SEC: Tashawn Bower

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Ed Orgeron complimented his LSU predecessor Brick Haley -- in fact, he said the improvement Haley’s defensive line made over the course of the season "might have been one of his better coaching jobs" -- but there is a glaring hole in the line’s production.

After recording just 19 sacks in 13 games, the Tigers' average of 1.46 per game tied for 102nd nationally. They were only slightly better at generating negative-yardage plays, as their average of 5.8 tackles for loss per game tied for 64th.

That’s a far cry from even a few seasons ago, when Orgeron’s Ole Miss teams had difficulty completing simple center-quarterback exchanges because of LSU’s disruptive defensive line.

"Anytime you think about LSU in my opinion, you think about the great defensive lines that they had, the guys dominating," Orgeron said. "As a coach playing against LSU, I remember when we couldn’t take a snap. The center came out the game and said, 'Coach, I can’t snap the ball,' and the quarterback said, 'If he don’t snap it, I’m quitting.' So I’ve been against these guys."

Now he’s with them, and he will be charged with building a more productive pass rush in 2015 without both of last season’s starting defensive ends, Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter. That duo played the vast majority of downs at end, although sophomores Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal, and freshmen Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema also gained on-field experience as reserves.

That foursome includes the most likely candidates to take over for the departed veterans.

"Those guys, they got a lot of reps earlier this year and throughout the whole season," Rasco said. "That’s a good look for next year, because if you don’t get too many game reps, you’ll never get the pace of the game, because it’s a lot different from practice being on the field."

Rasco and Hunter both pointed to Bower as the Tigers’ next stellar pass-rusher, and Bower said that he feels a responsibility to become that player because he has received the most playing time out of the group.

"Yeah, I feel that way, just based on experience and being here I guess the next longest. I’d say so," Bower said. "But we’ve got a bunch of great guys on the D-line who are learning and getting better each time. And you can see it on film, so there’s a bunch of great guys who are ready to step up and get in that spot."

Hunter said Teuhema could also be a name to watch, chuckling as he described the freshman’s mentality as a third-down pass-rusher.

"Sione, he plays pass-first all day. He doesn’t play no run-first at all," Hunter said.

Under Orgeron and new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, the pass-rush burden will probably not rest solely on the shoulders of the defensive line. With Steele likely to install elements of a 3-4 defensive scheme, his outside linebackers will play larger roles in chasing down quarterbacks, as well.

The Tigers have a number of speedy linebackers on the roster who could excel in such roles.

But it will be Orgeron’s responsibility to get more out of the line -- and he plans to do that by teaching, building depth, and coaching the group with his trademark aggressiveness.

"I think it’s drill work, film work, knowledge," Orgeron said. "I’m going to show them NFL film, I’m going to show them film of J.J. Watt, I’m going to show them how to get better, how-to-rush sets, great technique, get in great shape, and also coach them with an attitude. I believe the players play with the attitude of the football coach."

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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.”

LSU defensive juniors also weigh NFL leaps

December, 18, 2014
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Les Miles said his discussions with the players haven’t gone beyond the informal stage yet, but he knows that a number of LSU players are weighing the possibility of entering the NFL draft after the season.

That’s nothing new for LSU’s coach, who has lost 17 underclassmen to the draft in the last two years, but he also knows the potential that will exist for his 2015 team if juniors like offensive lineman Vadal Alexander, linebacker Kwon Alexander and defensive backs Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills opt to return.

“I think that this team has the potential to play in championships and should the juniors recognize how close we are to being in the [College Football Playoff] that frankly this could be a great class for quite some time and a great team for quite some time,” Miles said this week.

Those upcoming decisions will be a major factor in whether LSU fulfills that potential next season. Miles said he has made and will make that point in further discussions with his underclassmen on whether another year in college would benefit them.

[+] EnlargeJalen Mills
Gerald Herbert/AP PhotoJalen Mills is one of several LSU draft-eligible defenders with a decision to make.
“It’s just basically revealing simple statistics about conference opponents and guys that are going to have senior quarterbacks and teams that are going to lose this and lose that, whereas we’re really in pretty good shape should we return our junior class,” Miles said.

Earlier today, we examined each position on LSU’s offensive roster and which players have NFL decions to make. Now we turn to the defense:

DEFENSIVE LINE

Key departing seniors: Defensive end Jermauria Rasco (63 tackles, 4 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss)

Key draft-eligible player: Junior defensive end Danielle Hunter (64 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 12 TFL)

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore defensive tackle Christian LaCouture (37 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 TFL), freshman defensive tackle Davon Godchaux (34 tackles, 1.5 TFL)

Comment: Hunter refused to discuss his draft situation on Wednesday, but there is good reason to believe that he can and will jump to the pros after the bowl game. If he and Rasco are both gone, the Tigers might lean heavily on Tashawn Bower, Lewis Neal, Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema to provide a pass rush next season. The good news is that the tackle spot will be much better off in 2015 now that LaCouture and Godchaux have established themselves, with junior Quentin Thomas and a number of freshmen and redshirt freshmen (look out for Travonte Valentine) capable of grabbing some playing time for themselves.

LINEBACKER

Key departing seniors: D.J. Welter (35 tackles)

Key draft-eligible players: Junior Kwon Alexander (79 tackles, 7.5 TFL), junior Lamar Louis (29 tackles, 2.5 TFL)

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore Kendell Beckwith (68 tackles, 2 sacks, 6.5 TFL, INT)

Comment: This figures to be a strong position even if Alexander jumps to the pros. Asked whether he requested an evaluation from the NFL’s advisory committee, Alexander said, “One of the coaches told me to put it in. I just threw it in there, but I’m not worrying about that right now. I’m just trying to focus on this bowl game.” He had a strong first season at weakside linebacker, posting a team-high 79 tackles and earning second-team All-SEC honors, but could certainly boost his draft stock by returning. Starting strongside linebacker Louis figures to return, and Beckwith should be a star next year in his first full season as the starter in the middle. Plus, the Tigers will have regulars Deion Jones and Duke Riley back, and freshman Clifton Garrett will be coming off his redshirt season. With so much depth and talent returning, Alexander predicted that his position group next year can be “the best linebackers in the country.”

SECONDARY

Key departing seniors: Safety Ronald Martin (66 tackles, 2 INT)

Key draft-eligible players: Junior cornerback Jalen Collins (33 tackles, INT), junior safety Jalen Mills (54 tackles, 3 TFL, INT), redshift sophomore defensive back Dwayne Thomas (24 tackles, 2.5 TFL, INT)

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Safety) sophomore Rickey Jefferson (23 tackles, 2 INT), freshman Jamal Adams (56 tackles, 3 TFL), (cornerback) sophomore Tre'Davious White (32 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 INT)

Comment: Mills and Collins are both expected to explore their draft possibilities. Mills hasn’t spoken to reporters since the end of the season, and Collins said Wednesday that “I’ve thought about it a couple times, but I haven’t made any final decisions yet.” ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. rates Collins as the No. 8 draft-eligible cornerback prospect for 2015. Even if they both jump to the pros, the secondary should still be in good shape. Thomas and junior safety Corey Thompson will return from injury, while Adams, White and Jefferson have all established themselves as reliable contributors. Rashard Robinson is a wild card, as Miles hasn’t announced whether the suspended cornerback will be allowed back on the team. “I would hope that he might be here [next season],” Miles said earlier this week. If Robinson is gone permanently, the Tigers might have to rely on a freshman like Ed Paris, John Battle or Russell Gage.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Key departing seniors: None

Key draft-eligible players: Junior punter Jamie Keehn (45.0 yards per punt), junior snapper Reid Ferguson

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore kicker Colby Delahoussaye (11-15 FG, 34-36 PAT, 67 points)

Comment: Keehn told reporters this week that he plans to return, so LSU’s kicking game should remain intact. In fact, there could be added competition next season now that freshman kicker Cameron Gamble has had time to settle in and possibly challenge Delahoussaye and sophomore Trent Domingue for opportunities on field goal/PAT and kickoffs.

Most important game: Alabama

July, 11, 2014
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We continue our "Most important game" series, which looks at the most important game for each SEC team in 2014. These are the games that will have the biggest impact on the league race or hold a special meaning for one of the teams involved.

Today, we take a look at Alabama.

Most important game: Nov. 8 at LSU

Key players: As always, it's going to come down to who wins the line of scrimmage. And after looking over both teams' personnel, it's a bit of a toss-up.

On the one hand, Alabama is loaded on the defensive line with depth at nose guard and capable pass rushers like A'Shawn Robinson, Jonathan Allen and D.J. Pettway at the ready. But the offensive line is something of a question mark with two new starters, one of whom could be true freshman Cam Robinson at left tackle.

LSU is looking at the opposite situation with four starters back on its offensive line, including La'el Collins, who passed on the NFL draft this offseason. But the defensive line isn't on its usual solid footing without a pair of tackles you know can anchor the defense. The good news is that the pass rush shouldn't suffer with Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco in place, and Tashawn Bower poised to come into his own.

Where Alabama does have the edge is at the offensive skill positions. While LSU has plenty of pieces in place with Leonard Fournette, Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, they all have either limited or no experience. Alabama, meanwhile, has a bevy of talent and experience with Amari Cooper at receiver, O.J. Howard at tight end and T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry at running back.

The major question mark for both teams is at quarterback. Jacob Coker could be the next great Alabama quarterback, but until we see results we don't really know. LSU has not one but two quarterbacks to choose from in sophomores Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings, but who holds the upper hand is still to be determined.

Why it matters: Oh, you know, there's just a little history with this series as five of the last seven seasons have seen either Alabama or LSU win the West. Despite significant changes to both teams' rosters, this season looks to be no different as both programs harbor hopes of reaching Atlanta.

The road to Week 11 of the season is much kinder to Alabama, as the Tigers must first go through Wisconsin, Mississippi State, Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss, while the Crimson Tide face only two teams that finished last season above .500 (Ole Miss, Texas A&M).

Because of that, you can look at this as a "prove it" game for Alabama. Sure, traveling to Ole Miss presents its challenges, but the last time Alabama lost there was in 2003. And Texas A&M, while talented, likely won't be the same team without Johnny Manziel leading them into Tuscaloosa. Meanwhile, LSU won't be a "young" football team by November, and it will also have Tiger Stadium on its side.

If Alabama can survive LSU, it should be favored in its remaining three games, all of which are at home: Mississippi State, Western Carolina and Auburn.

Now you can jump up and down and say Auburn is the most important game for Alabama, and you'd have a solid argument. There's the fact that it's the best rivalry in college football, that both teams will likely be ranked when they meet Nov. 29 and the most basic issue of revenge to attend to. But it comes down to this for me: If Alabama loses to LSU, how far will the Tide drop in the playoff hunt and will a win over Auburn be enough to put them back in the conversation? Of that I'm not so sure.

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. -- Asked whether Saturday’s spring game would be an important factor in some of his team’s key position battles, Les Miles clearly saw no need to do his best P.T. Barnum impression in order to draw a crowd -- which is fine since admission to LSU’s 1 p.m. CT scrimmage at Tiger Stadium is free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Senior receiver Quantavius Leslie had such an outing at last Saturday’s scrimmage, catching four passes for 135 yards and three touchdowns. Who else might pull off that kind of feat? Receivers Travin Dural or John Diarse? Tight end DeSean Smith? Tailbacks Terrence Magee or Kenny Hilliard? Somebody else? Stay tuned.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- We’re past the midway point of LSU’s spring practice with the Tigers’ spring game on April 5 less than two weeks away.

Before the Tigers return to the practice field on Tuesday, let’s recap some of the developments thus far this spring.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesSophomore Anthony Jennings has experience on his side in the Tigers' quarterback competition.
The QB race is on: On national signing day, it looked like LSU might have five quarterbacks vying for playing time in the fall. With the announcements that Stephen Rivers will transfer and Rob Bolden will play receiver, the race was down to three before practice even started.

Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris appear to lead Hayden Rettig in one of the nation’s most-watched spring quarterback battles. With 2013 playing time under his belt -- including a start in the Outback Bowl win over Iowa -- Jennings appears to be the more composed, polished contender on the practice field. But Harris possesses special passing talent. It should continue to be an interesting race throughout the summer and into the season.

The young quarterbacks endured many sloppy moments early in camp, to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron’s displeasure, but Tigers coach Les Miles said both players threw the ball well in Saturday’s scrimmage. Perhaps they are starting to turn a corner toward being ready to face SEC competition.

Receivers are a mess: Between frequent dropped passes and a spate of injuries, it has not been a banner spring for LSU’s receivers. Early in the spring, they seemed to struggle to get on the same page with the quarterbacks. And by the end of last week, they only had a couple of healthy scholarship players available.

Redshirt freshmen Kevin Spears, Avery Peterson and John Diarse have all dealt with injuries, with those setbacks coming at a particularly inopportune time since the youngsters need to establish themselves before a talented group of signees arrives this summer. At last Thursday’s practice periods that were open to the media, the only scholarship wideouts catching passes from the quarterbacks were Travin Dural and Quantavius Leslie.

Miles said last week that he likes what Dural and Diarse have accomplished thus far this spring, and Dural caught a long touchdown pass in Saturday’s scrimmage. But the others still have a lot to prove, which might be why Miles predicted that all four receiver signees will have the opportunity to win playing time in the fall.

Defensive line coming together: Miles seems pleased with the progress that several young defensive linemen have made this spring. In the last week, he has singled out redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore for getting stronger and improving their games since they arrived at LSU last year.

He also complimented sophomores Christian LaCouture and Tashawn Bower after Saturday’s scrimmage. LaCouture and Bain both had sacks in the scrimmage, and Bower had two quarterback pressures.

The defensive line competition won’t generate a fraction of the national interest that the quarterback battle will, but that group’s development might be just as important in gauging LSU’s chances to contend in the SEC West this fall. With Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both bolting for the NFL, the Tigers desperately needed some players to fill their void -- and Miles makes it sound as if they are developing some good options.

OL battle rages: It’s no surprise that LSU’s coaching staff continues to weigh its options on the offensive line -- particularly at the right guard position.

Seniors Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika have worked there, as has sophomore Ethan Pocic. It’s clear that the staff likes what Pocic can do, because he has practiced at guard, center and tackle this spring. Fanaika has been strictly at guard and Washington has worked at both guard and tackle.

With a new offensive line coach, Jeff Grimes, coming on board this spring, it’s obvious that he’s experimenting with different player combinations to see what he likes best. That experimentation will probably continue beyond the spring game.

Linebacker shuffle: As with the offensive line, LSU’s linebackers are also trying some new combinations this spring. Kwon Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside linebacker, Lamar Louis went from middle linebacker to the strong side and Kendell Beckwith is now backing up D.J. Welter in the middle after playing mostly at defensive end last fall.

LSU’s linebackers were somewhat mediocre for portions of 2013, so defensive coordinator John Chavis shook things up a bit this spring. Miles said Saturday that Beckwith’s move to the middle appears to be a good one and that Welter has improved his play this spring with the talented sophomore now battling him for playing time.

The linebackers themselves seem excited about the speed and athleticism that their group possesses. It will be interesting to see whether the lineup shuffling affects the Tigers’ overall defensive performance.

Chavis understands skeptics' concerns

August, 26, 2013
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His defense lost eight players to the NFL draft after ranking eighth nationally in total defense a year ago, so John Chavis understands the skepticism that LSU’s defense faces this season. He just doesn’t find it a cause for major concern.

“It’s a natural thing when you lose the number of people that we lost. It’s natural for some people to think, ‘Well, they’re going to be down a little bit.’ But we don’t think that way,” said Chavis, entering his fifth season as LSU’s defensive coordinator. “We’re going to work to be the very best that we can be, and certainly if we reach the potential that we have in terms of the quality of the players, then we’re going to be fine.”

[+] EnlargeAnthony Johnson
John Korduner/Icon SMIAnthony Johnson is expected to provide a veteran presence on a defense that lost a lot from 2012.
That’s where Chavis’ confidence level is appropriate entering Saturday’s opener against No. 20 TCU in Arlington, Texas. With veterans Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson anchoring the front line and a huge group of talented youngsters jockeying for early playing time alongside established players like linebacker Lamin Barrow and safety Craig Loston, talent is not an issue at LSU.

Yes, the Tigers will be young and will face an extremely difficult schedule, but an infusion of talent up front -- including early enrollee Christian LaCouture at defensive tackle and ESPN 150 defensive end Tashawn Bower -- gives LSU’s coaches hope there won’t be a big drop-off after losing Barkevious Mingo, Bennie Logan, Sam Montgomery and Lavar Edwards to the draft.

“I like what we’re getting out of our veterans there,” LSU coach Les Miles said after Friday’s practice. The young guys are stepping to the front, and they seemed much more polished even from when they arrived.”

As with all young players, however, the trick is preparing them for the physicality, speed and knowledge base necessary to compete at the college level.

“When you have 92,000 people coming in, you’re not really going to have a lot of time to think,” LaCouture said. “I just want to make sure I have everything down when we go through that process and make sure I’m ready for Week 1.”

The freshmen are merely role players filling secondary roles on the depth chart for now, though. Now is the time for players like Barrow to seize the spotlight after Kevin Minter’s starmaking 2012 performance helped him become a second-round draft pick. And for Johnson and Ferguson to make good on their enormous potential now that the aforementioned big-name defensive linemen are in the pros. And for young cornerback standouts and a deep linebacking corps to perform at a high enough level that the Tigers can sort out their questions with the rotation up front.

Johnson is the No. 15 prospect for next year’s draft on ESPN Scouts Inc.’s most recent top 32, and even if the two-deep figures to be loaded with underclassmen, LSU has enough of a veteran presence from players like Loston, Barrow and Ferguson to help the Tigers remain a defensive force even while replacing so many major contributors.

“I come to work every day with the No. 1 goal of getting this defense ready to compete in the SEC. These guys are ready to compete,” said Chavis, whose units have finished 26th, 12th, second and eighth nationally in total defense since he arrived at LSU in 2009. “But everybody saying that we’re going to drop off, well, we don’t expect that, and we’ve got to work hard to make sure that that doesn’t happen.”
There's no question that this year's NFL draft really hit LSU's defense hard -- especially up front.

Gone is projected first-round draft pick Barkevious Mingo at defensive end, along with very productive leader Sam Montgomery. The Tigers also said good-bye to their plug in the middle, Bennie Logan.

That trio combined for 27 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hurries in 2012. It's a lot production to replace, but coach Les Miles said during Wednesday's SEC coaches teleconference that he was pleased with the way his new defensive line looked this spring.

And it's not hard to believe him when you think about the talent and the numbers he and his staff have to work with.

The Tigers welcomed true freshman Christian LeCouture this spring and watched him play his way into the two-deep at defensive tackle. Miles also said he was pleased with the play of veteran tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson.

People know about the skill these two possess, especially Johnson, but it's all about being more consistent for these two. Miles seemed pleased with that this spring, and he's also hoping junior Jordan Allen finally comes into his own at defensive end after suffering a season-ending knee injury last year.

He was also very happy with the improvements made by rising junior Jermauria Rasco, who played in 13 games last season and recorded 10 tackles (two for loss). He'll have the responsibility of replacing one of LSU's talented ends, but Miles feels very confident in his ability to get the job done.

"Jermauria Rasco, in my opinion, is going to be a guy that can step right in there and play just as well as any of the guys we'll lose to the NFL draft," Miles said.

That's a lot to ask of someone who has had to wait in the wings for a while, but Miles and his coaches have no choice but to push players like him.

Sophomore Danielle Hunter is also expected to make a strong impact this fall, too, after he played in 12 games as a true freshman. Miles said Hunter, who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 235 pounds, "has all of the ability that we would be comfortable with at the defensive end spot."

And once fall rolls around, the Tigers will have even more bodies to work with up front. LSU signed seven defensive linemen in its 2013 class, meaning six more, including ESPN 150 members Tashawn Bower (DE), Maquedius Bain (DT) and Greg Gilmore (DT).

"We're going to have a number of guys who will come in behind them as true freshman," Miles said.

SEC signing day superlatives

February, 8, 2013
2/08/13
9:10
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Let’s face it. Nobody ever has a bad signing class.

Can you imagine a coach standing up at his post-signing day news conference and proclaiming that that particular class simply didn’t measure up?

However, according to the ESPN Recruiting team, none of the 14 SEC schools finished with lower than a B- this year. Not only that, but seven schools received an A or A-.

So, somebody’s doing something right in this league.

Here’s a look back at a few superlatives from signing day:

Biggest winner: Six SEC schools finished in the top 10 of ESPN’s class rankings, but right there at the top was Alabama … again. The rich keep getting richer. The Crimson Tide have now finished with a top-3 class nationally in each of the past six years. They reeled in several coveted prospects early in the process, then closed like you’d expect a program that’s won three of the past four national championships to close. Getting linebacker Reuben Foster, the state’s top player and No. 1 inside linebacker in the country, punctuated what was another talent-laden class for Nick Saban and Co.

Best closer: When is the last time anybody has closed the way Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss did this year? The Rebels haven’t won an SEC championship since 1963, but they went out and recruited this year like they plan on winning one in the near future. The big catch was defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 overall prospect in the country, but the Rebels were just getting started after he announced Wednesday morning. They also landed Laremy Tunsil, the No. 1 offensive tackle in the country, and Antonio Conner, the No. 2 safety in the country, later in the day. All told, the Rebels got the No. 1 defensive end, the No. 1 receiver, two of the top three offensive tackles and the No. 2 safety.

Biggest surprise: It’s hard to knock Georgia’s recruiting when you look at the caliber of prospects the Bulldogs have consistently brought in under Mark Richt. But what was surprising this year was to see Georgia strike out on so many of the top in-state players. Only one of the top 10 prospects in the state, according to ESPN’s rankings, signed with the Bulldogs -- cornerback Shaq Wiggins of Tyrone, Ga. Don’t feel too badly for the Dawgs, though. They’re still ranked No. 10 nationally in ESPN’s class rankings.

Who flipped/biggest loss: There were a couple that stood out. Defensive end Tashawn Bower of Somerville, N.J., initially committed to Auburn, then looked like he was going to flip to Florida at the last minute before eventually signing with LSU. Auburn did a little flipping of its own by getting defensive end Elijah Daniel of Avon, Ind., away from Ole Miss on signing day. Losing Tunsil to Ole Miss was a blow for both Alabama and Georgia, while Tennessee couldn’t keep safety Vonn Bell (who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn.) at home. The Vols’ first-year coach, Butch Jones, recruited Bell hard, but former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley had dropped the ball with Bell, and Ohio State’s Urban Meyer was able to swoop in and get the No. 4 safety in the country.
Signing day is behind us, so let's take a look at how the West Division teams did in filling their needs, even though definitive answers won’t come for a couple of years.

ALABAMA

Needs filled: Reuben Foster's recruitment was bizarre to say the least, but he gives the Crimson Tide another talented linebacker to plug into that defense. The one-two punch of receiver Robert Foster and tight end O.J. Howard should make Alabama’s passing game that much more explosive, and nobody in the country stockpiles running backs the way Alabama does. Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Tyren Jones and Altee Tenpenny are all top-10 running back prospects.

Holes remaining: The Crimson Tide lost out on one of their top offensive tackle targets when Laremy Tunsil signed with Ole Miss. They’re losing D.J. Fluker early to the NFL, and Cyrus Kouandjio will almost certainly follow if he has the kind of 2013 season everyone expects.

ARKANSAS

Needs filled: Arkansas landed some much-needed help on the offensive line, led by ESPN 150 offensive tackle Denver Kirkland. A Miami product, Kirkland chose the Hogs over the Hurricanes on signing day. Offensive tackle Dan Skipper and offensive guard Reeve Koehler were also key gets, not to mention ESPN 150 tight end Hunter Henry of Little Rock, Ark. Henry was the top prospect in the state and ranked as the No. 2 tight end nationally.

Holes remaining: The biggest hole centers around the Hogs’ most high-profile recruit. Running back Alex Collins of Plantation, Fla., announced Tuesday that he was signing with Arkansas over Miami, but he didn’t sign as scheduled Wednesday and is getting pressure from his family to stay closer to home and sign with the Hurricanes. Stay tuned.

AUBURN

Needs filled: The Tigers were looking for more difference-makers on defense and scored big up front with ESPN 150 defensive tackle Montravius Adams and ESPN 150 defensive ends Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel. Lawson was the No. 2 prospect in the country and had been looking around after initially committing to Auburn under the previous staff.

Holes remaining: Auburn can use all the help it can get in the secondary, which is why losing cornerback Mackensie Alexander to Clemson stung so much. Auburn signed Alexander’s brother, Mackenro, but Mackensie would have been the catch at cornerback. He’s ranked No. 4 overall in the ESPN 150.

LSU

Needs filled: Flipping ESPN 150 defensive end Tashawn Bower of Somerville, N.J., was a coup for the Tigers, especially considering that they’re losing their top four defensive ends. Auburn and Florida were thought to be the leaders for Bower, but he chose LSU on signing day. Holding on to defensive end Frank Herron after a late visit to Texas was equally important. The Tigers also signed two ESPN 300 quarterbacks. Anthony Jennings is a dual-threat guy, while Hayden Rettig is more of a pocket passer.

Holes remaining: The Tigers missed out on a couple of top safeties, which is magnified with Eric Reid leaving early for the NFL. Priest Willis and Tahaan Goodman both went to UCLA.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Needs filled: Adding some punch in the defensive line was a must, and the Bulldogs were able to keep one of the top players in the state at home in defensive end Chris Jones of Houston, Miss. With four senior receivers leaving, Mississippi State hopes that junior college transfer Jeremey Chappelle can step in and be a key cog in the passing game. He’s already enrolled in school. Fred Ross is also an ESPN 300 receiver.

Holes remaining: The Bulldogs would have liked to have added more offensive line help. In particular, losing Deon Mix of Batesville, Miss., to Auburn hurt. Mix, a four-star offensive guard prospect, had been committed to Mississippi State for eight months before backing off that pledge in the final weeks.

OLE MISS

Needs filled: Nobody in the country made the kind of signing day splash the Rebels did. They landed potential game-changers on offense and defense. Defensive end Robert Nkemdiche was the No. 1 prospect in the country. Laremy Tunsil and Austin Golson were ranked as the No. 1 and No. 3 offensive tackles in the country. Laquon Treadwell was the No. 1 receiver in the country, and Antonio Conner was the No. 2 safety.

Holes remaining: The Rebels didn’t get everybody they wanted and lost out on a pair of coveted defensive ends. Chris Jones, the in-state player everybody was recruiting, stuck with his original commitment and signed with Mississippi State, while Elijah Daniel had a change of heart on signing day and went to Auburn.

TEXAS A&M

Needs filled: The Aggies reeled in a couple of highly rated receivers for Johnny Football to throw to, which was especially important with three senior starters departing and freshman Thomas Johnson unlikely to return. This class includes six new receivers, including ESPN 150 prospects Ricky Seals-Jones, Sebastian LaRue and LaQuvionte Gonzalez. The Aggies also picked up four defensive tackles, including ESPN 150 prospect Justin Manning.

Holes remaining: Getting defensive end Daeshon Hall to flip from Washington on signing day was big for the Aggies, and they would have liked to have had one more pass-rusher with Damontre Moore leaving early for the NFL draft. But defensive end Torrodney Prevot signed with Oregon after giving a hard look to Texas A&M.
LSU has announced its 2013 signing class.

The Tigers finished the day with 27 signees, including seven ESPN 150 and 15 ESPN 300 members. The Tigers grabbed a surprise commit Wednesday afternoon in ESPN 150 defensive end Tashawn Bower (Somerville, N.J./Immaculata), who had been committed to Auburn since June of 2012. There was also talk early Wednesday morning that Bower intended to sign with Florida, but he later said his "heart led me" to LSU.

Other headliners of LSU's class are four-star prospects Kendell Beckwith of Jackson, La., who is the No. 4 athlete in the country, and four-star Jeryl Brazil, who is rated the No. 8 cornerback nationally.

LSU currently ranks seventh in ESPN's class rankings.

Here's a complete list of LSU's 2013 class.

LSU gets signing day surprise

February, 6, 2013
2/06/13
1:50
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Everybody loves signing day surprises. That is, if you're on the receiving end.

LSU added ESPN 150 defensive end Tashawn Bower on Wednesday after what was an eventful last 24 hours for the Somerville, N.J., product.

The 6-foot-5, 241-pound Bower had been committed to Auburn since last summer, but started looking around again after Gene Chizik was fired. He took visits to Florida, Florida State and LSU and then went back to Auburn this past weekend.

There were rumblings early Wednesday morning that Bower had told Florida he planned to sign with the Gators. Bower admitted that he thought it was going to be Florida at one point and then went back and forth before deciding on the Tigers.

Bower told the New Jersey Star Ledger that he didn't make a final decision until about two minutes before he walked into his high school library to announce.

"You have to follow your heart, and this is where my heart led me," Bower said.

Bower is ranked No. 132 overall in the ESPN 150 and the No. 11 defensive end prospect nationally.

With the Tigers losing six defensive linemen from this past season's team, Bower could get a chance to play early in 2013.

Final pre-signing day class rankings

February, 5, 2013
2/05/13
10:30
AM ET
We are just hours away from national signing day. I'm going to need all you readers to breathe and count to 10. It's almost here, which means it's almost over.

And with it being almost over, it's time to take another look at ESPN's RecruitingNation class rankings before national signing day. On the eve of the biggest recruiting day of the year, the SEC is still keeping it all in the family when it comes to the top classes in the country. The SEC has 13 teams ranked within the top 40 of the class rankings, with five coming within the top 10.

Florida and Alabama remain No. 1 and No. 2. The Gators have 26 verbal commitments, with 11 being ESPN 150 members and 15 being ESPN 300 members. The biggest members of Florida's class are top-rated cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who is the No. 3 player in the country, and top-rated running back Kelvin Taylor, who is the No. 8 prospect overall. The Gators have a few spots open and are still in the mix to sign defensive tackle Jay-nard Bostwick, junior college defensive tackle Jarran Reed and wide receiver James Clark. Defensive end and current Auburn commit Tashawn Bower is also on Florida's radar.

Alabama received some good news Monday night when top-rated inside linebacker Reuben Foster picked the Crimson Tide over Auburn and Georgia. Foster gave the Tide its 23rd commitment and its 11th ESPN 150 member. Alabama also has 15 ESPN 300 commitments. The Tide could leapfrog the Gators on national signing day with some big names still interested in the Tide. Top defensive tackle and former Auburn commit Dee Liner seems to be a strong lean to the Tide, while four-star defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson, who decommitted from Texas last week, could sign with Alabama as well. Running back Alvin Kamara and safety Vonn Bell, both ESPN 150 members, could also sign with the Tide.

Rounding out the top 10 from the SEC are LSU (No. 6), Texas A&M (No. 7) and Georgia (No. 9). Texas A&M and Georgia might have the best chances of the three of moving up. The Bulldogs are still in the mix for a handful of top prospects, including No. 1 offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, four-star defensive lineman Montravius Adams, outside linebacker Matthew Thomas (No. 6 in the ESPN 150) and ESPN 300 defensive end Davin Bellamy. The Aggies are still in the mix for cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who is No. 4 in the ESPN 150, FSU athlete commit Levonte Whitfield, and committed defensive ends Daeshon Hall (Washington) and Torrodney Prevot (USC).

Keep an eye on Ole Miss and Auburn. Tunsil appears to be favoring Ole Miss over Georgia, and top recruit Robert Nkemdiche is all but signed sealed and delivered to the Rebels. Mississippi State defensive end commit Chris Jones could also flip to Ole Miss, and high-profile safety Antonio Conner is strongly considering the Rebels as well. Auburn is battling Georgia for Adams, and could flip Ole Miss defensive end commit Elijah Daniel, after he officially visited Auburn over the weekend.

Here's a complete look at where SEC teams stand in the final class rankings before signing day:

1. Florida -- 26 (11 ESPN 150, 15 ESPN 300)
2. Alabama -- 23 (11 ESPN 150, 15 ESPN 300)
6. LSU -- 26 (6 ESPN 150, 14 ESPN 300)
7. Texas A&M -- 32 (6 ESPN 150, 11 ESPN 300)
9. Georgia -- 30 (5 ESPN 150, 12 ESPN 300)
12. Ole Miss -- 23 (2 ESPN 150, 7 ESPN 300)
14. Auburn -- 20 (3 ESPN 150, 6 ESPN 300)
17. South Carolina -- 21 (2 ESPN 150, 4 ESPN 300)
21. Vanderbilt -- 25 (0 ESPN 150, 3 ESPN 300)
27. Mississippi State -- 22 (1 ESPN 150, 3 ESPN 300)
29. Tennessee -- 19 (1 ESPN 150, 2 ESPN 300)
36. Missouri -- 19 (0 ESPN 150, 2 ESPN 300)
39. Arkansas -- 21 (2 ESPN 150, 2 ESPN 300)
When it comes to recruiting, the readers believe it's still Alabama's world.

Florida might be No. 1 in ESPN's class rankings, but with more than 7,100 votes cast in our SportsNation poll, Alabama was picked to take home the recruiting class crown by grabbing 40 percent of the vote. Alabama currently has the No. 2 class, with 22 commits (10 ESPN 150 members).

Alabama has a chance to add to its already impressive class with a handful of ESPN 150 members still heavily considering the Crimson Tide, including top middle linebacker Reuben Foster, safety Antonio Conner, defensive tackle Dee Liner and running back Alvin Kamara. Adding a couple of those names might propel the Tide over Florida.

The Gators were third in our poll, as Texas collected 27 percent of the vote to come in second. The Aggies have the nation's No. 7 recruiting class and 32 commitments. A&M has six ESPN 150 members and is hoping to add to that number Wednesday with cornerback Mackensie Alexander and athlete Levonte Whitfield still in the mix.

Florida collected 18 percent. While the Gators would like to add to their class, the headliners might already be in hand. The Gators are still in the mix for four-star cornerback Jalen Ramsey, who is committed to USC, but is still considering UF and Florida State. He's ranked No. 14 nationally by ESPN recruiting services and is the top remaining prospect on the Gators' board. ESPN 300 defensive tackle Jay-nard Bostwick is still strongly considering UF as well.

Georgia was fourth with 10 percent of the vote, while LSU grabbed 5 percent. The Bulldogs could have a very exciting signing day with Foster, Kamara, Liner, top offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil and stud defensive lineman Montravius Adams still looking at Georgia. Landing a few those big names would shoot the Dawgs up the ranks, for sure.

LSU might not have a very exciting signing day. The Tigers own the nation's No. 6 class, with 26 commitments (six ESPN 150 members), but it looks like the staff is waiting on No. 1 Robert Nkemdiche and Auburn defensive end commit Tashawn Bower. Ole Miss is way ahead for Nkemdiche, while it could be tough to flip Bower.

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