SEC: Connor Neighbors
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Dozens of NFL scouts and coaches will descend on LSU’s football facility Friday to watch more than 20 former Tigers participate in the program’s annual pro day.
Here's a breakdown:
Watch it live: The SEC Network will televise the workouts from 1-3 p.m. ET. It will also be available on the WatchESPN app and on SEC Network+. SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy will provide live reports and interviews, while Dari Nowkhah, former LSU star Marcus Spears and NFL draft analyst Kevin Weidl will offer in-studio analysis.
LSU’s official site will provide updates from the players’ performances at lsusports.net/proday.
Headliners: Offensive tackle La'el Collins and cornerback Jalen Collins are the Tigers’ top two draft prospects. ESPN Scouts Inc. ranks La’El Collins 28th and Jalen Collins 29th on its list of the top 32 prospects in the upcoming draft. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. lists them 17th and 24th, respectively, on his Big Board and had both players getting selected in the first 20 picks in his most recent mock draft.
Jalen Collins is not expected to participate in pro day after undergoing recent foot surgery. However, he seemed to solidify his spot among the top cornerbacks with his buzzworthy performance at the NFL scouting combine last month. He ran a stellar 4.48-second time in the 40-yard dash, finished among the top handful of cornerbacks in several other drills and performed exceptionally in the positional drills. At 6-foot-2 and 198 pounds, his size is also a great asset considering how many NFL clubs like big corners.
La’el Collins also helped his cause in Indianapolis. He performed well in the workouts and showed out in the positional drills, which could help him become LSU’s first offensive lineman picked in the first round since Alan Faneca in 1998.
Other top Tigers: Defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Kwon Alexander are LSU’s other candidates to become early-round selections.
At the combine, Hunter posted the fastest time among defensive linemen in the 40-yard dash, 4.57 seconds. Alexander was second among linebackers with a 4.55 time in the 40. Their speed and athleticism help both players rank among the better prospects at their positions.
This week, ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranked Hunter eighth among defensive ends and Alexander 10th among outside linebackers. ESPN Scouts Inc. lists Alexander as its No. 53 overall prospect and Hunter at No. 77.
Friday’s storylines: The 40 times of LSU running backs Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will be among the big storylines at pro day. Both players participated in the combine, but Magee didn’t run the 40 and Hilliard posted a disappointing official time of 4.83 seconds.
Scouts Inc. lists Magee as the No. 13 running back and No. 147 overall prospect, so he seems likely to be selected somewhere in a draft with 256 total picks -- and he can help by showcasing his versatility and posting a respectable 40 time at pro day. Hilliard is listed as the No. 29 running back and No. 286 overall prospect. He could use a productive pro day in order to solidify a shot as a free agent, even if he doesn’t become a late-round draft pick.
Multiple pro day participants will be in Hilliard’s position Friday. Only five of them seem to be surefire draft picks, but several could become undrafted free agents. Among the Tigers who didn’t earn combine invites but should have a chance to sign as undrafted free agents – if they don’t become late-round picks – are fullback Connor Neighbors (Scouts Inc.’s No. 2 prospect at his position), All-SEC safety Ronald Martin and defensive end Jermauria Rasco.
Participants: Eighteen members of LSU’s 2014 team are scheduled to participate: Alexander, receiver Luke Boyd, La’el Collins, offensive lineman Fehoko Fanaika, tight end Jake Franklin, Hilliard, Hunter, receiver Chris LaBorde, receiver Jeff Lang, receiver Quantavius Leslie, Magee, Martin, Neighbors, center Elliott Porter, Rasco, tight end Logan Stokes, offensive lineman Evan Washington and linebacker D.J. Welter.
In addition, four former Tigers -- fullback J.C. Copeland, offensive lineman Chris Faulk, linebacker Karnell Hatcher and linebacker Tahj Jones -- are schedule to participate.
Schedule: Pro day begins at 11:30 a.m. ET in LSU’s weight room. The players will first participate in vertical jump, broad jump and bench press then. At 1 p.m., they will move into the indoor practice facility to complete the 40-yard dash and shuttle runs. At about 2:15 p.m. they will begin individual workouts with NFL coaches by position (passing session at 2:15, running backs at 2:40, tight ends at 3, offensive line at 3:15, defensive backs at 3:35, linebackers at 3:55 and defensive line at 4:10).
BATON ROUGE, La. – At about this time a year ago, John David Moore first shifted from tight end to fullback. Now he’s the most experienced blocking back on LSU’s roster.
Because of the Tigers’ shallow depth at fullback last season – especially compared to their talent-rich tight end group – Moore saw the move as his best opportunity to play. It paid off when he appeared in eight games in 2014 and put himself in position to become a backfield regular this fall.
“It was really just a need that needed to be filled. They were just kind of shallow at that position and deeper at tight end,” Moore said. “I’m willing to fit in where I can get in. I’d play punter if they’d let me, and I’ll do whatever to get on the field.”
The departures of last season’s top two fullbacks, Connor Neighbors and Melvin Jones, left Moore as the Tigers’ only player at the position with any game experience. He has company in the fullback rotation this spring, but the other leading contenders are also new to the position.
Ducre and Upchurch have a lot to learn about playing fullback, which places some teaching responsibility on their more experienced teammate’s shoulders as well.
“We’ve got some young guys that just need to learn the classroom stuff so they can apply it on the field,” Moore said. “So that’s where I can be helpful in that role.”
Ducre, whom LSU recruitniks have dubbed as the Tigers’ fullback of the future, and Upchurch are also working together to gain a better grasp on their new position. Learning new blocking techniques, how to hit holes and how to read defenses from the backfield is no simple feat, so they’ve become a tag team as they navigate the transition.
“We’re actually working together as far as in the team meeting room,” Upchurch said. “We kind of quiz each other on what we’ve got on this, what we’ve got on that, so it’s going to work hand in hand.”
It’s unusual to see a player with a jersey number in the 80s – typically a numerical range reserved for receivers and tight ends – lining up in the backfield. But Upchurch is still wearing No. 81 as he learns to block for Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris instead of catching passes from the Tigers’ two quarterbacks.
Nonetheless, he still expects to catch a pass here or there.
“Fullback, I feel like I can be moved around just as well,” Upchurch said. “I have hands; I can contribute to the team as far as catching-wise. So I think it’s going to be a pretty good position for me.”
Upchurch’s move was partially dictated by the depth issues at the position and partially due to his own problems with his weight. Listed at 230 pounds on LSU’s spring roster, Upchurch was a big-bodied receiver, but that size makes him a more natural fit at fullback.
He said he quickly adjusted to the heavy contact at the position, although his only previous backfield experience came at tailback in high school.
“It took a good while for me to get the weight down, but it’s all right,” Upchurch said. “Fullback is kind of a good position for me. I kind of like it so far.”
Upchurch’s switch from receiver is a new twist on a years-old storyline at LSU. The Tigers’ fullbacks in recent years frequently arrived at the position after starting their careers elsewhere. Neighbors and Jones were both linebackers when they started at LSU and former starter J.C. Copeland signed as a defensive lineman before shifting to the backfield.
“I learned a lot from Connor just about how to be a student of the game and then technique,” Moore said. “Blocking is very different from tight end to fullback, so [I focused on] just learning those techniques and nuances, learning from him, who is one of the best in the game.”
Now he and Upchurch are trying to make the switch as effectively as Neighbors, who developed into one of the nation’s top fullbacks – as evidenced by his invitation to the Senior Bowl at the end of last season – by the time he completed his college career.
Neighbors and the new fullbacks’ other predecessors certainly proved that a switch to fullback can work out well for all involved. At least one of the new players at the position seems likely to carry on that LSU tradition.
Fournette smiled, paused for a moment while staring at the ground, and then looked up and said, "Championship. That's the only thing that's on my mind that I want to focus on."
The nation's No. 1 overall recruit in 2014, Fournette drew criticism last fall -- including from Miles, his head coach -- when he struck the Heisman Trophy pose ... after his first career touchdown ... in a blowout win over FCS opponent Sam Houston State.
But that's old news for Fournette and water under the bridge as far as his coach is concerned. Fournette learned a lesson after facing rare ridicule, and now he's focused on becoming the leader in the locker room that he already is on the field.
After that, he didn't need to strike any post-touchdown poses to have hype start building for a possible 2015 Heisman campaign.
"It kind of boosted my confidence that that's the kind of game I need to have," Fournette said of the Notre Dame game, where he rushed for an 89-yard touchdown and returned a kickoff 100 yards for another score. "I know with my teammates, I can have it constantly, every game."
Believe it or not, Fournette might have lacked a bit of confidence early last season. There were times where he admits that he ran tentatively, when defenders were able to take him to the ground in one-on-one situations -- something that almost never happened when his speed and power running helped him become a prep legend at New Orleans' St. Augustine High School.
He had a lot to learn, and his transition to SEC football wasn't as smooth as he might have expected beforehand.
"I'm not used to one guy tackling me to the ground, and I've been working on it during the offseason," Fournette said.
The experience Fournette gained during that transition will soon be helpful for an entirely different reason. He was the rookie in LSU's backfield last year, when seniors like Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and Connor Neighbors shepherded him along by offering knowledgeable counsel. Now Fournette has to be that kind of leader.
Now he is far and away the most experienced player in LSU's backfield. Fellow sophomore Darrel Williams ran for 302 yards last fall, but otherwise the backfield features converted tight end John David Moore, converted wide receiver Tony Upchurch, walk-on Trey Gallman and early enrollee David Ducre at fullback. Over the summer, two more freshman signees -- Derrius Guice and Nick Brossette -- will enter the mix at tailback.
In a matter of months, Fournette will transform from rookie with a lot to learn to veteran responsible for teaching the newcomers.
"Coach Frank [Wilson, LSU's running backs coach] said he'd never had sophomores, a young back, to lead a team until now," Fournette said. "Me and Darrel are only sophomores. Everybody else is freshmen. He said it's a big role, but he believes in us and we can do it."
Fournette said he has known Guice and Brossette -- ESPN's No. 8 and 12 tailback prospects for 2015 -- for some time and said they already felt like brothers. That bond will be valuable once the rookies arrive this summer and Fournette and Williams take them under their wings.
"You actually have to teach them what Terrence, Kenny and Connor taught us: everything," Fournette said. "They did a great job with us, and it's only right that we pass it down and teach the younger players."
Maybe that Heisman buzz will return for Fournette this fall. He figures to be the centerpiece of LSU's offense for at least two more seasons, after all. But right now, he's focused on learning how to block properly -- an assignment that he said he was uncomfortable with until the Notre Dame game last season -- and doing a better job of reading defenses. Sharpening those skills will only allow Fournette to teach his younger teammates more effectively and help LSU's offense improve in the process.
Miles accused Fournette of acting selfishly when he struck that Heisman pose last season, and Fournette agreed with his coach in hindsight. That's why Miles would love how his star player talks about "team" and "winning" when he could easily focus on individual accolades today.
"I'm not really focused on it right now. I'm just focusing on getting better with the team and winning a championship," Fournette said of the Heisman buzz.
"It didn't affect me at all. That's everyone's goal. They want to win it, but after the Notre Dame loss, I kind of wasn't worried about it anymore."
What’s new: The Tigers have three new assistant coaches this spring, including a new defensive coordinator in Kevin Steele. When longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis split for Texas A&M after LSU’s bowl loss to Notre Dame, his close friend Steele left a position at Alabama to join Les Miles’ staff. LSU introduced Steele and new defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, who replaces Brick Haley, at the same news conference in January. Finally, former Georgia assistant Tony Ball takes over as receivers coach after Adam Henry accepted a job with the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
New faces: The Tigers will have four early enrollees in camp. Two names to watch this spring are those of cornerback Kevin Toliver and running back David Ducre. Toliver was the highest-rated signee in LSU’s 2015 recruiting class (ESPN’s No. 10 overall prospect and No. 2 cornerback) and could compete for immediate playing time in the secondary. Same with Ducre, who jumps directly into the competition to replace Connor Neighbors at fullback. The Tigers also have quarterback Justin McMillan and tight end Hanner Shipley in camp as early enrollees.
Question marks: We addressed several spring storylines in greater detail in a post earlier this week. One of the leading questions entering spring practice is what shape the defense will take under Steele’s guidance. Chavis coached a 4-3 base defense and regularly deployed personnel packages with five and six defensive backs. It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see Steele continue those alignments since that’s what the current Tigers were specifically recruited to play. But we will also likely see him add some new wrinkles -- maybe even some 3-4 looks like his defenses played under Nick Saban and Kirby Smart at Alabama.
Key battle: No question about this one. LSU will have competition at nearly every position, but the most important one is at quarterback. The single most important issue for the Tigers this season is getting more effective play from the quarterback position. Incumbent Anthony Jennings started 12 of 13 games last season, but completed just 48.9 percent of his passes and clearly didn’t frighten defenses with his passing ability. However, talented freshman Brandon Harris was unable to overtake Jennings and was a flop in his one starting opportunity against Auburn. The Tigers desperately need one of them to grab this job and develop into an effective SEC quarterback. It could mean the difference between contending in the SEC West and remaining in the middle of the pack where LSU sat last fall.
Breaking out: After a standout freshman season, safety Jamal Adams seems likely to play a key role in the secondary this fall. This is also an important time for junior defensive end Tashawn Bower to lock down one of the starting spots vacated by Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter. Up front, two defensive tackles who sat out in 2014 -- Travonte Valentine and Trey Lealaimatafao -- have a chance to make an immediate impact. On offense, it will be interesting to see which pass-catchers -- receivers like Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, John Diarse and D.J. Chark and tight ends like DeSean Smith, Colin Jeter and Jacory Washington -- join Travin Dural as the Tigers’ most reliable targets. Dural (37 catches for 758 yards and seven TDs last season) had 20 catches and 440 receiving yards more than the next-closest Tiger in 2014.
Don't forget about: Davon Godchaux and Christian LaCouture developed into an effective combination at defensive tackle as last season progressed, after the interior line was a bit of a mess early in the fall. Should Steele tinker with the Tigers’ defensive alignments, it will be interesting to see how many ways he is able to use the duo -- both of whom would probably fit better at defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.
All eyes on: The Tigers return a pile of talent from last season’s young 8-5 team, led by star running back Leonard Fournette, but plenty of questions remain for Miles’ club. Steele’s impact will be a source of interest, but the likelihood of improvement probably rests on the job Cam Cameron does developing his quarterbacks. This is a team with enough talent to contend in the SEC West -- and maybe even for a College Football Playoff spot if everything goes smoothly. It starts with developing a more consistent passing game and a competent player under center who will prevent defenses from stacking the box to defend Fournette.
Let’s turn our focus specifically to LSU and examine some players who can solidify their roles with a productive spring.
Defensive ends: There are situations where it makes more sense to group players together instead of singling out one. This is one such case. Starting ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco are both gone after playing the vast majority of the snaps in 2014. Tashawn Bower, Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema seem to be the top candidates to take over those snaps among the players who are already on campus, with signees Arden Key and Isaiah Washington joining the competition once they arrive in the summer.
Then there is the question of how new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele might tinker with the Tigers’ defensive scheme. If he incorporates more 3-4 looks, some guys who played defensive tackle in LSU’s traditional 4-3 might also get some chances at end.
RB David Ducre: Out of the four early enrollees, Ducre and cornerback Kevin Toliver probably have the best chance to contribute immediately. Let’s focus on Ducre because of LSU’s wide-open depth chart at fullback. With Connor Neighbors and Melvin Jones both leaving the team after the season, the Tigers lacked a scholarship fullback. John David Moore will have a role, but Ducre could jump straight into the starting lineup this fall if he gets his assignments down pat.
LB Clifton Garrett: Garrett didn’t redshirt last season -- he appeared in three games -- but he might as well have. Last season’s No. 2 inside linebacker prospect was the low man on the totem pole among a veteran group of linebackers, but he’ll have a chance to occupy a much larger role this season. It will be interesting to see whether he grabs more playing time this spring.
QBs Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings: We don’t need to elaborate on these guys’ issues much. Every LSU fan knows that their quarterbacks have to play better. Can Harris -- the more explosive contender -- grab the job, line up under center and make good things happen while avoiding major catastrophes? That might be one of the biggest keys of the season for LSU.
Inexperienced OLs: Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins are apparently the starting tackles and Ethan Pocic will start at either center or guard. Now who claims the other two starting positions? Josh Boutte, Andy Dodd, K.J. Malone, William Clapp and Garrett Brumfield all turned heads at times last season. They’ll get the chance this spring to convince Jeff Grimes they deserve bigger roles.
WRs Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears: With next to no veteran presence at receiver last season, there was plenty of playing time to be had. Redshirt freshmen Peterson and Spears basically got none of it. Spears played in three games and Peterson one last fall. They have a clean slate with a new position coach, Tony Ball, and maybe that will allow them to contribute more as sophomores.
WR Trey Quinn: It was Quinn, not No. 1 receiver prospect Malachi Dupre, who started LSU’s 2014 opener and caught a two-point conversion pass in the Tigers’ comeback win. But Quinn was a disappearing man down the stretch, catching just three passes for 45 yards in LSU’s final six games. That wasn’t entirely Quinn’s fault -- nobody caught many passes thanks to shaky quarterback play -- but it would be a surprise if the sophomore isn’t more productive in 2015.
TE DeSean Smith: This time a year ago, a common prediction was that LSU would make better use of the tight end and that Smith might be the guy who got the most looks. Then he went the entire regular season without recording a single catch. The interesting twist, however, was that Smith caught four passes for 66 yards in the bowl game against Notre Dame. That reignited talk that Smith would become an asset in the passing game after all. We shall see.
Sophomore DTs: As with Smith, it was disappointing that LSU’s three ESPN 300 defensive tackle signees from the 2013 signing class (Greg Gilmore, Frank Herron and Maquedius Bain) failed to emerge. Bain played the biggest role, appearing in 10 games while Gilmore played in six and Herron four, but no member of the group was particularly impactful. They still have plenty of time to make a difference at LSU, but their redshirt freshman season was not notable.
S Corey Thompson: What will be Thompson’s role after sitting out the 2014 season while rehabbing a knee injury? He had started five of the last six games at safety when he injured his knee late in 2013. Now he re-enters a competition where most of last season’s regulars return, along with several younger players. Thompson should be a veteran leader in this group, but Jalen Mills, Jamal Adams and Rickey Jefferson all played a ton of snaps at safety in his absence.
Receiving a combine invitation is a huge step toward getting drafted, but a prospect’s pro chances have not necessarily taken a knockout blow if they don’t participate in the event that starts next week in Indianapolis.
Ask former Auburn standout Jay Ratliff. He didn’t attend the combine, was drafted midway through the final round, and yet still managed to make four Pro Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys. In fact, an NFL.com story a few years back reported that 15 percent of drafted players over the previous decade had not been invited to the combine.
That said, here are five notable players from the SEC who did not receive combine invitations, but who could still wind up on an NFL roster this fall:
David Andrews, Georgia: This feels like an absence based solely on size. At 6-foot-3 and 294 pounds, Andrews does not have the prototypical build for an offensive lineman, but he’s a scrapper. He started at center for the Bulldogs for the last three seasons and was named the team MVP and overall team captain after his senior year. He needs to find the right offense to fit his skillset, but Andrews will make an NFL squad.
Kaleb Eulls, Mississippi State: A four-year starter along the defensive line, Eulls might be the most surprising member of this group. He has the build (6-3, 305) that pro clubs want from a defensive tackle, was solid against the run and was a good teammate at Mississippi State. He was not much of a pass-rusher in college, which could be part of the reason that he won’t be in Indianapolis. Still, he’s certainly good enough to be drafted.
Connor Neighbors, LSU: He’s not particularly big (5-11) and he plays a position that is disappearing in the pro game, but the former LSU fullback is a solid player. He was one of only two LSU prospects invited to the Senior Bowl, and ESPN Scouts Inc. lists him as the No. 2 fullback available in the draft. Only three fullbacks were drafted last year -- all in either Round 6 or 7 -- so Neighbors may or may not get drafted. But between his blocking skills and his versatility on special teams, he still has a great chance to make a roster.
Bud Sasser, Missouri: He isn’t cut from the physical cloth as the 6-5 monsters that Missouri trotted out at receiver in 2013, but Sasser put up similar numbers as a senior. He led the Tigers with 77 catches for 1,003 yards and 12 touchdowns -- impressive totals that seem like enough to get a look from some NFL club. He’s not particularly big (6-2) or fast, but Sasser is a polished wideout who is productive enough to land a roster spot -- even if he has to go the undrafted free agent route to get there.
C.J. Uzomah, Auburn: This feels like a guy who could be more productive in the pros than he was in college. Auburn doesn’t pass to its tight ends often -- Uzomah had just 27 receptions in four years -- but that doesn’t mean he can’t develop into a weapon in the pros. He probably needs to land with a team that utilizes the tight end more as a receiver -- a philosophy that seems to be growing in popularity in the NFL with guys like Jimmy Graham posting huge numbers. Uzomah fits more in that mold as an athletic, 6-foot-5 target who is not as useful in the traditional tight end role.
But regardless of whether he plays cornerback or safety this fall, Mills had greater concerns when he decided the join the unusually large -- by LSU standards, anyway -- group of draft-eligible players who decided to turn down the NFL for at least another year.
He and the other returning Tigers want to be remembered for more than simply staying just long enough to earn a pro football paycheck.
Seated in the Tigers’ team meeting room, Mills looked up toward the collage of former Tigers greats such as Glenn Dorsey that borders the room’s massive film screen and pointed.
“You want to be those guys in the meeting room where you have these guys up there,” Mills said. “You want to be those guys that are always talked about. You want to be those guys in the record book, ‘This is the team that won the national championship, these are the guys who came back and made that happen.’ You want to be those guys, and I feel like that is really what put all these guys over the edge to come back.”
It says something about how hard LSU has been hit by early draft entry in the last couple of years that losing just three juniors to the NFL this year -- linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Jalen Collins and defensive end Danielle Hunter -- was cause for celebration.
Only three college programs (Florida State with five and USC and Florida with four apiece) lost more underclassmen than LSU, but this was nothing compared to the Tigers’ draft hit following the 2012 and 2013 seasons. A whopping 11 LSU underclassmen entered the draft after the 2012 season and seven more players with college eligibility remaining made the jump after last season.
Perhaps that makes Mills’ championship goal more realistic since the 2015 Tigers will have fewer glaring holes to fill. In fact, he might be a candidate to fill one of those holes since Collins and fellow cornerback Rashard Robinson have both left the program. Mills spent nearly all of his first two college seasons at cornerback before shifting to safety to address depth concerns.
“When the safety numbers are low and the corner numbers are high, I moved to safety. And now the corner numbers are low and the safety numbers are high, [so] it’s a possibility I could move to corner,” Mills said. “I haven’t really met with the defensive staff yet. I’m pretty sure something is going to happen pretty soon with spring ball right around the corner.”
Several factors could impact that outcome. How will Dwayne Thomas bounce back from a torn ACL? And who will the Tigers land on the recruiting trail? They are still in the running for some coveted defensive back recruits, and ESPN’s No. 10 overall prospect Kevin Toliver II (Jacksonville, Fla./Trinity Christian) is already on campus and will practice at cornerback in the spring.
Mills said he was encouraged by Toliver’s response when he approached him shortly after LSU’s spring semester classes started and invited him to participate in drillwork with several veteran DBs.
“I told him, ‘Hey man, I know you like that room, I know you like that bed, but it’s time. You’re not in high school no more,’” Mills said. “And he kind of told me, ‘All right, just give me a call when you guys want to do drills or whatever.’ So we’re going to get him rolling.”
Otherwise, the Tigers’ most important holes to fill are at offensive tackle – Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander expect to fill those spots and defensive end, where starters Hunter and Jermauria Rasco are both gone.
In December, Hunter pointed at Tashawn Bower and Sione Teuhema as possible replacements.
“There’s a couple of guys down there,” Hunter said. “You’ve got Sione, you’ve got Tashawn. Those guys are guys that we look up to, guys that we can see coming to be the next great pass-rusher here at LSU.”
Lastly, LSU will once again feature youth in the backfield. Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams distinguished themselves last season as freshmen, and the Tigers will rely on first-year players once again at both fullback and tailback.
Senior tailbacks Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are both gone, as are fullbacks Connor Neighbors and Melvin Jones, so this will be an important class to address backfield depth.
The good news is that versatile David Ducre (Mandeville, La./Lakeshore) is already on campus, plus the Tigers have verbal commitments from homegrown ESPN 300 backs Derrius Guice (Baton Rouge, La./Catholic) and Nick Brossette (Baton Rouge, La./University Laboratory).
Of course with last year’s No. 1 overall prospect Fournette already on campus, those freshmen will not face immense pressure to produce immediately. He seems prepared to take another step forward after setting a freshman rushing record with 1,034 yards in 2014.
“That dude there is ridiculous,” Hawkins said. “I just can’t wait to block for him. All our running backs, but especially him. There’s just something special about him. He’s going to pretty much shock the world this year.”
That's why LSU's senior fullback is less concerned about his positioning for the NFL draft than he is about finding a pro team that still uses players with his skillset in this era of wide-open offensive schemes.
His recently accepted invitation to participate in the Senior Bowl all-star game shows that scouts believe Neighbors has the makings of a pro fullback. But Neighbors is smart to hedge his bets on becoming an actual draft pick.
Since 2007, when a whopping nine fullbacks came off the board in the draft, the number of players drafted from Neighbors' position has dwindled. In each of the last three drafts, only three fullbacks have been selected. And in the last five years, a total of 16 fullbacks came off the board.
ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. and NFLDraftScout.com both rate Neighbors as the No. 5 fullback prospect in the upcoming draft, which indicates that becoming a late-round pick or undrafted free agent might be Neighbors' most likely path to an NFL roster.
If he goes the undrafted free agent route, Neighbors will have to find a club that makes use of his position -- and he admits he has been paying attention to where he might be a good fit.
"Ever since I moved to the position, when I've watched football, I've seen that," Neighbors said. "I know that a lot of teams, they have a package for [fullbacks]. Not everyone, NFL teams, they don't really use it that often. ...
"Tennessee uses one. [Former LSU quarterback and current Titans rookie Zach Mettenberger is] trying to get me to go there. He's like, 'How awesome would it be?' if I was there. That would be tight," Neighbors continued. "I know Atlanta uses one. Green Bay, they use one -- and they give him the ball -- so that would be tight if I went there. I try not to worry about that stuff, though, because I can't determine the outcome except with my play."
His performances in the Senior Bowl practices can help. Scouts flock to observe the game-week practices each year in order to see many of the nation's top senior prospects go head to head. For a player with three career carries for 6 yards and 11 career receptions for 119 yards, this is a good chance for Neighbors to show them that he can handle the ball, as well as block and cover kicks.
"I heard it's a pretty intense week, so we'll see what happens," Neighbors said.
Neighbors has a first-hand source who can attest to that intensity. His dad, Wes, played in the Senior Bowl in 1987 after an All-SEC career at Alabama. His late grandfather Billy, a College Football Hall of Famer, was an All-American at Alabama and played in the game in 1962.
Since the Senior Bowl is played in Neighbors' home state of Alabama -- in Mobile -- friends and family won't have far to travel to see him become the third Neighbors to compete in the game. And Neighbors expects plenty of them to show up for his final college game.
"That's what my dad said," Neighbors said, "so I've got to play good so I don't embarrass anybody."
“There’s a bunch of personalities on this team that I don’t think any other team has,” Neighbors said. “So if the people that are eligible to stay, if they do stay, this team could be probably the best next year. Obviously they’ve got to improve in some areas, but what team doesn’t?”
The Tigers’ title possibilities might hinge on keeping more draft-eligible players on campus than they have in recent seasons. LSU lost a whopping 17 of them to the draft in the last two years, and the on-field product has suffered as a result.
Today we’ll take a position-by-position look at LSU’s roster positioning and which players have decisions to weigh, starting first with the offense and then with the defense:
Key departing seniors: None
Key draft-eligible players: None
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore Anthony Jennings (104-213, 1,460 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs), Freshman Brandon Harris (25-42, 452 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs)
Comment: LSU doesn’t figure to lose one of its quarterbacks, but it will remain the most scrutinized position on the offense. Jennings started most of the season and was not consistent enough, while Harris struggled in his one start and has barely seen the field since then. LSU coach Les Miles said this week that Harris “is being groomed” to compete for the starting spot in the future, so expect the Jennings-Harris battle to resume in the spring.
Key departing seniors: Tailbacks Terrence Magee (545 rushing yards, 3 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (431 rushing yards, 6 TDs), fullback Connor Neighbors (four catches for 27 yards)
Key draft-eligible players: None
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tailback) Freshman Leonard Fournette (891 rushing yards, 8 TDs), freshman Darrel Williams (280 rushing yards, 3 TDs), (fullback) Melvin Jones (five catches, 22 yards, TD)
Comment: Nobody has a decision to make here. Magee, Hilliard and Neighbors are all seniors and Fournette, Williams and Jones will return in 2015. The Tigers are poised to add ESPN 300 tailbacks Nick Brossette and Derrius Guice to the backfield next season, and both will have the opportunity to contribute immediately following Magee and Hilliard’s departures. The running game will still be in great shape.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END
Key departing seniors: (Tight end) Travis Dickson (seven catches, 60 yards), Logan Stokes (one catch, 3 yards, TD)
Key draft-eligible players: (Tight end) junior Dillon Gordon (no catches), (Receiver) redshirt sophomore Travin Dural (37 catches, 758 yards, 7 TDs)
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tight end) Sophomore Colin Jeter (no catches), sophomore DeSean Smith (no catches), (receiver) redshirt freshman John Diarse (13 catches, 199 yards, 2 TDs), freshman Malachi Dupre (14 catches, 318 yards, 5 TDs), freshman Trey Quinn (17 catches, 193 yards)
Comment: The big news is that draft-eligible sophomore Dural said this week that he expects to be back at LSU next season. The speedster was the heart and soul of LSU’s passing game, but he’s probably making a good decision. A more consistent season in 2015 could improve his draft stock, as he started out with three 100-yard outings in the first four games, but hasn’t had one since. Gordon should also return and will contribute heavily as a blocking tight end. Both positions have youngsters who are in line to contribute more heavily. Diarse, Dupre and Quinn are all freshmen who made some good things happen in their first game action, and several freshman receivers (keep an eye on D.J. Chark) are in line behind them. Same thing at tight end, where Colin Jeter, DeSean Smith and redshirting freshman Jacory Washington all could enjoy expanded roles in 2015.
Key departing seniors: Left tackle La’el Collins, center Elliott Porter, right guard Evan Washington, right guard Fehoko Fanaika
Key draft-eligible players: Junior left guard Vadal Alexander, right tackle Jerald Hawkins
Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore center/guard Ethan Pocic
Comment: This is the most important position group to watch. Collins has been outstanding at left tackle, winning the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top blocker. He and Porter make two starters who are definitely leaving, and Washington and Fanaika are two of the top reserves. Where things could really go sideways is if Alexander and Hawkins opt to enter the draft, as well. LSU looks to be positioned well for a championship push next season, but having to replace four of the five starting offensive linemen would not be an encouraging sign. Both players were noncommittal when asked about the draft this week, but both of them requested draft grades from the NFL’s advisory committee. Said Alexander, whom ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. rated as the No. 7 guard prospect among draft-eligible players, “You want to focus on getting better because, stay or leave, you want the type of guy who can compartmentalize things and just focus on the here and now, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now. Somebody’ll lie to you and say they never think about it, but I’m not seriously thinking about it right now and I will make a quick decision after the bowl game.”
Typically that’s a sign of a disappointing season, which is certainly the case for a Tigers team (8-4) that fell well short of the standard that Miles set in his first decade at LSU. This was not a great season, and if the Tigers fail to win their bowl game, they will match the 2008 team for LSU’s fewest wins in a season under Miles.
With all of that said, however, LSU’s matchup in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl is as good as an 8-4 team could expect. The Tigers drew Notre Dame (7-5), which like LSU was ranked in the top 10 early in the season before a late slide.
Both programs have played for a national championship within the last four seasons, and while they both finished this regular season with a flop, a game featuring two of the sport’s most successful programs provides a reason to get excited about playing one more game.
“No matter who the opponent would have been, we would have got up for it, obviously, but definitely Notre Dame, we can get excited for a great team like that, to play them.”
The caliber of the programs should drive interest despite a 3 p.m. ET kickoff on Tuesday, Dec. 30, and the game will add to the considerable history between the Tigers and Fighting Irish.
LSU and Notre Dame have actually played 10 times, the most of any SEC opponent against the Fighting Irish. Both clubs have won five times in series history, so this will be a rubber match of sorts.
“LSU and Notre Dame, they have some history with each other in bowl games,” LSU running back Terrence Magee said. “So growing up, Notre Dame is a big program. They’ve been on the big stage lately playing Alabama in the national championship, and I think it’s going to be a big matchup for us. I’m excited about it.”
Oddly enough, the bowl trip also will help LSU’s seniors cross Nashville off the list of SEC towns where they will have played. The Tigers haven’t played in Music City since 2010 and while several fifth-year seniors (including Connor Neighbors, D.J. Welter, Travis Dickson, Evan Washington and Justin Maclin) were on LSU’s team that season, none of them played in the Tigers’ 27-3 win over Vanderbilt.
Missouri is the only SEC team that LSU hasn’t faced in the last five seasons, and Mizzou, Kentucky and South Carolina are the only SEC towns where the Tigers haven’t played in that period.
But the location of this game is only a footnote. After all, nobody on either of these teams set a preseason goal of finishing the year with a bowl game in Tennessee. It’s the opposition that drives interest for fans and players alike.
“It really doesn’t matter, the destination,” LSU cornerback Jalen Collins said. “I feel like the opponent is the bigger part. It’s who we’re playing and how we finish the game.”
In that regard, both clubs are getting off lucky. Notre Dame lost five of its last six games after ranking as high as fifth at one point. LSU dropped two of the last three after it ranked eighth early in the season.
Obviously the season didn’t end the way fans of either school once hoped, so getting to face a big-name opponent in a bowl game was far from a foregone conclusion. The sunny side of the teams’ late stumbles – certainly from the bowl’s perspective, as this is probably the best pairing in Music City Bowl’s 17-year history – is that they paved the way for a bowl pairing that’s actually interesting.
Both teams were better last season, but Notre Dame’s bowl game against Rutgers and LSU’s against Iowa didn’t do much for anybody. At least now we get to see two of the sport’s most historically significant programs meet. All things considered, that’s not so bad.
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.”
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.”
The Tigers used that backfield combination -- typically featuring either Darrel Williams or Kenny Hilliard at fullback and either Leonard Fournette or Terrence Magee at tailback -- seven times in last Saturday's 31-0 win against Louisiana-Monroe. Six of those were short-yardage situations where LSU ran a simple fullback dive, achieving three touchdowns, but opposing defensive coordinators must also realize how that personnel grouping presents other threats.
"Obviously we're not going to show all of what we have in our arsenal, but it could be dangerous and I'm all for it. I think maybe I could be in there, too, but you know, it is what it is," chuckled Neighbors, LSU's regular fullback who sacrifices playing time when the Tigers go to the two-tailback look. "As long as we get the W, I don't care how it happens -- if I don't play a snap or if I play 100."
Let's give Neighbors the benefit of the doubt and agree he could do some of the same things that the tailbacks do. Even so, nobody will confuse him for any member of the foursome for whom he typically blocks. Neighbors ran the ball twice and caught seven passes in the entire 2013 season, and he does not have a touch yet this season. The four tailbacks, meanwhile, are threats to break a long run at any time.
Take Williams' 22-yard touchdown burst in the second quarter of the ULM game, for example. He lined up at fullback in front of fellow freshman Fournette on third-and-1 at the ULM 22. But after taking the dive handoff from quarterback Anthony Jennings, not only did Williams achieve a first down, he broke a tackle at the line of scrimmage and escaped for the Tigers' first touchdown.
Williams was the recipient of four fullback dive handoffs from that alignment against ULM and rushed for 28 yards, including touchdowns of 22 and 1 yards, as well as gains of 2 and 3 yards that both achieved first downs.
Hilliard got the other two fullback carries, picking up a first down with a 4-yard run early in the second quarter and scoring a touchdown on a 4-yard run in the fourth quarter. He lined up in front of Magee on the touchdown run, flattening ULM safety Cordero Smith as he barreled into the end zone for a score that helped LSU go up 31-0.
"We all practice it," Hilliard said of the dive play. "Me and Darrel have been the main ones getting the reps at it, but it's just something that's going to stay in the playbook and in the game plan. If Coach Cam [Cameron] likes it with the opponent, it's something we're going to keep in."
The play's key to success, Hilliard said, is for the offensive line to get a strong push at the line of scrimmage and for the recipient of the handoff to read the blocking properly.
"If the big guys can move the D-line, just find a little crease and get in there and get a first down or a touchdown," Hilliard said.
One of the Tigers' toughest runners, Hilliard said he has occasionally moonlighted in the fullback role since his freshman season. He has never caught a pass or done more than carry the ball straight ahead from the position, but there is always the possibility that LSU could add a new wrinkle to the game plan.
"We haven't gotten that fancy with it," Hilliard said of the possibility of catching a fullback screen. "Maybe throughout the year they might give it to me."
Only once did the Tigers attempt something other than a fullback dive in the two-tailback package against ULM, but that play gives opponents something to consider for the future.
On a first-and-10 play at the ULM 46, quarterback Brandon Harris rolled right after faking a handoff to Magee. Fullback Williams was available to Harris as a target for a screen pass, but the quarterback instead overthrew receiver John Diarse along the sideline.
Nonetheless, the play showed that the Tigers can do much more than run fullback dives when they move their tailbacks to fullback -- or any other skill position.
"Every guy that plays in this offense has the ability to line up in the backfield, out there at slot receiver or at the X or Z [receiver], tight end, anything," Magee said. "You have to know because at any given time, somebody may go down and you've got to go in for them and play so you have to know what's going on.
"So it's just something that when they recruit you here and you're learning this offense, it's something that you have to learn. You have to learn every position on the field."
The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.
Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.
Quarterback efficiency, running ability
The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).
Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.
Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.
Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.
Filling Landry's shoes
The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.
2013 FBS Leaders
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State
Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor
But who will get those chances?
Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.
Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game
Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.
They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.
Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.
If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.
Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.
Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.
Who handles the backfield workload?
Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.
2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)
Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.
ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.
It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.
With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects for the upcoming NFL draft, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger posted the best third-down conversion percentage (53.7) of the bunch.
Certainly it helped that Mettenberger possesses a cannon for a right arm and the experience that comes with being a fifth-year senior. But even Mettenberger would agree that he greatly benefited from the freakish playmaking abilities of receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and tailback Jeremy Hill.
That foursome helped LSU lead all FBS teams with a 57.1-percent conversion rate on third down last season, but now all four are waiting to hear their names called in next month’s NFL draft.
That leaves offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and the other offensive assistants with the burden of replacing some incredibly productive players who were often at their best on third down.
On Thursday, we looked at the role young quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will play in LSU’s third-down fortunes in the fall. We’ll do a bit more of that in a second, plus we’ll examine LSU’s third-down production at receiver and running back in an effort to identify which returning players have the most experience at keeping drives alive by achieving all-important first downs.
Mettenberger was outstanding on third down last season, averaging 16.6 yards per completion and throwing only one interception against nine touchdowns. That’s going to be nearly impossible for either Jennings or Harris to duplicate this season, but it should help that the two youngsters have the ability to run as well as throw.
Mettenberger hung out in the pocket as if his sneakers were made of lead, but Jennings and Harris are both quick enough to move the chains on the run. Harris, in particular, showed his speed in the Tigers’ spring game with a 41-yard run, and he also converted for a first down or touchdown on six of the last eight times he was under center on a third down.
Jennings struggled in that department in the spring game, with the offense converting for a first down just once in his seven attempts on third down. He also threw an interception that linebacker Deion Jones returned for a 67-yard touchdown on a third down.
Mettenberger should send a thank you note to Landry for all the times he made a clutch grab to extend a drive or end one with a touchdown. The junior wideout made a catch on 28 of the 35 times he was targeted, with 20 of the receptions earning a first down and six more going for a touchdown. He finished the season with 474 receiving yards and an average of 16.9 yards per catch on third down alone.
Beckham’s solid numbers are unfairly overshadowed by Landry’s, as Beckham caught a pass on 15 of the 25 times he was targeted on third down, gaining 272 yards in the process. Thanks to a pair of penalties against defenders, LSU actually picked up more first downs (16) on passes in which Beckham was targeted than there were instances when he actually caught the ball (15). He averaged 18.1 yards per catch on third down.
LSU’s problem is that only two of its top six third-down targets will be back this fall. Travin Dural (five catches, 97 yards, two touchdowns on third down) returns, but wideout Kadron Boone (four catches, 93 yards and two touchdowns) and tailback Alfred Blue (three catches, 46 yards) are both gone.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see tailback Terrence Magee (three catches, 46 yards), tight ends such as DeSean Smith, Travis Dickson and Dillon Gordon and fullback Connor Neighbors play more active roles on third down in Landry's and Beckham’s absence. The Tigers might also lean heavily on a new crop of receivers (including redshirt freshman John Diarse and signees Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn) on key downs once the season begins.
Hill was superb when Cameron called his number on third down last season, averaging 13.2 yards per carry and achieving either a first down or a touchdown 13 times in 18 tries. Included in that fairly small collection of carries was a 49-yard touchdown on a third-down run against Auburn, a 69-yard burst for a score against Mississippi State and a 37-yard score that put away the Tigers’ Outback Bowl victory over Iowa.
Magee and Kenny Hilliard, meanwhile, posted fairly pedestrian numbers in limited work on third down. Both players receieved eight carries on third down, with Magee achieving three first downs and two touchdowns (he also lost a fumble) and Hilliard getting two first downs and two touchdowns.
The fullback typically earns some short-yardage carries in LSU’s offense – senior J.C. Copeland picked up two first downs and scored twice in four carries on third down – so it will be interesting to see whether Neighbors or Melvin Jones continue that trend.
Freshman tailback Leonard Fournette will be another player to watch here, as the nation’s top overall prospect will certainly earn some carries when the Tigers need to move the chains or hammer the ball into the end zone. Fournette and fellow signee Darrel Williams aren’t on campus yet, but the Tigers’ lack of backfield depth means they must be ready to perform once the season arrives.
We’ve discussed plenty of LSU’s key spring position battles here in the last few weeks and speculated about who might become the starters at those spots. But what about some younger players who haven’t played much or at all? There are several who made an impression during the Tigers’ spring practice and, even if they don’t become starters, we should see them make an impact in the near future.
Here are five of those spring movers:
Maquedius Bain: Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas mostly handled the first-team snaps at defensive tackle this spring, but Bain was among the youngsters who made it seem likely that the Tigers will utilize a deeper rotation in the middle this fall. Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron -- all redshirt freshmen -- sat out last season while veterans Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson played most of the important snaps. We should hear all three players’ names quite a bit in 2014, particularly Bain, who tied with Herron for most tackles (four) among second-team defensive linemen in the spring game.
Brandon Harris: The big question entering spring practice was whether Harris could threaten Anthony Jennings for the starting quarterback job. The big question afterward concerns how quickly he will overtake his sophomore competitor. An early enrollee, Harris is understandably raw and mistake-prone. He’s extremely talented, however, blessed with an outstanding arm and impressive quickness. Harris will become LSU’s starting quarterback and, based on what we saw from Harris and Jennings this spring, it might happen sooner rather than later.
Melvin Jones: Is he going to play tailback at LSU? No. But a shortage of scholarship tailbacks this spring gave Jones a chance to learn a bit more about how to function in the running game. The sophomore switched from linebacker to fullback last season and even caught a touchdown pass against Furman. He has yet to record a carry in a game yet, however, so the opportunity to carry the ball some during the spring will be helpful when he splits time with senior Connor Neighbors at fullback this fall. Jones led the backup offense with 38 rushing yards on 12 carries in the spring game.
DeSean Smith: After catching just one pass last season (for 14 yards against UAB), Smith seems primed to play a much larger role in 2014. The sophomore tight end possesses valuable pass-catching skills and is nimble enough to split out wide as a receiver. If he proves himself as a capable blocker, Smith’s three catches for 45 yards in the spring game -- including a 19-yard touchdown catch from Harris -- should be only the tip of the iceberg in terms of his offensive production.