SEC: Melvin Jones

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.

[+] EnlargeJohn David Moore
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJohn David Moore shifted from tight end to fullback last season. Now he's the most experienced option for the Tigers at the position.

Among them are early enrollee David Ducre, who is also getting practice reps at tailback, redshirt freshman Tony Upchurch, who was a wide receiver until a few weeks ago, and a collection of walk-ons.

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.

On Tuesday, our national and conference writers took a look at some players who have something to prove this spring. (Here are the national and SEC versions).

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.

[+] EnlargeColby Delahoussaye
AP Photo/Phil SandlinColby Delahoussaye is looking to overcome a slump that cost him his job as LSU's top place-kicker.
K Colby Delahoussaye: After nailing 13 of his 14 field goals and 56 of 57 PATs as a freshman, Delahoussaye was rock solid early in 2014. He hit his first seven field goals last fall, including the game winner from 50 yards with 3 seconds remaining against Florida. But he fell into a slump later in the season -- with misses from 28 (Ole Miss), 27 (Arkansas) and 22 yards (Texas A&M) -- that forced LSU’s coaches to give Trent Domingue a shot. Delahoussaye is talented, but the Tigers have Domingue and Cameron Gamble available if he doesn’t rebound.

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.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Jalen Mills wasn’t even sure what position he would play if he returned for his senior season at LSU.

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.

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoJalen Mills decided against entering the NFL draft so he could make a run at a national championship.
“We have a little group text message between us guys, just us, and that’s all we talk about. That’s the reason why we wanted to come back,” said Mills, already a three-year starter in LSU’s secondary. “Of course you want to get your degree, but for the most part, you want to win a national championship.”

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.”

SEC morning links

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19
9:00
AM ET
1. For recruiting maniacs, Prince Tega Wanogho Jr.’s story is not new. But for those who follow recruiting only as national signing day nears, this is one of the more unique prospects you’ll come across. Recruiters across the country are beating down the door of the recruiting prospect who hails from Alabama by way of Nigeria. The 6-foot-7 defensive end has already lined up visits to LSU, Auburn and Tennessee, but he’ll have no shortage of options on national signing day. Check out the brand-new football player’s “Coming to America” story from AL.com’s Jeff Sentell.

2. It’s that time of year. Between bowl games and signing day, college headlines frequently involve players leaving their programs because of playing time or disciplinary or academic reasons. It happened at LSU on Sunday when the school confirmed that sophomores Rashard Robinson and Melvin Jones are no longer members of the team because of academic issues. It’s apparently happening at Alabama, where Altee Tenpenny and Malcolm Faciane are not expected to return. And similar stories will continue to pop up all over the country as classes resume for spring semester. Keep your eyes peeled, it will probably happen at your school, too.

3. This is a big week for 25 former SEC players who started arriving in Mobile, Alabama, on Sunday for this weekend’s Senior Bowl. For instance, former Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall was invited to show that he can play the position in the pros – some draft analysts believe he should switch to defensive back to make it in the NFL – while plenty of other players from the conference hope to solidify their draft stock by performing well in this week’s all-important practices against other top-notch prospects. Here is a link to the rosters for the North and South squads for this week’s all-star game.

Around the SEC

Is it time to stop calling Kentucky’s offensive scheme the “Air Raid?” Maybe so.

Stephen Rivers, who transferred from LSU to Vanderbilt prior to the 2014 season, announced on Twitter that he will transfer from Vandy and use his final season of eligibility elsewhere.

Georgia early enrollees Michael Barnett and Natrez Patrick both underwent recent surgeries, but Patrick is still expected to participate in spring practice and Barnett should be available for the fall.

Multiple players who competed on NFL championship Sunday had ties to Mississippi State and 2010 defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

Tweet of the day

Draft could impact LSU offense in 2015

December, 18, 2014
12/18/14
12:00
PM ET
Connor Neighbors will be long gone by then, but LSU’s senior fullback believes the Tigers have championship potential in 2015 -- as long as the roster doesn’t take too hard of a hit from the NFL draft.

“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:

[+] EnlargeJerald Hawkins
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertKeeping Jerald Hawkins would go a long way in stabilizing LSU's offensive line next season.
QUARTERBACK

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.

RUNNING BACK

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.

OFFENSIVE LINE

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.”

Young Tigers' drops hurt against Alabama

November, 11, 2014
11/11/14
2:00
PM ET
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Inexperience often reveals itself at the most inopportune times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





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

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

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

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

"I don't want to say it's the story of the game. We did a lot of things right," Dupre said. "It's definitely not a characteristic of us, but it happened [against Alabama]. We just have to get better moving forward and make sure it doesn't happen again. That's the bottom line."
Editor’s note: On Thursday, we examined LSU’s success on third down last season (the Tigers led the nation by converting 57.1 percent of the time) and the importance the quarterbacks will play in remaining successful. Today we explore how much production the Tigers must replace at the skill positions in order to remain effective on third down.

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.

Five LSU spring movers

April, 21, 2014
4/21/14
3:00
PM ET
Sometimes spring practice is important to a football player not because he seizes a starting job, but because he proves to his coaches that he deserves to play.

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.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsLSU freshman quarterback Brandon Harris showed plenty of potential this spring.
Ronnie Feist: LSU has no shortage of talented linebackers, a truth that will become even more evident this summer once Clifton Garrett and the other signees arrive on campus. But Feist -- who did not play last season after contributing as a true freshman in 2012 -- proved during the spring game that he will not be ignored. In fact, he was one of the stars of the afternoon, leading all tacklers with 14 stops and a couple of big hits. It remains to be seen where he’ll fall on John Chavis’ depth chart, but Feist showed that he belongs to be on there somewhere.

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.

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.”

[+] EnlargeKenny Hilliard
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.”

SPONSORED HEADLINES