NCF Nation: Jalen Collins

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Travin Dural had already learned a painful lesson about perspective during his LSU career, even before a late-night car wreck nine days ago placed him in the hospital with a head wound that required 13 stitches to close.

[+] EnlargeLSU's Travin Dural
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty ImagesTravin Dural had three catches for 151 yards and a touchdown against Wisconsin.
As a true freshman who seemed during preseason camp to be on track to contribute to the offense in 2012, Dural's knee buckled while trying to outjump cornerback Jalen Collins and make a catch in practice. The ACL tear he suffered on the play cost the Tigers' speedster a season, but he believes it spawned personal growth that has helped him since then, as it did in the aftermath of the wreck that occurred a few hours after LSU's 56-0 win against Sam Houston State on Sept. 6.

"I'd say that helped me out a lot," Dural said of the injury. "It showed that football isn't guaranteed. You've got to play every play like it's your last play. In fall camp, I was never thinking that I was going to get hurt, especially the way that I got hurt. I didn't get touched, I didn't get hit, my leg just snapped. So that showed me that football isn't always guaranteed and it made me grow up a lot."

Perhaps the experiences from Dural's lost 2012 season might also help him enjoy the success he's experiencing today. He entered last Saturday's 31-0 win against Louisiana-Monroe averaging a ridiculous 48.5 yards per catch, having scored four touchdowns -- including bombs of 94 and 80 yards -- in six catches.

As No. 8 LSU (3-0) prepares for its SEC opener against Mississippi State (3-0) on Saturday, Dural once again looks like the playmaker teammates expected him to become when he arrived on campus. He ranks second in the SEC with 370 receiving yards and is tied for first with four touchdown catches.

"I remember his freshman year when he came in, we knew he was going to be a great player because he was out there making unbelievable catches just like Jarvis [Landry] and Odell [Beckham]," senior running back Kenny Hilliard said. "He got hurt from there. But now he just has this little firepower that's in him and he's just been great."

Dural put a serious dent in his yards-per-catch average against ULM -- he finished the night with six grabs for 79 yards, lowering his average to only 30.8 yards per reception -- but that didn't seem to bother him much afterward.

"It doesn't matter. We got the win," Dural chuckled. "I'm going to just come out next week and try to make up for it, try to have a better game than this game."

In truth, Dural doesn't need to make up for anything. He played Saturday with the 13 stitches still in his forehead -- he waited until Sunday to have them removed – and still finished as the Tigers' most productive receiver for the third time in three games.

Through three games, Dural leads LSU in receptions (12, six more than John Diarse, the Tigers' next most-productive wideout), receiving yards (370, 254 more than Diarse) and touchdown catches (four, three more than Diarse and Malachi Dupre). LSU quarterbacks have targeted Dural with 21 passes, more than twice as many as the next receiver.

Perhaps instead of Dural making up for only getting 79 yards in a game, his fellow receivers need to get on his level, helping LSU's passing game become something other than the Dural-or-bust show that it has mostly been to date.

But just as the third-year sophomore is one of the leaders in the Tigers' receivers meeting room -- partially a product of his personality and partially because of his status as by far the most experienced player in the room -- he has also become their most reliable pass-catcher.

"He's the highest on the totem pole, and sometimes I go to him because in the room, he's the only person that really played last year," Diarse said. "We look up to Travin. He has the most game experience, he knows what the defense looks like, he knows what the corners look like, so we go to him."

He's also one of the most explosive players on the LSU offense. An ACL injury can be particularly scary for a player who relies on speed the way that Dural, a state champion sprinter in high school, does at receiver. But through hard work during the grueling rehab process, Dural is once again a dangerous deep-ball threat -- as he proved last season while catching the game-winning touchdown in the closing moments against Arkansas, or when he blazed past the Wisconsin and SHSU secondaries this season for long-scoring catches.

As Dural mentioned, he certainly understands how playing sports is a volatile activity where a freak occurrence can take it away at any moment. But he has made plenty out of his opportunities so far in 2013, once Landry and Beckham's early exits for the NFL gave him the chance to become LSU's No. 1 wideout.

"I know he's not one of those guys who gets complacent," Diarse said after practice last week. "He was out here pushing me today at practice: 'Hey man, you've got to make that catch' or 'You've got to get out of that break faster.' Because we all need each other, and I'm happy to see him finally achieve what he's been working for."

LSU WRs an odd mix of young and old

August, 25, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- John Diarse chuckled when he described himself as a veteran. He realizes how silly that sounds since he has yet to play in a college game, but it’s the truth.

The funny thing is, having participated in two sets of spring and preseason practices, Diarse is actually one of the longest-tenured wide receivers on No. 13 LSU’s roster.

“Seeing that I am a redshirt freshman, in some ways it does [feel absurd],” admitted Diarse, whose team opens the season against No. 14 Wisconsin on Saturday. “But I think I’m a vet in my mind, mentally, because I’ve been through the program and I know what it takes and the hard work that has to be done on and off the field. So in my mind I’m a vet, but as far as stats-wise and playing time, not really.”

[+] EnlargeDural
AP Photo/Bill HaberLSU's most experienced receiver is Travin Dural, who has all of seven career catches.
Take a gander at LSU's wideout depth chart. Travin Dural is the most experienced player, by far. He’s a redshirt sophomore with all of seven catches for 145 yards to his credit. There is only one scholarship senior -- junior college transfer Quantavius Leslie -- on the roster. There are no scholarship juniors.

Once 2013 star juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry decided to enter the NFL draft, the Tigers’ wideout depth chart now features that couple of inexperienced veterans and a host of guys like Diarse, who either redshirted last season or who will be enrolled in college for the first time this fall.

“We always joke about that in the receiving room about me being the oldest, but I take pride in being an older guy,” said Leslie, who finished with one catch for 11 yards last season. “I just tell them what’s right. I’ve been through this, so this is not my first year going through it.”

But Leslie is unique in that regard at LSU. Many Tigers, like arguably the nation’s top group of 2014 wideout signees, have only been on campus for a few months and still have plenty to learn.

Leslie and some of the older players like Diarse have learned all three wideout positions by now, but they only played one in their first seasons at LSU. That’s a common trajectory for a newcomer, so a true freshman like Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre or D.J. Chark -- all of whom are in the Tigers’ plans for 2014 according to coach Les Miles -- would be well ahead of the curve if he becomes functional at more than one spot this fall.

“We’ve got a lot of smart guys,” Diarse said. “Once these younger guys kind of catch the feel for it, they’ll be able to do both inside and out.”

Although he missed a portion of preseason practice, one skill that Dupre -- RecruitingNation's No. 1 wideout prospect for 2014 -- believes will help him contribute this season is his blocking ability. He played in a run-first offense at John Curtis in New Orleans, so clearing a path for running backs will be nothing new, even if the Tigers figure to put the ball in the air more frequently than what he’s accustomed to seeing.

“I think that made me better coming into a situation like I am now where the ball will be in the air more,” Dupre said. “But still remembering where I came from and thinking I had to make the best out of any opportunity I got in high school because I might not get another opportunity will definitely help now because I’ll get more opportunities.”

The greatest factor in the newcomers’ development, though, will be time. They’ve had the summer and preseason practices to get a taste against all-conference-caliber defenders like Tre'Davious White, Rashard Robinson and Jalen Collins. Producing in games will be a different achievement.

That said, the freshmen have their veteran teammates excited about what they can accomplish in the future.

“All of them make plays. I was surprised at all of them,” Leslie said. “They’re not playing or practicing like no freshmen. They’re practicing like they’ve been here.”

And don’t forget about Diarse’s fellow redshirt freshmen Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears. Between those three and the Tigers’ four true freshman wideouts, LSU has a huge group of pass-catchers preparing for their first college games on Saturday.

With that in mind -- plus the still-unannounced starting quarterback adding further uncertainty to the Tigers’ passing game -- it would not be a surprise if offensive coordinator Cam Cameron plays it close to the vest on Saturday. But LSU’s wideouts believe their summer practice time against a solid group of defensive backs has prepared them for this first test, even against a Wisconsin secondary that largely remains intact from a season ago.

“Everyone says that we’re a young group and we have a young quarterback, whoever it’s going to be, so it’s like everyone says we’re not going to be able to pass the ball,” Dural said. “Being able to pass it in camp against our defense is exciting to us. We’re moving the ball.”

Someone has to chase down all those speedy skill position players, and the SEC is well equipped with some fine secondaries this fall.

Here's how they rank going into the 2013 season:

1. Florida: The Gators will have arguably the nation's best cornerback duo in potential future first-rounders Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson. Purifoy is viewed by many as the nation's top cornerback. He's still raw, but he's a tremendous athlete, has great speed and is getting better at being a pure cover corner. Though Roberson isn't as athletic, he's more polished and has real lockdown ability (14 passes defensed in 2012). Sophomore Brian Poole made tremendous strides this spring at corner, and many think incoming freshman Vernon Hargreaves III has the ability to play now. At safety, veterans Jaylen Watkins and Cody Riggs have moved from corner. Coach Will Muschamp wants to see more from this position, but has plenty of bodies to help Watkins and Riggs, starting with Marcus Maye and Jabari Gorman.

[+] EnlargeHaHa Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Butch DillHaHa Clinton-Dix could emerge as one of the best safeties in the nation.
2. Alabama: First-round corner Dee Milliner and reliable safety Robert Lester are gone, but there's a wealth of young talent in the secondary. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is poised to be an All-American and could be the top safety in the country. Deion Belue emerged as a very reliable cornerback and should be one of the top players at his position in the SEC this year. Sophomore Geno Smith matured quickly last year and was solid this spring, so he shouldn't have a problem stepping into a starting role. Vinnie Sunseri gives Alabama a veteran leader at safety, while sophomore Landon Collins might be ready go from special teams workhorse to starting safety for the Tide.

3. Vanderbilt: Andre Hal is one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, while Kenny Ladler ranks near the top at the safety position in the SEC. Hal was second in the SEC with 14 pass breakups and added two interceptions last season. Ladler figured out a way to be all over the field last year, leading the team with 90 tackles. His safety partner, Javon Marshall, is back. Marshall and Ladler tied for the team lead with 60 solo tackles and will be one of the league's best safety duos. Replacing Trey Wilson won't be easy, but there are plenty of options, starting with senior Steven Clarke, who was the primary nickel corner.

4. LSU: The Tigers have to replace Eric Reid and Tharold Simon, but have the bodies to make things right, starting with corners Jalen Mills, Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston. Mills and Collins were thrown onto the field early last season after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal and grew up in a hurry. Mills started all 13 games and defended seven passes with two interceptions. Loston had trouble reaching his potential early in his career, but has really turned the corner and should be one of the top SEC safeties. Junior Ronald Martin should be fine at the other safety spot, while sophomores Micah Eugene and Corey Thompson are solid backups. Freshman Jeryl Brazil is a freak athlete who should help at corner.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels gave up more yards and touchdowns through the air than they would have liked last season, but this group showed good flashes here and there. A good spring and a healthy dose of experience should go a long way this fall. Senior Charles Sawyer was very steady at corner after moving from safety and is the leader of this group, while hard-hitting sophomore safety Trae Elston has what it takes to be a top safety in this league. Junior Cody Prewitt leads the charge at the other safety spot, while Senquez Golson will start opposite Sawyer. Highly-touted freshman Antonio Conner could enter the season as the starter at the hybrid "Husky" position. There is a ton of depth in the secondary, starting with big-play machine Nick Brassell, who is back after a juco stint. Quintavius Burdette and Chief Brown provide good reserve options at safety.

6. Texas A&M: What was a young unit in 2012 is all grown up now. The top player back there is corner Deshazor Everett, who became a national name after his game-sealing interception against Alabama. While Everett could be a star, he and top safety Floyd Raven are dealing with legal issues after they were arrested in connection with an April incident at a College Station apartment complex. Getting them on the field is critical for the Aggies. De'Vante Harris enjoyed a solid freshman campaign and proved he can be a shutdown corner. Safety is stacked with veterans such as Raven, Howard Matthews and Toney Hurd Jr., so this unit should be drastically better in 2013.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost a top-flight safety in D.J. Swearinger and an experienced corner in Akeem Auguste, but they bring back a lot of athleticism and speed. It starts with junior corner Victor Hampton, who has turned into one of South Carolina's best overall players. Jimmy Legree moved back to corner from safety last season and tied for a team-high three interceptions and six pass breakups. Talented sophomore Ahmad Christian will also push to get on the field. Brison Williams is solid at strong safety, while sophomore T.J. Gurley could be a stud at free safety. He'll have to battle with the much-improved Kadetrix Marcus, but Gurley is one of the team's most talented players. There's a lot of inexperience behind the main guys, and the staff is hoping to get more out of former top safety recruit Chaz Elder.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews could crack the starting lineup in time for the season opener.
8. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a ton of production here, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is excited by the talent his youngsters have, especially safety Tray Matthews, who might already be one of the top players at his position in the SEC. He covers a lot of ground, has great instincts and hits with the best of them. There's "old man" Damian Swann, who excelled as both a nickel and boundary corner last year. He's now the guy at corner. Sophomore "Star" Josh Harvey-Clemons might be the most talented player in the secondary and he'll work at both safety and linebacker in certain packages. Sophomore Sheldon Dawson left spring as the other starting corner, and the coaches are excited about his potential, while talented early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson will miss the season after suffering an ACL injury. Sophomore Devin Bowman should help at corner, along with true freshman Shaq Wiggins, a former ESPN 150 member.

9. Mississippi State: Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, top interception man Darius Slay and longtime starter Corey Broomfield are all gone. It hurts, but the Bulldogs aren't lost in the secondary. Senior Nickoe Whitley has loads of experience, while fellow safety Jay Hughes really stepped up as a valuable leader this spring. Jamerson Love is the most experienced corner coming back and the coaches expect him to break out very soon. But a lot of attention is going to juco transfer Justin Cox, who might be the team's fastest player and looks ready to step right in and be a shutdown corner. The top four guys seem solid, but there is a lot of inexperience behind them.

10. Auburn: Auburn has a lot of experience coming back to a unit that ranked eighth in pass defense last season. That number should be better this year, especially with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. Corner Chris Davis might have only played nine games last season, but Johnson thinks he could be a special player. Corners Jonathon Mincy and Josh Holsey also saw plenty of time last year, while Jonathan Jones provides solid depth. Safety is covered by the high-flying Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead, who were two of the Tigers' top tacklers last year. This group has to be more consistent and has to generate turnovers. Auburn had just two interceptions last year, with one coming from reserve safety Trent Fisher.

11. Missouri: Senior corner E.J. Gaines is one of the best cover corners in the SEC. What he lacks in size, he makes up in athleticism, speed and toughness. He has 27 pass breakups and three interceptions in the last two seasons. Randy Ponder had a solid spring and should start opposite Gaines. He has played in 25 games with five starts. Safety Braylon Webb is back after starting 12 games last year at free safety, while senior Matt White should hold down the other safety spot. Only Gaines and Ponder return with interceptions from last year (one each) and this unit surrendered an average of 333.3 passing yards per game last November.

12. Tennessee: The Vols do bring back experience, but this same group contributed to Tennessee owning the SEC's second worst pass defense (282.5 yards allowed per game). So that means these players have to grow and simply get better on the field. It won't come over night, but the experience gained last season should help. Safeties Byron Moore and Brian Randolph, who is coming back from an ACL injury, provide a solid foundation at safety, while returning starting corner Justin Coleman has to be much better than he was in 2012. Fortunately for the Vols, Coleman made very good strides this spring. Juco transfer Riyahd Jones could come in and start immediately.

13. Arkansas: This is another group that returns a lot of experience, but it was also the SEC's worst pass defense last year. The Razorbacks surrendered 8.2 yards per pass, 285.8 passing yards per game and gave up 24 touchdowns with six interceptions. All four starters -- corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines and safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines -- but all of them have to get better. Mitchel and Gaines have the potential to be big-time players, but they have to be more consistent. This unit should get a boost from juco transfers Tiquention Coleman and Carroll Washington, while redshirt freshman Jared Collins had a pretty good spring.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost two quality starters and are now stuck with a lot of young players. Coach Mark Stoops wasn't too pleased with the play of the secondary this spring, so this won't be a quick fix. Junior safety Ashely Lowery has the playmaking ability Stoops wants back there, but he just resumed working out after his horrific car accident from earlier this year. Youngsters Daron and Zack Blaylock, J.D. Harmon, Cody Quinn, and Fred Tiller all saw good time last season, but their growing pains lasted for most of the season. There was some improvement this spring, but this unit has a long way to go before fall.
Alabama might have fallen to No. 2 in ESPN colleague Mark Schlabach's Way-Too-Early Preseason Top 25, but I'd like to think that most of the college football world still considers the Crimson Tide to be the favorites to win the national championship again.

Alabama lost nine draft picks, including three first-rounders, but Nick Saban has a host of talent returning on both sides of the ball, and the Tide's schedule isn't too daunting after the first two games.

But there are teams that will test the Tide's road to a national championship trifecta in 2013. Colleague Travis Haney picked five teams from around the country that could challenge Alabama's title hopes this fall. Ohio State topped his list, while Texas A&M made it from the SEC.

No surprise there with the Aggies. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel returns with a bundle of riches to accompany him in the Aggies' backfield.

Johnny Football might not have Luke Joeckel protecting him, but Jake Matthews provides quite the safety net with his move to left tackle, and there is still talent and experience up front. Mike Evans leads a young but talented group of pass-catchers.

The defense is a concern, with five members of last season's front seven gone, but the Aggies will still be equipped to win most shootouts.

A&M benefits from getting Alabama at home early in the season, but has to play Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri on the road. Even beating Alabama early doesn't guarantee the Aggies will make it to Atlanta over the Tide.

Here are four other SEC teams that could wreck Alabama's title train this fall:

Florida

The Gators will yet again be elite on defense. First-round draft picks Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam might be gone, but Dominique Easley moves back to his more natural position at defensive tackle and could one of the best at his position this fall. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy could be the top cornerback duo in the SEC, while inside linebacker Antonio Morrison has the makings of being a budding star.

The offense is still a concern, especially with the lack of proven receiving talent, but quarterback Jeff Driskel has found a lot more confidence in his second year under offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and he'll have a much tougher offensive line and another loaded backfield to work with.

Georgia

Sure, the defense is younger and less experienced, but people in Athens are excited about the younger guys taking over. They were very receptive to coaching and showed continued improvement this spring. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins has playmaker written all over him, while freshman Tray Matthews could be the next big thing at safety. Having Damian Swann back at cornerback is huge.

Offensively, Georgia will be able to score on just about everyone. Aaron Murray is looking to be the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four seasons, and should leave with a handful of SEC/Georgia records. He has five offensive linemen returning, the best one-two running back punch (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and plenty of receivers to throw to, including Malcolm Mitchell, who has moved back to offense full-time.

LSU

Yes, the Tigers lost a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but Les Miles seemed pretty happy with where his defense was -- especially his defensive line -- at the end of spring. Jermauria Rasco could be a big-time player at defensive end for LSU, while linebacker Lamin Barrow has the talent to be an All-SEC performer. The return of cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills should continue the Tigers' trend of having an elite secondary.

The offense should be better, too. Zach Mettenberger is way more comfortable in the offense and has developed better chemistry with his receiving targets, which all return from last season. He'll have a solid offensive line in front of him and a loaded backfield. Although, it will be important to see what happens to the suspended Jeremy Hill, who could be the Tigers' top offensive weapon.

South Carolina

Jadeveon Clowney hasn't left, and the Gamecocks should once again be stacked along their defensive line. South Carolina does have to replace its two-deep at linebacker and has a couple of holes in its secondary, but we all know that a good defensive line can mask weaknesses behind it.

And the offense should be pretty balanced this fall. South Carolina possesses two solid quarterbacks and a talented running back stable led by rising sophomore Mike Davis. Bruce Ellington is back at receiver, and it sounds like the very talented Shaq Roland is finally starting to come around and should be a valuable receiving target this fall. This team has the personnel to make it back to Atlanta.
Now that all of the early entries for this year's NFL draft are in, we decided to take a closer look at some of the players who decided to leave school early.

We're checking in on how teams were affected and who some of the winners and losers were from all of these early departures:

[+] EnlargeJoeckel
Brett Davis/US PresswireIt was a no-brainer for Luke Joeckel to take his talents to the NFL.
1. Biggest winners: Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel flirted with staying in school for his senior year, but it appears that would have been a major mistake for the nation's top left tackle. He was a guaranteed top-10 pick for most of the season, but with the draft creeping closer, Joeckel has a great chance of being the top pick come April. He definitely made the right decision to leave school early, and so did his teammate Damontre Moore. After a monster 2012 season, Moore could follow Joeckel as the second player taken off the board. He moved to defensive end last fall and is a very attractive pick for teams because of his versatility. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones and Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner could also hear their names called very early in April, as they too could both be top-five picks.

2. Biggest loser: LSU was ravaged by the NFL draft, as ten underclassmen declared early. Some were pretty obvious, but others left people confused. It didn't shock anyone that defensive linemen Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan declared. Montgomery and Mingo could be first-round draft picks, while Logan could go within the first three rounds. Safety Eric Reid and linebacker Kevin Minter made sense as well, but seeing punter Brad Wing, cornerback Tharold Simon, offensive lineman Chris Faulk and running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford all leave was pretty surprising. The Tigers will be losing seven quality starters and basically their entire defensive line. LSU has a lot of quality youngsters who will be vying for major playing time, but losing all that experience will hurt the Tigers in 2013.

3. Head-scratchers: Ware, Ford and Simon could all have benefited from another year in Baton Rouge. Neither Ford nor Ware hit the 400-yard rushing mark and combined for just four touchdowns on the season. Maybe the emergence of freshman running back Jeremy Hill helped influence their decisions. South Carolina wide receiver Ace Sanders shocked everyone when he decided to turn pro at the last minute. Sanders was one of the league's top multipurpose weapons, and while he isn't going to get any taller (he's a generous 5-foot-8), he could use another year to improve his receiving skills. He'll be looked at as a returner first in the NFL and won't likely be drafted very high at all. Also, Florida linebacker Jelani Jenkins could have used another year of school as well. He was banged up in 2012, only playing in nine games, and registered just 29 tackles. He's a very smart player, but another year could have helped his draft status even more.

4. The replacements:

  • LSU loses a lot, but that doesn't mean that the Bayou is void of talent. Wing will be replaced by sophomore-to-be Jamie Keehn, who started in Wing's place for the Chick-fil-A Bowl. With Ware and Ford gone, Hill will be helped out by Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard in the run game. Junior-to-be Anthony Johnson should get more reps at defensive tackle with Logan gone, and he'll also be helped by Ego Ferguson. Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins both had solid seasons at corner, so expect more of each with Simon gone.
  • With Eddie Lacy leaving Alabama, rising sophomore T.J. Yeldon will now be the guy at running back for the Crimson Tide. With his 1,000-yard season, he's already proven that he can more than handle himself in this league. He'll also be helped by Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler, who are both returning from knee injuries, and Kenyan Drake, who looked impressive in mop-up duty last season. Also, keep an eye on incoming freshman Derrick Henry, who is already on campus and should be a factor in the run game.
  • Sanders' departure at South Carolina means Bruce Ellington is now the top returning receiver for the Gamecocks, and it also puts more on the shoulders of Shaq Roland, who was expected to make an immediate impact during his freshman year. Roland has the skills to be a big-time threat in the passing game.
  • Georgia lost some key juniors on defense, but no one will be missed more than Jones. Jordan Jenkins came on strong in his first year last fall, and will do his best to replace Jones' pass-rushing ability.
  • Florida only lost three underclassmen to the draft, but replacing safety Matt Elam and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd will be tough. There are a host of youngsters who could vie for Elam's spot (keep an eye on freshman Marcus Maye), while Damien Jacobs will help man the middle of Florida's line with Leon Orr.

Instant analysis: LSU 41, Ole Miss 35

November, 17, 2012
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Regardless of their records, it's never a dull affair when LSU and Ole Miss get together in Tiger Stadium. LSU overcame a seven-point fourth quarter deficit to survive an Ole Miss upset bid and down the Rebels, 41-35. The Tigers' last five home wins against Ole Miss have come by margins of one, three, three, seven and six.

Here's how it happened in Death Valley:

It was over when: LSU running back Jeremy Hill dove over the goal line with 15 seconds remaining to put LSU on top for good. The Tigers bungled the ensuing extra point, which made the dying seconds slightly more tense for the home crowd, but the Rebels' desperation touchdown drive ended in a frantic hook and lateral attempt, which was ultimately stopped on their own 35-yard line.

Game ball goes to: Even in a losing effort it's got to be Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief, who had a career outing in the Rebels' most high-profile game of the season. Moncrief picked on anyone and everyone in the LSU secondary, be it cornerbacks Tharold Simon and Jalen Collins or safety Eric Reid. He hauled in six receptions for 161 yards and two touchdowns -- the second of which gave Ole Miss a 35-28 fourth quarter lead.

Game ball, part II: Hill led the Tigers' ground game for the fifth straight week, as he carried the ball 20 times for 86 yards and three touchdowns. The freshman plowed into the end zone on two different 1-yard carries, and he also broke a 27-yard scoring romp in the first quarter.

Key play: Odell Beckham finally made the big special teams play the Tigers have been waiting for, and it came at just the right time. Beckham fielded an Ole Miss punt at his own 11-yard line with nine minutes to play and proceeded to reverse field for an 89-yard touchdown return. The score knotted the game at 35-35, and LSU would not trail again.

Key stat: After going 16 quarters without a turnover, the LSU offense coughed up the ball three times against Ole Miss. The Tigers and Rebels combined for seven turnovers on the day.

What it means for LSU: Style points only matter when you're in the national title hunt. The Tigers are not, so they'll gladly take the win. The victory keeps alive a very slight chance that the Tigers could win the SEC West -- provided Alabama loses to a bad Auburn team next week. If that miracle doesn't work out, LSU at least kept pace in the race for an at-large BCS bowl bid.

What it means for Ole Miss: The Rebels held the lead in the fourth quarter for a second straight week, and for a second straight week they failed to close out. First-year coach Hugh Freeze and his Ole Miss squad are still searching for an elusive sixth win to reach bowl eligibility, and they're down to their final game to find it. Next week's Egg Bowl against arch-rival Mississippi State will determine if the Rebels go bowling or not.

Instant analysis: LSU 63, Idaho 14

September, 16, 2012
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU's mid-game hiccup against the mid-major happened again.

Again, LSU was able to right the ship, this time to an impressive result.

Two pick-sixes by the Tigers' defense and Zach Mettenberger's first 200-yard passing game of his short career allowed LSU to pull away to score the most points by a Tigers team in the Les Miles era in a 63-14 shellacking of Idaho Saturday.

A red zone interception thrown by Mettenberger into the arms of Idaho safety Gary Walker, who returned it 94 yards to set up a touchdown, allowed the winless Vandals to stay within a touchdown of the third-ranked Tigers for most of the first half. But a late Mettenberger TD pass to Jarvis Landry just before halftime began a stretch of 42 straight LSU points.

Like LSU's 41-14 win over North Texas in the season opener, the Tigers (3-0) allowed a team from a smaller conference to hang around. Idaho (0-3) trailed just 21-14 late in the second quarter and 28-14 at halftime, but LSU completely dominated the second half and finished with 472 yards of offense to 213 for the Vandals.

It was over when: LSU defensive end Lavar Edwards tipped a Dominique Blackman pass into the air, intercepted it and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown on Idaho's first possession of the second half, giving the Tigers a 35-14 lead.

It was the second pick-6 of the game, following a 45-yard pick-6 by Ronald Martin in the first half.

Game ball goes to: Martin and cornerback Jalen Collins. On two interceptions, Collins made a nice play to break up the pass, then Martin caught the deflection. On the second one, Martin exploded down the left sideline for a touchdown, giving the Tigers a 21-7 second quarter lead. The first one set up a touchcown.

LSU intercepted Blackman four times, making his 23-for-36, 176-yard passing day that included a pair of touchdowns somewhat benign.

Key stat: 222, the yards Mettenberger threw for in his most prolific night yet. After completing four of his first eight, he completed 13 of his final 15 to go 17-for-23 with two touchdowns and the one bad interception at the Idaho 1.

Wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr., caught four passes for 73 yards, making up for an off-week in last week's 41-3 win over Washington when he had three dropped passes and a fumble.

Deuces wild: LSU had two pick-6s, two TD passes by Mettenberger and two rushing touchdowns from two different players-- Kenny Hilliard, who rushed for 116 yards on 11 carries, and true freshman Jeremy Hill.

What it means: That Mettenberger played into the fourth quarter and kept throwing passes on the Tigers' final drive showed that LSU is serious about developing the passing game. It had some issues -- not just the interception, but three sacks by the Vandals -- but it appears the Tigers are committed to getting the passing game ready for prime time with SEC play looming.

Instant impact: Western Division

August, 24, 2012
8/24/12
2:35
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Edward has briefed us with the new faces that will make the biggest impacts in the Eastern Division this season.

We’ll now turn our attention to the Western Division and the key newcomers to look for on each team:

ALABAMA
  • Deion Belue, CB, Jr.: Following in the footsteps of former junior college transfer DeQuan Menzie, Belue has staked his claim to the starting cornerback job opposite Dee Milliner.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Fr.: He’s been one of the Crimson Tide’s most impressive receivers during preseason camp, although he’s been slowed recently by a foot injury.
  • T.J. Yeldon, RB, Fr.: Eddie Lacy is the starter at running back, but he’s a bit banged up. Yeldon is an explosive threat who can make things happen both running it and catching it.
ARKANSAS
  • Austin Flynn, DE, Jr.: Having had the benefit of going through spring practice, Flynn has worked his way into the rotation at end and will play a lot of snaps this fall.
  • Mekale McKay, WR, Fr.: Also a standout basketball player in high school, the 6-foot-6 McKay was a late signee who has repeatedly turned heads in preseason camp with his ability to go up and get the football.
  • Otha Peters, LB, Fr.: A big-time hitter, Peters has worked some with the first team while Tenarius Wright has been out with an injury. The Hogs are thin at linebacker, meaning Peters will play early and often.
AUBURN
  • Kris Frost, LB, RFr.: He would have played some last season as a true freshman had it not been for a shoulder injury. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound Frost is a freakish athlete who will find his way onto the field at outside linebacker.
  • Jay Prosch, FB, Jr.: The transfer from Illinois should not only help open up some holes for the Tigers’ running game, but his arrival also frees up Philip Lutzenkirchen to be a true tight end and more involved in the passing game.
  • Greg Robinson, OT, RFr.: Now that he’s had a redshirt season to mature both physically and mentally, Robinson takes over at left tackle for the Tigers and has a huge upside.
LSU
  • Jalen Collins, CB, RFr.: There’s obviously a big opportunity in the LSU secondary with Tyrann Mathieu gone. Collins will open the season as one of the starting cornerbacks outside when the Tigers go to their nickel package.
  • Deion Jones, LB, Fr.: LSU needed reinforcements at linebacker and went out and signed some serious talent in the 2012 class. Jones has been as impressive as anybody to this point and will also be a beast on special teams.
  • Jalen Mills, CB, Fr.: How much confidence do the LSU coaches have in the true freshman? He’s poised to be a starter at cornerback in the base defense and has also been working at nickel when the Tigers go to five defensive backs.
MISSISSIPPI STATE
  • Denico Autry, DE, Jr.: The Bulldogs are banking on Autry being that finisher off the edge that they lacked at times last season. His specialty is rushing the passer.
  • Benardrick McKinney, LB, RFr.: The redshirt year was good for McKinney, who appears to have edged out sophomore Ferlando Bohanna for the starting middle linebacker job.
  • Charles Siddoway, OT, Jr.: The Bulldogs were looking for some junior college help on the offensive line, and Siddoway looks like he could be the opening-day starter at right tackle.
OLE MISS
  • Pierce Burton, OT, Jr.: One of several newcomers who will see the field early for the Rebels, Burton has been the starter at right tackle almost from the time he arrived in Oxford from junior college.
  • Dehendret Collins, CB, Jr.: Another junior college transfer who will start, Collins will line up inside at the “Husky” position and be the third corner in the Rebels’ 4-2-5 scheme.
  • I’Tavius Mathers, RB, Fr.: Mathers has been the talk of the Rebels’ preseason scrimmages with his ability to accelerate and generate big plays. He’ll get plenty of carries this fall.
TEXAS A&M
  • De’Vante Harris, CB, Fr.: It’s not every day in the SEC that a true freshman starts at cornerback in his very first game. Harris has played with confidence and great instincts this preseason, which is why he’s earned a starting job.
  • Johnny Manziel, QB, RFr.: A fan favorite a year ago, “Johnny Football” will open the season as the Aggies’ starter at quarterback and won’t be hesitant about taking his shots in Kevin Sumlin’s fast-break offense.
  • Trey Williams, RB, Fr.: Now that Brandon Williams has not been cleared to play this season by the NCAA, Trey Williams becomes even more valuable in sharing the backfield duties with Christine Michael.
At the end of the day, Tyrann Mathieu just couldn’t stop thinking about himself.

Months after proclaiming he was changed, humbled and ready to lead, Mathieu’s selfishness cost him his LSU career, as Les Miles announced his player's dismissal at a news conference Friday.

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Dale Zanine/US PresswireTyrann Matheiu emerged last season as one of the nation's top cornerbacks and punt returners.
Miles, with disappointment scribbled all over his face, stood up and announced to the college football world that one of the most exciting players in the game -- and a Heisman Trophy finalist a year ago -- is no longer a part of LSU’s football because he violated team policies again.

One of the best game-changers and playmakers -- regardless of position – that the game had to offer claimed to have learned from his mistakes, but he is now leaving a team capable of making back-to-back national championship runs.

The face of LSU’s program, who went with the celebrity flow by posing for preseason magazine shots this year and showed off his punt-returning skills to the nation on ESPN, let his team and its fan base down by once again thinking of himself first.

Miles didn’t give details as to what Mathieu did to earn a one-way ticket out of Baton Rouge, but from the way Miles sounded during his press conference, Mathieu had run out of chances. And Miles had run out of patience with the Honey Badger.

“This is a very difficult day for our team,” Miles said. “We lose a quality person, teammate and contributor to the program. However, with that being said, we have a standard that our players are held to, and when that standard is not met, there are consequences.

“It’s hard because we all love Tyrann. We will do what we can as coaches, teammates and friends to get him on a path where he can have success. We are going to miss him.”

What they’ll miss on the field is his unbelievable playmaking ability. Mathieu had a true nose for the ball, constantly locating and flying to it no matter where he lined up, and amazing vision. He wasn’t the biggest player or the best cover man, but he just had a way of disrupting things that few could mimic. And on special teams, he proved he could completely change the landscape of a game with one cut.

During his two years at LSU, he totaled 133 total tackles (16 for loss), grabbed four interceptions and forced 11 fumbles (most in school history). He also recovered eight fumbles and averaged 15.59 yards per punt return (with two scores) last year.

The Tigers will now look to a committee of players to replace Mathieu. Redshirt freshman Jalen Collins could get work at corner, while true freshmen Dwayne Thomas, Deion Jones and Corey Thompson could get work at nickel. Redshirt freshman safety Micah Eugene could also get some work there.

But none are the Honey Badger.

In January, Mathieu sat at a podium inside the Marriott Convention Center in New Orleans just days before the national championship expressing his feelings about his celebrity status and how it transformed him.

He admitted to getting carried away with his Honey Badger persona that took the Internet and college football by storm. The T-shirts, signs, videos and slogans that made him so captivating and famous slowly began to inflate his ego. He went from playing with a chip on his shoulder to playing like he owned the world.

Then, just as he was sitting on top of the world, he was suspended halfway through the season for reportedly failing a drug test. Mathieu later said his one-game suspension helped him realize he wasn’t as invincible as he thought. It helped bring him back to reality and made him truly cherish his time with his team.

But the past caught up with Mathieu, who leaves a team poised to be better in 2012. The offense is expected to take off with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, and the defense, which ranked second nationally last year, had a chance to be even better, too. But Mathieu won’t be around to help.

LSU has met distractions before, but to lose someone with so much talent and status is a real shot to a team hungry to make up for last year’s championship failure. This team will regroup, but it has to feel betrayed.

The childlike smile, blonde hair and charismatic play that made Mathieu so endearing in Baton Rouge are all gone. And Mathieu has no one to blame but himself.
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LSU’s football team has been down this road before.

It was almost a year ago that the brawl in the parking lot of a Baton Rouge bar went down and starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson was subsequently suspended for the first four games of the season after initially being charged with felony second-degree battery.

Jefferson was accused of kicking somebody in the face, and everybody wondered at the time whether it would also be a kick in the face to the Tigers’ season.

Well, we all know how things played out. LSU won 13 straight games against a killer schedule before losing to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game, and the team was the essence of resiliency.

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTyrann Mathieu proved to be a clutch playmaker on both defense and special teams last season.
The Tigers are going to need that same fortitude this season after Friday’s announcement by coach Les Miles that All-American junior cornerback and return specialist Tyrann Mathieu had been dismissed from the team for a violation of team and school policy.

Before anybody says that Mathieu won’t be that big a loss and that he was overrated as a cover cornerback, I say go back and look at how many clutch plays he made, how many times he changed the entire complexion of games with a turnover or punt return and how he was the one who so many times set the tone for LSU's defense.

He was an outstanding college football player and as dynamic a difference-maker on special teams as he was on defense.

As Miles said in his news conference, the Tigers will definitely miss him.

But this was already a team on a mission after last season’s bitter disappointment in New Orleans, a team brimming with strong leadership and a team that has the talent and the wherewithal to overcome a loss like Mathieu.

Even before Friday’s news broke, LSU junior defensive tackle Bennie Logan was raving the day before about the makeup of this team.

“What makes this team so good is that all we know is working hard and working together,” Logan said. “We were wounded by what happened last year in the [national] championship game. Now, it’s just a scar, but it’s a scar that reminds us and motivates us, and we’re not going to let anything get in the way of getting back there and finishing the job this year.”

Don’t underestimate the role Miles plays in these situations, either. We’ve all made fun of his Les-isms and the way he comes across at times, but he’s a master at rallying his team in the face of adversity.

And no matter what you think of his clock management, his offensive game plan last season against Alabama in the title game or the way he wears his cap, he relates well to his players. More importantly, his players play their rear ends off for him.

It also helps that LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis has been adamant about playing so many young players and getting guys ready to play.

The Tigers don’t have a proven roamer in the defensive backfield the caliber of Mathieu, but they have plenty of talent. Junior cornerback Tharold Simon was already a more polished cover guy than Mathieu, and Simon needs to show just how good he is this season.

Junior Eric Reid is one of the premier safeties in America and the unquestioned leader back there now.

Chavis was already excited about what redshirt freshman cornerback Jalen Collins and redshirt freshman safety Micah Eugene could add to the equation this season. Their roles just got a whole lot bigger.

True freshmen Jalen Mills and Dwayne Thomas also will see more reps at cornerback.

Depth at cornerback will be an issue, and taking away a playmaker like Mathieu is a blow to any defense. But these Tigers know the drill.

They’re too talented, too battle-tested and too driven to let one player’s dismissal -- as decorated as that player might be -- sidetrack them from getting back to college football’s biggest stage in January.

Checking in on the LSU Tigers

March, 29, 2012
3/29/12
7:30
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU held its last practice of the spring Thursday prior to Saturday's spring game, and coach Les Miles opened up the practice to the students.

Following practice, the students were invited inside to the indoor practice facility, where they had a meet-and-greet with the players and coaches.

It's Miles' way of reaching out to the student body, and the students' chance to get an up-close view of the team.

Just like the LSU team that went 13-1 last season, this team certainly passes the look test.

Most of the attention this spring has been on quarterback Zach Mettenberger, and specifically, the Tigers' passing game. Miles said Thursday there's no doubt in his mind that LSU will throw the ball much more efficiently in 2012, and a lot of that has to do with the way everybody on offense has rallied around Mettenberger, entering his junior season.

"He plays the game the way I want all of my players to play it," Miles said. "I enjoy his attitude. He's bringing the passing game to life, and he wants to compete on every single play. He doesn't mind stirring the pot, either."

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesEntering his junior season, quarterback Zach Mettenberger is "bringing the passing game to life," LSU coach Les Miles said.
Already this spring, Mettenberger went after defensive tackle Josh Downs in a scrimmage after Mettenberger felt there had been a late hit, and several in the LSU program said Mettenberger delivered the kind of tackle that even defensive coordinator John Chavis admitted was impressive.

Speaking of Chavis, he's losing two first-rounders off last season's defense. Both cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive tackle Michael Brockers elected to give up their senior seasons to enter the NFL draft.

They will certainly be missed, but Chavis isn't exactly fretting.

In a lot of ways, he thinks the Tigers will be even faster on defense in 2012. They're two-deep at every position in the defensive line, and even though Brockers is gone, Chavis thinks junior tackle Bennie Logan was one of the more underrated defenders on the team last season. Chavis said sophomore tackle Ego Ferguson had also made a big jump.

Chavis really likes the way Kevin Minter and Tahj Jones have answered the call at linebacker, even though Jones has been out recently with turf toe.

"It's the best Kevin Minter has played since he's been here," Chavis said. "He really looks like an SEC linebacker and is playing like an SEC linebacker."

Two redshirt freshmen making big moves in the secondary this spring have been Jalen Collins at cornerback and Micah Eugene at safety. Chavis likes Collins' size and length. He's 6-foot-1 and 184 pounds, which gives the Tigers a pair of bigger corners. Tharold Simon is 6-3 and 187 pounds.

Chavis said Craig Loston was also playing well at safety until a foot/toe injury slowed him.

"Loston was really grasping things, but with him out, it's given us a chance to work several other kids," Chavis said. "Ever since Eugene got a chance to jump in there and work with the first unit, he got a lot of people's attention really quick. He's still learning the position, but he has a chance to be a really good safety for us."

Chavis said junior Tyrann Mathieu would continue to play both the cornerback and nickel back roles.

"We'll have some young kids that aren't here on campus yet that will come in and help us, too," Chavis said. "We like this class, and the linebacker group has a chance to be special. They have to come in here and do it, but we like the kids we signed there."

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