NCF Nation: Travin Dural

When LSU and Notre Dame were ranked in the top 10 at points earlier in the season, nobody would have predicted that they would eventually meet in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl. And yet here we are.

LSU (8-4) and Notre Dame (7-5) stumbled down the stretch to land in Nashville, Tennessee, and set up their 11th all-time meeting -- the most between Notre Dame and any SEC program.

A bowl win will put a positive spin on a disappointing season for the Tigers or Fighting Irish. Here, LSU writer David Ching and Notre Dame writer Matt Fortuna discuss what a win would mean, as well as best- and worst-case scenarios for the two teams.

What a win would mean for LSU: From a bragging-rights perspective, a win on Dec. 30 would give LSU a winning record (the programs are currently 5-5 head-to-head) against the Fighting Irish. Obviously that would make for a nice historical footnote. As for its modern-day impact, the Tigers are hoping to repeat what happened the last time they met Notre Dame in a bowl. LSU’s 2006 team blasted Notre Dame to end that season and went on to win a BCS title the following year. LSU has some questions to answer this offseason -- particularly at quarterback -- but after enduring some growing pains with a young roster, the Tigers believe they can be playoff contenders next season. A win in Nashville would be a good way to kickstart the offseason.

What a win would mean for Notre Dame: A win over No. 23 LSU would easily be Notre Dame's best victory of the season. More importantly, it would stop the bleeding that comes with a season-ending four-game losing streak. The Irish need positive momentum going into next season, especially with so many familiar faces expected to return in 2015. A lot of that could go out the door if this same cast of characters enters riding a five-game slide and wondering how it all went south so fast following a 6-0 start and No. 5 ranking.

LSU’s best case for bowl: Minus the narrow margin of victory, a game like LSU’s regular-season finale against Texas A&M would be ideal. The Tigers’ defense held a potent offense to just 228 total yards and their offensive scheme was perhaps the most ambitious it has been all year. Quarterback Anthony Jennings was outstanding on quarterback runs (he rushed for 119 yards) and completed passes to seven different teammates, freshman tailback Leonard Fournette was outstanding, and speedy receiver Travin Dural did some damage on jet sweeps. If LSU is to move back toward contender status in 2015, the offense has to be much more effective than it was this fall. Finishing the season with a productive outing against an underwhelming Notre Dame defense would do wonders for the young Tigers’ confidence.

Notre Dame’s best case for bowl: In a weird way, the best-case scenario for Notre Dame would be that Malik Zaire emerges as a star, carves up a really, really good LSU defense, runs the offense to a T and looks like the Irish's quarterback of the future. That is not to say that the Irish cannot win with Everett Golson, or that it would necessarily be good to see him struggle in any way, shape or form. But the fact of the matter is that the Irish have seen all that Golson can and cannot do throughout the course of this season, with his 22 turnovers -- all over the final nine games -- contributing largely to this losing skid. Zaire has yet to start or see meaningful action in a close game, and if he looks great against a great defense, the Irish may just know where to start when it comes to finding the right guy to lead their offense in 2015. The defense needs to play better, sure, but much of that unit's demise can be chalked up to youth, inexperience and a litany of injuries. There are no excuses for the offense being as inconsistent as it has as of late, which means success from a fresh face could simplify things for this program moving forward.

LSU’s worst case for bowl: As with Notre Dame, another ugly outing on offense would be the wrong way to enter the offseason. Both teams have good reason to believe their defenses will be strong in 2015, but they need to figure out where they’re going at quarterback (in LSU’s case, is it going to be Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris?) and develop a dependable offensive identity. The power running game will continue to be LSU’s bread and butter, but another game where its quarterback struggles to make drive-extending completions won’t create much confidence that next season will be different for the Tigers’ offense.

Notre Dame’s worst case for bowl: If the Irish look listless on offense, and if neither quarterback can get things going against the Tigers' defense -- or worse, turns the ball over frequently -- it will be back to the drawing board for Brian Kelly and his offense, which would be entering Year 6 with still no answer at quarterback. Golson cannot afford another outing like his last month of work, and Zaire cannot botch his first major opportunity to make a public statement and to show he is capable of answering the bell with the spotlight on him.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The game rested on Anthony Jennings' young shoulders when he took the field last season against Arkansas. This was no time for the 19-year-old quarterback to play like a tentative true freshman.

"Obviously if you come in like a mouse talking to the huddle and things, they won't believe me," Jennings recalled, "so I had to come in with confidence high and tell the guys, 'Here we go. We're going to go score.'"

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsThe last time LSU played Arkansas, on Nov. 29, 2013, Anthony Jennings (pictured) and Travin Dural forged a lasting quarterback-to-receiver bond.
Jennings' LSU team trailed the Razorbacks 27-24 in the fourth quarter and Jennings was standing in his own end zone when he took the first snap on a possession that would forever tie his name with that of Travin Dural in LSU lore.

To that point in the season, Jennings had appeared only on a few select running plays and in garbage time, but here he was replacing injured senior starter Zach Mettenberger and needing to drive the Tigers 99 yards in the game's final 3:04 if LSU was to avoid a huge upset.

When the Tigers' backup quarterback entered the huddle, he projected the necessary confident tone, said Dural, then a redshirt freshman who spent most of the season in veteran stars Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham's shadows.

"He came in like he had been playing the whole game and came in like he was the starter and the offense never missed a beat," said Dural, whose Tigers (7-3, 3-3 SEC) will visit Arkansas (4-5, 0-5) on Saturday.

The drive started with a 2-yard Jennings run to get the Tigers some breathing room away from the goal line. Completions of 16 yards to tight end Dillon Gordon and 11 yards to Landry soon followed. Then Jennings broke a 21-yard run to push the Tigers past midfield.

The drive started to stall from there, however. Jennings tossed an incomplete pass to Kadron Boone and then completed a screen pass to tailback Jeremy Hill, but Arkansas' Deatrich Wise stopped him for no gain. The Tigers called a timeout, facing third-and-10 from the Arkansas 49-yard line with just 1:22 to play.

That's when Jennings lined up in the shotgun and launched a perfect strike down the left sideline to a wide-open Dural, who had streaked 10 yards behind Arkansas defensive back Jared Collins. Dural hauled in the pass and crossed the goal line to give LSU a 31-27 lead, and the final score, with 1:15 remaining.

It was one of the most exciting moments of the entire season for the Tigers, and it was a pair of freshmen who hooked up to make it happen.

"You're always going to remember that play and that 99-yard drive," Jennings said. "That's the story and then being a freshman at that, I'm always going to remember that."

Jennings and Dural used that game-winning touchdown pass as a launching point, with both players enjoying much more prominent roles in the Tigers' offense as sophomores.

Dural (30 catches for 701 yards, 7 TDs), who has started every game this season and ranks fourth in the SEC with an average of 70.1 receiving yards per game, said the Arkansas touchdown gave him confidence that he could become an impact player in the SEC.

"It was coming, but after that play it was really there," Dural said. "It kind of showed me, 'OK, I can make plays. I can do this.'"

Jennings (80-170, 1,266 yards, 9 TDs, 6 INTs) has had an up-and-down sophomore season, but the Tigers have won eight of his 10 starts since he took over for Mettenberger.

He said he didn't need the Arkansas comeback to believe he belonged at LSU, although he first credited his teammates and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron for making the drive a success.

"I don't think it was confirmation. I think I always had that confidence in myself that I could play at a high level," Jennings said. "So just that happening was a product of all the teammates around me helping me, guiding me, coaching me, Coach Cameron calling great plays there. So it really was not on me. It's about the guys around me."

The duo has already combined to provide several other huge plays for the Tigers since the Arkansas game. They hooked up for an 80-yard touchdown in a season-opening win against Wisconsin and combined for a school-record 94-yard touchdown on LSU's first offensive play the following week against Sam Houston State.

Dural was also the recipient of a 41-yard pass from Jennings on third-and-25 that extended the Tigers' go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter against Florida. He made a one-handed, 11-yard touchdown catch to cap the drive and give LSU a 27-24 lead with 2:40 to play.

Needless to say, Jennings-to-Dural has become one of the SEC's top big-play combinations this season, and it all started with an unlikely 99-yard drive last season against Arkansas where two freshmen showed up at the game's biggest moment.

"That was a big moment for both of those guys. It kind of jumpstarted both of their careers," senior running back Terrence Magee said. "They've made big plays throughout the year this year and we've counted on both of those guys and we're going to continue to count on them through the rest of this season.

"I think the big-play ability and the connection that they have with each other is going to be vital to the rest of this season and into the future for those guys."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Inexperience often reveals itself at the most inopportune times.

[+] EnlargeMalachi Dupre, Cyrus Jones
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertMalachi Dupre has one of the few highlights for LSU receivers in a problem-filled Week 11 loss to Bama.
Such was the case last Saturday for LSU, when young Tigers dropped multiple catchable passes that could have extended drives -- and in the case of sophomore fullback Melvin Jones, given LSU a key first down during its unsuccessful overtime possession.

"We had some of our best receivers, I mean maybe the most talented ball-skill guys, drop balls [against Alabama]," LSU coach Les Miles said. "So I was surprised absolutely that that was the case. I would bet you that that wouldn't happen again like that for a long time."

But it did against Alabama, in the 20-13 OT loss. Twice when freshman Trey Quinn -- one of the Tigers' most sure-handed wideouts – dropped third-down passes from Anthony Jennings during drives in the fourth quarter. Fellow freshman Malachi Dupre also dropped a third-down pass that could have extended a first-quarter drive. And sophomore Travin Dural once picked up only 2 yards on a third-and-3 pass, although in his defense, the officials might have been a bit stingy with their spot.

Nonetheless, the collection of missteps in the passing game added up for LSU, particularly once Alabama was able to rally in the final minute and force overtime.

"There's just so much that's left on the table when you don't have drives that are continuous, down-the-field drives," Miles said. "That's ultimately the easiest way to extend an offensive productivity is to get so some of those plays you want to call after you've picked up a third down.

"In other words, just think about how many more plays would have happened if we pick up four third downs. Legitimately, minimum, eight to 10 max. Twenty?"

Dupre redeemed himself after his drop by making a one-handed touchdown catch on third down to cap LSU's next possession. But he also recognized that drops were a clear problem at his position against Alabama.

"Trey may have had a few questionable ones, Travin, myself," Dupre said. "Definitely we're guys who work extra hard to catch the football and [the Alabama game] isn't something that we want to keep doing. It definitely won't happen. I know I'll work harder, I know Trey will work very hard, Travin, and we'll get that fixed and it won't happen again."

To date, third down has been an issue for LSU on several fronts. Not only have quarterbacks Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris failed to come anywhere near the production that senior Zach Mettenberger provided in the passing game last season, but the collection of young receivers haven't measured up to what departed veterans Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham accomplished in 2013.

Landry, in particular, was one of the nation's top third-down receivers, catching 28 of the 35 passes where he was targeted and accumulating 474 yards and six touchdowns on third down alone. Beckham caught 15 of his 25 targets for 272 yards.

As a group, LSU's top four receivers -- Dural, Dupre, Quinn and John Diarse -- have caught 20 of the 55 passes where they were targeted for 291 yards and three touchdowns.

Dural (seven catches on 23 targets for 105 yards) is the leader, but the conversion rate is not particularly impressive for any of the quarterbacks' regular targets. Diarse (4-for-6 for 78 yards) has caught 67 percent of his third-down targets and achieved three first downs and a touchdown, but he has only been targeted on third down twice since the Louisana-Monroe win on Sept. 13.





For his part, Jennings accepted some of the blame for the incompletions, saying that some of his passes were not as accurate as they needed to be.

"Those guys don't want to drop passes," Jennings said. "I've just got to put it in better position for them to catch the ball and see it with strong hands. And basically [if I'm] more accurate with the football, I have confidence in those guys that they'll do a great job catching the ball."

It's part of the risk you run when relying on young players. Landry and Beckham were not the reliable third-down performers they would become as true freshmen, either, but they developed into one of the nation's top receiving tandems by the time they were juniors.

Their performances against Alabama are part of the growing process for LSU's freshmen, and Dupre said he hopes it will be the last time he and Quinn's drops figure into a Tigers' loss.

"I don't want to say it's the story of the game. We did a lot of things right," Dupre said. "It's definitely not a characteristic of us, but it happened [against Alabama]. We just have to get better moving forward and make sure it doesn't happen again. That's the bottom line."
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Believe it or not, LSU has an outside shot at representing the West Division in the SEC championship game even after an 0-2 start in league play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

C. Mississippi State loses at Alabama and Ole Miss.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“[Playing in Atlanta has] been our mindset since the beginning of the year,” right tackle Jerald Hawkins said. “I know we had a few setbacks, but we still have the mindset we still can get there. If we finish this season out right, anything can happen.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- This will be Kendell Beckwith's kind of game.

LSU’s new starting middle linebacker knows LSU-Alabama is the SEC’s version of a toughman competition, and that’s exactly the style of football he likes to play.

“I know it’s going to be hard-nosed football,” said Beckwith, whose team will host Alabama on Saturday. “I know they’re going to try to come downhill on us and we’re just going to have to do a good job of stopping the run.”

Perhaps no two programs in the conference are a better match than No. 6 Alabama (7-1, 4-1 SEC) and No. 19 LSU (7-2, 3-2), which is why their annual showdown has become one of the conference’s premier rivalries.

They recruit at similarly high levels. They turn out tons of professional talent. They’re led by stars in the coaching profession. And they’re both known for their physicality -- particularly along the line of scrimmage.

Teams that are weak up front typically don’t have much of a chance.

“I think it’ll be pretty physical and pretty loud and probably like a repeat of the Ole Miss game -- maybe a little more exciting,” said Beckwith, who was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week last week after his 10-tackle performance helped LSU beat Ole Miss 10-7 and hand the Rebels their first loss of the season.

That was easily LSU’s best win of the season following a rocky start in which the Tigers did not perform up to their expectations on the offensive and defensive lines. Mississippi State and Auburn both posted huge yardage totals against John Chavis’ defense, and LSU's trademark power running game failed to keep the Tigers in either of those losses.

They have turned things around of late, however, improving on a weekly basis on defense and averaging 254 rushing yards per game during their current three-game winning streak.

Running effectively against defenses from Florida and Ole Miss was a challenge, and the Tigers were successful. But facing Alabama’s defense is an entirely different animal, as the Crimson Tide enter as the SEC’s leading run defense -- and rank second nationally -- by allowing just 78.1 rushing yards per game.

“They’re big up front, so our O-line has just got to be able to handle those guys up front and get moving on those guys,” LSU running back Kenny Hilliard said. “If they do that, they’ll create some running lanes for our backs and we’ll be able to get in there and hit the crease and get vertical.”

When the Tigers were struggling a month ago, that seemed like a laughable proposition. Now it’s not nearly as funny. LSU was clearly the more physical team against Ole Miss -- which handed Alabama its only loss of the season on Oct. 4 -- and could have won by a wider margin if not for four turnovers and a missed 28-yard field goal.

For the first time this season, LSU looks like a team that can give Alabama a run for its money.

Nick Saban’s Tide will still enter Tiger Stadium as the favorite, just as they have been every time these teams have met after 2007, Saban’s first season at Alabama. Their visits to Baton Rouge under Saban have all been instant classics, and Alabama has won two of the three.

Saban’s return to LSU -- where he coached from 2000 to 2004 -- came in 2008, with Alabama winning 27-21 in overtime. Les Miles’ Tigers returned the favor in 2010, fooling everyone in the stadium with a fourth-down reverse to tight end DeAngelo Peterson to set up the go-ahead touchdown in a 24-21 win. In 2012, AJ McCarron and T.J. Yeldon combined to break LSU fans’ hearts on a 28-yard touchdown pass with 51 seconds to play, lifting the Tide to a 21-17 win.

LSU and Alabama's performances of late offer every reason to believe this should be another enormously physical and competitive game, which is why it’s no coincidence both teams took this past weekend off in order to rest up for Saturday’s rematch. They both know exactly what to expect Saturday: probably the most intense game they will play all season.

“It was live. It was crazy,” said LSU receiver Travin Dural, who caught his first career touchdown pass against Alabama last season in Tuscaloosa. “Their defense was flying all over and they were big and fast and physical and they didn’t make a lot of mistakes.”

LSU’s defense has played cleaner games lately as well, and its timing couldn’t be better. For the Tigers to pull off an upset Saturday, it will require their most efficient, physically imposing outing of the season.
Not everyone can be a first-team All-SEC selection. When we created our midseason all-conference team, we understood that some players would be left off. When you have Dak Prescott making a Heisman run, other quarterbacks are forgotten. But that doesn’t mean we should go without mentioning those who didn’t make the cut. Here’s a rundown of some of the SEC's most underrated players at the midseason point.

OFFENSE

QB: Bo Wallace, Ole Miss
Bad Bo may be a thing of the past. The formerly inconsistent senior has strung together back-to-back big games when his team has needed them most. He’s currently No. 1 in the SEC in percent of completions gaining 10 or more yards (59.7).

[+] EnlargeAlex Collins
Michael C. Johnson/USA TODAY SportsAlex Collins is averaging 6.9 yards per carry for the Razorbacks.
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
Todd Gurley is the class of the SEC. But Collins is as good as anyone behind him. The true sophomore is fourth in the SEC in rushing yards (634) and ranks third in percent of runs gaining 5 or more yards (55.4). He’s physical (seventh in yards after contact), but he’s also explosive (17 runs of 10 or more yards).

WR: Travin Dural, LSU
But when you say “explosive” you better reference LSU’s sophomore wide receiver. Dural ranks first in the SEC in yards per reception (26.1), second in receiving yards (626) and second in receiving touchdowns (8).

TE: Steven Scheu, Vanderbilt
Not a lot of people are watching Vanderbilt this season, for obvious reasons. But you’re missing out on one of the most productive tight ends in the league. Scheu is second on the Commodores with 19 receptions, 269 yards and one touchdown. Imagine if he had a better quarterback throwing him the football.

OL: David Andrews, Georgia
Forget the Todd Gurley drama, Nick Chubb's emergence and Hutson Mason's inconsistencies. What’s really fueling Georgia is its offensive line Leading that charge is senior center David Andrews. He’s a big reason the Bulldogs rank 12th nationally in rushing yards and Mason has been sacked just eight times.

DEFENSE

DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
There are a lot of reasons why Arkansas is a better football team this season. The running game is obviously one of them. But the play on the defensive line, and the continued improvement of Philon, is another. Philon has an impressive 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks this season.

LB: Xzavier Dickson, Alabama
Many around Tuscaloosa have been waiting for Dickson’s emergence at outside linebacker. It turns out he was waiting until his senior year. The Georgia native already has five sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss this season, blowing away his previous career totals.

CB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee
While we wait for Tennessee to break through as a program under coach Butch Jones, there’s one Vol who has already announced himself to the SEC: Sutton. The sophomore corner has come up big in big moments this season. He’s hauled in three interceptions, defended seven passes and even had four tackles for loss.

S: A.J. Stamps, Kentucky
Ever wonder what’s caused the Wildcats to come on so strong this season? Look no further than Stamps, a junior college transfer who has solidified the back end of Mark Stoops’ defense. Stamps has 27 tackles, three interceptions and six passes defended.

SPECIALISTS

K: Francisco Velez, Florida
If you didn’t know his story, reading it should be enough to make you want to root for the guy. If that’s not enough, consider that he ranks fifth in the SEC in field goals made (8), second in overall field goal percentage (88.9, minimum six attempts) and tied for first in field goals of more than 40 yards (8).

P: Landon Foster, Kentucky
It’s not about quantity for Foster. But when it comes to punters in the SEC with a minimum of 20 attempts, he ranks first in percent of punts inside the 20, first in average distance from goal after return and first in fewest punts returned.

KR/PR: Darrius Sims, Vanderbilt
Here’s another Commodore you’ve probably never heard of. Sims, a defensive back by trade, is first in the SEC in kickoff return yards (431), second in yards per kickoff return (30.8) and tied for first in kickoff return touchdowns (2). Nine of his kickoff returns have gained 20 yards or more.
Give Anthony Jennings credit for this much: The guy has been a good closer.

LSU's sophomore quarterback has endured plenty of criticism this season because of his inconsistent play, and his first three quarters in Saturday's win against Florida gave his detractors additional fodder. But Jennings made a couple of crucial throws in the game's closing minutes -- most importantly a third-and-25 connection with Travin Dural that went for a 41-yard gain and an 11-yard fade where Dural made a one-handed touchdown grab -- that made the Tigers' 30-27 win possible.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Jennings has been clutch for the Tigers in the fourth quarter.
"He's come through on some huge plays. If you remember that Arkansas play, he threw a deep ball," LSU coach Les Miles said, referring to Jennings' game-winning 49-yard touchdown pass to Dural with barely over a minute left in a 31-27 victory last season. "What we've got to do is get him comfortable throwing some of those intermediate balls that we would have liked to have him throw in there."

For most of the Florida game, Jennings didn't display much touch on any of his throws. Entering the final period, LSU was clinging to a 20-17 lead and Jennings was 6-for-12 for 37 yards, while Leonard Fournette and the Tigers' running game had essentially provided the Tigers' only offensive spark.

But with the game on the line -- as was the case last fall against Arkansas and in the Tigers' season-opening win against Wisconsin -- Jennings displayed a strong finishing kick.

He went 4-for-9 for 73 yards in the final period on Saturday, connecting with Dural on the Tigers' two biggest passing plays of the evening.

The 41-yard bomb to Dural looked highly similar to the Arkansas play, although Miles pointed out after the game that the Florida pass went down the right sideline instead of the left like the Arkansas throw. Either way, the result was nearly the same. Jennings and Dural got the Tigers out of a hole with the long pass and then connected again two plays later for a touchdown that helped LSU go back ahead 27-24.

"[I was] just going through my reads," Jennings told ESPN sideline reporter Maria Taylor of the big plays to Dural. "I have the utmost confidence in that guy."

It was not Dural, but redshirt freshman John Diarse who was the target of a key Jennings throw against Wisconsin. Diarse caught an intermediate throw from Jennings on third-and-21 early in the fourth quarter, then blasted through a host of Badgers defenders on the way to the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown that helped cut Wisconsin's lead to 24-21.

The Tigers relied on the run for much of its comeback in that game en route to a 28-24 win, but Jennings was 2-for-3 for 63 yards in the fourth quarter, including the big touchdown pass to Diarse.

In the four games where Jennings has appeared in the fourth quarter, he is 10-for-23 for 235 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions on fourth-quarter passes. Half of his completions went for gains of at least 20 yards and eight of them achieved a first down.

His fourth-quarter passing efficiency score of 158.0 ranks 23rd among FBS quarterbacks, which is considerably better than his 130.5 score for all four quarters that ranks 69th nationally according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Of course, none of this resolves LSU's quarterback quandary between Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris. Harris didn't play against Florida after falling flat and injuring his ankle while making his first career start the previous Saturday against Auburn. Afterward, Miles hesitated to predict how much Harris might play when LSU (5-2, 1-2 SEC) hosts Kentucky (5-1, 2-1) on Saturday.

Jennings hardly gave a standout performance against the Gators -- his final passing line was 10-for-21 for 110 yards and a touchdown -- but Miles defended LSU's quarterback decision after the game.

"We'd like to have gotten Brandon Harris in the game," Miles said. "That was certainly something that we thought about because he does give us a very explosive piece and his talent there is pretty special. But in a game like this, we just couldn't miss serve and we felt like Anthony Jennings was the guy to stay with."

On this occasion, at least, Jennings and Dural combined to reward the coaches for their patience.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Travin Dural noticed a difference almost immediately after Malachi Dupre's breakout performance.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertOf the six TD passes Brandon Harris has thrown this season, four of them have been to Malachi Dupre.
Early in the season, the trick to shutting down LSU's passing game was essentially that if you limit the damage from Dural -- he ranks third in the SEC with 106.8 receiving yards per game -- you'll be fine. But in last Saturday's 63-7 win against New Mexico State, a week removed from Dupre's 120-yard, two-touchdown effort against Mississippi State, Dural realized he wasn't getting as much of the opposing defense's attention.

"For the most part, we came out for the Mississippi State game and I was being doubled from the jump," Dupre said. "We came out in this game right here [against NMSU] and it wasn't as bad. So I'd say because he started making plays and he was on the other side of the field from me, that helped out a lot."

That's exactly what No. 15 LSU (4-1, 0-1 SEC) needs from Dural's mates in the receiving corps, and exactly what the Tigers expected when Dupre -- ESPN's No. 1 receiver in the 2014 recruiting class -- signed with the program in February. The freshman missed the Tigers' opener against Wisconsin with an injury and didn't do much until late in Game 2 against Sam Houston State, but he has played a prominent role in the past two weeks, much to Dural's relief.

"I've been preaching to him all year, 'We need you. We need you to step up and make those plays,' and the past couple games he's been doing it," said Dural, whose team visits No. 5 Auburn (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday. "I feel like coming into this game this week, teams are going to have to respect him because there's a threat that someone else can make a play."

Perhaps it's no coincidence the majority of Dupre's recent production has come with fellow freshman Brandon Harris playing quarterback. Thanks in part to a bond that dates back to their time as high school prospects, Harris has targeted Dupre with eight passes and completed seven of them for 138 yards and four touchdowns.

Initially, both freshmen played the majority of their snaps in mop-up duty, but their roles in the offense have steadily grown. Against NMSU, Dupre caught three passes for 54 yards and became the first Tiger not named Dural to lead the team in receiving yards in a game this season. Dupre made his first career start against NMSU and reigning SEC Freshman of the Week Harris is set for his starting debut on Saturday.

[+] EnlargeMalachi Dupre
Gerald Herbert/Associated PressMalachi Dupre has made a friend in fellow freshman Brandon Harris during their short time at LSU.
"It's very rewarding when we both do well," Dupre said. "It seems like every touchdown I've caught from [Harris], he was the first one there to celebrate with me even though he was a long distance away."

Dupre and Harris are from different parts of Louisiana -- Harris hails from Bossier City in the northwest corner of the state and Dupre is from New Orleans along the southeastern border -- so they didn't begin to develop a relationship until meeting as recruits. Initially Dupre cozied up to Harris in an effort to bond with his potential future quarterback, and they soon discovered their personalities meshed well.

"We're both alike. We're not shy people. We both want to make big plays in big-time games. I guess since our personalities are alike, that's why we gravitate to each other so much," Dupre said. "Yeah, we spend a lot of time with each other off the field and not because he's the quarterback and I'm a receiver. If he played D-line, we'd still be close."

Likewise, Harris was initially impressed by Dupre's receiving skills -- he recalled thinking, "This guy's insane" while watching him compete at an LSU prospect camp in the summer of 2013 -- but now believes their time together has helped them develop legitimate chemistry.

"Me and Malachi worked out together in California this offseason. We work out a lot," Harris said. "There's chemistry between all of our receivers. We stay after practice and throw all of the time. I think it's important. You can't go out there and dream stuff up. You've got to be on the same page."

He and Dupre definitely seemed to be on the same page the past two games, and their comfort level will likely continue to grow as they gain on-field experience together.

"I sense a level of comfort, a level of confidence -- and that's with any young player coming in and getting some reps and getting some time on the field," receiver John Diarse said. "The more you play, the more balls you catch, the more plays you make, you start getting comfortable and getting confident in your game."

Dupre played in a run-oriented offense where he rarely touched the ball at state football power John Curtis, but he always knew he had the ability to become a difference-maker at receiver in college. Lately things seem to be going according to plan.

"I came here to make plays and help us win," Dupre said. "Now that I'm getting that opportunity and chance, it feels good. But I can honestly say that it is something I envisioned and thought about before I came. And now that we're doing it and being successful at it, it helps."

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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 has sparked LSU's offense this season with numerous impact plays.
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."

Expect more of same with QB rotation

September, 8, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- If you want to gain a better understanding of LSU’s starting quarterback decision, Saturday’s win against Sam Houston State provided a visual explanation.

Anthony Jennings is not as exciting as freshman Brandon Harris, nor is he as prone to the wild swings between ecstasy and agony that accompany inexperience. Therein lies the dilemma facing the Tigers’ coaching staff.

The uber-talented Harris will progress by leaps and bounds after getting his first significant playing time on Saturday -- an evening when he made a ridiculous 46-yard touchdown run and tossed his first touchdown pass, but also was involved in a comical fourth-quarter sequence where he actually fumbled twice on the same play.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris, Cam Cameron
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanBrandon Harris, right, talks with coordinator Cam Cameron before the Sam Houston State game.
Meanwhile, Jennings is starting to prove himself as a steady leader of the Tigers’ offense. Perhaps he’s not as electric a talent, but Jennings is now 3-0 as a starter and on Saturday took another big step forward following a steady second-half performance in last week’s comeback win against Wisconsin.

After Jennings went 7-for-13 for 188 yards and three touchdowns against SHSU -- including a perfectly placed 94-yard scoring pass to Travin Dural on the Tigers’ first play from scrimmage -- LSU coach Les Miles described him as someone "who is really defining himself and appears to be somebody with confidence and calmness and the ability to go out there and measure and manage the game."

Contrast that with Harris, who made some dynamite plays in finishing 4-for-5 for 62 yards and a touchdown, along with 53 rushing yards on five attempts, but who continuously ran from the huddle to the sideline to get LSU’s play calls and who was responsible for that ugly turnover.

Overall, it was a solid home debut for the freshman, but Miles said you can’t evaluate the overall body of work without downgrading it somewhat because of Harris’ reckless late fumble.

“That’s like saying, 'Other than the terrible accident that he had, what do you think of how he played?'" Miles said. "I think he played pretty well considering that we’re going to tell him not to turn the ball over."

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanAnthony Jennings has been a steady performer for LSU so far this season.
Jennings ran eight times for 43 yards on Saturday, often when instead of forcing a throw from the pocket, he decided against taking a risk and advanced for a modest gain. In short, he made smart decisions with the ball and generally didn’t do anything that could cost LSU a win.

"That’s a great thing, to get better week to week," Jennings said. "The coaches have stressed on me to try to throw the ball away when you can, run when you can, and that’s what I did. I pulled a couple down and ran with the ball."

Jennings faced a trial by fire in his first two starts, first against Iowa’s strong defense in a bowl game and then opening this season against Wisconsin. In SHSU, he finally got a cupcake to help him develop some confidence, and he should have another fairly easy outing this Saturday when Louisiana-Monroe visits Tiger Stadium.

So what’s the next step in his maturation as the Tigers’ quarterback?

"The next step is just being more efficient and just being better in general," Jennings said. "Obviously I want to get the win, and that’s what the ultimate goal is. So any way that I play that’s going to help the Tigers win, that’s what I’m going to do."

Jennings has done enough so far, but don’t think Harris is going to fade in this competition. He entered the preseason as the player with the greater upside and that remains the case. Once Harris gains a better grasp of the Tigers’ playbook and settles down a bit, the quarterback decision for Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will become much more complicated.

For the foreseeable future, though, expect to see some variety of the rotation LSU used in Saturday’s 56-0 blowout.

"The advantages of Brandon Harris we haven’t seen yet, to me," Miles said. "I think he’s coming and coming, and I think for us not to give him quality snaps and look for him to improve and get him in games would be a mistake. I would have to think that Anthony has done a good job to this point. Anthony’s done what we’ve asked him to do.

"I think we will play games very much like we played games [Saturday]."

SEC helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 7, 2014
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OK, so the competition wasn’t the best in the SEC this weekend. But players play, they don’t make the schedule.

Here’s a look at the top performances from Week 2:
  • Brandon Allen, QB, Arkansas: Granted, he didn’t have to do much. But Allen made the most of every pass attempt he had in the 73-7 win over Nicholls State. The junior who entered this season battling for his starting job was sharp, connecting on 4 of 5 passes for 117 yards and four touchdowns. There may have been some quarterbacks in the SEC with better overall numbers, but none was more efficient than Allen.
  • Cameron Artis-Payne, RB, Auburn: Maybe it’s Gus Malzahn’s system. Or maybe Artis-Payne is the same caliber running back as his predecessor, Tre Mason. However you draw it up, Artis-Payne sure looked like an All-SEC back in the 59-13 win over San Jose State, racking up three touchdowns and 100 yards -- in the first half. It’s scary to think what he could have done if he had carried the ball more than twice in the final two quarters.
  • Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama: It didn’t matter who was throwing him the football, Cooper was going to make a play in the Crimson Tide's 41-0 win. Of the 26 Alabama receptions on passes from Blake Sims and Jake Coker against Florida Atlantic, Cooper caught half of them. His 189 receiving yards pulled him within 15 yards of Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome's career record at Alabama.
  • Travin Dural, WR, LSU: Jarvis Landry is where now? And Odell Beckham? No matter. LSU seems to have found its playmaking receiver in Dural, who was third fiddle to Beckham and Landry last season. After a solid season opener against Wisconsin, Dural followed it up in the 56-0 victory over Sam Houston State, catching three passes for 140 yards and three touchdowns, including a 94-yard bomb.
  • Maty Mauk, QB, Missouri: Mauk single-handedly carried the Missouri offense against Toledo, accounting for six of the Tigers’ seven total touchdowns. The sophomore threw for a whopping 325 yards and five touchdowns on 21-of-32 passing in the 49-24 win. He also ran the ball 12 times for 36 yards and a score.
  • Kurt Roper, offensive coordinator, Florida: We don’t often hand out helmet stickers to coaches, but this felt like the exception to the rule. I mean, just look at how bad -- and stagnant -- Florida’s offense was last season. Now look at how efficient and explosive it was Saturday. Even if it was Eastern Michigan, you have to tip your cap to Roper, who helped UF to 655 total yards of offense in the 65-0 victory. He checked all the marks: quarterback Jeff Driskel threw for nearly 250 yards, three running backs ran for 50 yards or more and 11 different players had a reception.

Jennings takes lead in LSU QB race

September, 3, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Unlike last week, there is no mystery about who will start LSU’s second game at quarterback.

After Anthony Jennings played nearly the entire way in the Tigers’ season-opening win against Wisconsin – and was at the helm as his team rallied from a 24-7 deficit for a 28-24 win – the sophomore holds an advantage over true freshman Brandon Harris entering Saturday’s game against Sam Houston State.

“It was obvious in [the Wisconsin] game that the opportunity for us to win was, certainly right now, to get Anthony Jennings comfortable in there and let him play, and he did very well,” LSU coach Les Miles said Tuesday.

That doesn’t mean their quarterback duel is over, Miles said. It means that he plans to show patience as Harris – who failed to move the offense in one possession against Wisconsin – learns to function as a college quarterback. And in the meantime, Jennings will be the guy.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsDespite getting the win last Saturday, Anthony Jennings knows there is room for improvement.
It’s a good thing that the sophomore is coming off a game where he shook off an awful start to complete 4 of 6 passes for 119 yards and a touchdown in the second half. That made Jennings’ final passing line (9-for-21, 239 yards, 2 TDs) much more palatable as the Tigers allow Harris to develop at his own pace.

“After the half, you could see a change in Anthony,” receiver John Diarse said. “You could see the change in his eyes and you could really tell that he focused and he really relaxed and got comfortable in what we were doing and he trusted and believed in Coach Cam [Cameron] that he was going to put us in the right situation to make the plays.”

It was exactly the kind of confidence boost that Jennings likely needed. He was mediocre at best in his first career start – LSU’s Outback Bowl win against Iowa, when he took over for injured Zach Mettenberger – and followed that performance with a flat effort in LSU’s spring game.

But Jennings was able to complete more than just deep go routes to Travin Dural in the second half against Wisconsin, making a couple of nice throws that kept LSU drives moving and allowed the Tigers’ comeback to evolve.

“I feel like he did great,” running back Kenny Hilliard said. “He was able to go out there and make a couple plays for us and he led us to the victory. As a player and as a team, we feel like he got the job done.”

This was just a first step for both quarterbacks, however.

Jennings has more experience than his freshman counterpart, but he had only taken more than 100 career snaps when he took the field against Wisconsin. He is still extremely early in his development as a college quarterback, as well.

“I expect to be exponentially better,” Jennings said after the Wisconsin game. “I got this game under my belt and I’m getting more comfortable with the offense and those guys rallying around me. I’m just coming to practice every day and trying to get better.”

And Harris couldn’t have been satisfied with his playing time or with the results in his one series under center against the Badgers. He and Jennings have battled for the quarterback job since he arrived on campus in January, and Diarse made sure to remind him after the game that the battle is not over.

“We expect things and when we don’t get what we expect, we kind of get down,” Diarse said. “But like I told him after the game, I said, ‘Hey man, it’s not over. It’s just the beginning. Just stay in it, let’s ride it out and we’re going to win it.’"

In fact, if things go according to plan over the next couple of Saturdays – when the Tigers host Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe in a pair of nonconference matchups – Harris could be in line for considerably more playing time.

The score was too close and the competition too stiff for LSU’s coaches to take many risks at quarterback against Wisconsin. But even if Miles said his staff won’t predetermine Harris’ workload for Saturday; he almost certainly has a greater opportunity ahead – particularly if the Tigers take control early.

“I think Brandon will come into his own,” Diarse said. “I think he’s very pumped about this week knowing that he has the opportunity to play. I think his confidence level’s going to continue to rise. We expect great things from him just like we do Anthony. I think this week is going to really let him know that, ‘Hey, I can do this. I still have a chance.’ ”
You’d think that we’d all learn. You’d think that all the comebacks, successful trick plays, that goofy smile and almost sinister wink would teach us not to doubt The Hat.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsLes Miles' latest gamble paid off for the Tigers, who rallied to defeat Wisconsin on Saturday.
 But for some reason, we fail to realize the mad scientist genius that LSU coach Les Miles is. Right when we think he’s palm-clapped a win away, he’s there smiling, jumping and fist pumping in a crowd of purple and gold.

Saturday night, we were guilty of distrusting Miles when his team buried itself into a 24-7 hole against No. 14 Wisconsin in the third quarter. But neither the Mad Hatter nor his team flinched, as the Tigers reeled off 21 straight points for a thrilling 28-24 win in Houston, which was Miles’ 22nd fourth quarter/overtime comeback victory at LSU.

Naturally, the Tigers’ comeback was fueled by a fake punt that Miles called early in the third quarter (a drive after Wisconsin built its 17-point lead) on fourth-and-4 from his own 44-yard line. The Tigers kicked a field goal at the end of that possession, which led to four straight scoring drives for LSU.

“I’m very proud of this victory,” Miles said Saturday night. “I think we played sloppy, I think we did everything that we could have possibly done to the latest possible time to do it before we decided to play our best. The number of mistakes that were made by young players, the number of misfires that stopped us from really controlling a game and playing like we are capable will all be addressed in very orderly fashion as we go through this week. How much fun it is to have victory when making corrections!”

Grass smoothies for all!

It was so vintage Miles. He had just got done watching his football team set offense back 100 years with a dismal first half that featured just seven LSU points and 136 measly yards of offense. We still aren’t sure if Anthony Jennings’ 80-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural was even supposed to hit him or if it was supposed to float out of bounds.

But does it really matter? That’s Miles football right there, and it’s something that has captivated us for nine-plus years. We scoff at Miles’ quirkiness and those occasional indecipherable mumblings. There are loads of jokes about his clock management skills -- or lack thereof. And don’t take your eyes away from Miles when it’s fourth down. At this point, you just assume Miles is going to either go for it or fake it.

Which takes us back to Saturday. LSU had nothing going for it early in the third quarter. The defense had just surrendered a 75-yard touchdown drive on six plays. The offense then mustered six yards on three plays. Miles’ team needed a spark, so he ordered the fake, and the pieces just fell into place, as the Tigers found that want to win.

 “We felt like we had to make a play, and we didn’t have the right personnel in the stinking game,” Miles said. “I was madder than hell. It was a right call, and it was a right time and we had Kendell Beckwith with the ball, and I think those are quote, positives, and the momentum change at that point was significant. I think our guys started feeling it, and our opponent realized that we’re not going anywhere, and they were going to have to play until the bitter end.”

Miles was right. As LSU’s offense transformed into a more than competent unit, Wisconsin’s melted. The Tigers swarmed on defense and mirrored terrorizing defenses we’ve seen in the past. LSU pounded away, with Miles thunder palm-clapping with glee.

It isn’t easy to trust Miles, but as he enters his 10th season in Baton Rouge, we all know to expect the unexpected. Or should we just expect the expected? Whatever, you get the point. For all the questionable calls, Miles resembles a genius more than he does a goof. There’s a reason LSU is the winningest program in the SEC since Miles took over in 2005 (96-24), Miles has a national title (2007), and he’s won 10 or more games in seven of his nine full seasons at LSU.

LSU won’t go undefeated, and Miles’ riverboat gambling will catch up with him at times, but for anyone thinking the Tigers weren’t going to have a say in the SEC West race this fall, you were wrong. The second half of Saturday’s game proved this young team’s resiliency, and these cats are only going to grow and get better as the year continues.

"We're imperfect, even though we made the point that frankly, this is the time,” Miles said. “... I think we'll be better. I think this football team can take this experience and realize that to do the things that we want to do, to have the ambition that we really have, we're going to have to play better. The good news is, after victories, it's a lot more fun to go to work.

"The growing pains are very slight tremors and very light infection when you win.”

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.”

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Brandon Harris and Leonard Fournette have been waiting for this opportunity since well before they became roommates at LSU this summer.

With barely a week to go before they make their college debuts against Wisconsin, Fournette and Harris -- ESPN’s No. 1 and 37 overall prospects in the ESPN 300 -- have done nothing to slow the hype about what their futures hold.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLeonard Fournette is one of several standout freshmen expected to get extensive playing time for LSU.
“We’ve talked about this since before we got here, just dreaming it up, texting all the time during the season and hearing about him breaking every record and doing this and that,” Harris said of Fournette, the only player ever to win Louisiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year award twice. “So nothing surprises me, what he does.”

LSU fans’ expectations are sky high over what Fournette might accomplish once the running back takes the field in purple and gold. But they aren’t much lower for the other offensive skill-position standouts who helped him make the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class one of the best in school history.

You have early enrollee Harris, who is still competing with Anthony Jennings to become the starting quarterback. Harris clearly outplayed Jennings in LSU’s spring game and has flashed impressive running ability as well as a powerful throwing arm.

“At practice, man, his arm is so live,” Fournette marveled. “Everything with him is [hard]. Sometimes it’ll be hard to catch.”

And then there are receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, who are among the candidates to step into departed stars Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham’s roles as the Tigers’ go-to pass-catchers.

Dupre was ESPN’s top receiver prospect, No. 17 overall, and Quinn was the No. 3 receiver and ranked No. 29 overall on the ESPN 300. But asking them to immediately fill in for Landry and Beckham, who combined for 2,345 of LSU’s 3,263 receiving yards last season, is an awfully tall order.

“I don’t feel any pressure,” Dupre said. “I’ll leave it up to the coaches to make the proper game calls and just do what I do and make plays and try to be the best that I can be and not worry about what they did in the past. But also definitely try and pick up where they left off at because they were definitely two great receivers. Hopefully I can become as good as they were, but we’ll see what happens.”

In truth, it’s Quinn who appears more ready to take over a big role at wideout. Dupre dealt with an undisclosed injury for a portion of preseason camp -- he participated in his first scrimmage on Tuesday and LSU coach Les Miles said he should be fine now -- but Quinn has already turned heads among coaches and teammates.

He might not look like a prototypical NFL prospect -- LSU’s roster lists him at 6-foot and 194 pounds -- but don’t bother labeling Quinn as a possession receiver. Not to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, anyway.

“He’s not a possession receiver at all. He can run, he’s tough, he can catch,” Cameron said. “I had [Denver Broncos receiver] Wes Welker as a rookie and … he got labeled that possession guy and I watched him run by corners on the outside every day in practice. So he’s a football player, he’s an outside receiver, he’s a blocker, he’s smart. All he needs is time and college experience and I think he’ll be an outstanding player.”

In fact, many an LSU veteran has complimented Quinn in particular for acting like he belonged as soon as he arrived on campus. Then again, football has typically come easily for Quinn, who set a national career record with 6,566 receiving yards at Barbe High School in Lake Charles, Louisiana. He knows his pinch-me moments are still ahead next week when LSU’s fall semester begins and then he caps the week by facing a ranked opponent in his first college game.

“I think I’m going to go through that first week of college with everybody being on campus, just seeing numbers and numbers of students, and by that first Saturday in Houston, that’s going to be that athletic part where I’m just like, ‘Wow. I’m an LSU Tiger, I play football,’” Quinn predicted. “And it’s go time from there. There’s no looking back.”

That’s the way most LSU freshmen think, and it’s particularly the case among the four freshman stars who are still trying to carve out a niche for their first SEC season. All four players would admit that they have a lot to learn, but they were recruited to contribute immediately and it seems highly likely that all four will do so.

Fournette will absolutely get his share of the carries alongside seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard and fellow signee Darrel Williams. LSU lacks proven receivers other than Travin Dural, so Miles said Dupre, Quinn and freshman D.J. Chark will all play roles in the passing game. And even if Harris doesn’t start against Wisconsin, it would be a major surprise if he fails to see the field.

Not only will the members of that group contribute, Miles said, they will hold their own. That’s the LSU way.

“Young players are going to play,” Miles said. “I say that with the idea that they’re talented and they were recruited to fill that void and we’re going to coach them hard. We’re going to make sure that we try to anticipate mistakes and avoid them. But yeah, I’m not anticipating just terrible growing pains there.”

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