NCF Nation: Steve Kragthorpe


It was a rainy afternoon in Memphis, Tenn., but Tulsa won this rematch with Iowa State in pretty convincing fashion. The Golden Hurricane flipped the script from the teams' first meeting of the season in September, when Tulsa raced to a 16-7 lead after one quarter before being dominated from that point on. This time around, Iowa State grabbed a 17-7 lead after the first quarter before Tulsa took over and clearly looked like the better team.

The loss for the Cyclones dropped the Big 12 to 3-3 in its bowls and improved Conference USA to 4-1 for the second consecutive season.

Let's get to some instant analysis.

It was over when: Tulsa capitalized on an Iowa State turnover with a 1-yard touchdown from Alex Singleton with 1:50 to play in the third quarter. Iowa State scored 17 points in the first quarter (including an interception returned for a touchdown by Jeremy Reeves), but the offense was shut out over the final three quarters. With a double-digit lead and a running game that rolled over Iowa State for most of the game, there was no coming back for the Cyclones.

Game ball goes to: Tulsa running back Trey Watts. The son of Oklahoma quarterback great J.C. Watts, Trey had another big game against the Cyclones but got the win this time with 149 yards on 25 carries. He didn't score, but he did break the Golden Hurricane's longest play from scrimmage all day, a 48-yard run that set up a touchdown. He ran hard and gave the Iowa State defense fits when it tried to bring him down.

Stat of the game: Tulsa rushed for 320 yards and four touchdowns on 58 carries. That was the story. Iowa State looked outmanned and Tulsa simply looked like the better, more physical team. It proved it on both sides of the ball and in the trenches with a strong pass rush and a great performance from the offensive line. That's how you win games.

Second-guessing: Cleyon Laing's self-control. The senior defensive lineman was flagged for a cheap shot late after Iowa State made a third-down stop deep in its own territory while trailing 21-17. Instead of settling for a field goal, Tulsa eventually scored a touchdown on the drive. Coach Paul Rhoads gave Laing a pretty intense lecture after he came to the sidelines, and it was deserved. Not only was it a cheap play, but it was one of the game's biggest plays -- and it never should have happened.

What Iowa State learned: It still has a quarterback problem on its hands, but the offense has other issues too. Sam Richardson showed some promise to close the season, but after a strong first quarter, including a 69-yard touchdown pass to tight end Ernst Brun Jr., he struggled to establish much of anything. Outside of that Brun touchdown, Richardson was just 9-of-20 for 60 yards and an interception. Iowa State didn't have a first down in the third quarter and Brun was benched for Steele Jantz, just as Jared Barnett was in last year's Pinstripe Bowl. Jantz never engineered a comeback, turning it over twice in his final game as a Cyclone. Look for a competitive spring at the position between Richardson, Barnett and Grant Rohach.

What Tulsa learned: It has yet another coach who can win big. Winning the C-USA title was plenty of evidence, but the bowl game provided even more. Todd Graham and Steve Kragthorpe helped build the Golden Hurricane into one of the best non-AQ programs in the nation, and second-year coach Bill Blankenship looks very capable of continuing that tradition after an 11-win season. That tied Graham's 2008 team for the most wins in school history.

Video: Top 20 Roundtable -- LSU

May, 24, 2012
5/24/12
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College Football Live's panel of experts discuss the upcoming season for the LSU Tigers.
Les Miles fired shots, and Gunner Kiel took the high road. Miles, meanwhile, has continued to shoot his mouth off.

In an interview with CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd, the LSU head coach continued to rip the Notre Dame freshman quarterback for decommitting from the Tigers at the 11th hour, saying Kiel lacks confidence and swagger.
"I'm not bitter. I'm glad he stayed there. I really mean it. Here's the truth: If you don't have some swagger to you and you can step into this stadium and be able to know the advantage that you're playing with the Tigers and you're leading the program that has some real weight and clout, then you really need to stay home with your brothers.

"I don't mean that [negatively]. I'm for him. He gets a chance to come in here and compete and start on a team that is a great team. I really meant what I said. I was talking more about the confidence and swagger. I was not demeaning. If he shows up, it means he has all those things … I mean it honestly, if it's more about family for him, if it's more being close to home … he would have never been successful as he needed to be. I mean it very respectfully …

"The guy we got now [Zach Mettenberger], he's a confident son of a buck. He's a throwin', tough kid. If he continues to develop and learn and grow as a leader, no question."

Miles, as everyone surely remembers, publicly questioned Kiel's leadership abilities at an LSU national signing day banquet. In his first and only meeting with reporters since then, Kiel complimented the coach and said he would only use those comments as fuel.

[+] EnlargeGunner Kiel
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comWhen Gunner Kiel was criticized by Les Miles in February, the quarterback said he'd use it as fuel.
"You can't really control that," Kiel said March 24. "I did pull out at the last minute. I still have all the respect for LSU. Their fans definitely understood. LSU is a great place, but it wasn't the best fit for me. I'm a Midwest guy and I like to stay close. I'm just going to use that as fuel, but I'm not going to disrespect him in any way, shape or form. He's a great coach and they're a great team.

"But I feel great to be at Notre Dame. Love the place, love the guys, love the coaches, love the surroundings. It’s a great community, they're all welcoming, everyone is really nice. It's definitely the perfect fit for me."

LSU quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe was at least understanding of Kiel's decision to spurn the Tigers and enroll at Notre Dame on Jan. 17.
"Gunner's a great kid. He comes from a very, very close-knit family. When it really comes down to it and time to get on the plane, he couldn't do it. We knew that was part of the recruiting process. I talked about it with him very candidly.

"When I was playing at West Texas State, my dad [Dave] was coaching at Oregon State. My son's at Idaho State. I have one in Chicago. I walked him [Kiel] through what it was going to be like. He woke up Sunday morning and was getting ready to go to the plane and said he couldn't do it. I was disappointed he didn't come because I wanted to coach him. I really liked their family. I think they're wonderful people. The best way to describe it is, I understand."

Recruits flip. Happens all the time. Notre Dame, which has been on both ends of the deal this past recruiting cycle, knows this better than anyone. Fans can get nasty during the process, and high school kids often do themselves few favors by speaking before they are ready.

But comments like Miles' do little to quell the vitriol that lunatics from every fan base often spew. Kiel, in his only interview since arriving at Notre Dame, came off as nothing but a class act, a young kid who was genuinely overwhelmed by the recruiting process and was happy to have it over, at peace with his decision to enroll at Notre Dame.

Why a 59-year-old "big boy" like Miles can't feel the same way is sad.
NEW ORLEANS -- Greg Studrawa, who found out about three weeks before LSU’s first game this season that he was going to be the one calling offensive plays, had a predictable reaction.

At least, initially.

“Three weeks before the season when we’re supposed to have the year?” Studrawa recalled. “It was unbelievable. You’re like, ‘Whoa!’”

And then, it all began to sink in.

His colleague, Steve Kragthorpe, was stepping down as offensive coordinator and keeping his quarterbacks coach responsibilities after announcing that he had Parkinson’s disease.

“He’s been an inspiration for all of us,” said Studrawa, who came to LSU in 2007 as the Tigers’ offensive line coach. “He never felt sorry for himself, kept his head up and has been a big part of our success.

[+] EnlargeGreg Studrawa
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireGreg Studrawa was promoted to offensive coordinator before the season after Steve Kragthorpe stepped down from that role.
“I tell people all the time that I was fortunate because I get to call the plays during the game. But we have a lot of guys’ minds in there sharing on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.”

Indeed, Kragthorpe himself is a former head coach at Tulsa and Louisville and was an offensive coordinator at several other stops. Tight ends coach Steve Ensminger was an offensive coordinator at several places, including Clemson and Texas A&M. Receivers coach Billy Gonzales, who also oversees the Tigers’ passing game, was a part of a Florida staff that won two national championships, while running backs coach Frank Wilson was a head coach in high school before stops at Ole Miss, Southern Miss and Tennessee.

“When the change came, Steve [Kragthorpe] opened up. Frank opened up. Steve [Ensminger] opened up. Billy opened up,” Studrawa said. “They all opened up, and it became our offense.”

Kragthorpe said the transition was made so much easier because of the quality of the Tigers’ offensive staff, not to mention Studrawa’s familiarity with LSU coach Les Miles and what Miles wanted in an offense.

“'Stud' is the coordinator, and you’ve got four co-coordinators. Les is the head coordinator,” Kragthorpe said. “We’re all in it together.

“It’s not a room where everybody is sitting around and being told what to do. We have great interaction, and that’s one of the things that helps us on game days. Everybody’s been talking throughout the week, and everybody is on the same page.”

It’s been a special chemistry among the offensive assistants, and Kragthorpe said a lot of that goes back to Miles and the way he does things.

“It’s not a one-man show,” Kragthorpe said. “He’s a very unselfish guy. There’s not one person in our program who’s more important than anybody else, whether it’s your starting quarterback, me or anybody else in our organization.”

The LSU players barely even noticed a blip when the transition went down in August. In fact, junior receiver Rueben Randle said there’s been no difference in his eyes.

“The terminology didn’t change,” Randle said. “It wasn’t like we had to get used to a whole new system. The coaches made it easy for us, and you see the results.”

Studrawa had also called plays as Bowling Green’s offensive coordinator before coming to LSU.

But he said there’s nothing like calling plays for Miles, who earned his “Mad Hatter” nickname thanks to his willingness to try anything on offense and gamble on fourth down.

“We’ll have a critical third-down situation in the game, and he’ll say, ‘Hey, do whatever you want, because I’m going for it [on fourth down].’ And I’m thinking, ‘All right, I can run something here,’” said Studrawa, rubbing his hands together like a kid on Christmas morning.

“But the thing to remember is that they’re calculated risks. You don’t know how many times we practice those things, just like the flip on the fake field goal … no bounce passes, though.”

Obviously, Studrawa was referring to the ball bouncing perfectly to place-kicker Josh Jasper in the Florida game a year ago.

Still, it’s the kind of freedom to call plays that Studrawa loves, especially the way it filters down to the players.

“It’s fun to coach when you know and the kids know, too, that your head coach has no fear,” Studrawa said. “But we don’t draw those things up on Saturday. If you’re pulling them out of your hat up there in the press box, you’re going to be in trouble.”

The ride has been equally exhilarating for Kragthorpe, even if he’s not the one calling plays.

In fact, he was the one who first suggested to Miles that it would probably work best for somebody else to call plays after initially being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in July.

“Two things are really good medicine for me -- winning and laughter,” Kragthorpe said.

He and his wife, Cynthia, have leaned on each other. She suffers from a heart condition and multiple sclerosis. Kragthorpe sat out the 2010 season at Texas A&M, where he was the receivers coach at the time, to take care of his wife.

“A lot of times, Cindy and I laugh with each other or at each other,” Kragthorpe said. “The worst medicine is crying, so you try to avoid that. But she’s doing great and is tough. Her greatest qualities are toughness and unselfishness.

“If I ever want sympathy, I don’t go home to get it.”

The truth is that Kragthorpe has never asked for sympathy. Not once. He’s plowed ahead and fully expects to be back next season in the same capacity.

He figures the worst thing he could do is not coach.

“I do best when I’m on the practice field or at the games. I do the worst when I just have to sit around,” Kragthorpe said. “If I’m moving around, I’m better.”

He also doesn’t want to miss what comes next with this LSU program.

“Les has done a good job of building a program and not just a team, and I think he’s in it for the long haul as evidenced by the fact that he didn’t go to Michigan last year,” Kragthorpe said. “I’m excited about the future here … and not just what happens Monday night.”

Les Miles named AP coach of the year

December, 21, 2011
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Add yet another accolade to LSU's tremendous 2011 season.

A win away from the school's first 14-0 season and a third BCS championship, coach Les Miles was voted The Associated Press coach of the year Tuesday.

Of the 56 votes cast, 30 went to Miles. Kansas' Bill Snyder was second with 16; Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy had six; Michigan's Brady Hoke got three and USC's Lane Kiffin had one.

It really should come as no surprise that Miles took home the honor. Miles has been through a lot in order to get his Tigers to a 13-0 record. For starters, LSU and Miles had to deal with a handful of off-the-field incidents that could have easily derailed the Tigers' special season.

Things started when Steve Kragthorpe stepped down as offensive coordinator during the offseason and became the team's quarterback coach after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Kragthorpe had reportedly done wonders for embattled quarterback Jordan Jefferson's game during the spring and offseason, but when Kragthorpe stepped down, questions surrounded how Jefferson would play this season.

Even more questions arose after Jefferson was involved in an off-campus bar fight that got him suspended for the first four games of the season. Starting wide receiver Russell Shepard was absent for three of those games, after talking out of turn about an NCAA probe.

LSU never missed a beat on the field and eventually became the No. 1 team in the country. Even with LSU playing the best ball around, the Tigers weren't free from off-field distractions. Halfway into the year, star cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, starting running back Spencer Ware and talented third corner Tharold Simon were suspended for a game after each reportedly failed a drug test.

Remarkably, LSU stayed the course, but felt adversity again when the Tigers met double-digit deficits to Arkansas and Georgia in consecutive weeks.

However, all the Tigers did was pull off back-to-back 40-plus-point runs to catapult into the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

This season might not only be the best in LSU history but it could be the best in SEC history. Of LSU's 13 wins, 12 have come by double digits and seven by 30 or more points. The Tigers beat eight ranked opponents, with seven of them coming by double digits.

If LSU beats Alabama in the national title game, the Tigers will be the first team to beat nine AP Top 25 teams in one season.

More is made of Miles' quirky behavior than his actual coaching ability, but he has more than proved himself this season. Honestly, Miles has more than proved himself before, but this year he and his team were front and center for so long -- and not always for the right reasons -- yet never fell to the pressure and Miles was a major part of that.

Miles didn't score any touchdowns or intercept any passes for the Tigers this season, but he did a wonderful job of pushing and motivating those who did.
1. Lest we forget, LSU is No. 1 even though the offensive coordinator job is performed by committee after Steve Kragthorpe, hired last winter, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Kragthorpe has remained as quarterback coach. “When a coach has a physical illness,” Tigers head coach Les Miles said Tuesday, “it’s so wonderful to see the rest of the staff pull together, overcome deficits and make them strengths.” As to Kragthorpe’s contribution, Miles said, “We have the finest quarterback coach I’ve been around.”

2. The 16 seniors named as finalists for the Campbell Trophy -- the Academic Heisman -- include 14 team captains and have a collective 3.81 GPA. They are a mix of the well-known (quarterbacks Kirk Cousins of Michigan State and Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M), the less-known (Dubuque wide receiver Michael Zweifel) to the know-it-all (Army linebacker Andrew Rodriguez has a 4.14 GPA in mechanical engineering). Each finalist receives an $18,000 postgraduate scholarship. They are the best the sport has to offer.

3. If you’re not a fan of punting -- and that includes just about everyone, doesn't it? -- then watch No. 6 Stanford play at USC on Saturday night. The Cardinal and the Trojans rank 1-2 in the FBS for fewest “three-and-outs.” Stanford has committed that egregious insult to offense on 6.3 percent of its possessions; USC, 7.0 percent. Last week, Stanford scored on 10 of 11 possessions with one three-and-out. USC has a total of two three-and-outs in its past three games.

Biggest SEC quarterback battles

August, 9, 2011
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With the regular season just around the corner, we're taking a look at the top quarterback battles in the SEC.

We visited this topic back in May, but now that summer workouts are over with and we've been able to speak with a few more people on the subject, we'll tackle it once again just before the season starts.

[+] EnlargeAlabama's Nick Saban and Phillip Sims
Nelson Chenault/US PRESSWIREAlabama coach Nick Saban will likely turn to Phillip Sims or A.J. McCarron as his quarterback this season.
From the two youngsters in Tuscaloosa, to the three-headed monster at Ole Miss, there is a lot of competition under center in a league that thrives on abusing quarterbacks.

Not only is there a lot of competition, but there is a lot of youth involved as well:

1. Alabama: A.J. McCarron versus Phillip Sims -- This one features two underclassmen who are looking to guide one of the best teams in America. Alabama isn't just playing for the SEC championship; the Tide want to add another national championship trophy to their lavish collection. To do that, Alabama will have to figure out who will take over under center. Both McCarron, who mostly appeared in mop-up duty last season, and Sims, a redshirt freshman, left spring even. Nothing has happened to change that, with both getting equal reps in practice. Both have impressed their coaches and teammates with their playing ability and leadership. Players continue to say they'd be pleased with either taking the job and coach Nick Saban said he won't hesitate to play both during the season.

2. Auburn: Barrett Trotter versus Clint Moseley versus Kiehl Frazier -- The defending national champs must replace Cam Newton and his record-setting, Heisman-winning season. Trotter, a junior, is the most experienced, but has attempted just nine career passes -- nine more than Moseley (sophomore) and Frazier (freshman) combined. Trotter and Moseley competed against each other this spring, both struggling at times and leaving the spring game relatively even. They welcomed Frazier -- and his high school hype -- to the mix this summer. Some feel Trotter has the edge, but Moseley is bigger and more athletic, while Frazier, a true dual-threat, has already had the Newton comparisons draped over him.

3. Ole Miss: Barry Brunetti versus Randall Mackey versus Zack Stoudt -- The Rebels received great news when athletic West Virginia transfer Brunetti was granted immediate eligibility to play this fall by the NCAA. He’s the only quarterback on the roster with Division I experience, though it’s very limited, and coach Houston Nutt has said multiple times that if he had to play a game immediately, Brunetti would start. However, even before senior Nathan Stanley left this spring, Mackey, a junior college All-American who redshirted last season, had the edge at the position. Mackey isn’t just a gifted athlete, he’s gained a ton of respect from his teammates with his leadership skills. Stoudt doesn't move around much, but he might have the best combination of arm strength and accuracy. Brunetti might have the edge, but this battle is far from over.

4. LSU: Jordan Jefferson versus Zach Mettenberger versus Jarrett Lee -- Steve Kragthorpe tweaked just about every aspect of Jefferson's game this spring, enhancing Jefferson’s ability and boosting his confidence. Kragthorpe was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and has stepped down as offensive coordinator, but will stay on as quarterbacks coach, which should benefit Jefferson greatly. He'll need that continued tutelage because juco transfer Mettenberger has been very impressive and possesses a wealth of potential. If Jefferson falters, Mettenberger will get his shot. Also, Lee showed up to preseason camp in considerably better shape and is down to a little more than 200 pounds. Coach Les Miles insists that with Lee's experience, he can't be counted out of the battle.

5. Vanderbilt: Larry Smith versus Jordan Rodgers versus Josh Grady versus Lafonte Thourogood -- Smith is getting a chance to transform his image with Vanderbilt’s new coaching staff. Under the direction of quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne, Smith has renewed confidence and says he’s made vast on-field improvements. Head coach James Franklin has complete confidence in Smith, but the senior will have to fend off Rodgers, a junior who missed spring recovering from shoulder surgery. Aaron Rodgers’ little brother is someone Vandy’s staff is especially excited about. Freshmen Grady and Thourogood will also be competing for the starting spot.

Boy, some tough news for LSU and even tougher news for Steve Kragthorpe.

LSU coach Les Miles announced Thursday that Kragthorpe is stepping down as offensive coordinator after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Kragthorpe will stay on as quarterbacks coach and be in the booth for games, but offensive line coach Greg Studrawa will move into the role of offensive coordinator and call plays this season.

The first thing on anybody’s mind is Kragthorpe’s health. He and his family have already been through enough in the past year.

[+] EnlargeSteve Kragthorpe
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireSteve Kragthorpe is stepping down as offensive coordinator, but is remaining on the Tigers' staff.
In fact, it was about this time a year ago that Kragthorpe, the former head coach at Louisville and Tulsa, stepped down as receivers coach at Texas A&M to help care for his wife, Cynthia, who was battling multiple sclerosis and also underwent heart surgery.

Doctors were able to get her heart condition under control, but her battle with MS continues.

Kragthorpe, 46, found out about his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis about three weeks ago, and he and Miles have been working toward a resolution ever since.

Ultimately, Kragthorpe felt it was best for everybody involved if he only coached the quarterbacks and said Wednesday that he hopes to still be coaching the Tigers’ quarterbacks for the next eight to 12 years.

The best news for LSU, and specifically senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson, is that Kragthorpe is remaining on the staff. Jefferson has raved about how much better he’s become fundamentally under the tutelage of Kragthorpe, who was hired in January to replace Gary Crowton as LSU’s offensive coordinator.

Even though Kragthorpe won’t be calling plays on Saturdays, he will remain involved in putting together the Tigers’ offensive plan each week. He and Studrawa will both be in the booth on game days, but Studrawa will be making the final calls.

Formerly the offensive coordinator at Bowling Green from 2003-06, Studrawa has been with Miles longer than any other current assistant on LSU’s staff.

Both are former offensive linemen, and they have a very good relationship. Their offensive philosophies are also similar, and while Miles probably gets a bad rap in how much he meddles with the play calling, he’s always going to be heavily involved.

Miles told the team about Kragthorpe’s condition on Wednesday night, and with the Tigers opening fall camp on Thursday, he made the announcement to the media following the morning practice.

Studrawa’s offenses at Bowling Green put up big numbers. Now, he gets his shot in the SEC with an offense that’s loaded with talent at the skill positions and returns four starters on the offensive line.

But it’s also an offense that went belly-up in the passing game last season.

No matter who’s calling the plays, the Tigers have to get better play at quarterback than they did a year ago if they’re going to make a legitimate run.

By all accounts, Jefferson appears primed for a big senior season. And if not, junior college newcomer Zach Mettenberger, who has one of the best arms in the league, is waiting in the wings.

Kragthorpe won’t be calling the plays as originally planned when Miles hired him. But one of the main reasons Miles chose Kragthorpe was because of his long history with quarterbacks and his track record of developing quarterbacks.

If the Tigers get the kind of play at quarterback this season that leads them to an SEC championship, I’d say Kragthorpe will have done his job (and more) without ever calling the first play on the Bayou.

2011 SEC media days final

August, 3, 2011
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Today, we take one last look at the sights and sounds of SEC media days. There was so much information, yet so little time to really process it all. We at the SEC blog have come up with a few things that we learned from our time in Hoover, Ala., and what questions still remain in the nation's top college football conference.

What we learned:

1. Mike Slive pushes radical change: The SEC's commissioner has a résumé that few would question, but he raised some eyebrows and garnered mixed reviews in Hoover when he discussed his "agenda to stimulate a national discussion, an agenda for change." Slive talked about raising the academic entrance requirements for incoming freshmen and would like to offer cost-of-education scholarships and make scholarships four-year contracts, instead of the current one-year setup. Slive also wants coaches to be able to text recruits and contact them via social media, and he also promoted earlier official visits for recruits.

[+] EnlargeSteve Spurrier
AP Photo/Dave MartinSouth Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said "we've probably assembled the best group of players we've had in the seven years now that I've been there."
2. Spurrier got his swag back: Steve Spurrier has always been confident and witty, but the swagger that he had while at Florida appeared to be back this year. After guiding South Carolina to its first SEC title game, Spurrier believes he has the best team he’s had during his tenure at South Carolina. “We feel like we've probably assembled the best group of players we've had in the seven years now that I've been there,” he said. “But time will tell.” There is a lot of hype in Columbia, and Spurrier understands the Gamecocks are the team to beat in the East.

3. Gene Chizik isn’t budging on the NCAA investigation: No matter how many times (nine) the NCAA’s investigation was brought up with Chizik, he wasn’t budging. He discussed his testy interaction with NCAA enforcement director Julie Roe Lach at the SEC meetings in Destin, but when asked directly about Cam Newton and the NCAA’s continued investigation, he continued to say that no wrongdoing has been found with Auburn and that when his head hits his pillow each night, he still sleeps well.

4. Jordan Jefferson is a changed man: LSU’s senior quarterback has been one of the more criticized players during his time in the SEC. He was near the bottom of the league in passing numbers last season, but with the arrival of new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe, Jefferson has more confidence and had his best spring at LSU. His teammates see tighter passes, better pocket presence and even better leadership from him. Jefferson was also reportedly very sharp at the Manning Passing Academy this summer.

5. Petrino embracing expectations more than ever: The Razorbacks return one of the country’s most high-powered offenses, but what could really make this team dangerous this fall is its defense. Petrino has made it very clear that he has the best defense he’s had during his time at Arkansas and he welcomes the lofty expectations that have come. Arkansas might have to replace Ryan Mallett at quarterback and have a young offensive line, but Petrino bled confidence in Hoover.

Remaining questions:

1. Will the SEC make it six titles in a row?: Yet again, the SEC is loaded with talent, but will that cost the SEC a shot at a sixth straight national championship trip and victory? Alabama, LSU and Arkansas all have what it takes to win multiple championships this fall, but the round-robin schedule could leave each team with multiple losses. However, a two-loss SEC team has made the title trip before. Then there's the East, where the faith is in South Carolina. The Gamecocks have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball, but can they keep up with one of those West teams in a return trip to Atlanta?

2. Will Auburn's drop-off be as steep as everyone thinks? The Tigers lost a slew of talent from its national championship team and there isn’t a lot of faith in Auburn this fall. Auburn returns just six starters. There is a lot of young talent at Auburn, but the inexperience has people severely overlooking the Tigers. “A lot of people in the media, they get misconstrued that being young is a lack of talent, and it’s not at Auburn,” defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “We have a lot of talent, and come Sept. 3, we’re looking to show off that talent on stage.”

3. Can Georgia's offensive line survive this season?: It hasn't been a great offseason for the Bulldogs’ offensive line, which is an injury away from being a major soft spot in Athens. Despite a devastating injury to Trinton Sturdivant and some attrition, coach Mark Richt said he isn't worried about the players he has now -- as long as they stay healthy. "I think it's fine if we don't get anybody hurt," Richt said. "We actually had a pretty good lineup." Expect a lot of cross-training up front.

4. Can South Carolina deal with the hype?: The Gamecocks will enter the season as the overwhelming favorite in the East, but can South Carolina live up to the expectations? Last season, after defeating No. 1 Alabama, the Gamecocks were upset by Kentucky. And they were blown out in their first SEC championship game. The confidence is running high in Columbia and players think this is a closer team in 2011. "We're more experienced and more confident," receiver Alshon Jeffery said. "Going into this season, we're more together and just one. This year, we are more prepared.”

5. How will the QBs fair? There are still a lot of questions surrounding quarterback battles around the league. Alabama might have the best team in the league, but youngsters A.J. McCarron and Phillip Sims are still fighting for the No. 1 spot. Jefferson might have improved this spring, but will that translate to real games this fall? Can Stephen Garcia stay out of trouble this fall? Vanderbilt’s Larry Smith has instilled confidence in his head coach, but he’ll still have to battle a pair of freshmen quarterbacks during preseason camp. Ole Miss and Auburn have three competing at camp and John Brantley has a lot to prove after a rough junior season at Florida.
Most of the media was both perplexed and upset at talkative LSU wide receiver Russell Shepard's absence from SEC media days after he was previously scheduled to participate.

But Friday's news of a possible compliance issue with Shepard might have been the reason. A source told ESPN's Joe Schad that Sheppard is dealing with an NCAA compliance concern related to rent payment arrangements with a woman who he has lived with and who is also a student worker in LSU's football office.

[+] EnlargeRussell Shepard
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesRussell Shepard is being counted on to step up his game for the Tigers this fall.
When asked about Shepard's absence Friday, LSU coach Les Miles said "there were some things that Russell had to take care of back in Baton Rouge." Senior offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert replaced Shepard in LSU's lineup.

Miles was pressed about Shepard's situation, but didn't provide many answers when asked if there was a compliance issue with Shepard.

"I don't know exactly the specifics of that," Miles said. "The only thing I can tell you is this was an issue where there were some things that he had to handle in his personal life that needed an immediate resolution, so ... that's why he's not with us."

According to Schad's report, LSU is hoping Shepard will be available for the season opener against Oregon.

Losing Shepard would be a big blow to LSU's offense. Shepard hauled in 33 catches for just 254 yards, but he boasted this spring that he's expecting a big year on the field this fall.

Shepard is one of LSU's top athletes and can line up at multiple positions on offense, both inside and outside of the backfield. When talking with quarterback Jordan Jefferson in Hoover, Ala., he said he's most excited for the pass-friendly nature of LSU's new offense that is now under the supervision of Steve Kragthorpe. Jefferson said Shepard has become a more dangerous target for the Tigers because of his versatility in Kragthorpe's scheme.

Jefferson said he expects Shepard to be one of his top targets this fall and that he should be used in a lot more ways. Last year, he also carried the ball 32 times for 223 yards and had two touchdowns.

Shepard really impressed his teammates and coaches this spring, and the thought in Baton Rouge is that Shepard should flourish in Kragthorope's offense and will be leaned on even more this fall.

SEC media days: One good thing

July, 22, 2011
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Alabama: The Tide led the SEC with 16 players selected on the media's preseason All-SEC team. That's great for PR, and means that there should be some talent in Tuscaloosa this year, but neither the players nor head coach Nick Saban are paying attention to us and what we think.

Good, because the last thing Alabama needs is to get caught in the hype with the goal of winning multiple championships on the line.

"From a logical standpoint, I know there's a couple other teams in our division -- forget about the league -- that have just as many returners starting, and their quarterback," Saban said to the media when asked about being picked to win the SEC. "So even though I have a tremendous amount of respect for the intelligence level and your ability to prognosticate, which we really can't do, I'm not capable of doing it, I don't understand how you come to the decisions that you come to."

LSU: The Tigers' offense was downright offensive to watch at times last fall, and they know it. LSU was 11th in the SEC in total offense, averaging 341.3 yards per game.

Now, under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe, there is more optimism on the bayou when it comes to talking about an offense that the Tigers expect to be more pass-friendly.

"I love it," offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert said of the offense. "Coach Kragthorpe brought a new intensity to the offensive side of the ball and he's injected new life in us. We can't wait to get back there during camp, start practicing, get more refined and more like a well-oiled machine. That's how an offense should work -- like a machine."

Ole Miss: The loss of linebacker and emotional leader D.T. Shackelford this spring to a knee injury was absolutely devastating for the Rebels. The centerpiece of the defense is gone and Ole Miss didn't find a replacement this spring.

However, prized recruit C.J. Johnson appears to have what it takes and Houston Nutt isn't going to hesitate throwing him in the regular rotation early.

"C.J. Johnson doesn't look like a guy just coming out of high school," Nutt said. "Physically he looks the part. So I'm excited about him, getting him going. We'll give him every opportunity to get in the mix.

"Just by default because of D.T. Shackelford's injury, we lose a guy like that, he'll line up second team day one. He'll have every opportunity to play a lot of football."

Vanderbilt: The Alabama secondary is getting a ton of preseason love, and so is LSU's secondary. But Vanderbilt senior cornerback Casey Hayward says not to sleep on the Commodores' secondary when you start ranking the best defensive backfields in the league.

Hayward was a second-team All-SEC selection by the coaches and media. Senior safety Sean Richardson had 98 tackles a year ago, and his running mate at the other safety spot, Kenny Ladler, was one of the most talented freshman safeties in the league last season. Junior cornerback Trey Wilson also looks like he's coming. He was one of the Commodores' most impressive players this spring.

"We don't get a lot of credit because of our record," said Hayward, who was second in the SEC last season with six interceptions. "But production-wise, when you look at the things we did last year, not too many secondaries did that. I think we'll take it to another step this year."
Fellow SEC blogger Chris Low started things off by discussing the players in the SEC’s Eastern division with the most to prove, so it’s time to put some pressure on some guys out in the West.

Here are my five players who have to show us more this fall:

[+] EnlargeJordan Jefferson
Tyler Kaufman/Icon SMISolid play from Jordan Jefferson could be all LSU needs to make a national title run.
QB Jordan Jefferson, LSU: Sure, Jefferson led the Tigers to an 11-win season, but did you see the numbers he (didn't) put up? Jefferson passed for 1,411 yards and seven touchdowns in 2010 and ended the year with a passing efficiency of 114.7. This spring, new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe made it his goal to transform the senior's passing technique and presence in the pocket. Things worked out well, with coach Less Miles calling this the best spring Jefferson has had. The next step is for him to show what he learned this spring when it counts this fall. This is Jefferson's last go-round with the Tigers and this team has the talent to compete for a national title. The Tigers go the way Jefferson goes and if he should falter, Miles might not hesitate to put in junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger in, who probably has the most skill of any of LSU's quarterbacks.

RB Trent Richardson, Alabama: Yes, one of the country's most complete backs still has to show us something. He has the power and speed to be a stud now that this is his backfield, but is he truly ready to be the guy in Tuscaloosa? On paper, it would appear so, but things change when the lights go on and the pressure mounts. Not to mention, he's replacing a Heisman Trophy winner. Alabama will be breaking in a new, young quarterback this fall -- whether it's AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims -- so the Tide's offense will be leaning heavily on Richardson. Alabama has one of the top teams in the nation and Richardson will be a key component in the Tide's run to multiple championships.

WR Russell Shepard, LSU: Shepard has all the ability to be quite the playmaker for the Tigers. He was second on the team with 33 receptions a year ago, but only managed 254 yards and a touchdown. He's better than that. With Terrance Toliver gone, the junior-to-be will be called upon to really step up alongside Rueben Randle. We've been waiting to see Russell’s true athleticism and he’s confident people will this fall. It’s time for him to take his game to another level.

DE Kentrell Lockett, Ole Miss: Lockett missed most of last season after suffering an ACL injury in the third game. Fortunately for he and the Rebels, he was granted a sixth year of eligibility and should be back to full health this fall. But with linebacker and team leader D.T. Shackelford suffering a season-ending ACL injury this spring, Lockett enters the fall with new responsibilities. Not only does Lockett have to provide a much-needed presence on an unproven defensive line but he has to become the emotional leader this team desperately needs. This defense has a ton of questions and having a guy like Lockett step up on the field and in the locker room will provide some juice for the unit.

WR Chad Bumphis, Mississippi State: Bumphis has led the Bulldogs in receiving the past two seasons and is arguably the team's best playmaker at receiver. However, Bumphis has the ability to play all over the field, kind of like Percy Harvin did at Florida, but hasn’t reached his potential. As the go-to guy, he has just 1,009 yards receiving and nine touchdowns in two seasons and has rushed for 204 yards and one score. Bumphis is a player that should be getting the ball as much as possible and in as many different situations as possible. He's got the speed and athleticism to really frustrate defenses, but we've yet to see him really turn the corner. He can be an elite weapon in this offense and could be the difference in making this one of the more potent offenses in the SEC.

Exiting the spring: LSU

April, 8, 2011
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Spring game: 4 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN and ESPN3.com

Questions answered: Senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson showed that he was made of the right stuff. With all eyes on heralded junior college newcomer Zach Mettenberger, Jefferson stepped up his game considerably under the tutelage of first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe and heads into the spring game as the clear-cut No. 1 quarterback. The Tigers also found out that they’re pretty good at running back even with Stevan Ridley leaving early for the NFL. Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue both had big springs, and don’t count out Michael Ford and Jakhari Gore, either. There’s depth and big-play potential to go around in the LSU backfield.

Questions unanswered: Defensive coordinator John Chavis knew that Kelvin Sheppard would be a big loss, but this spring only reaffirmed how much the Tigers will miss Sheppard at middle linebacker. They still have to solve that problem. Karnell Hatcher moved over from safety and got some snaps in the middle. Kevin Minter also got some first-team snaps after serving as Sheppard’s backup last season. Solidifying that middle linebacker spot remains one of the biggest concerns going into the summer. The unknowns on special teams are equally unnerving. The Tigers will have a brand new place-kicker and a brand new punter. Until the lights come on and they start keeping score, you never know about those guys. Not only that, but Patrick Peterson won’t be around to return kicks and strike the Heisman pose in the end zone anymore.

Spring stars: Coming up on his junior season, Russell Shepard took some of his biggest steps yet toward becoming a true receiver. He's somebody who is going to run crisp routes and make something happen once he gets the football. Shepard doesn't look as much like a quarterback trying to play receiver anymore. On defense, Craig Loston emerged as the starter at free safety. He was showered with a lot of hype coming out of high school, but it was his performance that made everybody sit up and take notice this spring. Cornerback Morris Claiborne said Loston is a much more instinctive player and a lot more vocal than he was a year ago.

Of note: The Tigers moved Chris Davenport from the defensive line to left tackle on offense. … Safety Brandon Taylor, defensive end Sam Montgomery and offensive guard Josh Dworaczyk were among the players being held out of contact this spring to fully recover from injuries. … Shepard wasn’t the only LSU receiver making waves this spring. Fellow junior Rueben Randle has that look of an All-SEC receiver next season. … Brad Wing, a 21-year-old native of Australia, is in line to be the Tigers’ punter. Wing played 15 years of Australian Rules Football before coming over to the United States. … It looks like Ron Brooks and Randle are the top two candidates to return kickoffs, while Tyrann Mathieu is at the head of the list to return punts.
This time a year ago, it was a hard sell for LSU coach Les Miles, even to his own coaches, that Jordan Jefferson was truly the Tigers’ best quarterback.

Jarrett Lee outplayed Jefferson for much of last spring despite what the depth chart said going into the season.

“Last spring, I didn’t push myself hard enough, and that sort of led into the season,” Jefferson said.

[+] EnlargeJordan Jefferson
Tyler Kaufman/Icon SMILSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson has outperformed the competition in spring practice.
After throwing a pair of touchdowns in the season-opening win against North Carolina, Jefferson hit the kind of skid that usually leads to quarterback purgatory.

Over his next seven games, he didn’t throw a single touchdown pass, was intercepted seven times and passed for 100 yards or more only once.

Here’s the catch: Miraculously, the Tigers only lost one game during that stretch, which tells you how good they were on defense and special teams.

“I’d never played like that before, and my confidence took a hit, a big hit,” Jefferson said. “I just told myself to stay positive and everything happens for a reason.”

By the fifth game, Jefferson and Lee were sharing snaps, and even though Jefferson ended the season by playing his best football, the Tigers went out and signed coveted (and talented) junior college quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who started his career at Georgia.

The thinking coming into this spring was that the 6-5, 250-pound Mettenberger would come in and eventually take the reins at quarterback.

Obviously, somebody forgot to tell Jefferson, who’s responded this spring exactly the way you’d hope your returning senior quarterback would.

He’s soaked up everything first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe has told him, kept his head down, worked hard and made the kind of strides that will make it difficult for anybody to unseat him.

After Jefferson tossed four touchdown passes in last Saturday’s scrimmage, Miles beamed that such performances were becoming routine for Jefferson.

Even Jefferson isn’t ready to go that far, but he says with conviction that his confidence is “out the roof,” and there’s no debate this year as the Tigers prepare for Saturday’s spring game who’s been their best quarterback.

“I need to feed off of that confidence, and I will feed off of it for this next season,” said Jefferson, who finished last season with 1,411 passing yards to go along with seven touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. “There’s a lot of momentum right now, for our entire offense, and we’re going to keep that going.”

The two biggest differences for Jefferson have been Kragthorpe and Mettenberger, probably in that order.

A proven commodity when it comes to developing quarterbacks, Kragthorpe immediately zeroed in on Jefferson’s fundamentals.

“He’s just more of a quarterbacks coach, and it’s the small things that he’s emphasized the most,” Jefferson said. “I’m taking advantage of those small things, like footwork and technique, and that’s helped me throw the ball as consistently as anything.

“These are things we emphasize on every rep in every practice. Your footwork is what defines your throws, and my footwork is so much better.

“I just feel 10 times better than I ever did last year.”

Jefferson said he also owes Mettenberger a debt of thanks.

All Jefferson heard all offseason was how Mettenberger was going to come in and take his job. The more he heard it, the harder Jefferson worked.

“Zach coming in motivated me to step up my game,” Jefferson said. “I needed that, somebody pushing me like that. It just made me go that much harder.”

Jefferson knows as well as anybody that nothing counts until the fall. Mettenberger isn’t going anywhere, either, and the Tigers will certainly be looking for spots to get him some snaps.

But unlike a year ago, Jefferson isn’t being handed the job on a platter. He’s earned it.

He’s dead set on keeping it, too.
While everybody on the Bayou might be buzzing over the impending quarterback battle this spring at LSU, first-year offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe looks at it a little differently.

He’s not consumed with finding a quarterback.

“I’m not as concerned about finding a quarterback, because I think we have three very talented guys,” Kragthorpe said. “I’m concerned about installing the offense, letting them play and getting them in a position where all they do is react to the defense, and then we’ll go from there.

[+] Enlarge Steve Kragthorpe
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesNew offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe isn't overly concerned with identifying a starting quarterback.
“The best part for me is that I’m not walking in the door and saying, ‘Oh man, we don’t have a quarterback. We’ve got to find one.’ We’ve got three talented, very capable guys.”

And, yet, nobody needs to tell Kragthorpe that LSU’s passing game was abysmal for much of last season.

Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, both of whom will be seniors, combined to throw nine touchdown passes and 11 interceptions. The Tigers finished 107th nationally in passing offense, averaging 155.6 yards per game.

In short, they were about as one-dimensional as it gets.

Les Miles’ challenge to Kragthorpe when he hired the former Louisville and Tulsa head coach was to bring some balance back to an LSU offense that relied almost exclusively on the run last season.

That process starts later Friday when the Tigers open spring practice, and one of the things the LSU offensive players had better get used to hearing from Kragthorpe is how important consistency is to an efficient passing game.

Heralded junior college signee Zach Mettenberger joins Jefferson and Lee this spring in the Tigers' quarterback battle.

“Wherever I’ve been when we’ve been successful throwing the football, and I don’t care if it’s junior high or the NFL, we’ve had a system the quarterback understood and one the offensive line understood,” said Kragthorpe, who tutored Drew Bledsoe as the Buffalo Bills’ quarterbacks coach in 2001 and 2002.

“Going back to my days with Dan Henning, he’ll tell you the six toughest jobs on offense are quarterback and the offensive line positions, because that’s where it gets the most multiple. We’ve got to try and keep it as concise, consistent and tight a package as we possibly can for those guys and get multiple with our personnel groupings and formations.”

Kragthorpe has watched a lot of LSU’s offensive tape from last season, although he’s trained himself not to make any judgments on players based on what’s happened in the past.

To make things easier on the players, Kragthorpe plans on using the same terminology as the Tigers used last season on offense, which is the only reason he watched so much tape.

“The simplest thing for the players is that I learn the language they were speaking instead of teaching them a whole new language,” said Kragthorpe, who plans on being in the booth during games this season.

What anybody did or didn’t do last season on the field means nothing to Kragthorpe.

“The past is the past,” he said. “I walked into the door on Jan. 21 and said everybody’s got a clean slate no matter what’s happened football-wise, no matter what’s happened academically, no matter what’s happened socially.

“We’re moving forward.”

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