SEC: Odell Beckham

Four SEC players appear on the Biletnikoff Award watch list that debuted on Tuesday.

The conference had a finalist for the award -- which goes to the top wide receiver in college football -- last season in Texas A&M's Mike Evans. But Evans and the conference's other four leading receivers (Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews, LSU's Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief), and nine of the top 11, have all left the league.

The only returning members of that top 11 are Mississippi State's Jameon Lewis (sixth in the SEC with 923 receiving yards in 2013) and Auburn's Sammie Coates (seventh, 902), both of whom made the Biletnikoff list.

Here are the four SEC players on the list:

Sammie Coates, Auburn
Amari Cooper, Alabama
Jameon Lewis, Mississippi State
Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss

Ranking the SEC kick returners

June, 20, 2014
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Projecting a top 10 among kick returners from the SEC is difficult at this point, as many of those jobs will be up for grabs once preseason practice opens in August.

For instance, who will replace All-American Odell Beckham at LSU? It’s too early to know for sure, but you can bet he will probably be good enough to include on this list once the season gets rolling.

We do, however, know the identities of some of the SEC’s top return men -- starting with the ridiculously talented Christion Jones, Andre Debose and Marcus Murphy. We’ll take an educated guess at some of the other spots in today’s SEC kick return rankings.

[+] EnlargeChristion Jones
Paul Abell/USA TODAY SportsElectric return man Christion Jones can be a game-changer for the Crimson Tide.
1. Christion Jones, Alabama: How good is Jones? The SEC’s career leader in kickoff return touchdowns (Debose) is on this list and we’re ranking Jones ahead of him. It’s just plain scary to kick the ball in Jones’ direction as his ranking second in the SEC in both kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14.0 ypr), plus his three return touchdowns last season, would indicate.

2. Andre Debose, Florida: Debose would have been a candidate for the top spot, but we’re not sure what kind of player he will be when he returns from a torn ACL suffered during preseason camp last season. If his speed and mobility come back, we’re talking about one of the most electric kick returners in SEC history.

3. Marcus Murphy, Missouri: A 2012 All-SEC pick who is capable of garnering All-America attention, particularly because of his skills as a punt returner, Murphy is one of the key returnees for a Tigers club that lost a lot of firepower. He scored 10 touchdowns on offense last season, but didn’t notch a TD on special teams a season after he found the end zone four times on returns. Murphy will compete for the starting tailback job, but thus far his biggest impact at Mizzou has come while serving as an excellent return man.

4. Devrin Young, Tennessee: A breakout candidate for the Vols before a broken hand cost him nearly half of the 2013 season, Young could be a huge difference maker for Tennessee this fall. He’s already fifth in Tennessee history with 1,575 career total kick and punt return yards. If he stays healthy, Young will move up that list in the fall.

5. Trey Williams, Texas A&M: His primary objective is probably to claim the starting running back job, but Williams is also scary as a return specialist. The shifty and lightning-quick junior ranked fifth in the SEC with an average of 25.2 ypr on kickoffs last season, a season after earning SEC All-Freshman team honors as a return man.

6. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: It looks like both the kick and punt return jobs belong to Cooper after he handled those duties much of the time in 2013. He was a solid kickoff return man (22.4 ypr) and averaged 4.4 yards on nine punt returns. Cooper looks like a Bruce Ellington clone, possessing the ability to impact the game in a variety of ways -- particularly as a return specialist.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant could have a big season for the Tigers.
7. Corey Grant, Auburn: Grant hasn’t won this job yet, but he seems like a good choice to take over for Tre Mason. He averaged 10.0 yards per carry out of the backfield and 32.0 ypr in just five kickoff returns -- one of which went 90 yards for a touchdown against Tennessee. He has breakaway speed that Auburn’s coaches have to like in this role.

8. Jaylen Walton, Ole Miss: Another guy competing for a 2014 starting running back job, the diminutive Walton was impressive as a return man last season. In addition to his 523 rushing yards as a backfield mate for Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers, he contributed 25 kickoff returns for 515 yards, good for a team-best average of 20.6 ypr.

9. De’Vante Harris, Texas A&M: A solid if unspectacular performer, Harris ranked sixth in the SEC with an average of 6.7 yards per punt return a season ago. He broke the Aggies’ season-long punt return in a win over SMU, snapping off a 30-yard runback.

10. Brandon Holloway, Mississippi State: Let’s make a speculative pick here. Holloway has nowhere near as much experience as Jameon Lewis as a return man, but he made some noise in limited action last season. As a full-time returner, he could become a star – although his hopes of becoming the Bulldogs’ running back might interfere. Holloway averaged 37.7 ypr on three kickoff returns, thanks in large part to a 95-yard runback against Alcorn State, and also had a 23-yard punt return in the Egg Bowl and a 13-yard return in the bowl win over Rice.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).

Second-year stars: LSU

June, 10, 2014
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One of the most beneficial aspects of the LSU coaching staff’s philosophy of liberally using true freshmen is that those youngsters are often ready to blossom in their second seasons. Think Tyrann Mathieu, who became one of the SEC’s most explosive players as a sophomore in 2011. Think Patrick Peterson, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Eric Reid -- all of whom emerged as stars when they were sophomores. The list could go on and on and on.

With that history in mind, it should come as no surprise that LSU has plenty of candidates who are poised to repeat what Mathieu and company accomplished in recent seasons by achieving stardom in their second year in the SEC.

The Tigers are next up in our series projecting who might become a second-year star at each SEC program.

[+] EnlargeRashard Robinson
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesLocking down Texas A&M's Mike Evans gave a sign of what rising LSU sophomore Rashard Robinson can do.
Class recap: Thanks in part to LSU’s 11 early entries into the 2013 NFL draft, the Tigers had lots of holes for freshmen to fill last fall. Most notably, cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White had jumped into the starting lineup by the end of the season. But a number of other freshmen played last season, including Anthony Jennings -- who filled in at quarterback when senior Zach Mettenberger suffered a season-ending knee injury in November -- defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, defensive end/linebacker Kendell Beckwith, tight end DeSean Smith and offensive lineman Ethan Pocic. Still, some of the most talented players in the class redshirted in 2013, and there should be several breakout candidates from that bunch, including receiver John Diarse and defensive linemen Maquedius Bain, Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore. Overall, the 2013 signing class has left a small impression already, but this should be the year where its impact is truly felt.

Second-year star: CB Rashard Robinson (6-foot-1/163)

Recruiting stock: A three-star athlete from Ely High School in Pompano Beach, Fla. -- the same school that sent Peterson to LSU -- Robinson wasn’t cleared to enroll at LSU until three days before the first game. But his dynamic athleticism helped him begin contributing by Week 2 and start by the end of the season.

2013 in review: Robinson put himself on the map when he shut down Biletnikoff Award finalist Mike Evans for most of the game in LSU’s dismantling of Texas A&M. Evans averaged 107.2 receiving yards per game, but he had only three catches for 13 yards against Robinson before adding a 38-yard reception against a different Tigers defender late in the game. Robinson also notched his first career interception in the game. He finished the season with 16 tackles, 0.5 tackles for a loss, three pass breakups and four passes defended.

2014 potential: Now that he has found his footing, Robinson is poised to team with White to become LSU’s next set of shutdown cornerbacks. As long as he keeps his academic ship in order, the sky is the limit. He probably needs to add some weight to his thin frame, but Robinson has the athleticism and coverage skills to dominate in the SEC and become a pro cornerback in the not-so-distant future.

Also watch for: Aside from Robinson and White, Smith is another top candidate for the “second-year star” honor from LSU. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron typically utilizes the tight end, and Smith’s receiving skills could make him a major weapon this fall. In addition, Beckwith generated headlines by switching to middle linebacker during spring practice, and he seems ready to challenge D.J. Welter for playing time there. Keep an eye, also, on LaCouture, Tashawn Bower and the previously mentioned redshirt freshman defensive linemen, who will almost certainly all play key roles this fall. Any of these players would make sense as the LSU pick for this series, but Robinson’s potential pushed him to the top of the list.
BATON ROUGE, La. – As we detailed Tuesday, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s NFL background played a role in the emergence of several Tigers as top draft prospects. Cameron knows how to coach talented players to perform at the pro level, and he knows what it looks like when said players possess legitimate NFL potential.

Cameron predicted recently that many of LSU’s offensive draft prospects possess the potential to hang around the league for a long time after being selected in this week’s NFL draft. Here are some thoughts about those ex-Tigers straight from the horse’s mouth – the horse in this case being a coach who spent more than a decade in the NFL as an offensive coordinator and head coach before joining Les Miles’ LSU staff last year.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo/Jonathan BachmanCam Cameron has effusive praise for the passing ability of Zach Mettenberger.
QB Zach Mettenberger
Perhaps the greatest testimony to Cameron’s impact on the LSU offense was Mettenberger’s improvement in his final fall as the Tigers’ starting quarterback. He had long possessed the raw tools to become a success – most notably prototypical size (he’s 6-foot-5) and a strong throwing arm – but he didn't put it all together until working with Cameron.

Cameron coached NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Joe Flacco, and he indicated that Mettenberger has the skills to become a pro starter himself.

“You’re looking for innate accuracy, a guy who can just throw the ball accurately and make it look easy. A guy who’s not mechanical, a guy who just is a natural thrower and the ball goes where it’s supposed to go,” Cameron said. “Once you’ve been around great quarterbacks, you know what it feels like and you know kind of what it looks like, but it has a certain feel to it. What you [saw at LSU’s pro day was] a guy throw a football like the great quarterbacks in the National Football League.”

RB Jeremy Hill
Hill is another Tiger who, like Mettenberger, dealt with off-the-field issues before working with Cameron. But Cameron vouched for Hill’s character, saying, “I think we all, every one of us, make mistakes. May make a mistake or two. I have no issues with Jeremy Hill. He’s been a great kid since I’ve been here. In my dealings with him, he’s where he’s supposed to be when he’s supposed to be there.”

As far as on-the-field possibilities, there isn’t much to question when it comes to Hill. He rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns last season and set an SEC record for a back with at least 200 rushing attempts by averaging 6.9 yards per carry.

Hill’s versatility and intelligence inflate his value even further.

“Really look at backs in the league. Go count how many can play on first down, second down and third down, third-down-and-short and inside the 3-yard line. You’re not going to find many,” Cameron said.

“He’s an every-down back and he’s an ascending player and he’s off-the-charts smart. He is LaDainian Tomlinson-smart and LaDainian is a lot like Darren Sproles, Ray Rice – it’s a who’s who of guys that were great players in our system and the one thing that they all had that most people didn’t know is how smart they were, football smart they were. He’s just a young smart, but I think he’ll be a brilliant player in the National Football League.”

WR Odell Beckham
Beckham will probably be the first Tiger selected in the draft – ESPN’s Todd McShay has him going 13th overall to St. Louis in his newest mock draft – thanks to his explosive skills as a receiver and return man.

That ability existed before Cameron’s arrival, but Beckham made big strides at receiver in 2013, improving from 713 receiving yards in 2012 to 1,152 last season. Cameron credited LSU receivers coach Adam Henry, another former NFL assistant, for teaching Beckham and Jarvis Landry how to attack the ball as pass catchers.

“Adam Henry does a tremendous job teaching our guys how to run into the football,” Cameron said. “Of course, guys who have great hands aren’t cushioning the ball into their body. They just come attack the ball. And those two are the best college receivers I’ve been around at attacking the football, which you have to do in the NFL.”

WR Jarvis Landry
Landry received plenty of love from draft analysts for his strong all-around game – as a blocker, reliable receiver and route-runner – that should translate well to the pros.

After a disappointing result running the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, Landry helped his cause a bit by running a 4.58-second 40 at LSU's pro day. But straight-line speed is not the only kind of quickness required to play in the NFL, particularly at receiver.

“If you can’t win in the first 5 yards, if you don’t have short-area quickness, you’re not going to last in that league because corners aren’t going to play off of you,” Cameron said. “And the one thing he’s got … He’s got NFL explosion, NFL quickness. You’ve got to win those first 5 yards because now they’re going to get their hands off of you.”

OL Trai Turner
Turner surprised some when he announced that he would turn pro after an All-SEC redshirt sophomore season. But the Tigers’ former right guard has generated positive buzz since the season ended and could come off the board in the draft’s early rounds, a possible outcome again strengthened by versatility.

“He has guard-center value,” Cameron said. “Most people don’t know that about him: If he has to play center, he could play center, because you have to. You only dress seven linemen in the National Football League on Sundays, so you’ve got to have a guy who can play guard and center. At least one, if not all your guards have to play center. So I think his versatility’s critical.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- It’s no mystery why NFL scouts like the offensive skill players that LSU is sending into the draft this year.

Watch Zach Mettenberger launch a pass downfield or Jarvis Landry haul in another clutch reception or Odell Beckham Jr. run circles around would-be tacklers or Jeremy Hill rumble for a long touchdown and the ex-Tigers’ physical tools are apparent. But they also credit a common source for expediting their development in their final college season: offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.

[+] EnlargeCam Cameron
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesCam Cameron brought more than a decade of NFL experience to LSU's offense.
“He just knows what teams are looking for and that’s an advantage that all of us offensive guys have going into the draft,” Mettenberger said last month at LSU’s pro day. “So many guys have worked in great college systems or worked with gurus for different positions and stuff, but we have a very successful NFL offensive coordinator that’s been with us for the last year and three months, so that’s definitely an advantage that we have going into the draft.”

As the Tigers’ former quarterback mentioned, Cameron isn’t your run-of-the-mill college assistant. He returned to the college game a year ago after more than a decade as an offensive coordinator and head coach in the NFL. He was able to instill a professional mentality into his star players that helped them make enormous progress in 2013, to the point that all of them rank among ESPN Scouts Inc.’s top 125 prospects Insider in this week’s draft.

His influence, plus that of receivers coach Adam Henry -- who came to LSU in 2012 following a five-year stint with the Oakland Raiders -- played a huge part in Landry and Beckham developing into perhaps the nation’s top receiver tandem last season.

“I can’t say enough about the attitude that he brought to the script that we had, to coaching me this final year,” said Landry, who led the Tigers with 77 catches for 1,193 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. “And not only that, but being able to let Coach Henry do his job, also -- being able to let Coach Henry coach us the way that an NFL receiver is supposed to be coached.

“I think that his mentorship and the things that he did for us off the field allowed us to be a stronger band of brothers. I think that his contribution to LSU not only this year, but for years to come, is going to be great.”

At pro day, the coaches provided clear evidence that their relationship with the ex-Tigers didn’t end when the underclassmen announced in early January that they would enter the draft. With hundreds of his former NFL colleagues observing, Cameron was the ringleader when the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers worked out in position drills, just like it was any other LSU practice where he would instruct the offense.

It made perfect sense to all involved, seeing as how he knows better than most what those in attendance wanted to see.

“I told our guys, ‘They’re going to have an opinion of you coming in here. We’re not going to reinvent the wheel. We’re just going to go out there and show them how we practice. This is not some drill that we’ve conjured up for pro day. We’re going to go out there and you’re going to see us do exactly what we do every day in practice, ” Cameron said. “When I was a pro coach, I wanted to get a feel for if a guy has great practice habits and he’s got talent, he’s going to be successful in our system. But if a guy’s lazy or he skips out of this drill or you just get that feel -- he’s not a worker or whatever those things would be -- I’m going to have concerns because if a guy’s not going to work, if a guy doesn’t know how to practice, then he’s not going to be a great pro.

“Our guys know how to work, they know how to practice. I think all our guys offensively will have extensive NFL careers.”

If they do, their final developmental season at LSU will have been instrumental in that success.

Mettenberger was arguably the country’s most improved quarterback as a senior, ranking sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total QBR last season after he was 80th with a 47.1 Total QBR as a junior.

Likely first-round pick Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, plus 178.1 all-purpose yards per game) and Landry both became focal points in LSU’s revived passing game, and both players were able to flash skills that jumped out at scouts.

Despite serving a suspension that kept him off the field at the start of the season, Hill still rushed for 1,401 yards and set a new SEC record for a back with at least 200 carries by averaging 6.9 yards per rushing attempt.

Perhaps they might have made such progress last season even if Cameron hadn’t joined Les Miles’ coaching staff. LSU didn’t have any problems sending players to the pros before he arrived, after all. But the players acknowledge that he made an impression, helping them advance to their current positions as probable early-round draft picks.

“He just made us think like pros,” Mettenberger said. “For Jarvis and Odell being three years removed from high school playing their final season and thinking like Steve Smith, who’s been in the NFL for 13 years, they approach the game that way. The same for me. I had one online class. I was basically an NFL quarterback as a senior in college and every day was just dedicated to getting better and game planning and trying to fix some of the problems that we had in the previous week.

“I think that’s something that not only myself, but everybody has an advantage on the other guys in this draft is we know how to approach this game like a pro. We thought like pros and really all that credit goes to Coach Cam.”
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.
LSU’s spring practice ended two weeks ago, leaving a full 15 weeks before the Tigers return to the practice field.

The position battles that started in the spring will continue through summer workouts before resuming in front of coaches in August. Let’s take a look at what happened in a few of those spring battles and what we’ll be watching between now and Aug. 30, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin.

Defensive tackle: The spring was as much a feeling-out process as anything for defensive line coach Brick Haley. He mostly rode two departed veterans last fall while using youngsters Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas in spot duty. LaCouture and Thomas jumped into leading roles during the spring, and Haley also tested Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron (at times) in the middle. Haley has probably established a mental pecking order with the group, but August and the early-season games will certainly play important roles in cementing the coach’s opinions. It will also be worth watching how signees such as Travonte Valentine perform once they arrive on campus, as they might allow Haley to utilize a true rotation in the middle.

[+] EnlargeKendell Beckwith
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsSophomore linebacker Kendell Beckwith moved inside and was impressive this spring.
Linebacker: This should be a fun bunch to watch in the fall. While Kwon Alexander, Lamar Louis and D.J. Welter seemed to rank among John Chavis’ first options during the spring, it’s apparent that the Tigers’ defensive coordinator has no shortage of talented options. One of the intriguing spring storylines was Kendell Beckwith’s transition to middle linebacker behind Welter. The linebackers as a group had an excellent spring game, with Ronnie Feist leading all tacklers with 14 stops and both Alexander and Deion Jones picking off Anthony Jennings passes and returning the interceptions for touchdowns. Clifton Garrett is one of the Tigers’ highest-rated 2014 signees, and he could add even more intrigue to the competition for playing time once practice resumes.

Quarterback: Surely you’ve heard by now that the battle between Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris appears to be wide open entering the summer months. Jennings has a slight experience advantage, but Harris was the more effective performer in the spring game. Both players made plenty of mistakes, however. Their offseason preparation in the next few months will be enormously important once August arrives.

Right guard: This is another battle that the coaches said was wide open once the spring concluded. Evan Washington shifted from tackle to guard and seemed to take the leading role in the competition. Fellow senior Fehoko Fanaika and sophomore Ethan Pocic are lurking, however. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see all of them play some scrimmage downs against Wisconsin -- or in Weeks 2 and 3 against Sam Houston State and Louisiana-Monroe -- as new offensive line coach Jeff Grimes weighs his options. Coach Les Miles complimented all three players after the spring game, so it seems that the coaches would be comfortable playing any of the candidates.

Safety: Injuries caused this position to remain as a bit of a mystery during the spring. Jalen Mills remained in a starting role, and Ronald Martin seemed to be faring well in a return from a fractured right foot. He was injured again by the end of the spring, however, joining Corey Thompson (knee surgery) on the sideline by the time the spring game rolled around. Mills and Rickey Jefferson were the top options in the spring game, but the Tigers could use any number of combinations when the season arrives -- especially once highly-rated safety prospect Jamal Adams and the other signees make it to Baton Rouge this summer. Once the Tigers are back to full strength in August, this should make for one of the most intriguing position battles.

Tight end: This will be a fun position to track in the fall. They had plenty of playing time last season, but barely made a blip as receivers. They seem to be confident that they will make a more well-rounded contribution in 2014. Sophomore DeSean Smith and signee Jacory Washington possess intriguing receiver skills, and Dillon Gordon, Travis Dickson and Logan Stokes worked this spring to prove that they are well-rounded players at the position. It’s a big group, but all of them should have roles to fill during the season.

Wide receiver: They were the walking wounded for much of the spring, with Avery Peterson, Kevin Spears, John Diarse and Quantavius Leslie all spending time in non-contact jerseys. That was a tough blow for a group that has a lot to prove after Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kadron Boone and James Wright all left the roster after last season. Travin Dural -- who had an outstanding spring game with five catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns -- seemed to solidify his spot as the No. 1 receiving option for now. But this will become one of the Tigers’ most interesting position battles in August once a star-studded signing class, led by Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, arrives to challenge the returning wideouts.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The race to become the first quarterback selected in next month’s NFL draft is apparently down to three players: Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaZach Mettenberger will get a chance to show he's 100 percent healthy at LSU's pro day on Wednesday.
But according to quarterback guru George Whitfield, who recently visited LSU to speak at a coaches clinic, there easily could have been another contender had Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger avoided the late-season injury that prevented him from showing off in postseason all-star games and at the pre-draft combine.

“If he was healthy, I think he’s right in this,” said Whitfield, who tutored Manziel and Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas this year, after working with such prospects as Cam Newton and Andrew Luck in previous draft cycles. “I don’t think it’s a conversation of three, it could be a conversation of four if Zach was healthy coming down the back stretch. But I don’t think it’s going to be a shock at all if you see him go in the top couple rounds. Not at all. I think somebody’s going to get a great return on investment.”

At LSU’s pro day on Wednesday, Mettenberger gets his first major opportunity to prove that the knee he injured in the regular-season finale against Arkansas is stable. He already has proven that his arm is NFL caliber, which is why some draft projections have Mettenberger going as high as the second round after a standout senior season.

Mettenberger (3,082 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, eight interceptions) was sixth among FBS quarterbacks with an 85.1 Total Quarterback Rating last season. According to ESPN Stats and Information, he made the biggest jump of any qualified FBS quarterback after ranking 80th out of 122 qualified quarterbacks with a 47.1 Total QBR in 2012.

“I think he’s one of the best quarterbacks in this draft,” Whitfield said. “I thought the year he had and the growth he had this year, especially with [LSU offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron, just getting a chance to get out there and operate in that system -- [and to] have more responsibility. He was better in the pocket. It was just a shame he did take that injury toward the end of the season, but he just looked more confident, and he wasn’t just a big guy [who] was pitching anymore.”

Mettenberger is just one member of a large group of LSU prospects who will work out in front of NFL scouts, coaches and player personnel executives on Wednesday. Among those expected to participate are running backs Jeremy Hill, J.C. Copeland and Alfred Blue, receivers Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Kadron Boone, defensive linemen Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and offensive lineman Trai Turner.

ESPN Scouts Inc. rates seven of them among the draft’s top 150 prospects: Beckham (No. 21), Landry (47), Hill (69), Turner (109), Loston (110), Ferguson (120) and Johnson (139).

Let’s take a closer look at three of them -- Mettenberger, Beckham and Hill -- with a statistical assist from ESPN Stats and Info.

ZACH METTENBERGER
In his first season working with Cameron, Mettenberger greatly improved as a downfield passer. He raised his completion percentage on throws of 15 yards or longer 14 points, to 53.4 percent, in 2013. Among ESPN’s top-10 quarterback prospects in this draft, only Clemson’s Tajh Boyd (53.7 percent) completed a higher percentage of long balls. Of the 10, Mettenberger had by far the highest percentage of total completions (67.7) travel at least 10 yards. Bridgewater was next at 57.1.

He was also outstanding against the blitz and on third down -- assets that should help convince a team looking for a pro-style pocket passer to keep him in mind. Mettenberger (57-for-85, 883 yards, eight touchdowns, two interceptions against blitzing defenses) had the second-highest completion percentage (67.1) against the blitz of any of the top-10 quarterbacks. And on third down, his 53.7 conversion percentage was the best of the bunch. Mettenberger went 58-for-89 with nine touchdowns and one interception on third down, and his 65.2 completion percentage in those situations was third among the top-10 quarterbacks.

JEREMY HILL
Because of the declining value attached to running backs in the NFL, it seems entirely likely that no running backs will go in the first round of this draft. Last year, the first running back went at No. 37 -- the latest the first running back was picked in the common draft era.

Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde is generally considered the top running back prospect in this draft, although Hill’s physical ability makes him an enticing target.

Hill faced eight or more defenders in a stacked box on nearly half of his carries last season (96 of 203), and yet, he still averaged an AQ-best 8 yards per rush in those situations and scored 15 touchdowns.

He was also a phenomenal between-the-tackles runner, picking up 7.9 yards per carry on runs up the middle, with about one in every five (24 of 118) going for at least 10 yards. On runs outside the tackles, Hill had 16 of 85 attempts go for at least 10 yards.

ODELL BECKHAM
Beckham is one of the draft’s most explosive playmakers, which is why ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. had him going 18th overall to the New York Jets in his most recent mock draft. He and Landry are both among the 15 wideouts who rank among Scouts Inc.’s Top 100 players -- the most receivers in the top 100 since 2005.

Beckham (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight touchdowns, 178.1 all-purpose ypg last season) had an AQ-high 26 receptions on passes thrown at least 15 yards last season. He had at least two catches that covered such a distance in seven of 13 games in 2013, which certainly speaks to the big-play ability that has him so high on Kiper’s mock draft board.
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:

[+] EnlargeJennings
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.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
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.

[+] EnlargeCam Cameron
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.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- There are distinct differences between the coaching style of LSU’s new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, and the methods of his predecessor, Greg Studrawa. Perhaps the most obvious for an outside observer is that the decibel level on the practice field has dropped several notches.

Hard-nosed and extremely vocal, Studrawa -- whom Les Miles did not retain after the 2013 season, and who has since accepted the same job at Maryland -- could have come straight from Central Casting to play the role of an offensive line coach. Grimes, on the other hand, does his teaching without all the yelling.

[+] EnlargeJeff Grimes
Jeff Lack/Icon SMIFormer Hokies O-line coach Jeff Grimes has brought an "attention to detail and technique" to LSU, according to coach Les Miles.
“If [Grimes is] on the practice field, you probably wouldn't even notice him. You notice Stud because he was out there yelling and doing all those things and being passionate like that,” left guard Vadal Alexander said. “Grimes is just a guy that just wants everything to be perfect. He's kind of like Coach Miles. They're both kind of the same in that facet. So I can tell you right now, we're better this week than we were last week just because of Coach Grimes.”

That’s not to say that Grimes lacks an edge. It’s there when necessary -- just not as loud.

“He’s upfront. He won’t sugarcoat anything. He’ll just tell you how it is,” said senior Fehoko Fanaika, who is battling for the Tigers’ starting right guard spot.

LSU’s offense relied heavily on a foursome of NFL-caliber skill players in quarterback Zach Mettenberger, tailback Jeremy Hill and receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry -- a group that helped the Tigers become the first SEC team to boast a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers.

However, the Tigers’ offense was fairly average overall, ranking in the middle of the SEC pack in both total offense (seventh, 453.3 ypg) and scoring offense (sixth, 35.8 ppg). The offensive line’s play certainly factored into those middling results, ranking 57th nationally with an average of 1.92 sacks allowed per game.

Miles, however, believes Grimes’ focus on “attention to detail and technique” will help a line that returns four starters become a more effective group this fall.

“I think we’ll be better. I really do,” Miles said. “But it has to do with the duality of veteran offensive linemen getting to a point in their career where they’re making the final adjustments and Jeff coming in with a real nice focus for them there. I think it should be pretty quick.”

Just because Alexander, left tackle La'el Collins, center Elliott Porter and right tackle Jerald Hawkins are all back doesn’t mean Grimes has guaranteed starting roles to the returning starters. The Tigers have at least seven linemen whom the coaches like -- throw Fanaika (guard), Evan Washington (guard or tackle) and Ethan Pocic (center, guard or tackle) into the mix -- and want to evaluate as potential starting combinations.

“Everyone’s been moving around a lot. Coach Grimes has been moving us around. He’s trying to see where he likes people at,” Pocic said.

That type of experimentation is fairly common during the spring even among coaches who didn’t just arrive on campus. But in this case, Grimes is simply getting a feel for his personnel -- and they’re getting a feel for him, which they quickly noticed does not include the in-your-face tactics one might expect from an offensive line coach.

“Coach Grimes is one of the most specific, technical guys you'll meet in your life. Automatically, right off the bat, he got us better,” Alexander said. “Coach Stud was a great coach and I love him. He got us better, as well, but just Coach Grimes has a different way of approaching things. He's more mellow.”

In Grimes’ profession, results are what matter, not coaching methods. He has been successful in that regard, most notably during Auburn’s 2010 BCS championship run, but also in stops at Virginia Tech, Colorado, BYU, Arizona State and Boise State.

Starting with his first practice on campus, Grimes’ reputation as a technician caught his head coach’s attention. Miles said last week that it was paying off, with linemen picking up the finer points of their positions that can lead to an overall more productive performance from his group.

“I think our guys are responding to it,” Miles said. “I think the guys are really in position to do so in other words. It’s pretty much a veteran group and there’s always the final footwork, if you will, or the final course, the head placement. I think Jeff’s coming in at the right time for these guys and making that point.”
BATON ROUGE, La. – Early enrollment is frequently beneficial in that it helps a newcomer address a team’s immediate need, but its value goes well beyond the short term. Imagine what LSU’s spring position battles might look like if eight signees hadn’t joined the Tigers in January 2013.

“There’s no question, if they had not been here in January and moved and advanced in their knowledge of what we’re doing, then they’d have a very difficult time competing,” LSU coach Les Miles said.

If not for the valuable experience he gained last spring, Anthony Jennings -- one of two quarterbacks who early enrolled last year, along with Hayden Rettig -- almost certainly wouldn’t have catapulted up the depth chart the way he did, much less completed a game-winning comeback against Arkansas in place of injured senior Zach Mettenberger. And Jennings and Rettig wouldn’t be as far along as they are now in learning the nuances of Cam Cameron’s offense if not for that low-pressure springtime learning environment, since the Tigers already had an established starter in Mettenberger.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsIf Anthony Jennings didn't enroll early, it's doubtful he would have been ready to step in for the injured Zach Mettenberger and lead LSU to a comeback win over Arkansas.
“I’m definitely more confident because I’ve known all the guys for a year now,” Jennings said. “I’m confident in everybody on my team rallying around me to become a better leader and a better quarterback.”

Quarterback being the high-profile position that it is, perhaps it’s the most noticeable place where the Tigers benefited from last year’s big group of early enrollees. But LSU is actually better off at several positions because of those eight players who early enrolled last January -- a group that also includes defensive tackle Christian LaCouture, tight end Logan Stokes, offensive linemen Fehoko Fanaika and Ethan Pocic and receivers John Diarse and Avery Peterson.

Nearly all of those players are in the thick of the competition to grab a starting spot this spring.

“Think about Ethan Pocic. He was our second-team center last year. He shows up here in January or he doesn’t finish at center. He’s not there,” Miles said of Pocic, who played offensive tackle throughout high school, but backed up Elliott Porter at center last season and could contribute at a number of different positions this fall.

“It’s a tremendous advantage for these guys that show up early. There’s no question,” Miles continued. “And it’s a tremendous advantage for us. We get to see what they look like, how they think and is there somebody that we should count on other than them, short term, or do we say, ‘No, move him in because he’s got it.’”

Take Diarse for example. The redshirt freshman probably would have played last season but for an ankle injury he suffered during preseason camp. But he wouldn’t have been in position to back up Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry in 2013 -- much less occupy the starting position he currently enjoys -- if not for his experience last spring.

Louisiana’s 2012 Mr. Football, Diarse was a star dual-threat quarterback at Neville High School in Monroe. He admits that he had a lot to learn about playing his current position, receiver, when he arrived last January.

“It blew my mind the first couple of months into it -- it blew my mind how much detail and technique that it takes to be a receiver,” Diarse said. “Just coming in last spring kind of put me ahead of the 8-ball and now I’m just picking up tidbits here and there to better myself every day.”

Three of the five 2013 early enrollees who played last season -- Stokes, Jennings and Pocic -- all started at least one game. LaCouture played in all 13 games as one of the top reserves on the defensive line, while Fanaika played behind Trai Turner at right guard in several games and worked on the Tigers’ field-goal unit in 12 contests.

All five players are either the leading candidate to start at their position this fall or to play in some sort of a rotation, thanks in no small part to the head start they got this time a year ago.

“You’ve got to learn quick,” LaCouture said. “Spring ball is something that really helped me out -- coming in and knowing the pace of the game, knowing the plays right off the bat. That way when we hit fall ball, it was quick and we were rolling and we were getting ready for that.”

Now he’s in position to help guide less experienced teammates at a position where LSU desperately needs leadership. NFL draft early entrants Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson played the vast majority of the key snaps at defensive tackle last season, thrusting 2013 signees LaCouture, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain into position where they might play much bigger roles this fall.

LaCouture is the only member of the trio who played last season, so if LSU’s line performs anywhere near a championship-caliber level -- which might be one key in whether LSU becomes more than an also-ran in the SEC title chase -- the knowledge and experience he gained last year could become even more valuable.

“It was an awesome experience,” LaCouture said. “It was something for me that I’ve always grown up wanting to do. I wanted to come in here [and] it was so great for me having spring ball and preparing myself to do that with the help of Coach Brick [Haley, LSU’s defensive line coach] and the older guys, [defensive coordinator John] Chavis also and Coach Miles.

“Having Ego, Freak [Johnson] and all the guys that left for the draft helped me build my way up for now where I can lead the team this year, just do as much as I can to produce a national championship.”

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Of the six receivers listed on the depth chart for LSU’s Outback Bowl win over Iowa, only two of them are still on the Tigers’ roster this spring.

The returning duo -- Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie were in their first season of SEC competition. They combined for eight catches and 156 yards all season, nearly all of which came from Dural. Believe it or not, now they are by far the most experienced receivers on the team.

[+] EnlargeDural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural had seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns last season.
That’s how dramatic the turnover has been since star juniors Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry decided to enter the NFL draft and seniors Kadron Boone and James Wright completed their college careers.

“It’s kind of like the transformation I made in high school. Out of nowhere, I was the older guy,” said Dural, a rising sophomore who is LSU’s top returning receiver with seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns last season. “That’s kind of how it is here. It’s a little weird, but I’ve been waiting on this forever, so I’m kind of taking advantage of it and trying to run away with it.”

It is indeed weird. It’s rare that a player who has yet to appear in a game is able to become a leader for his position group, but that’s one of redshirt freshman John Diarse’s goals. An early enrollee last season, Diarse was in position to play last fall before a preseason ankle injury kept him off the field.

Nonetheless, Diarse is actually among the more experienced LSU receivers since he’s nearly a week into his second spring practice with the Tigers -- and as of now, he and Dural have separated themselves as the top players at their position.

“We would look forward to them playing a lot,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “We expected John to play more except he got injured just before we went into the season and it really cost him.”

LSU’s depth at the position this spring is not ideal, particularly after redshirt freshmen Kevin Spears and Avery Peterson both hobbled off the practice field earlier this week with hamstring injuries. At the very beginning of spring practice, Miles emphasized that now is the time for players such as Spears, Peterson, Leslie and converted quarterback Rob Bolden to seize some playing time because the competition will get much steeper during preseason camp.

LSU signed arguably the nation’s top collection of receivers last month when it added ESPN’s No. 1 and 3 wideouts, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, plus ESPN 300 picks D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch. After that group arrives this summer, inconsistent performers could easily find themselves watching from the sidelines.

“There’s definitely more competition on the way. It’s going to be that way until I graduate,” Diarse said. “It’s just something you’ve got to take as motivation to stay in your spot and don’t let anybody take it from you. That’s what I’ve been taught from Day 1 -- there’s always somebody that’s going to try to come take your job, and you’ve just got to do your best to keep it every day.”

Leslie and Dural are the only members of the group with on-field experience, and even junior college transfer Leslie’s experience is fairly limited. The rising senior appeared in four games last fall -- against UAB, Kent State, Mississippi State and Furman -- and caught just one pass for 11 yards.

That puts some leadership responsibility on Dural, simply because the Tigers don’t have a better option.

“I see sometimes when they don’t really know what’s going on because they haven’t been in certain situations. I kind of step in and let them know,” Dural said. “But mainly they’re kind of getting it. They’ve been in the system. All of them have been in the system for a year, so they pretty much know what’s going on.

“But in certain instances, I step in and let them know how if you do this wrong, it would be different in a game because I’ve seen it in a game so I can critique them on what I’ve seen and what I know.”

Dural characterized the receivers’ first few spring practices as “shaky,” noting that they needed a while to get their timing down after not facing live competition for a few months. They’re also still working to build continuity with three young quarterbacks in sophomore Anthony Jennings, redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig and early enrollee Brandon Harris.

Dural's description certainly seemed accurate in the portions of practice that have been open to the media, as some wideouts frequently dropped passes and the group generally struggled to get on the same page as their quarterbacks in some drills.

It can be a rocky transition, going from being an off-the-radar freshman to a player who expects to contribute, but the young wideouts are fortunate that they don’t have to play a game for nearly six months. They will get in hundreds of valuable practice repetitions this spring without the pressure of a game approaching each Saturday -- so that they’ll be ready when the Tigers finally take the field on Aug. 30 against Wisconsin.

“I knew this time was coming. I knew I was going to have the opportunity to show the world what I can do, and now that it’s here, it’s kind of time for me to just let it all out. I’ve been holding it in for too long,” Diarse said. “I was talking to my mom the other day -- it seems like it’s been forever since I’ve played, but like I said, I’m here now and I’m letting my opportunity just take over.”

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