SEC: Vadal Alexander

LSU redshirt review: Offense

December, 22, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU got considerable production out of its vaunted freshman class this season, but some members of the class are still waiting to contribute.

Today and tomorrow, we'll look at the freshmen who are in line to redshirt, as well as a couple who appeared in only a game or two. Today we begin with the players on offense.

OL GARRETT BRUMFIELD

Height/Weight: 6-4/309 pounds

ESPN prospect rating: Four stars, No. 54 overall prospect on ESPN 300, No. 1 offensive guard

2014 in review: The writing was on the wall when Brumfield and William Clapp signed in February in that LSU returned a wealth of experience along the line. Unless something catastrophic happened, they would most likely sit out the season and redshirt -- and that's what happened. Brumfield could be in line to play guard or center next season, particularly if one of the Tigers' underclassmen opt to enter the NFL draft.

Teammate's comments: "Brumfield is a very athletic guy. He kind of reminds me of Trai [Turner, a former LSU lineman and rookie with the Carolina Panthers] in a way. Clapp reminds me of maybe a little smaller P.J., if you remember [former LSU center] P.J. Lonergan. So those are two guys that played really good football at LSU, and they've gotten so much better from when they came in to now. I really like those guys. They're good guys and things like that, so they have a bright future." -- junior left guard Vadal Alexander

OL WILLIAM CLAPP

Height/Weight: 6-5/295 pounds

ESPN prospect rating: Four stars, No. 22 offensive guard

2014 in review: The son of former LSU captain Tommy Clapp worked behind veterans at guard and center during the season. Center might be where he eventually settles, however, with senior Elliott Porter completing his career and sophomore Ethan Pocic able to play multiple positions along the line.

Teammate's comments: "[Brumfield and Clapp have] both been working great at guard and center. They switch back and forth with it. They practice at center one day and they go back to guard the next day. They're going at it. ...I believe there's a little competition between them two -- like they're young, but they're always trying to see who can get it in." -- sophomore right tackle Jerald Hawkins

WR TONY UPCHURCH

Height/Weight: 6-1/230 pounds

ESPN prospect rating: Four stars, No. 283 overall prospect on ESPN 300, No. 42 wide receiver

2014 in review: Of the four wide receivers LSU signed in February, Upchurch probably needed the most work. Trey Quinn and Malachi Dupre contributed immediately and D.J. Chark also appeared in a handful of games. Upchurch needed time to slim down a bit and learn LSU's offense. He'll have to compete for playing time with a number of young wideouts in 2015.

Teammate's comments: "He's grown a lot. From the first time I met him in the summer to yesterday, he's grown a lot. He's matured a lot. He was real heavy when he first got here and he's losing weight. He's growing as a person on and off the field. He's not doing some of the things he was doing when he first got here. He's more focused on football." – sophomore wide receiver Travin Dural

TE JACORY WASHINGTON

Height/Weight: 6-5/221 pounds

ESPN prospect rating: Four stars, No. 169 overall prospect on ESPN 300, No. 5 tight end (H)

2014 in review: As with the other offensive redshirts, Washington faced a logjam at his position when he arrived at LSU in the summer. The Tigers returned four tight ends who saw the field in 2013, plus they added junior college transfer Colin Jeter. Washington and the other young tight ends should have a much greater opportunity to play next season with seniors Logan Stokes and Travis Dickson completing their careers.

Teammate's comments: "I think Jacory's going to be a monster one day. He's big, tall, strong. Just coming here, they wanted him to put some size on and get used to the system and we had a lot of older guys in front of him, so they redshirted him. But it's definitely benefited him a lot. He looks a lot more comfortable out there at practice, especially blocking. I don't think he had ever blocked before he got here and he's actually going to be a very good blocker. Obviously y'all know about his receiving skills, so he's going to be very good." -- Stokes
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.

Draft could impact LSU offense in 2015

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

“There’s a bunch of personalities on this team that I don’t think any other team has,” Neighbors said. “So if the people that are eligible to stay, if they do stay, this team could be probably the best next year. Obviously they’ve got to improve in some areas, but what team doesn’t?”

The Tigers’ title possibilities might hinge on keeping more draft-eligible players on campus than they have in recent seasons. LSU lost a whopping 17 of them to the draft in the last two years, and the on-field product has suffered as a result.

Today we’ll take a position-by-position look at LSU’s roster positioning and which players have decisions to weigh, starting first with the offense and then with the defense:

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

Key departing seniors: None

Key draft-eligible players: None

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore Anthony Jennings (104-213, 1,460 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs), Freshman Brandon Harris (25-42, 452 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs)

Comment: LSU doesn’t figure to lose one of its quarterbacks, but it will remain the most scrutinized position on the offense. Jennings started most of the season and was not consistent enough, while Harris struggled in his one start and has barely seen the field since then. LSU coach Les Miles said this week that Harris “is being groomed” to compete for the starting spot in the future, so expect the Jennings-Harris battle to resume in the spring.

RUNNING BACK

Key departing seniors: Tailbacks Terrence Magee (545 rushing yards, 3 TDs) and Kenny Hilliard (431 rushing yards, 6 TDs), fullback Connor Neighbors (four catches for 27 yards)

Key draft-eligible players: None

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tailback) Freshman Leonard Fournette (891 rushing yards, 8 TDs), freshman Darrel Williams (280 rushing yards, 3 TDs), (fullback) Melvin Jones (five catches, 22 yards, TD)

Comment: Nobody has a decision to make here. Magee, Hilliard and Neighbors are all seniors and Fournette, Williams and Jones will return in 2015. The Tigers are poised to add ESPN 300 tailbacks Nick Brossette and Derrius Guice to the backfield next season, and both will have the opportunity to contribute immediately following Magee and Hilliard’s departures. The running game will still be in great shape.

WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END

Key departing seniors: (Tight end) Travis Dickson (seven catches, 60 yards), Logan Stokes (one catch, 3 yards, TD)

Key draft-eligible players: (Tight end) junior Dillon Gordon (no catches), (Receiver) redshirt sophomore Travin Dural (37 catches, 758 yards, 7 TDs)

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: (Tight end) Sophomore Colin Jeter (no catches), sophomore DeSean Smith (no catches), (receiver) redshirt freshman John Diarse (13 catches, 199 yards, 2 TDs), freshman Malachi Dupre (14 catches, 318 yards, 5 TDs), freshman Trey Quinn (17 catches, 193 yards)

Comment: The big news is that draft-eligible sophomore Dural said this week that he expects to be back at LSU next season. The speedster was the heart and soul of LSU’s passing game, but he’s probably making a good decision. A more consistent season in 2015 could improve his draft stock, as he started out with three 100-yard outings in the first four games, but hasn’t had one since. Gordon should also return and will contribute heavily as a blocking tight end. Both positions have youngsters who are in line to contribute more heavily. Diarse, Dupre and Quinn are all freshmen who made some good things happen in their first game action, and several freshman receivers (keep an eye on D.J. Chark) are in line behind them. Same thing at tight end, where Colin Jeter, DeSean Smith and redshirting freshman Jacory Washington all could enjoy expanded roles in 2015.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Key departing seniors: Left tackle La’el Collins, center Elliott Porter, right guard Evan Washington, right guard Fehoko Fanaika

Key draft-eligible players: Junior left guard Vadal Alexander, right tackle Jerald Hawkins

Key underclassmen/not eligible for draft: Sophomore center/guard Ethan Pocic

Comment: This is the most important position group to watch. Collins has been outstanding at left tackle, winning the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the conference’s top blocker. He and Porter make two starters who are definitely leaving, and Washington and Fanaika are two of the top reserves. Where things could really go sideways is if Alexander and Hawkins opt to enter the draft, as well. LSU looks to be positioned well for a championship push next season, but having to replace four of the five starting offensive linemen would not be an encouraging sign. Both players were noncommittal when asked about the draft this week, but both of them requested draft grades from the NFL’s advisory committee. Said Alexander, whom ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. rated as the No. 7 guard prospect among draft-eligible players, “You want to focus on getting better because, stay or leave, you want the type of guy who can compartmentalize things and just focus on the here and now, and that’s what I’m trying to do right now. Somebody’ll lie to you and say they never think about it, but I’m not seriously thinking about it right now and I will make a quick decision after the bowl game.”
BATON ROUGE, La. – For the first time since 2005, Les Miles’ first season as LSU’s coach, the Tigers will already be home by the time the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Typically that’s a sign of a disappointing season, which is certainly the case for a Tigers team (8-4) that fell well short of the standard that Miles set in his first decade at LSU. This was not a great season, and if the Tigers fail to win their bowl game, they will match the 2008 team for LSU’s fewest wins in a season under Miles.

With all of that said, however, LSU’s matchup in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl is as good as an 8-4 team could expect. The Tigers drew Notre Dame (7-5), which like LSU was ranked in the top 10 early in the season before a late slide.

Both programs have played for a national championship within the last four seasons, and while they both finished this regular season with a flop, a game featuring two of the sport’s most successful programs provides a reason to get excited about playing one more game.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsLSU players sound eager for a shot at Notre Dame no matter the bowl game.
“It adds a little more relevancy to the opponent just because it’s such a big-name program. Two great programs, us and them,” LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. “So you grow up looking at Notre Dame and watching them play since you were little. And it’s always a program that’s in the national spotlight, so it’s easier to really get up for it.

“No matter who the opponent would have been, we would have got up for it, obviously, but definitely Notre Dame, we can get excited for a great team like that, to play them.”

The caliber of the programs should drive interest despite a 3 p.m. ET kickoff on Tuesday, Dec. 30, and the game will add to the considerable history between the Tigers and Fighting Irish.

LSU and Notre Dame have actually played 10 times, the most of any SEC opponent against the Fighting Irish. Both clubs have won five times in series history, so this will be a rubber match of sorts.

“LSU and Notre Dame, they have some history with each other in bowl games,” LSU running back Terrence Magee said. “So growing up, Notre Dame is a big program. They’ve been on the big stage lately playing Alabama in the national championship, and I think it’s going to be a big matchup for us. I’m excited about it.”

Oddly enough, the bowl trip also will help LSU’s seniors cross Nashville off the list of SEC towns where they will have played. The Tigers haven’t played in Music City since 2010 and while several fifth-year seniors (including Connor Neighbors, D.J. Welter, Travis Dickson, Evan Washington and Justin Maclin) were on LSU’s team that season, none of them played in the Tigers’ 27-3 win over Vanderbilt.

Missouri is the only SEC team that LSU hasn’t faced in the last five seasons, and Mizzou, Kentucky and South Carolina are the only SEC towns where the Tigers haven’t played in that period.

But the location of this game is only a footnote. After all, nobody on either of these teams set a preseason goal of finishing the year with a bowl game in Tennessee. It’s the opposition that drives interest for fans and players alike.

“It really doesn’t matter, the destination,” LSU cornerback Jalen Collins said. “I feel like the opponent is the bigger part. It’s who we’re playing and how we finish the game.”

In that regard, both clubs are getting off lucky. Notre Dame lost five of its last six games after ranking as high as fifth at one point. LSU dropped two of the last three after it ranked eighth early in the season.

Obviously the season didn’t end the way fans of either school once hoped, so getting to face a big-name opponent in a bowl game was far from a foregone conclusion. The sunny side of the teams’ late stumbles – certainly from the bowl’s perspective, as this is probably the best pairing in Music City Bowl’s 17-year history – is that they paved the way for a bowl pairing that’s actually interesting.

Both teams were better last season, but Notre Dame’s bowl game against Rutgers and LSU’s against Iowa didn’t do much for anybody. At least now we get to see two of the sport’s most historically significant programs meet. All things considered, that’s not so bad.

Pluses, minuses from LSU's season

December, 1, 2014
Dec 1
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LSU’s season fell short of the expectations Les Miles has established as the Tigers’ coach, with his team failing to achieve 10 wins for the first time since 2009.

But it wasn’t all bad. Miles’ young team made progress in several areas that could serve LSU well in 2015 and beyond.

Let’s review three pluses and three minuses that marked 2014 for LSU, which finished the regular season at 8-4 following last Thursday’s win over Texas A&M:

Pluses

Defensive line growth: For years, LSU has been one of the nation’s most effective programs at turning out NFL-caliber defensive linemen, but the Tigers looked anything but impressive early in the season. Opposing offenses were running right up the middle and around the edge for huge gains, and the Tigers frequently looked inept up front. Defensive ends Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter typically played well, but the interior line was a work in progress. However, once freshman Davon Godchaux settled in alongside Christian LaCouture at defensive tackle, the Tigers’ luck began to change. By the end of the season, the interior line was no longer a liability. That bodes well for next season, when the Tigers should have experience and depth in the middle.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesFreshman Leonard Fournette needs 109 rushing yards in LSU's bowl game to reach 1,000 for the season.
Freshman stars emerge: Excitement surrounded LSU’s true freshman class, and we’re only starting to see what the group can do. We got a good taste of tailback Leonard Fournette’s capabilities, as the top overall prospect was the driving force in at least two Tigers wins (over Florida and A&M). And it’s clear that safety Jamal Adams is a future star in a secondary that ranked among the nation’s best. We also got glimpses of star potential from Godchaux, receiver Malachi Dupre, quarterback Brandon Harris and running back Darrel Williams. This season was only the tip of the iceberg, however. The 2014 class is off to a good start, but this group has yet to approach the enormous impact that it eventually will make.

Offensive line comes through: We can’t completely ignore LSU’s 123-yard showing in a shutout loss to Arkansas, but that unbelievably poor effort only reinforced how much progress the starting offensive line had made to that point -- before injuries to left guard Vadal Alexander and center Elliott Porter forced the Tigers to play shorthanded against the Razorbacks. Up to that point, the offensive line had made enormous progress over the course of the season. The veteran group struggled early, but eventually became the most dependable bunch on the offense. The Tigers’ 388 rushing yards against A&M (with Alexander back in the lineup) served as a suitable rebound from the disappointing night against Arkansas.

Negatives

Quarterback development: Perhaps the most disappointing element of the season was that the Tigers failed to improve more at quarterback. The position was one of the team’s biggest question marks entering the season, and Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings both struggled. Sophomore Jennings started all but one game, but he was ineffective throughout the season. The problem was that Harris -- who was horrible in his lone start, a blowout loss to Auburn -- failed to take the job away from the underperforming Jennings. Miles acknowledged that Harris is the more explosive talent, but the coach said Harris is also more likely to make mistakes. This will be another huge offseason for the position, as Jennings and Harris were simply not good enough in 2014.

Impotent pass rush: While the defensive line’s overall play improved dramatically over the course of the season, the Tigers remained unsuccessful at rushing the quarterback throughout. LSU finished the regular season with 19 sacks, led by Rasco’s four. Just a couple of years ago, the Tigers regularly posted seasons of 30-plus sacks. Today, they rank 13th in the SEC at taking down opposing quarterbacks, leading only South Carolina (12) in sacks. The lack of sacks made the Tigers’ performance against the pass -- they are fifth nationally in passing yards allowed (162.3 ypg) and second in pass efficiency defense (98.7) -- even more impressive.

Spotty passing game: Inconsistent quarterback play and the resulting run-heavy philosophy probably affected the development of LSU’s young receiving corps, but Dupre and fellow freshman Trey Quinn disappeared for large stretches of the season. And all of the preseason talk about including the tight ends more in the passing game was apparently just talk, since the position accounted for eight receptions in the regular season. Sophomore Travin Dural (37 catches for 758 yards, 7 TDs) came into his own and redshirt freshman John Diarse had a couple of nice games, but the position still has a lot to prove in 2015. LSU’s offense wasn’t nearly balanced enough this fall, and it wasn’t only because Jennings was an ineffective passer. The wideouts need to become more consistent route runners and pass catchers next year, as well.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU has played in some games where opposing offenses leaned heavily on the pass, but the Tigers have yet to face an opponent that likes to fling it around as much as Texas A&M.

Only five teams in the nation have attempted more passes than Texas A&M's 452, a total that is 77 more than the next-closest SEC team. That sets up an intriguing matchup with an LSU secondary that ranks second nationally in pass-efficiency defense (97.57), fifth in passing yards allowed (164) and leads the SEC in both categories.

"As a defensive back, you look forward to that," said LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White, whose team will visit Texas A&M on Thanksgiving night. "You want to match up against passing teams because it gives you more opportunities to get your hands on balls and make plays."

LSU (7-4, 3-4 SEC) has faced eight opposing quarterbacks who attempted at least 25 passes in a game, with Alabama's Blake Sims (20-for-45 for 209 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime win) attempting the most. Nobody else has come particularly close to Texas A&M's average of 41.1 attempts per game.

That means White and his fellow defensive backs could be busy, and their task might be even more demanding with cornerback Rashard Robinson -- one of the stars of LSU's 34-10 win against A&M (7-4, 3-4) last season -- not expected to play.

"He's indefinitely suspended," LSU coach Les Miles said Wednesday night when asked about Robinson's status for the A&M game.

Robinson spent most of last season's game matched up against Aggies star Mike Evans, and Robinson more than held his own by limiting the Biletnikoff Award finalist to four catches for 51 yards -- 38 of which came on a late reception with another Tiger in coverage.

With or without Robinson, LSU will have its hands full against the Aggies' dynamic receiving corps. Evans is now playing in the NFL, but A&M still has a group that is reminiscent of Missouri's talented bunch last season. Not only are they productive receivers -- the Aggies have five players with at least 443 receiving yards -- but they possess NFL size.

Three of the Aggies' top five wideouts (Ricky Seals-Jones, Josh Reynolds and Edward Pope) are listed at either 6-foot-4 or 6-foot-5. That creates a matchup advantage for A&M over most defensive backs, LSU's included. Robinson is the Tigers' tallest defensive back at 6-3, and the next-tallest contributors are Collins and safety Ronald Martin at 6-2.

Miles said starters White and Collins will obviously see the majority of the cornerback reps, with the next options being freshman Ed Paris and safety Jalen Mills if necessary.

"I think it'll be interesting," Miles said. "I think one that'll be a challenge for our guys to get to the passer and I think there'll be certainly some coverage responsibilities that have to be shored up and technique worked on, but I think that's being done. I kind of like the plan thus far."

Pressuring Aggies starter Kyle Allen into rushed throws would definitely help LSU's cause. In two SEC starts, the true freshman quarterback has tossed seven touchdowns against two interceptions and is averaging 257 passing yards per game.

The Tigers have done a decent job of applying pressure, but have cashed in with just 17 sacks and nine interceptions -- totals that rank 10th and ninth in the conference.

"I think we're in around the passer pretty much," Miles said. "I wish we'd have gotten [sacks], chasing quarterbacks around when we'd liked to have gotten some contact on [them] -- several different games. But I think we have the potential to get into the backfield."

However the Tigers can generate some mistakes -- particularly if they lead to turnovers -- it will come in handy next week. LSU's slumping offense was without starting offensive linemen Vadal Alexander and Elliott Porter for most of the Arkansas game, when it generated just 123 total yards, and Miles said Wednesday that Alexander should be back for A&M, but Porter will not.

Even against A&M's mediocre defense, next week's game might be another slog for LSU's offense, which could certainly use all the field-position advantages it can get. If those breaks don't come, A&M won't have the only passing offense that will be an X factor in the game.

Tigers quarterback Anthony Jennings passed for just 87 yards against Arkansas, which probably would not be enough for LSU to keep up with with a prolific Aggies offense.

"We needed to not be as predictable, run and pass, and we needed to certainly hit," Miles said after Wednesday's practice. "When we go to pass, we need to complete and throw better, and we're not throwing the ball like we can. We threw the ball extremely well tonight and we'll throw the ball better in this game Thursday."

 
BATON ROUGE, La. – Anthony Jennings is not LSU’s only problem, but he knows he is on the list.

Even before Saturday’s shutout loss at Arkansas, the sophomore quarterback was frank in admitting that he must do a better job if he is to remain the Tigers’ starter.

“I think that we had the potential to go undefeated this year. I think if I would have played better in a couple of those games, I think we would have won those games,” Jennings said last week, speaking to reporters after an LSU practice for the first time this season. “So we just have to continue to get better, and I think that if we continue to get better, we’ll be a great team.”

[+] Enlarge
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesAnthony Jennings is completing just 47.9 percent of his passes.
That is clearly not what the Tigers (7-4, 3-4 SEC) are today. Not after Saturday’s 17-0 defeat where an LSU offense was shut out for the first time in the regular season since 2002.

Much of the blame falls on an offense that accounted for just 123 yards against the Razorbacks while missing starting left guard Vadal Alexander for the entire game and starting center Elliott Porter for much of it. The resulting shuffle left the only aspect of LSU’s offense that has shown any consistency -- its downhill running game -- in shambles.

“Those starting five had a cohesiveness that they built throughout the season,” Jennings said after the game. “So having those two guys go down, it was big.”

Jennings’ inability to move the offense with the pass only compounded the problem, as the first-year starter passed for fewer than 100 yards for the second straight week. He completed 12 of 22 passes for 87 yards against Arkansas, a week after going 8-of-26 for 76 yards in an overtime loss to Alabama.

“[It was] subpar at best,” Jennings said. “I have to improve.”

In fairness to Jennings, he regularly had to run for his life after dropping back to throw. The reworked offensive line rarely gave him time to survey the field, but Jennings continued to struggle at delivering accurate throws even when the protection was adequate.

That’s why Tigers coach Les Miles said after the game that his biggest concern was not quarterback play, but the protection issues that occurred with Alexander and Porter out of the lineup.

Miles said Alexander will likely be back in time for the Tigers’ visit to Texas A&M (7-4, 3-4) on Thanksgiving Day, but Porter is doubtful. Thus, Miles and his staff have about 10 days to figure out a backup plan along the line -- and perhaps with the player taking snaps behind it.

“At this point in time, the guy sitting in my seat, we’re looking for answers,” Miles said after the Arkansas game.

It would be simplistic -- and probably incorrect -- to say that a quarterback change would solve the Tigers’ offensive problems. But earlier in the year when Jennings struggled against Mississippi State and New Mexico State, Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron turned to true freshman Brandon Harris, and he delivered positive results both times.

Harris has barely seen the field since making a lone disastrous start against Auburn (3-of-14, 58 yards), on a night when LSU failed to achieve a single third-down conversion. Whether angry fans like it or not, Harris clearly does not have his coaches’ confidence, as evidenced by Miles’ post-Arkansas explanation for why he never played Harris against the Razorbacks.

“What we’re trying to do is make 10 other players effective, as well,” Miles said. “But at this point in time, I think it’s a quality opinion. Could I get some other guys some playing time? I wouldn’t disagree with that. But I think we went with Anthony for the reasons that it gives us our best chance at victory.”

Perhaps the extra time between games will give Harris a better chance to steal snaps from Jennings. But if Miles and Cameron stick with the sophomore for the A&M game and the bowl game that follows, Jennings knows what he’s giving the offense is not good enough.

Not now, and not if he expects to become more than a one-year starter.

“I know that if I play better, the other guys around me play better and this team plays better, so I don’t know if [I’m taking the] blame,” Jennings said last week. “I know that I can play better, knowing my abilities to play football at a high level. So I just have to go out on the practice field, continue to get better and then when game day comes, I’ve got to continue to execute.”
When an LSU offense's performance evokes comparisons to the Tigers' effort against Alabama in the 2012 BCS championship, something has gone horribly awry.

LSU's 92-yard outing that night in New Orleans is like Harry Potter's Lord Voldemort among Tigers fans: the game that must not be named. One of the most pitiful performances in memory for an offense on a big stage. An absolute embarrassment. And highly similar to the Tigers' production in Saturday's 17-0 loss at Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeDamon Mitchell
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsThe LSU Tigers' defense, as well as their offense, failed to stop Arkansas on Saturday.
The difference, of course, is that the stakes were nowhere near the same.

In the Alabama disaster, a previously unbeaten LSU team crossed midfield just once and was dominated throughout with a national championship hanging in the balance. Saturday night's game in Fayetteville pitted an injury-riddled, three-loss LSU team against an Arkansas club that hadn't won a conference game in its last 17 tries. The on-field results, though, were every bit as ugly.

By missing a pair of field goals and losing a fourth-quarter fumble at the Arkansas 19-yard line on Saturday, LSU failed to score in a game for the first time since its infamous Alabama loss. The Tigers' 123 yards of total offense were also their worst performance since that Alabama defeat -- and the program's worst performance in a regular-season game in a generation.

The last time LSU produced fewer yards in a regular-season game was Sept. 20, 1975, when No. 11 Texas A&M beat Charlie McClendon's Tigers 39-8 in Baton Rouge. The Tigers ran 66 plays for 114 yards and picked up just seven first downs. LSU's only touchdown came on a blocked punt in the fourth quarter.

Saturday's performance against Arkansas sent writers scrambling for the record books, as well, to determine exactly how historic this face plant was in LSU history. Let's throw out the BCS title game against Alabama and focus solely on regular-season games. Here are some other "last times" that LSU approached on Saturday:

  • The Tigers hadn't been shut out in a regular-season game since falling 31-0 to Alabama in 2002.
  • Their 36 rushing yards on 32 carries were the fewest by an LSU offense in a regular-season game since running 31 times for 30 yards against Mississippi State in 2009.
  • Terrence Magee's team-high 24 rushing yards were the fewest by the Tigers' leading rusher in a game since Spencer Ware's 21 against Florida in 2012.
  • And their 87 passing yards were their fewest since ... the previous Saturday, when they totaled 76 in an overtime loss against Alabama.
Saturday's game featured a perfect storm of horrible circumstances for the Tigers. Two veteran offensive linemen (center Elliott Porter and left guard Vadal Alexander) missed all or most of the game with injuries, as did senior running back Kenny Hilliard. LSU's average field position was its own 24-yard line, and the Tigers couldn't stay out of their own way even when they had decent starting field position on the freezing-cold night.

Arkansas focused on stopping the LSU running game and Tigers quarterback Anthony Jennings was unable to keep the offense moving with the pass. That wasn't much of a surprise given that Jennings has been inconsistent at best this season, but it further angered fans hoping to see backup Brandon Harris get a chance when LSU coach Les Miles never put the freshman in the game in an effort to spark the offense.

Miles fell back on his well-worn line that leaving Jennings in gave LSU the best chance to win -- and perhaps that was the case -- but this open week is the time for Miles and his offensive coaches to do some soul searching about what is working and what is not.

Obviously if we're comparing the Tigers' performance to what happened against Alabama on that fateful night in New Orleans, there isn't much to be happy about these days from an offensive perspective.

LSU can't afford for what-ifs to linger

November, 10, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. – Saturday’s overtime loss to Alabama was the kind that will sting for a long while at LSU.

Not only were the Tigers disappointed by the missed opportunities that allowed Alabama to tie the game in the final 50 seconds and then win in overtime, they also were seething over multiple calls that went the Crimson Tide’s way at crucial junctures.

“I think that game could have ended a lot of different ways with the Tigers in front,” LSU coach Les Miles said.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesAnthony Jennings believes the LSU Tigers will get off the deck after the loss to Alabama and finish strong.
Miles credited Alabama and acknowledged his team’s own execution issues -- particularly the multitude of dropped passes that could have extended drives -- but he seemed particularly peeved about an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against left guard Vadal Alexander on LSU’s final drive in regulation.

LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith had just recovered a T.J. Yeldon fumble at Alabama’s 6-yard line, giving the Tigers first-and-goal with 1:13 to play in a 10-10 game. After Terrence Magee’s first-down run up the middle for no gain, Alexander shoved Alabama’s A'Shawn Robinson when the defensive end grabbed him and pulled his leg.

The 15-yard penalty pushed LSU back to the 21-yard line, so instead of a touchdown, they settled for a Colby Delahoussaye field goal with 50 seconds remaining. Miles said he didn’t have a good view of what transpired, but questioned whether it warranted a flag.

“That changed the complexion of the game,” Miles said. “That call was the single most significant piece, minus their turnover, in the game.”

The play -- only one factor in LSU’s late collapse -- also changed the complexion of the Tigers’ season. With a win, they were still alive in the SEC West race and a potential dark horse for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff. Now at 7-3 overall and 3-3 in SEC play, the Tigers are an afterthought in the conference race and must win out in order to extend their school-record streak of four consecutive seasons with at least 10 wins.

“We have strong character in the locker room, and we’re going to push and push and push until we can’t push no more,” said senior center Elliott Porter, who played the final home game of his career on Saturday. “That’s the biggest thing. You keep on fighting. It’s tough losing this game in Death Valley, a senior in my last game in Death Valley. It hurts, but that’s what we signed up for.”

The challenge for the Tigers now is to make sure that the hangover from the Alabama game doesn’t extend into their next game, Saturday at Arkansas (4-5, 0-5). Despite not having won an SEC game since October 2012 -- a losing streak that now sits at 17 games -- the Razorbacks actually opened as a slight betting favorite over LSU on Sunday.

While it hasn’t won a conference game, Arkansas has hung tight with Alabama (losing 14-13), Mississippi State (losing 17-10 when quarterback Brandon Allen threw an interception at the goal line in the closing seconds) and Texas A&M (blowing a late lead and falling 35-28 in overtime). The Tigers likely can’t afford to enter this game with less than their full focus and expect to beat the improved Razorbacks.

Miles expressed confidence that his team will regroup and not allow the Alabama loss to linger.

“I think our football team has got more character than that, to be honest,” Miles said. “I think we’ll have to play well. I think this Arkansas team is a good football team. We’ll have to prepare well. That will be a challenge for us.”

The Tigers rallied from a much more hopeless situation earlier this season, and many of them say a players-only meeting after they dropped their first two SEC games was the turning point that helped them move in the right direction. Quarterback Anthony Jennings said he believes they will bounce back again.

“I think this team is very resilient,” Jennings said. “They never give up, so I think that early, we had that players meeting to say we’re still a great team and we’re going to fight until the end of the season and we’re going to continue to do that.”
Les Miles, Nick SabanKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles and Nick Saban differ in methodology and personality, but they share a winning mentality that has turned their programs into powerhouses.
Separated by more than 340 mostly rural miles, Nick Saban and Les Miles are giants of their time.

Their footsteps shake the southern ground and their wins stack as tall as Atlanta's Bank of America Plaza.

Saturday, the two will meet for the ninth time at their current jobs, with Saban holding a 5-3 lead in this wildly exciting series. Two coaches who thrive on winning and captivated the SEC after stints and upbringings well outside the confines of the country's most polarizing conference.

Miles went from being a Michigan Man to a Cowboy before settling in Cajun country. Saban went from a Michigan State man to Cajun to Dolphin then T-Town. Cross-country journeys brought these two to the Deep South and winning binds these iconic coaches.

Think Hayes-Schembechler with a little more southern hospitality.

While their personas are poked, prodded and overanalyzed countless times each season, and their methods and personalities are sometimes worlds apart, there's no denying that they share an equally impressive winning attitude.

Saban has a 172-58-1 (.747) collegiate record with four national championships -- three at Alabama and one at LSU -- and five conference championships. Miles is right behind him with a 130-47 (.734) record with a national championship and two conference titles.

Miles won 10 or more games seven times in his first nine seasons at LSU, while Saban did it in six of his first seven years at Alabama.

They are the class of the SEC, a conference that has only gained strength since their arrivals. Even with the SEC saying hello and subsequently goodbye to a handful of coaches since the arrival of Miles and Saban, they've stayed put, despite growing pressure and enormous expectations.

"It's really impressive to see how focused, driven and prepared he is every day," Alabama center Ryan Kelly said of Saban. "As you get older, that kind of wears off on you as well."

Saban's rough exterior can overshadow a fun side that Miles seems to embrace more openly. Miles is the quirky genius, while Saban is the evil genius, but Saban knows how to keep things loose, players say.

"He's funnier than you would think," Alabama receiver DeAndrew White said.

There are jokes cracked in practice and his well-known love for Motown and Michael Jackson. There are even multiple videos of him dancing that have come close to breaking the Internet.

It isn't quite repelling off the side of a building or eating grass, that's Miles' territory, and he's perfected off-the-wall .

"I've never seen anyone eat grass," LSU safety Ronald Martin said. "I guess that's his good luck charm."

Miles knows when to be serious, too. He's had emotional news conferences defending his players and his status as LSU's coach. The jokes die during games and when he has to, he isn't afraid to line up with his offensive linemen at practice – knees bent and trusty hat backward -- to show them what perfect technique looks like.

"It's always a great time being coached by him," LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. "He definitely gets down and dirty with us every now and then."

What makes them great is their undeniable coaching ability, but what makes their interaction that much more enjoyable is how different they really are.

People scratch their heads and often giggle at his sometimes indecipherable jargon, while Saban's dry humor is actually hilarious because it's so smart, even if it can come across as smug.

Saban has "the process" and Miles has "the want."

There are palm claps versus near headset destruction.

There's Miles hat, barely sitting atop his head, and Saban's glare, piercing through his own players and coaches, along with opponents.

There's Saban's meticulous attention to detail and Miles' off-the-cuff, Mad Hatter coaching style that can teeter on improbable bliss and disaster.

They differ in methodology and personality, but they share a winning mentality that has turned their programs into powerhouses.

Their teams mimic them in so many ways, and that's why Saturday is once again a huge deal. Excellence has bred success with these two coaches, making every encounter exemplary.
Alabama-LSU is back, and it’s all the rage -- yet again.

Despite Alabama's loss to Ole Miss and a midseason lull by LSU, Saturday's night game in Tiger Stadium has major SEC and College Football Playoff implications.

Of course it does! It's Alabama-LSU for crying out loud!

“The players understand that this is always a big game for us,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “It’s turned into a rivalry game for us.”

[+] EnlargeSaban/Miles
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsWhen LSU's Les Miles and Alabama's Nick Saban meet, big things are almost always on the line.
This is essentially a play-in game of sorts for both teams.

It’s a chance for No. 16 LSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC) to get back into the thick of an SEC West race that is literally eating itself alive. By beating the No. 5 Crimson Tide (7-1, 4-1), the Tigers could start a domino effect of two-loss teams in the country’s best division. They’d also have a glimmer of hope in the playoff race that once seemed unattainable.

For Alabama, win out and the Tide are headed to the SEC championship game and the playoff. Lose and Alabama likely slips below Ole Miss in the rankings (lost head-to-head) and is stuck in a pit of two-loss West teams with games against No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 3 Auburn approaching.

If either of these teams is going to have a shot at Atlanta or beyond, Saturday is crucial to their future successes.

“Because of the circumstances, this is a huge game,” LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said. “It’s the most important game of the season, and we’re treating it that way.”

This isn’t SEC bias, it’s a game that people well beyond the Mason-Dixon Line will watch and appreciate. Both teams are hitting their strides, having won three straight. They both own bone-crushing running games and defenses with suffocating tendencies.

This game has become a national treasure of sorts, and this Saturday is no different.

“Every year, the calendars are marked for Alabama-LSU,” Alabama center Ryan Kelly said. “Every year, the rivalry grows.”

Are we really surprised that college football’s annual version of the most brutal bare-knuckle boxing bout is yet again the center of attention? All eyes should be on Baton Rouge for what should be a burly Bayou brawl between two teams yet again playing for so much.

Since Saban took over at Alabama in 2007, this movie has looped. What had usually been just a meeting between two SEC West counterparts turned into a hellacious battle of brutes when Saban and LSU’s Les Miles got together.

Since 2007, this annual game has been decided by seven points or fewer five times, with LSU winning three of those games. Four times since 2007 the winner has worn the SEC crown. They’ve met as top-10 teams five times in that span and twice have been ranked No. 1 and No. 2. The winner played in the BCS title game four times, going 3-1, with the only loss coming at the conclusion of the 2011 season when Alabama beat LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship after losing “Armageddon” 9-6 at home earlier in the season.

Without fail, this has been a line-'em-up, punch-you-in-the-mouth game. And while Alabama might be a little less traditional with a more mobile quarterback in Blake Sims, Miles said earlier this week he still expects Saturday to be one of those classic smashmouth games that comes down to the last quarter, or even the last play.

“I’m kind of anticipating that myself,” Miles said.

“You plan on playing four quarters in this game for sure,” he added.

Outside the national implications, this game has been so special because of its incredible physical nature. It’s like swinging two sledgehammers at each other.

Players always leave the game more hobbled, bloody and bruised than any other contest. You haven’t truly felt four quarters of football until you’ve lined up in this one. Skin tears and bones rattle for weeks.

Stand too close to the TV screen and you might feel the punishment yourself.

“It’s the most physical game of the year, and we’re going to make it [that],” Alexander said. “We’re physical teams. That’s our identity, that’s what we love to do. We want to hit people in the mouth, we love to go hard.

“It’s really up there as one of the most physical games across the country.”

Added Kelly: “As the game wears on and it gets down to the fourth quarter, that’s when we want to make them quit and impose our will upon our opponent.”

Monsters meet in these games, and later leave to smash into people on Sundays. The amount of NFL talent these two teams have produced since 2007 is staggering. Since 2007, the Alabama-LSU game has produced 89 NFL draft picks, including 24 first-rounders, and you can bet a handful of guys who line up this Saturday will join those ranks.

“It might be most [talent together] on one field,” Alexander said. “We really take it to heart when you’re lining up against a man and he’s a great player, a potential NFL player. It’s going to be a four-quarter battle because you’re playing a great player every snap.”

Put your mouthpieces in, folks.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- After a rocky start in SEC play, LSU is finally starting to accomplish some of its objectives on offense.

The initial spark, according to offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, was settling on the starting lineup of offensive linemen that has been in place for each of the past four games.

“It’s a pretty good line,” LSU coach Les Miles said after last Saturday’s 41-3 win against Kentucky. “They’re starting to play like they’re capable.”

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Jennings and the LSU offense will surely get a stiff test against Ole Miss on Saturday.
Playing like they’re capable was a lengthier process than most expected for a line that returned four starters. Not only did center Elliott Porter miss the first two games on suspension, but guards Vadal Alexander and Ethan Pocic had struggled with injuries.

“Something that’s overlooked is all the movement we had early in the year,” Cameron said after the Kentucky game. “It was significant, not only with Elliott not starting the season, but with some injuries, with Pocic and so forth, and just our style of wanting to be physical and getting better each week. Our guys played tonight like they practiced all week.”

LSU has long prided itself on a physical, run-first mentality, but the line’s general ineffectiveness was one of the lowlights from a bumpy first half of the season. Perhaps the group has turned a corner after back-to-back solid outings against Florida and Kentucky.

Although it ran the ball reasonably well against Auburn (36 carries, 138 yards), LSU didn’t deliver a strong performance against a good run defense until Leonard Fournette was the driving force in a 195-yard night against Florida. The Tigers followed that by wearing down a mediocre Kentucky run defense, rushing for 231 of their 303 yards in the second half.

The Kentucky game was the first time LSU rushed for 200 yards against a Power 5 opponent after Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn -- all of which rank among the nation’s top 26 defenses against the run, as does Florida -- effectively defended the Tigers’ running game.

“We’re getting better,” said Cameron, who participated in postgame interviews for the first time all season after the Kentucky game. “I think our guys up front really did a nice job. That was the plan coming in. Obviously [Kentucky employs] a pressure front. They bring a lot of field blitzes, a lot of boundary blitzes and I thought our guys did a nice job once we got on track.”

Pinning the Tigers’ offensive improvement solely on improved play from the offensive line would be too simplistic, however. It’s also receivers running better routes and getting separation from defensive backs. It’s running backs hitting the correct holes and making tacklers miss. It’s playing with a full complement of fullbacks for the first time in weeks and having them create consistent running space for the backs.

It also helps that the Tigers (6-2, 2-2 SEC) recently faced two mediocre teams from the SEC East -- clearly the lesser of the conference’s two divisions -- in Florida and Kentucky after opening league play against Mississippi State and Auburn, teams ranked No. 1 and 5, respectively, in the newest Associated Press Top 25.

They’ll move back toward the tougher end of the SEC spectrum on Saturday when No. 3 Ole Miss (7-0, 4-0) visits Tiger Stadium, bringing a run defense that ranks sixth nationally at 97.1 yards per game.

Facing the Rebels’ defense will be the true test of the progress LSU has made recently – and whether quarterback Anthony Jennings can truly be an effective performer against a top-flight defense. Although LSU seems to have settled on sophomore Jennings as the starter after freshman Brandon Harris struggled mightily in his lone start at Auburn, Jennings has hardly scared the major-conference defenses LSU has faced thus far.

“He really can play better than he played [against Kentucky],” Miles said. “There are a number of guys that he could have chosen to throw the ball to early on in the game and I think that he’ll see this and learn from that and I think he will be a better quarterback when we get to next Saturday.”

Jennings was 7-for-14 for 120 yards and a touchdown against Kentucky and 10-for-21 for 110 yards and one score against Florida. Harris threw an interception in his only pass attempt against Kentucky and didn’t play against Florida.

“I don’t know that it’s a competition as much as it’s just guys working to get better,” Cameron said. “It’s two guys that are growing just day by day, snap by snap and just maturing and understanding what we’re trying to get done.”

One objective that Jennings has met is taking care of the football. He briefly lost the starting job with three early turnovers against New Mexico State, but otherwise Jennings has not been plagued by turnovers. He has thrown three interceptions and lost one fumble through eight games, helping LSU tie for 11th nationally with a plus-7 turnover margin.

If all LSU asks of Jennings is to be a game manager, it will probably need to have more games like last Saturday’s, where it made big plays on special teams and controlled the contest with stout defense and a powerful running attack. It was the type of performance that LSU fans have grown accustomed to seeing under Miles.

“We’re trying not to put our defense in a tough position if we can help it. They do a great job of getting us the ball,” Cameron said. “Our special teams got us in great position. They scored tonight. I think it’s a collective effort.

“Anytime you block well and take care of the football, whether it be run blocking, pass protection, you should be successful. ... We’re in the back half of the season and we’re still getting better, and that’s a good thing.”

BATON ROUGE, La. – Les Miles says Leonard Fournette is the type of running back who is built to handle the heavy workload he received in last Saturday’s win against Florida.

“I think he’s one of those backs that gets stronger as the day gets longer,” Miles said at his Monday press luncheon. “I think he’s cut out to be that kind of back.”

However, nothing about the way college running backs are used these days – or about how carries are typically distributed at LSU – would indicate that LSU’s star freshman will be a regular recipient of the 27 carries he handled in the 30-27 victory over the Gators.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLeonard Fournette is a throwback kind of running back, says LSU coach Les Miles, a player who gets stronger as the game progresses.
Entering Saturday’s game against Kentucky (5-1, 2-1 SEC), Fournette has led LSU (5-2, 1-2) in rushing in six straight games. The Florida game was his first 20-carry outing, however, and marked just the ninth time in Miles’ LSU tenure that a Tigers back logged 25 or more carries in a game.

It felt like something straight out of the 1980s, which of course would satisfy any run-oriented offensive line.

“It was definitely cool,” right tackle Jerald Hawkins said. “I pretty much love that type of game, the ground-and-pound game. As an offensive line, you’ve got to love it.”

Two or three decades ago, Fournette’s workload Saturday was commonplace in college football, but the game has changed drastically in the era of wide-open passing attacks and spread offenses. Only four players in the entire FBS average more than 25 carries per game, led by Central Michigan’s Thomas Rawls (30.6). The SEC’s leading ballcarrier, Auburn’s Cameron Artis-Payne (21.0 carries per game), is the conference’s only back to average at least 20.

Since Miles arrived at LSU in 2005, the Tigers have typically distributed the carries between a group of backs, much as they did in the first six games of this season. No LSU back has averaged 20 carries per game under Miles – Stevan Ridley came closest with 19.15 in 2010 – and Fournette (13.29) will have to have several more games like last Saturday before he comes close.

Before the Florida game, Fournette (93 carries, 504 yards, 6 TDs), Kenny Hilliard (65-324, 6 TDs), Terrence Magee (48-217, 1 TD) and Darrel Williams (39-188, 3 TDs) handled fairly similar workloads each Saturday. But against the Gators, Fournette (27-140, 2 TDs) became the center of attention over Magee (6-50), Hilliard (4-15, TD) and Williams (2-4).

“I certainly like the three other backs that we have, including Magee and Hilliard, certainly Williams,” Miles said. “But I think that Leonard gives us that big, fast back that can really push the ball at a defense.”

The former No. 1 overall national prospect certainly did that, plowing through Florida defenders, breaking away with spin moves and generally running with more confidence than he displayed earlier in the season.

“He was hitting the hole with great decisiveness,” said left guard Vadal Alexander, the reigning SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week after recording 11 knockdown blocks against Florida. “He would hit it, he’ll make a cut without thinking about it and he’ll just go and let his athleticism and talent take over.

“That’s the best thing to do as a running back is we open the holes for you and you just let your talent guide you – your vision and your feel for the defense and things like that. He did that.”

Fournette apparently agrees with that assessment, telling reporters after the game that he is starting to catch on after running more tentatively in the first few games.

“I’m a lot better than where I was when the season started,” Fournette said. “The game, it slowed down for me a lot for me now. That’s why I’m being able to see the cutbacks now. [It’s] just coaching and getting help from Kenny and Terrence and Connor and all the older guys. They help me a lot.”

Even if Fournette fails to log that many carries in a game again this season, it’s evident that he is establishing himself as the Tigers’ top option in the ground game.

He got off to a fast start against Florida with 44 rushing yards and a touchdown in the first quarter, and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron decided to keep feeding him. Why tinker with something that was working, especially when LSU was in desperate need of an offensive spark?

“We found something we liked in the run game, or a couple things we liked, and we kept doing it and it kept working, so Coach Cam usually sticks with it,” Alexander said.

Perhaps that will be the key to whether Fournette’s carry total sits in the 20s on most future Saturdays. If the offensive line keeps blocking the way it did against Florida and if Fournette keeps piling up yardage the way he did against the Gators, perhaps he will finally become the centerpiece of the Tigers’ offense that many expected when he signed with LSU in February.

LSU lines searching for consistency

September, 23, 2014
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU coach Les Miles and many of his players embraced their roles as good soldiers on Monday, accepting blame for individual failures that allowed Mississippi State to win 34-29 on Saturday at Tiger Stadium.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Fournette
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertLSU's O-line didn't open up much running room for Leonard Fournette against Mississippi State.
 There was plenty of blame to go around, from coverage breakdowns to missed tackles to dropped passes to quarterback misfires. But perhaps the most distressing problems the No. 17 Tigers (3-1) experienced came on the interiors of both lines, where they were simply not consistent enough. At times they were even manhandled by the Bulldogs’ physical fronts.

“Everybody has their times where they go through stuff,” said senior center Elliott Porter, whose group paved the way for LSU to rush for just 89 yards in 35 carries. “But we’re going through it [and] we’re going to get through it. We’ve just got to get our identity and once we get our identity, it’s going to be a good thing for this team.”

And what should that identity be?

“Just [like] the LSU offensive line that we had in the past, last year and years before: tough, hard-nosed, physical offensive linemen [who] finish blocks. Including myself,” Porter continued. “I believe we all have to improve with that. But I’m definitely putting it more on myself than the other guys. I’m the leader. I have to put it on myself more.”

Porter wasn’t the only blocker in need of improvement, however.

Miles said Ethan Pocic should start again at right guard against New Mexico State (2-2) on Saturday after taking a starting spot away from senior Fehoko Fanaika against Mississippi State. Left guard Vadal Alexander’s starting position might also be in jeopardy.

“We may look at a substitute that will go to the left side or to the right side at that guard spot,” Miles said.

Whatever personnel comprises the eventual starting lineup, it must play with far more consistency if LSU’s run-first philosophy will have any effectiveness against the better SEC defenses this season. LSU’s line struggled to get a consistent push at times even against its nonconference opponents, but talent eventually won out in those games.

The Tigers once again struggled to create running space against Mississippi State, and it was more costly this time -- in part because of poor communication, Porter said.

“The lines that we had in the past, including last year and the year before, we executed because we communicated better,” Porter said. “We have to communicate better. It will come. I have a lot of faith that it’s coming. It was there sometimes on Saturday night, but it wasn’t consistent enough.”

On the opposite side of the line, LSU struggled mightily in containing Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott. That’s a tall order for any defense, but Prescott made the Tigers look awful at times, rolling up the highest yardage total -- 570 yards -- surrendered by an LSU defense since 2001.

Much of that production came on runs straight up the middle, with the Bulldogs generating 302 rushing yards and 9.1 yards per attempt on runs between the tackles according to ESPN Stats and Information. In LSU’s first three games, opponents averaged 54 rushing yards per game and 3.4 yards per carry on runs between the tackles.

Despite what the numbers say, Miles insisted that defensive tackle is not a weakness for his team, and sophomore Christian LaCouture agreed with his coach’s assessment.

 “I don’t see us as a weakness at all,” said LaCouture, who has started all four games at tackle. “We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the hard-working guys. We’ve just got to be on the same page as the defense, and we will. Looking at it, I don’t think we have any weaknesses on this football team. We’ve just got to make sure we play as one.”

Continuity along the defensive front won’t come any easier in the short term. Miles said Quentin Thomas, who started three of the first four games is “nicked” and could miss a week or two. Thomas left LSU’s football facility with his arm in a sling after Monday’s practice.

Meanwhile, redshirt freshmen Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore -- all of whom seemed to be in line for bigger roles prior to the season -- have barely played. Asked about that group on Monday, Miles also mentioned converted end Lewis Neal as a player who could see more action.

“I do see some of those guys stepping forward even more in this game,” Miles said. “I can tell you that Lewis Neal came in and played late in that game and probably played six or eight snaps, made four tackles. There’s a guy that's going to play a lot of football, and he's just making his case. Some of those guys got onto the field in that game and made a case for more playing time, and that’s what we needed to have happen.”

That is certainly true, as what the Tigers didn’t accomplish much along either line against Mississippi State. New Mexico State does not represent a major threat, but the Tigers need to establish more consistent lineups with road trips to Auburn and Florida fast approaching.

“Somebody’s got to come up and play more,” LaCouture said. “Somebody’s got to step up, and I know they will. We’ve got some great guys back there, and I know they’ll step up to the challenge.”
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Because of their smaller rosters, NFL clubs love versatility among their offensive linemen. That being the case, pro scouts will probably take long looks at LSU’s line, as several linemen have the position versatility they like to see.

But that could come in handy now, not just when they try to find homes on NFL rosters. Just as in the pros, should anyone go down with an injury, it will be extremely helpful that Tigers such as La'el Collins, Vadal Alexander, Ethan Pocic and Evan Washington are all capable of working at multiple positions.

“It’s not easy to know how to snap, play guard and play tackle and play left side, play right side,” senior center Elliott Porter said. “It’s confusing to know the right side of the play and the left side. It gets confusing, so it gets hard. But we do hard things, and in the NFL that’s what they do, so you have to prepare for it. I have to prepare to play guard. If I don’t, you don’t know how long you’re going to make it.”

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Crystal LoGiudice/USA TODAY SportsRunning behind Vadal Alexander and his linemates can be an uplifting experience.
Porter said he, too, has worked in multiple spots, but he apparently has a fight on his hands for the center job. LSU coach Les Miles has hinted several times lately that sophomore Pocic will play a lot in the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin, if not start.

At 6-foot-7, Pocic seems awfully tall for a center -- the average SEC starting center last season was 3 1/2 inches shorter -- and he might eventually land at guard or tackle, but Pocic’s impressive athleticism allows him to fit well at any position along the line.

“When you bend like Ethan Pocic bends, it’s easier for him,” Porter said. “He has great hips. He’s a phenomenal athlete. You ain’t hearing me, he’s phenomenal. He does everything right, and I expect him to be a great player and nothing less.”

Pocic said he started working at multiple positions this spring after Jeff Grimes came on as the Tigers’ new offensive line coach. He said his time at center made shifting to other spots an easier proposition.

“At first [it was tough]. And then as you mature and get older, you learn to do it,” Pocic said. “I think just playing center, you’ve got to know what everyone’s doing and that’s what’s helped me the most.”

Collins and Alexander are entrenched at left tackle and left guard, respectively, but they provide excellent insurance policies in that they have started at other positions in their careers. Collins started at left guard as a sophomore before moving over one spot to tackle last season. And Alexander started nine games at right tackle as a freshman before moving to left guard in 2013, clearing the way for Jerald Hawkins to enter the starting lineup at right tackle.

It helps to be able to do both, but tackle is the most lucrative professional position. That was one factor in Collins’ decision to return for his senior season -- to prove that he can play tackle in the NFL -- and it’s part of the reason why Alexander wouldn’t mind moving back out to the edge someday.

“I’d love to play tackle again,” Alexander said. “If the opportunity presents itself, I think I can still play it. I played my freshman year, so I know every position. I’ve actually been taking some snaps, so I can play center, too. I can snap the ball. But I’m more of a guard-tackle guy. So I think I can play. If the opportunity presents itself, I can definitely do it.”

Likewise, Washington played both guard and tackle in games last season and, while he’s competing with Fehoko Fanaika for the starting spot at right guard, Miles hinted this week that LSU’s coaches are willing to play him at any position except center.

“The one thing about it is Washington is going to play in four spots, so it’s still … both guys will play,” Miles said of the right guard battle after Tuesday’s team scrimmage.

That’s the name of the game with this group. Not only does LSU return four starters and a couple of reserves from a solid 2013 offensive line, but the group’s improving versatility will be a great insurance policy for Grimes if injuries occur -- as they inevitably do on the line.

Combine that with the group’s collective experience and it’s clear why LSU’s coaches seem to feel comfortable with the line as the opener approaches.

“It’s critical,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said of the line’s experience. “Now if we didn’t have it, I’d be sitting here saying we’ll find a way. And we would. We really would. I think the best friend of any young quarterback, freshman or sophomore, any young running back, any young receiver, the best friend is a running game. And there’s nobody running the ball out there week in and week out against good teams, much less in the SEC, without a dominant offensive line. So we’re excited about our offensive line.”

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