS ranking in the tiebreaker procedure -- might come into play.

There are still too many moving parts to break down that scenario completely, although Auburn (whose East opponents, South Carolina and Georgia, are 6-7 in SEC play thus far) currently has the edge over LSU (Kentucky and Florida are a combined 5-7), Alabama (Tennessee and Florida are 4-7), Mississippi State (Kentucky and Vanderbilt are 2-9) and Ole Miss (Tennessee and Vandy are 1-9).

In other words, LSU fans need to root for Kentucky and Florida -- and, of course, for the Tigers to go unbeaten the rest of the way.

“[Playing in Atlanta has] been our mindset since the beginning of the year,” right tackle Jerald Hawkins said. “I know we had a few setbacks, but we still have the mindset we still can get there. If we finish this season out right, anything can happen.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.

Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaLSU will have a hard time matching the success on third down of departed quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
One of the two April posts focused on the need for the Tigers' quarterbacks to play efficiently. Let's face it, whoever wins the starting job -- whether it's freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings -- he's not going to zing third-down completions like Mettenberger did last year.

The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).

Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.

Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.

Filling Landry's shoes

The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down receptions
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State

Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural caught the game-winning touchdown against Arkansas on third down.
LSU has only one returning wide receiver who was even targeted with a third-down pass last season -- Travin Dural caught 5 of 11 third-down passes where he was the intended target and scored two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arkansas -- so it would make sense for the Tigers to spread around the opportunities more evenly this fall.

But who will get those chances?

Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.

They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.

Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.

If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.

Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.

Who handles the backfield workload?

Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)

Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.

ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.

It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.

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