SEC: Kenny Hilliard

BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU is scheduled to hold its final spring walk-through on Tuesday, which will officially send the Tigers into the offseason.

As Les Miles’ club wraps up its 15 spring workouts, here are five things we took away from the last month on the practice field:

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Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesAnthony Jennings' ability as a running quarterback will be a weapon LSU can utilize this fall.
1. Those QBs can move: Having seen Anthony Jennings play a bit as a freshman, we already knew he had some wiggle. But freshman Brandon Harris looks to be at least his equal in the running-quarterback department after he had 76 rushing yards and a touchdown in last Saturday’s spring game.

Whichever quarterback wins the starting job, it’s a certainty that his playing style will differ wildly from predecessor Zach Mettenberger, who stood like a stone in the pocket. With either Jennings or Harris under center, defenses will have to respect that he can take off and make big plays with his legs.

“Oh boy, isn’t that fun to see?” Miles asked, referring to a 41-yard run that Harris made in the second quarter. “You go back in there and the defense makes a mistake and let me tell you what happened: One of those linebackers went over there to the other side with one of those backs and did not stay home. And so that quarterback came out the back side and suddenly 41 yards later, he’s run out of bounds.

“That’s something you can’t do, either, so when you line up against a quarterback with that kind of ability -- and both of our guys have it -- you’d better keep that linebacker home.”

Jennings still seems to have a tendency to hold on to the ball too long while looking to pass. Iowa sacked him four times in the Outback Bowl, and his defensive teammates got to him four times in the spring game. Harris seemed to have a better idea when to tuck it and run, which doesn’t seem to be a terrible idea for either of them, as they can both be dynamic runners when they leave the pocket.

2. Linebackers will be strong: Saturday was a great day for LSU’s linebackers. Not only did Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones both intercept Jennings' passes and take them to the house for touchdowns, but Ronnie Feist (14 tackles) and Lamar Louis (seven tackles, 0.5 tackle for a loss) were their respective teams’ leading tacklers.

Feist seemed to be everywhere, continuing what Miles said was an impressive spring from a physicality standpoint.

“When he hits you, you’re hit,” Miles said of Feist. “There’s no pretend to it.”

Senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter apparently left a major impression on his coaches this spring as well. Not only was he among the defense’s honorees in awards for leadership and for outstanding performance, but he was the lone winner of the Jimmy Taylor Award, the team’s comprehensive spring award for outstanding leadership, effort and performance.

3. Offensive playmakers still must emerge: It seemed like a foregone conclusion even before spring practice started that some of the team’s top offensive players for 2014 weren’t on campus yet. Spring didn’t do much to change that perception.

Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee -- who dealt with a sprained ankle for much of the spring -- were adequate at tailback, but freshman Leonard Fournette will inject some star power to the position once he arrives on campus. Likewise, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn and the new receivers will add explosiveness at a position that was riddled with injuries throughout the spring. The receivers were nearly nonexistent in the spring game.

LSU wide receivers totaled seven catches for 200 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday. Sounds pretty good, right? But five of the catches, 130 yards and both touchdowns came from one player: Travin Dural.

Otherwise, the group frequently dropped passes and misplayed catchable balls, proving that they need every bit of the available practice time this summer to develop chemistry with their quarterbacks. Dural looks like a star in the making, but the others have a lot to prove from a consistency standpoint.

4. Tight end talk seems legit: DeSean Smith and the Tigers’ other tight ends expressed hope this spring that they would get more opportunities to catch passes in 2014 than they did last season, when wideouts Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham got most of the looks from Mettenberger.

They said that’s how things had been going in practice, and Saturday looked to continue that trend. Smith led the way with three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown, but Dillon Gordon (2-32), Logan Stokes (1-26), John David Moore (1-20) and Travis Dickson (1-8) also made receptions. In all, the tight ends accounted for eight of the Tigers’ 21 catches in the final spring scrimmage, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron seems pleased with the weapons he has at his disposal at the position.

“Every year, with different personnel, creates a whole new set of opportunities, and I think the opportunities for our tight ends are going to be critical,” Cameron said. “I was thrilled -- for the most part -- I thought they made the most of it.”

5. Defense is on the comeback: Judging by the way the White team (which featured the starters) throttled the Purple team’s offense on Saturday, it looks like LSU’s first-team defense has the potential to rank among the SEC’s best this fall.

The Purple team accounted for 179 yards of offense on 46 plays -- 53 rushing on 27 carries and 126 passing on 6-for-19 attempts. The Purple converted for a first down just once out of 11 third downs.

After saying earlier in the week that he overthought things in his first season as a starter, defensive end Danielle Hunter seems to have cut loose now. He recorded two sacks on Saturday and was a regular presence in the Purple team’s backfield.

He was only one member of a sizable group of defensive players on both teams who flashed major potential in the scrimmage. Things seem to be looking up for defensive coordinator John Chavis’ bunch.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- You know what early enrollees typically do when they play in their first spring game? They stink up the joint -- and understandably so.

By all rights, they should still be in high school, making prom plans or figuring out where to go for spring break. They’ve had only a couple of months to digest a complex college playbook, and they’re competing against more seasoned, more physically mature athletes.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Courtesy of IntersportEarly enrollees aren't supposed to make an impact in spring ball, but QB Brandon Harris did just that in the spring game.
But not only did Brandon Harris not stink up the joint in LSU’s spring game on Saturday, he was arguably the star of the show with three touchdown passes and 195 passing yards. He also flashed impressive escapability when the pocket collapsed, rushing six times for 76 yards and another score.

It was an eye-opening performance, but let’s pump our breaks before declaring the Tigers’ quarterback race over -- even if Anthony Jennings followed an underwhelming performance in the Outback Bowl by going 9-for-17 for 157 yards and tossing interceptions that linebackers Deion Jones and Kwon Alexander returned for touchdowns.

Let’s be clear: if LSU had been playing Alabama -- which seems to be the measuring stick for anything around this program these days -- the performances by either Jennings or Harris would have probably led to an LSU loss.

“There needs to be improvement at the position for both guys,” LSU coach Les Miles confirmed afterward.

Obviously the pair of pick-sixes determined the day’s narrative for Jennings, but Harris had plenty of misfires himself. He displayed a phenomenal skillset and made some remarkable plays, without question, but he simply must reduce the mistakes before he can fulfill his obviously sky-high potential.

Case in point: in the second quarter, Harris overthrew a wide-open DeSean Smith -- wide open as in there was nobody within 10 yards of the big tight end -- and then floated an ugly throw over fullback Connor Neighbors' head on his next pass attempt. Later, he made a debatable decision to throw into double coverage in the end zone, with the pass luckily falling incomplete.

“I really think he made, I don’t know, four, five, six major errors in the scrimmage and yet had the ability to get beyond it, which always is a tremendous mark,” Miles said of Harris, whom LSU has not made available to speak to the media. “And if we can eliminate the mistakes and really play to the advantages, that’s what we’re looking to do.”

If there was anything positive that Jennings could take away from the day, it’s that he at least finished with a flourish. In the first two quarters, Jennings presided over seven drives -- the longest of which covered 31 yards -- with those seven possessions ending in five punts and the two interception returns for touchdowns.

He wrapped up his day with an efficient 73-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, concluding the possession with a 13-yard scoring pass to Travin Dural.

“If you throw an interception and you don’t come right back, you’re not a good quarterback,” Jennings said afterward. “So every quarterback goes through adversity. It’s how you respond, it’s not how you fall.”

He seemed to take a nasty fall on Saturday, but Jennings now has plenty of time to respond. The good news for the Tigers is that they don’t play Alabama for seven months. In fact, they don’t play anybody until the Aug. 30 kickoff against Wisconsin. That’s nearly five months for both quarterbacks to keep developing a rapport with their receiving corps and battling for the right to take the first snap against the Badgers.

Asked about the message he will send the quarterbacks going into summer workouts, Miles’ message was simple: “Compete. That’s it.” This after saying in his press conference that the coaches plan to “let the competition continue and see how this thing plays out” this summer.

Competition was also the theme of this spring, and it was apparently a productive period for both players, of whom Miles reiterated after Saturday’s game that “I think both guys are talented enough to be our quarterback.”

The talent was apparent, particularly when Harris was throwing darts and sprinting away from defenders for big gains. But will LSU’s coaches be able to harness that talent quickly enough to beat opponents like Wisconsin, Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State and, of course, the mighty Crimson Tide?

That is going to be the deciding factor in LSU’s 2014 season. With what should be an improved defense and with Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard in the backfield, the Tigers should be able to pound most of their opponents into submission. But against the nastiest teams on the schedule, they need to be able to at least make opposing defenses respect the pass -- and not make any catastrophic errors when they do choose to put the ball in the air.

Both quarterbacks made some potentially catastrophic throws on Saturday, and that’s OK for now. Jennings and Harris need to make great strides in this summer’s passing sessions, however, or it will be 2015 at the earliest before the Tigers again rank among the top contenders for a national championship.

LSU SPRING AWARDS
Here is the full list of spring practice awards that LSU coach Les Miles presented after Saturday’s spring game:

Jimmy Taylor Award (Comprehensive spring award for outstanding leadership, effort and performance): D.J. Welter

Ralph Norwood Performance Award (Outstanding performance in spring drills, offense): Kenny Hilliard, La'el Collins, Elliott Porter, Jerald Hawkins

Toby Caston Performance Award (Outstanding performance in spring drills, defense): Deion Jones, Tre'Davious White, Rashard Robinson, Danielle Hunter, D.J. Welter, Kwon Alexander

Eric Andolsek Leadership Award (Outstanding leadership in spring drills, offense): La'el Collins, Connor Neighbors, Kenny Hilliard, Terrence Magee, Jerald Hawkins

Mike Miley Leadership Award (Outstanding leadership in spring drills, defense): Danielle Hunter, Christian LaCouture, D.J. Welter, Jalen Mills, Ronald Martin

Alvin Roy Fourth Quarter Award (Outstanding performance in LSU offseason program): Danielle Hunter, Duke Riley, K.J. Malone, Ethan Pocic, Travin Dural, Christian LaCouture, Lewis Neal, Tre'Davious White, Tre' Sullivan, Terrence Magee, Luke Boyd, Jeff Lang

Most Improved Award: Ronald Martin, Lewis Neal, Quentin Thomas, Dillon Gordon, Dwayne Thomas, Fehoko Fanaika, K.J. Malone, DeSean Smith, Anthony Jennings, Tashawn Bower

Jerry Stovall Special Teams Award: Colby Delahoussaye, Reid Ferguson, Tre'Davious White

Newcomer Award: Brandon Harris, Ed Paris

Overcoming Adversity Award: Dwayne Thomas, Quantavius Leslie, Lamar Louis

Coaches Award: Devante Meullion, John David Moore, Chris LaBorde, Tommy LeBeau, Tre' Sullivan, Brad Kragthorpe, Alex Cheramie
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Asked whether Saturday’s spring game would be an important factor in some of his team’s key position battles, Les Miles clearly saw no need to do his best P.T. Barnum impression in order to draw a crowd -- which is fine since admission to LSU’s 1 p.m. CT scrimmage at Tiger Stadium is free.

“Not really to be honest with you. We’re going to watch competition [and] it’s a key scrimmage, but it’s also one of those things where there’s a lot of time left before we get to [deciding] playing time,” Miles said after Thursday’s practice. “It’s one piece, but obviously it’s important and any time we walk into that stadium, we expect our guys to play at a certain level.”

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Courtesy of IntersportAll eyes will be on the quarterbacks on Saturday in LSU's spring game, and former Under Armour All-American Brandon Harris has a chance to make a big impression.
Miles and his coaches have been observing practice for a month and then they’ll have 29 more August practices to settle their lineups for the opener against Wisconsin. But this is the first chance most of us will have to see how some Tigers handle new or expanded roles in a competitive situation. That’s what makes spring games fun, even if it’s just a glorified scrimmage.

So while Miles indicated it would be a mistake to draw any major conclusions from Saturday’s competition, there are still plenty of areas of intrigue worth observing since this is the last time we’ll see the Tigers do anything competitive until they take the field at Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Aug. 30. Here's what we’ll be keeping an eye on from the press box:

Quarterback play: Duh. It was no surprise at Thursday’s practice, which was open for students to attend, that the vast majority of them gathered around the field where LSU’s quarterbacks were throwing to their wide receivers. The competition between sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris is by far the biggest source of intrigue among Tigers fans, and their performances on Saturday will generate speculation all summer about who is best prepared to lead the offense in the opener against Wisconsin.

Both players have worked with the first- and second-team offenses, although Miles hasn’t been specific about who has done what in practices or scrimmages. Jennings certainly looks to have a better handle on things in the portions of practice that are open to the media. Harris, meanwhile, is all raw potential thanks to a powerful throwing arm. The early enrollee seems more likely to sail a ball over or behind a receiver, but when he does it correctly, it’s a thing of beauty.

Defenders could tackle Harris and Jennings when they ran from the pocket in last Saturday’s scrimmage, but Miles predicted they will likely wear non-contact jerseys in the spring game.

Offensive line development: Obviously one of LSU’s main position battles this spring has been at right guard, where Evan Washington, Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic have all gotten a look from new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see all three players factor into the Tigers’ plans in the fall, although somebody has to be the starter. Washington seems to be the leader, but we’ll gain some understanding of the pecking order on Saturday.

Overall, a line that returns four starters was effective last season, particularly as run blockers. They want to become a dominant group this season, however, and their experience and apparent depth make that seem like a possibility. Let’s see how they fare against an emerging LSU defensive line on Saturday.

Beckwith vs. Welter: We could expand this to the performance of the entire reshuffled linebacker corps, with Kwon Alexander at weakside linebacker and Lamar Louis at strong. But let’s narrow our focus on the play of senior D.J. Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith in the middle. Both players have reportedly enjoyed productive springs and both will likely factor into coordinator John Chavis’ plans in the fall. But who will be the starter? Saturday won’t decide that outcome, but it will be interesting to observe how the two players function in a game-like situation.

Interior defensive line: Miles has said a time or two this spring that the competition between the offensive and defensive lines has been encouraging. It will be fun to watch them duke it out on Saturday. One group has a decided experience advantage, particularly after starting defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both bolted for the NFL draft. But there are some up-and-comers along the defensive line who could shine on Saturday.

By all accounts, sophomore Christian LaCouture has had a strong spring. Sophomore end Tashawn Bower, redshirt freshman tackles Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore and end/tackle Frank Herron are among the youngsters we’ll be watching, as well.

Secondary play: This is a group that simply has to play better in 2014. All of the contenders at safety haven’t been practicing lately, so it’s unclear whether we’ll get a clear idea of where that competition stands on Saturday. But how smooth will Jalen Mills look at safety? What does early enrollee Ed Paris look like after a month of practices at cornerback? Who fills the various defensive back roles if the Tigers line up in their nickel and dime packages? Will Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White continue to develop into the lockdown cornerbacks LSU fans hope they will become? Those are all questions to keep in mind as you watch the scrimmage.

Who are the playmakers?: Freshmen who could become some of the Tigers’ most dangerous 2014 offensive skill players -- such as tailback Leonard Fournette and receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn -- won’t arrive until the summer. But there are several players already on campus who could use a confidence-building performance at Tiger Stadium to catapult themselves into the offseason.

Senior receiver Quantavius Leslie had such an outing at last Saturday’s scrimmage, catching four passes for 135 yards and three touchdowns. Who else might pull off that kind of feat? Receivers Travin Dural or John Diarse? Tight end DeSean Smith? Tailbacks Terrence Magee or Kenny Hilliard? Somebody else? Stay tuned.
BATON ROUGE, La. – A new season brings an entirely new set of challenges for LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

This time last year, he had just opened his first spring in Baton Rouge, so the main objective was teaching a mostly-veteran group of offensive players his way of executing on offense. Now that they've been together for a year, more players are familiar with Cameron’s system, but they will rely on an entirely new set of skill players.

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AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanNow in his second year at LSU, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron isn't slowing down the implementation of his offense for his young signal-callers.
Cameron, however, hasn’t exactly spoon-fed quarterbacks such as sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris this spring. Not initially, anyway.

“At the beginning, he threw a lot out at us. Now we’re trying to perfect those plays,” Jennings said after Tuesday’s practice. “So I don’t think he’s put in a lot -- as much as I think last year [when] he put in a lot of things because he had a veteran quarterback. So now he’s put in a lot of things early and trying to make us perfect those things we’re doing.”

That in itself has been a work in progress. Although LSU’s offensive players insist that they’re improving with each practice together, the Tigers understandably have plenty of work to do before they can match the efficiency of departed leaders like quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill.

And it hasn’t helped that both the receivers and running backs have dealt with injury and depth issues during the spring, with several months to go until a touted group of 2014 signees at those positions arrives.

At times, the results have been ugly -- like in a practice last week, when the quarterbacks and receivers struggled to connect in a simple passing drill where they were working on slant routes. Because of the array of inaccurate and dropped passes, a frustrated Cameron made them repeat the routes again and again.

“Until we can throw a slant, we aren't going to throw another route, I promise you,” Cameron yelled. “We’ll be the simplest -- I’ll tell you what, we’ll run 1950s football until we can do this. We’ll run one route the whole year.”

Obviously a transition from one of the most prolific foursomes in LSU history to a group of largely inexperienced players wasn't going to occur seamlessly. But you’d never know it from the way Cameron has approached the spring, according to senior center Elliott Porter.

Asked whether Cameron has slowed things down for the new quarterbacks, Porter’s response was emphatic.

“No! That’s not right,” Porter chuckled. “It’s Coach Cam. Coach Cam believes in going full speed. If we get it, we’re going to get it. That’s it. That’s how we do things around here. If you couldn't do it, you wouldn’t be here. That’s what you have to look at. We’re not slowing down for no one and we’re going to keep moving and keep doing it. You’re smart enough to get it.”

After all, Porter pointed out, there will be times in the fall where the Tigers must adjust on the fly while preparing for an upcoming opponent’s defensive scheme. They won’t have time to take things slowly for youngsters then, either.

“It’s college football, baby,” Porter said. “I believe Coach Cam and [offensive line coach Jeff] Grimes and Coach [Les] Miles are the best ones to prepare you for the NFL. That’s the type of pace you go by. You just don’t know, in a game week, if you change something whole about your offense, we have two days to change it. Maybe one. You really have to be able to adjust and adjust fast.”

Nonetheless, quarterback guru Cameron has the luxury of drilling the small details of the position with his youngsters this spring, since the opener against Wisconsin is still five months away.

As Jennings noted, Cameron probably hasn’t operated as briskly as he might have otherwise with more experienced quarterbacks, but LSU veterans are still observing the methodical progress the youngsters are making under Cameron’s tutelage.

“I feel like he’s getting the quarterbacks really prepared for the fall. … That’s what has kind of been going on, but the guys have been picking it up real good at practice,” senior tailback Kenny Hilliard said. “Hopefully they just continue to get better and learn from Coach Cam and just carry that on to the fall.”
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Frank Wilson hasn’t been taking it easy on his players lately.

LSU’s running backs coach has been giving Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard a heavy workload in spring practice, which was partially out of necessity since the two seniors are the only scholarship tailbacks on the Tigers’ spring roster.

“It's getting pretty rough out there,” Magee said with a smile. “We're taking a lot of reps. We were rotating every play, but this week Coach Frank wants us to go a little bit longer so we've been going about every three now. So it's getting pretty taxing, but it's going to pay off in the long run.”

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Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsSenior Kenny Hilliard is one of two tailbacks that LSU returns from last season, joining Terrence Magee.
This is an unusual time for LSU’s tailbacks -- a position group known in the recent past for its impressive depth. In 2011, LSU had four players (Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Hilliard) rush for 300 or more yards and score at least seven touchdowns. It was more of the same last season, with Jeremy Hill (1,401 yards, 16 TDs), Magee (626-8), Blue (343-1) and Hilliard (310-7) all going for 300-plus and Hill, Magee and Hilliard all scoring at least seven times.

But with Hill and Blue both entering the NFL draft, the Tigers are now forced to work converted linebacker (now fullback) Melvin Jones at tailback a bit just to break up the practice reps.

“This is his first time carrying the ball, but he's getting better,” Hilliard said of Jones. “His pad level is a little high, but that's part of it. He's never really carried the ball before, so it's just a lot of teaching that he's got to learn, watch film and make sure that he stays in the film room and just look at us and let us lead by example. He can just pay attention to us and he'll be all right.”

Any LSU fan who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that this situation is only temporary. Leonard Fournette -- one of the most heavily hyped prospects ever to emerge from Louisiana, whom two recruiting services, including ESPN, picked as the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit -- isn’t on campus yet. Neither is Darrel Williams, who rushed for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at Marrero (La.) John Ehret.

Both players seem likely to contribute as true freshmen. And in Fournette’s case, anything short of stardom would probably disappoint most Tigers fans -- a reality that is not lost on LSU’s returning tailbacks.

“I don't feel like we get overlooked and it doesn't bother us,” Magee said of the buzz surrounding Fournette. “All the credit that he gets, he fully deserves. He was the No. 1 player in the country and he's a great running back. I've watched film of him. So everything that he's getting, I feel that he's well deserving of it.”

Fournette will still need help adjusting to life on a college campus and within a big-time SEC program, which is where the two seniors can help.

“Those guys have just got to be mentally prepared when they come in, because the transition from high school to college, it's tough,” Hilliard said. “As they get here, I'm going to mentor them -- me and Terrence -- like Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue and those guys mentored us.”

Even if Fournette immediately emerges as LSU’s next superstar back, the Tigers have traditionally spread around the carries under Les Miles. Magee, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry last season, and Hilliard, who has a touchdown for every 10 touches in his career, will almost certainly play key roles in the offense.

“One thing about [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s] offense: the best player's going to play and the hardest worker's going to play,” offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. “I'll tell you one thing, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee are two of the hardest-working players on our team. So they are going to get their carries. You can see that they're talented guys. Terrence has one of the best agility moves, side-to-side quickness, all that. Kenny is one of the most powerful backs in the nation in my opinion.”

Once Hill returned from an early suspension last season, Magee found a niche as a third-down back. The former receiver would like to expand upon that role by adding some pass-catching responsibilities out of the backfield -- plus Miles said last week that Magee will rank among the Tigers’ top candidates as a kick return man.

He has never carried the ball more than 82 times in a season, but Hilliard has proven to be an especially effective goal-line runner, and that role seems likely to remain in place in the fall.

Obviously no roles for 2014 are established yet, and they won’t be until the freshmen arrive and responsibilities begin falling into place during August practices. The only duties Magee and Hilliard are certain to claim are those of mentors -- and they seem happy to help Fournette and Williams, just as their predecessors did when they were underclassmen.

“We've just got to keep the standards and just be able to come out and execute and play hard,” Hilliard said. “That's our motto: just come out and play hard and take care of the ball and everything will be all right. We know we have two young guys coming in and we're going to mentor them and make sure they get right and keep the legacy in the room.”

Opening spring camp: LSU

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Schedule: The Tigers open spring practice on Saturday. They will conclude with the spring game on April 5 at Tiger Stadium.

What's new: Former Auburn and Virginia Tech assistant Jeff Grimes joined the staff in January, replacing Greg Studrawa as offensive line coach. An old face will also return to Les Miles' staff, as Bradley Dale Peveto -- a Miles assistant from 2005-08 and participant in a failed experiment as co-defensive coordinator in 2008 -- was recently hired as special teams coordinator. He replaces Thomas McGaughey, who accepted the same position with the New York Jets of the NFL.

[+] EnlargeWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsWideout Travin Dural will need to step up for the Tigers in 2014.
Attrition: The Tigers once again suffered a big hit from early NFL entry. LSU receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, tailbacks Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue, defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and right guard Trai Turner all entered the draft despite having eligibility remaining.

On the move: If comments he made last month are any indication, Miles and the coaching staff intend to leave Jalen Mills at safety on at least a part-time basis. He started at the position in the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa. Don't be surprised if players who have played other positions -- tackle Evan Washington and center Ethan Pocic are reportedly among them -- figure into the competition to replace Turner at right guard. Also, keep an idea on how the Tigers deploy Kendell Beckwith this spring. He has the ability to contribute at defensive end or linebacker, and he might play both positions at points.

New faces: The Tigers have two early enrollees participating in spring practice in quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris Jr. We'll discuss Harris, who was ESPN's No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 37 overall prospect for the 2014 class, more below. ESPN ranked Paris as its No. 4 safety and No. 50 overall prospect, but LSU listed him as a cornerback when it added the freshmen to the roster.

Key battle: There will be several position battles worth watching -- right guard, defensive tackle and quarterback are among them -- but let's talk about the wide receivers. With Landry and Beckham jumping to the NFL, LSU lost nearly all of its production at wideout. Speedster Travin Dural (seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns in 2013) is the only receiver who has done much of anything, and even his production was limited last fall. With arguably the nation's top collection of receiver signees -- led by ESPN's No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre and No. 3 Trey Quinn -- set to arrive in the summer, now is the time for the players on campus to show they deserve some snaps. Senior Quantavius Leslie (1-11) was disappointingly quiet last season as a junior college transfer. Freshmen John Diarse, Avery Peterson and Kevin Spears all redshirted. Conventional wisdom has Dural and Diarse as the most likely contributors in 2014. Will at least one or two of the others join that group?

Breaking out: Let's see whether cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White continue the ascent that started late last season. They started alongside one another in two of LSU's last three games -- wins against Texas A&M and Iowa -- and the secondary made strong showings in both games. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel had one of the worst outings of his college career (16-for-41 for 224 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions), with Robinson intercepting the former Heisman Trophy winner once. LSU held Iowa to 13-for-30 passing and 157 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions -- one of which came when White picked off a Jake Rudock pass at the LSU 7-yard line in the second quarter. LSU has a longstanding tradition of excellence at cornerback, although the Tigers' entire defense needed to perform more consistently last fall. Perhaps they've found something in sophomores Robinson and White.

Don't forget about: Most of us have already penciled in No. 1 overall prospect Leonard Fournette as the Tigers' starter-in-waiting at tailback. And he very well may be. But he won't arrive on campus until the summer. For now, rising seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard will handle the carries, and both players have proved themselves capable of producing. Magee was Hill's primary backup last season, rushing for 626 yards (and 7.3 yards per carry!) and also flashing good receiving skills (six catches for 49 yards). Hilliard has never been the No. 1 tailback, but he has acquitted himself in a short-yardage role, rushing for at least six touchdowns in all three seasons. Fournette has stardom written all over him, but he won't push the veterans completely out of the way. Count on Magee and Hilliard to keep getting their touches.

All eyes on: Anthony Jennings started LSU's bowl game against Iowa after replacing an injured Zach Mettenberger -- and leading the game-winning comeback -- against Arkansas. He was shaky to say the least (7-for-19 for 82 yards and an interception) in that first career start, however. With Harris, an excellent passer and explosive runner, already on campus, Jennings needs to show he can handle the starting job. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron hand-picked Harris and is no doubt excited about what he can bring to the offense, but he needs to learn the offense first before he can truly threaten Jennings for a starting spot. Throughout the summer, LSU fans will dissect the two quarterbacks' performances in the spring game. Jennings seems like the safe bet to open the season as the Tigers' starter, but whether he holds onto that spot is up to him -- and perhaps up to his new freshman competitor, whose ability to execute the offense will be under heavy scrutiny over the next month.

Draft entries create youth movement

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- The way Les Miles sees it, rival programs that aren't hit as hard by the NFL draft might boast older, more physically developed talent since fewer players skipped town with college eligibility remaining.

“Or [they] have lesser players,” Miles said last week. “One of the two.”

The truth, of course, is that it's a bit of both for most of the teams that Miles' LSU faces annually.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Courtesy of IntersportUnder Armour All-American QB Brandon Harris will be in the thick of the LSU QB race when he arrives on campus.
Any program that targets elite recruits does so with the knowledge that they might bolt for the NFL after three years on campus. In fact, they recruit such players with the intention of playing them early if they prove they deserve a spot on the depth chart.

“If a great player can be in your two-deep, he plays,” Miles said of the hypothetical incoming freshman. “If a great player can't be in your two-deep, he's probably not a great player.”

The concept is simple. Players who aren't great tend to stick around longer than those whose physical abilities make them promising targets for NFL scouts. The tricky part for a college coach is convincing players who possess NFL potential to stick around long enough to maximize their talents and land a lucrative professional contract. That takes longer for some than it does for others.

LSU has fallen short in that department, which is why Miles hammers the point that players shouldn't give the NFL “a deal” by leaving school before they have proven themselves as sure-fire, early-round picks.

Some who left Baton Rouge early last year -- and a couple more this year might follow in their footsteps -- could have improved their stock by returning for another season in college. Instead, they made a risky decision to turn pro that blew up in their faces. While improving their draft stock, they also could have been helping LSU win football games had they stayed. Poor choices caused both parties to suffer.

Miles refuses to say that early draft entry has created a problem for LSU -- “It appears to me that we're winning a lot of games year after year after year. I think that will continue,” he insisted -- but the Tigers will provide a case study that bears watching.

After leading the nation with 11 early departures a season ago, LSU again leads the pack with seven this year. LSU's 18 early entries are 10 more than any school has ever had in a two-year period according to ESPN's Brad Edwards. Further, Edwards tweeted on Tuesday that LSU's 18 early entries are seven more than the entire Big 12 in that span and eight more than the entire Big Ten.

Honestly, how could that not create problems? Nobody, not even Alabama, is dealing with that kind of draft-created roster turnover.

Miles is a confident coach who believes that his coaching staff is capable of attracting enough high-level talent that they can plug in youngsters without missing much of a beat. LSU handled the attrition well for the most part in 2013, although last year's seven early departures off fearsome defenses from 2011 and 2012 clearly affected John Chavis' inconsistent unit in the fall.

It's only natural to wonder whether another veteran's defensive presence here or there might have made a difference in 2013 going down as a championship-caliber season instead of simply another solid fall under Miles' leadership.

Now it will be Cam Cameron's turn to rebuild, with five of the seven early departures -- including receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and tailback Jeremy Hill, who combined for 3,985 of LSU's 5,893 offensive yards in 2013 -- coming on offense. And Cameron will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, as well.

This is where players like Leonard Fournette, Trey Quinn and Brandon Harris fit into the conversation.

Among the motivational signs in LSU's team meeting room is one that spells out the Tigers' team process. One line reads “Young guys must prepare to play big roles,” which is exactly what tailback Fournette -- ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect -- receiver Quinn and early enrollee quarterback Harris might have to do.

Fournette has two veterans in Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard to help him make the transition into college, but it will be an enormous disappointment if he does not play a leading role in the 2014 offense.

Quinn -- ESPN's No. 29 overall prospect and No. 3 receiver -- and other players who will have either signed with the Tigers last February or in a couple of weeks must also play big roles this fall. The Tigers have next to no experienced alternatives at the position.

And while rising sophomore Anthony Jennings got a head start on the competition by starting the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa, he can’t be crowned the 2014 starter just yet. Harris -- ESPN's No. 37 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat quarterback -- is among those who will challenge for the job.

Those players and more, who will officially become Tigers on signing day, are immensely talented prospects. That is why several will be included in the coaching staff's plans almost immediately.

“For years we've said that young guys that come into this program are expected not to be young guys,” Miles said. “They're expected to take their roles and play big roles in this program. That being said, we recruit to that. We recruit to those guys that see themselves stepping in and making big plays and playing a part.”

John Calipari's basketball program at Kentucky employs a similar recruiting philosophy and has also kept winning despite considerable attrition through the NBA draft. In both situations, however, it's reasonable to wonder whether the model is sustainable.

Calipari has won a national title but also fielded disappointing teams following considerable draft attrition at Kentucky. Year 2 of the closest comparison in college football -- Miles' LSU -- will tell us plenty about whether it can work on the gridiron.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The damage wasn't as significant as a year ago, but early entries into the NFL draft will again hit LSU hard this season.

The Tigers lost seven players who had eligibility remaining -- five of whom came from the offense, a year after seven of LSU's 11 early entries were defensive players. That puts the onus on offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to quickly determine his top options after losing the only foursome in SEC history that featured a 3,000-yard passer (senior Zach Mettenberger), two 1,000-yard receivers (juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry) and a 1,000-yard rusher (sophomore Jeremy Hill).

Let's take a position-by-position look at some of the possible replacements for the Tigers who opted to enter the draft:

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTravin Dural (83) has big shoes to fill with the departures of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham.
Wide receiver

Departing: Juniors Landry (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs in 2013) and Beckham (59-1,152, 8 TDs). LSU passed for 3,263 yards in 2013. Landry and Beckham combined to accumulate 2,345 of those yards (plus departing tailback Hill and senior Kadron Boone were third and fifth on the team with 181 and 129 yards, respectively). In other words, LSU has a ton of receiving production to replace and no proven options.

Contenders: As the only returning receiver with more than 100 yards in 2013, Travin Dural (7-145, 2 TDs) is the most obvious choice here. He made a game-winning, 49-yard touchdown catch in the closing minutes against Arkansas, so perhaps he will be one of the Tigers' next receiving playmakers.

Otherwise, who knows? LSU would love to get more out of former junior college transfer Quantavius Leslie (1-11), but he didn't do much in 2013. And then you have Avery Peterson (brother of former LSU cornerback Patrick) and John Diarse, both of whom were big-time prospects before redshirting last season.

Additionally, the Tigers already have verbal commitments from Trey Quinn -- ESPN's No. 3 receiver and No. 29 overall prospect -- fellow ESPN 300 picks D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch, and are still pursuing No. 1 wideout Malachi Dupre. If Les Miles' staff lands some of these top-tier prospects, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them crack the depth chart as freshmen.

Tailback

Departing: Sophomore Hill (203 carries, 1,401 yards, 16 TDs) and senior Alfred Blue (71-343, 1 TD). Hill posted the second-best rushing totals in school history in 2013 and was an absolute force when he stayed out of trouble. Blue missed his chance to be the No. 1 tailback when he suffered a season-ending injury early in the 2012 campaign. Hill had two years of eligibility remaining, while Blue was granted a fifth season by the NCAA but elected not to use it.

Contenders: Perhaps it's unfair to 2014 seniors Terrence Magee (86-626, 8 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (68-310, 7 TDs) to discount their roles -- and they will certainly play roles next season -- but Leonard Fournette is the guy who will attract the most attention between signing day and the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin. ESPN rates Fournette as the nation's No. 1 prospect and he is often compared to Adrian Peterson thanks to a rare combination of size (he's listed at 6-foot-1 and 226 pounds), slippery moves and breakaway speed. Magee and Hilliard will both contribute, but LSU's running game can be great if Fournette quickly establishes himself alongside the veterans.

Defensive tackle

Departing: Juniors Anthony Johnson (35 tackles, 9 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks) and Ego Ferguson (58 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack). Johnson and Ferguson anchored the middle of the Tigers' line, but their early departures create a big hole for position coach Brick Haley to fill.

Contenders: Christian LaCouture (11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, 1 sack) is the first name to mention. An early enrollee last year, LaCouture jumped into the rotation as a freshman and served as a decent third option behind the veterans. Meanwhile, Quentin Thomas (9 tackles, 0.5 tackles for a loss) entered the starting lineup against Iowa in the Outback Bowl when Ferguson didn't travel to the bowl site. Beyond those two, it's a bit of a mystery. Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain -- both of whom redshirted in 2013 -- were big gets for LSU on the recruiting trail at this time a year ago, so they could enter the mix as well.

Right guard

Departing: Sophomore Trai Turner (Started all 13 games in 2013). Turner was a second-team All-SEC pick as a draft-eligible sophomore, prompting him to jump to the pros earlier than many would have expected. His departure creates an opening at right guard -- the lone spot to fill on what could be an outstanding offensive line.

Contenders: On the day left tackle La'El Collins announced he would return for his senior season, he lobbied for Fehoko Fanaika to fill Turner's spot. At 6-foot-6 and 348 pounds, the junior college transfer -- who appeared in 12 games in 2013 -- certainly has the girth to handle the job. Other options include a pair of ESPN 300 selections from 2013, Ethan Pocic (also Elliott Porter's backup at center) and Andy Dodd, along with ESPN's No. 1 guard for 2014, Garrett Brumfield, who has already committed to the hometown Tigers.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- La'El Collins would have been an NFL draft pick this year. He might have even been an early-round pick this year. But unlike seven teammates, Collins announced on Tuesday that he will return for the 2014 season at LSU in order to complete his degree and improve his pro stock.

[+] EnlargeLa'el Collins
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsWith La'El Collins returning for his senior season, LSU will have four of five returning starters back on its offensive line.
“Going to the draft early and maybe going late first, early second -- who knows? -- I know for a fact that if I came back to school, I could earn my degree and have a better chance and a better opportunity to go higher in the draft next year,” Collins said. “It all kind of came together and it all made sense.”

Collins announced his decision at an on-campus press conference alongside coach Les Miles and fellow rising seniors Jordan Allen, Kenny Hilliard, Elliott Porter and Jermauria Rasco -- all of whom also plan to return in 2014.

Miles credited the returning players for making decisions that will allow them to further develop before making the leap for the pros -- often a risky proposition, as several of the 11 Tigers who left school early after last season can attest. Only nine of those 11 got drafted and six were taken in the third round or later.

“I'm absolutely sure,” Miles said when asked if the departed Tigers' fates this season might have impacted the decisions of the players who chose to stay. “There were some unusual decisions made last year in my mind.”

Collins, Miles said, was a safe bet to become an NFL draft pick, but he emphasized that players need to strongly consider the possibilities should their pro stock sits on shakier ground.

“What we try to tell them is this: let's not give the NFL a deal. There's no reason for it,” Miles said. “The guaranteed money, the best position to go into the draft is the first round. What we want to encourage is to really view your decision in relationship to where you can be and where you are. These guys, they made great decisions.”

Collins was a second-team All-SEC selection this season after taking over as the Tigers' left tackle. He started all 13 games in 2012 at left guard, leading to some question about where he might eventually land in the pros.

He said NFL teams have offered mixed feedback as to which position he will play, but Miles said another college season at tackle will provide an opportunity to convince scouts that he can be a tackle.

“If I was sitting in an NFL room right now, I'd be sitting there questioning that. That would be a real question,” Miles said. “I think this year his piece is to improve and to make his last year his best year. And then I see tackle (in the NFL).”

The Tigers' offense lost five productive underclassmen with eligibility remaining -- receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., running backs Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue and offensive guard Trai Turner -- as well as senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger, so LSU's 2014 offense will feature an entirely new set of skill-position players. The offensive line should return four starters, however, in Collins and center Porter, right tackle Jerald Hawkins and left guard Vadal Alexander.

Miles said he expects the group to be dominant next season and Porter and Collins both predicted that it will be the strength of the rebuilding offense.

“Last year was our first year really playing together as a whole and I think that with another year under our belt, it's going to be a great season,” Collins said. “For me the game is won in the trenches, so if we come out and do the things that we're capable of doing, I think we'll have a great season.”

Getting Collins back makes that a much more likely proposition. He didn't give the NFL a deal, to use Miles' expression, giving LSU another season with arguably its top offensive lineman and providing Collins with another season to prove where he belongs on 2015 draft boards.

“I don't think there's any question that he has the potential to be a very early draft pick at left tackle,” Miles predicted.
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The SEC lost another talented offensive stud on Monday when LSU sophomore Jeremy Hill announced via Twitter that he will skip his junior year and declare for the NFL draft.

Though just a sophomore, Hill is three years removed from his graduating high school class after sitting out the 2011 season due to legal issues.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesWith LSU running back Jeremy Hill off to the NFL, the Tigers will have to replace the 1,401 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns he accumulated this season.
The loss of Hill can't be understated for an offense that is already losing its starting quarterback and top two receivers. Hill was a beast during his freshman year but turned into a certified monster in 2013. He finished the season with a bruising 1,401 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns, both ranked second in the SEC this year. As a freshman, Hill rushed for a team-high 755 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Hill was a special talent in the SEC, with a powerful blend of speed, agility and strength that frustrated defenses to no end. Only rarely could defenses stop him with one tackler. You needed assistance -- and then some -- to stop Hill when he got a full head of steam.

He rushed for 100-plus yards 11 times during his college career, including seven times this season.

The thing to watch with Hill is how he transitions to the pro level off the field. He was arrested last April following his role in an alleged fight outside an off-campus bar, and in July pleaded guilty to misdemeanor simple battery. This after already being on legal probation in connection with a 2011 arrest for an alleged sexual assault of a 14-year-old girl. (In January 2012, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor carnal knowledge of a juvenile.)

Hill's off-field transgression last year almost cost him his LSU football career, but he more than took advantage of his return to the football field. He trained like a madman when he was away from the team in order to stay in prime shape for football season. He then showed focus and determination on the field when he returned. You can't average 116 yards per game without having the right focus.

Whether Hill has truly learned something from his mistakes is unknown. Until he gets back on the field, he'll have plenty of time to face distractions and temptations. His growth as a player is unquestioned, but his growth as a person is still unknown. Now is when we'll find out what Hill is really made of.

As for LSU, the Tigers welcome the nation's No. 1 recruit, running back Leonard Fournette, who is being called the second coming of just about every great college football running back. He has the right measurables, speed and strength to make an instant impact, as Hill did. Having Hill to learn from would have been a huge win for Fournette, who will now have to deal with overwhelming hype and expectations that will follow him from his outstanding high school career. Hill would have helped deflect some of the pressure that Fournette will now undoubtedly be showered with.

The good news for him is that he'll have two rising seniors -- Terrence Magee, who was second on the team with 626 rushing yards and eight touchdowns this season, and Kenny Hilliard (310 yards, seven touchdowns) -- to work with in Baton Rouge.

The Tigers should have good depth at running back without Hill and might have their running back of the future in Fournette. Still, Hill will no doubt be missed on the Bayou.
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Nick Saban eventually learned to take advantage of the bye week and relax. Through years of coaching at Michigan State, LSU and Alabama, he found that using two full weeks to prepare for a game was counterproductive. Players got tired of hearing the same things over and over again, he said, and by the time the game actually arrived they were "sort of mentally and psychologically drained."

[+] EnlargeLSU/Georgia
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsZach Mettenberger is one of the nation's most-improved QBs, a fact not lost on Nick Saban.
But Alabama's 62-year-old coach with four championship rings and plans on a fifth this season can only stick to his plan so much. He encouraged everyone on staff to go home and take the weekend off, to rest and recuperate before diving headlong into the task of preparing for LSU the following week. He said he looked forward to the change of venue -- "not come to work for the first time in six months" -- and added that he'd even watch some football on Saturday, especially if there was a good SEC game on.

Picturing Saban lounging on the couch with a cold drink and popcorn doesn't quite add up, though. Not with LSU on the horizon. The top-ranked Crimson Tide play host to the always dangerous purple and gold Tigers on Saturday. LSU will enter Tuscaloosa ranked 13th in the BCS, but more importantly as an underdog with a history of winning at Bryant-Denny Stadium. Their offense is potent, the talent unquestionable.

Should Alabama win, the Tide will remain favorites to win the SEC and reach the BCS National Championship Game for a third consecutive season. A loss would mean disaster, disappointment and a year's worth of questions.

The very thought kept Saban from enjoying the time off too much.

"I don't ever get too far from that computer, man," Saban told ESPN's Ivan Maisel on his podcast on Thursday. "It's just hard not to think about what's coming up and trying to prepare for it. Even though you get away, you never totally get away."

Though most of last week was spent looking at his own team, the matchup with LSU was impossible to ignore. Saban called it "the most challenging game" of the season and touted LSU's improved offense under new coordinator Cam Cameron, a coach he's familiar with dating to his days at Michigan State.

Zach Mettenberger has developed into one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC under Cameron's tutelage. His 85.7 opponent-adjusted QBR is seventh-best in the FBS, according to ESPN Stats & Information. His 38.6-point improvement from the season before is the biggest gain of any quarterback who qualified.

With Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry to throw the ball to, it's no wonder. The two starters rank in the top three of the SEC in yards receiving and have combined for 16 touchdown catches through nine games. Beckham ranks second nationally with 207.33 all-purpose yards per game.

And that's not to mention Jeremy Hill and LSU's stable of backs. Hill's 115.2 rushing yards per game is good enough for 15th nationally. Kenny Hilliard, his backup, has scored on 10.1 percent of his rushing attempts this season, trailing only Marcus Murphy and Kenyan Drake among SEC tailbacks.

"This is the most skilled group of receivers, combination of runners, combination of balance on offense, a good quarterback ... all the factors that I think are going to be the most challenging for us this season," Saban said.

There never has been a doubt about what the game means to everyone involved, Saban said, but he didn't want to "wear them out with it" last week. The Alabama-LSU rivalry speaks for itself. What's riding on this year's game is obvious.

But now that restriction is gone. It's Monday and it's time to start figuring out how to beat LSU.

Coaches and players know what to expect. Linebacker Trey DePriest called it a "physical, downhill-type team" that will line up and go right at you. Then the only thing left is "Can you stop it?" according to DePriest.

And the answer to that question means everything.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- They craned their necks like prairie dogs drawn helplessly toward something off in the distance. Some of LSU's defensive players stretched from the bench on the sideline to see the Jumbotron in the south end zone, while others simply stood straight up, turned around and watched their offense race down the field against Mississippi State.

Purple-and-gold-clad coaches in headsets milled around them, shaking their heads at the action. But was it at the success of Zach Mettenberger and their offense or at their own ineptitude on defense? The way the game went back and forth for so long, it was hard to tell.

LSU's defense, long the backbone of the program, showed little resolve Saturday night against unranked Mississippi State, surrendering big play after big play in the passing game while simultaneously getting gashed up the middle with runs between the tackles. The final score, a hard-fought 59-26 win over the Bulldogs, was fine in the short term, with LSU improving to 5-1 overall while remaining squarely in the title picture. But it didn't bode well for the 10th-ranked Tigers' outlook moving forward when it must turn its attention to even more potent offenses like Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M in the second half of the season.

[+] EnlargeDak Prescott
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsDak Prescott rushed for 103 yards and threw for 106 as Mississippi State ravaged the LSU defense.
Everyone has accepted the fact that the defense had to rebuild after losing eight starters to the NFL last spring, but this? Missing tackles and being overwhelmed physically has never been a part of LSU's identity. There wasn't an inch of sideline that Les Miles didn't pace during the first half, when he nervously contemplated the dangerous tightrope his team continues to walk on defense.

Giving up points in bunches to Georgia a week ago was one thing. This was another. This kind of effort, six games into the season, was a trend. All LSU's head coach had to fall back on was the idea that a strong second half was something to build on.

"We weren't perfect in any way," Miles explained after the game, "but we're a young team that's coming, and we'll certainly build on this."

Miles lauded his offense after the game, cheering on a group that has performed a turnaround few could have imagined. Cam Cameron stepped in as offensive coordinator this offseason and worked wonders, harnessing Mettenberger's pro potential to the tune of 15 touchdowns and a per-game average of 290 yards passing. Saturday night marked the sixth consecutive game LSU scored 30 or more points and racked up 400 or more yards, both school records.

But longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis has had no such renaissance. Saddled with a slew of inexperienced players at every level, he has had trouble stopping anyone this year. LSU came into the weekend averaging roughly 40 yards and a dozen more points per game than it did a season ago.

Mississippi State, which has struggled to score points consistently and still hasn't found a clear-cut starter at quarterback, scored at will for the better part of three quarters, racking up 468 total yards, including 13 plays of 15 or more yards. When Dak Prescott wasn't burning LSU with the read-option, Tyler Russell was picking apart the secondary from the pocket.

It wasn't until a fourth-quarter turnover that the bleeding stopped and LSU looked like a prohibitive favorite again. Jeremy Hill made sure Tre'Davious White's interception counted when he took the ensuing handoff 5 yards for the touchdown, putting LSU ahead by two scores.

LSU would pad its lead and run away with the win in Starkville, but it didn't come without its consequences. Suddenly Florida, which scored 30 points in a win over Arkansas the same night, didn't look like such a winnable game.

"It's coming along," a hopeful Ego Ferguson said. "Rome wasn't built in a day. We're just going to go out there and practice hard every day, prepare hard like we do every week and gradually get better."

LSU's mammoth defensive tackle said he understands that the roles might be different this season. The offense, long the struggling little sister at LSU, is suddenly the one taking the lead, with the defense trailing behind.

"I believe our offense is probably the best in the country," Ferguson said. "We have the best wide receiver duo in Odell [Beckham] and Jarvis [Landry] and we have four running backs who can play great. Right now we're going to keep fighting for them and they'll keep fighting for us."

One of those running backs, Kenny Hilliard, ran for 45 yards and three touchdowns against Mississippi State. He said that with the defensive woes, it has become something of a game of attrition.

"We have to put up numbers," he said. "The defense is going to get the job done to a certain extent, and we're going to have to go out there and put more points on the board than the opposition."

For Miles and the Tigers to stay at the head of the class with Alabama in the SEC West, a high-powered offense won't be enough. Rediscovering its defensive identity is a must, and maybe that process began in the second half against Mississippi State.

"We were a little younger last game," Miles said. "We weren't as young this game. We'll have to see if we can't improve on that and be a little faster and a little older next week."
Mississippi State (2-2, 0-1) will be the clear underdog when it hosts No. 10 LSU (4-1, 1-1) on Saturday night in Starkville. The Bulldogs have had their ups and downs this season, but middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney believes that if his team just makes a few plays, they can make this game interesting.

McKinney said to expect a raucous crowd at Davis Wade Stadium when the Tigers come to town. The cowbells will most certainly be clanging at maximum volume around kickoff at 7 p.m. ET.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBenardrick McKinney was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team last season.
The sophomore preseason All-SEC selection took some time to talk about the matchup with ESPN.com on Friday. Here's what he had to say:

What's the focus been like this week for the defense?

McKinney: Just to come out and play hard. We need to execute our plays and stop the run. That's our main focus, to stop the run. We want to come together as a defensive unit. The d-linemen are going to do their job getting push up front and opening up things for the linebackers to make plays.

How's LSU different this year?

McKinney: They have good, big backs -- (Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue, Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard). Their passing game is good. No. 80 (Jarvis Landry) is a very good receiver, but we're going to try to shut him down. We'll be fine if we execute our plays.

How has the secondary looked? Are they ready to stop LSU's receivers?

McKinney: Our secondary is doing pretty good at practice. They're maturing everyday and knowing to play to win. They're going to be great Saturday. They're going to make a lot of big plays for us.

What stands out about Zach Mettenberger?

McKinney: He's a pocket quarterback. He's a great player. He can throw the ball downfield. If you give it to him, he can make plays. Getting pressure is going to be very important. We have to make him try to move around since he's not very mobile. We need to get him out the pocket.

How have Dak Prescott and Tyler Russell looked in practice this week?

McKinney: Both of them are great leaders, Dak and Tyler. I mean, they're putting in extra work, working together and working with the receivers. They're working together as a team, as brothers, and staying positive.

What's Russell's attitude been like after not starting for a few weeks?

McKinney: He's been a great leader, pushing us when he's on the sidelines. He's helping with the plays and telling us to keep working hard and helping Dak a lot on his pass reads. He's giving a lot of energy to the team.

LSU savors open to SEC season

September, 18, 2013
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Odell Beckham Jr. leapt high in the end zone during the first quarter Saturday at Tiger Stadium. He looked set to snag a touchdown reception from Zach Mettenberger, before Kent State defender Darius Polk interfered on the play, drawing a flag as he popped a Beckham finger loose from its socket.

It required two attempts for a trainer on the LSU sideline to set the finger back in place.

The scenario, Beckham said, turned his stomach a bit.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLes Miles and LSU are out for a third-straight win over Auburn.
But on the next LSU possession, there he was, lined up wide. He caught a 12-yard pass on the second play.

“I’m not going to leave the field,” he said.

With such enthusiasm over a game against Kent State, imagine Beckham’s energy level this week as the sixth-ranked Tigers prepare to open SEC play against Auburn on Saturday (7:45 p.m. ET, ESPN).

“That’s why I came here, to play in the SEC,” said Beckham, who leads the nation through three games in all-purpose yardage. “Honestly, I can’t wait. I feel like a kid in a candy shop -- just excited about Auburn and the teams we’re going to face. I’m looking forward to the competition.”

Beckham’s feelings appear representative of the Tigers after comfortable wins over TCU, UAB and the Golden Flashes. LSU hasn’t trailed in 180 minutes despite a defense forced to replace eight starters from a year ago and youth across the board.

The Tigers have played 14 true freshman, third-most nationally behind Texas A&M and UCLA.

Still, LSU looks ready for the SEC.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence right now,” junior receiver Jarvis Landry, second nationally with five touchdowns on his 17 receptions. “We believe in the system. We’re going to continue to buy into the system.”

Beckham and Landry have teamed with Mettenberger to form a lethal passing combination that ranks as the Tigers’ most notable improvement over last year.

The senior Mettenberger ranks eighth in Total QBR. He’s thrown nine touchdowns, an LSU record through three games, without an interception and reached the end zone on 13 percent of passes, second nationally behind Florida State phenom Jameis Winston.

All this after Mettenberger ranked 96th a year ago in Total QBR, averaging 7.4 yards per pass attempt. This year, it’s 11.6 under new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

“I think we’re in a good spot right now,” Mettenberger said. “We’ve done so many good things, but we’ve yet to play our best football.”

With the re-emergence of running back Jeremy Hill, the Tigers are stacked in the backfield, too. Each of their top running backs -- Kill, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee -- have led the Tigers in rushing in at least one career game.

“We have a really good problem,” Mettenberger said. “Who to get the ball to?”

Hill rushed for 117 yards and two scores last week in his second game back from suspension. He’s far from a finished product, coach Les Miles said.

Defensively, the Tigers were supposed to struggle. After all, this team lost 10 underclassmen to the NFL after last season, including five defensive starters with new starters needed at every position on the line.

But as LSU enters SEC play, that front four might rank as the strength of the defense.

“I like it, how we’re playing,” defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said. “But I feel like we can still improve every play.”

They’ve allowed 267 yards per game, No. 10 nationally. It’s 62 yards – and nearly a yard per play – down from a year ago through three games. Impressive, though.

“I can’t wait for SEC play,” Ferguson said.

After the win over Kent State, a reporter asked Miles what he likes about waiting until this fourth week to jump into league play as many SEC teams have already opened their conference schedules.

“Did I say I like that?” Miles said.

The coach said he likes his team but that he needs a measuring stick to accurately gauge its progress.

He’s about to get it. The SEC is here.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Kenny Hilliard walked into the first player interview session of LSU's August camp Monday looking rather svelte.

"I'm 230 pounds," he said with pride, while explaining how he lost about 10 pounds since the 2012 season by consulting with a dietician and cutting out the fast food and soul food he loves.

A short while later, Alfred Blue came out, looking confident and healthy, far from a guy who was lost for the season to a knee injury last year in Week 3.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hill
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJeremy Hill led LSU in rushing with 755 yards in 2012.
"There's no fear," Blue proclaimed. "I just go out there and what happens, happens. Physically, I'm there. I'm 100 percent."

The "other" two backs in LSU's now deeper stable are the reasons why Jeremy Hill’s return to the lead role might not transpire. Hill, who had a judge extend his probation for carnal knowledge of a juvenile instead of sending him to jail, rejoined the Tigers Monday. He led the team with 755 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman last year, but that production can’t be assumed.

To see why look at where Blue and Hilliard have been, what they are capable of and Miles' history with running backs.

Blue, a senior, was the opening day starter in 2012. And Blue was fast emerging as one of the SEC's up-and-coming stars when he suffered a torn ACL against Idaho, ending his season just as it was heating up.

Before the Idaho game, he had become the first LSU back to open the season with back-to-back 100-yard rushing games since 2008.

As for Hilliard, before Hill ever got his big chance, Hilliard had already made the SEC's all-freshman team in 2011. He fumbled twice in the Towson game in Week 5 and put himself into the doghouse and opened the door for Hill, who did most of his damage in the second half of the season.

"I had a bad game against Towson and they kind of held me accountable for it," Hilliard said.

Furthermore, at LSU, the norm has been to ride the hot back until he either gets hurt (like Blue) or in the doghouse (like Hilliard after the fumbles). Some, like Jacob Hester (2007) and Stevan Ridley (2010), prove to be durable and consistent enough to carry the load to the finish line.

That's more the exception than the rule.

Spencer Ware, the 2011 starter, lost his starting job after being suspended for the Auburn game for testing positive for synthetic marijuana. He was never the "man" in the LSU backfield again.

In 2012, with the injury to Blue and with Hilliard from favor, Ware still could not reconnect to his pre-suspension role. Before the Auburn suspension, Ware had 20-plus carries in five of LSU's first seven games in 2011, with the only exceptions being two blowout, bench-clearing wins.

In his final 18 games as a Tiger, he never toted the ball 20 times in a game again.

Could this be Hill's fate?

He is, after all, is a rare talent who many thought stood out among the crowd of backs who have taken their turns in LSU's backfield in recent seasons.

Even with his enormous talents, he has work to do. After all, it was Blue, not Hill, who was the opening day starter last year and who's to say a healthy Blue, whose receiving skills make him a great fit in Cam Cameron’s offense, wouldn't have earned that job back anyway? And while Hill appeared to be a faster version of Hilliard, will he still be faster than the lighter Hilliard?

While Miles welcomed Hill back to the team Monday, he also suggested he is playing catchup. Blue is running with the first team. Hilliard's in the mix. Hill, meanwhile, looks like he needs work.

"He's rusty as heck," Miles said after Hill's first practice. "I guarantee he didn't look anything like the Jeremy Hill we saw before. He better get back to practice if he expects to play at all."

That might sound like a lenient coach suggesting that all a troubled player needs to do is practice hard to get back to good graces.

As Hilliard and Ware in particular can attest, it's not that simple.

Hill may be back, but when, if ever, will he back?

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