- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- To heck with politeness, Les Miles didn’t need the question to be soft-pedaled while discussing LSU’s decline in third-down efficiency last season.
The Tigers didn’t just become less effective on third down in 2014, Miles admitted, they were “a lot” less effective. Nearly 20 percent less so, to be precise.
Now, it’s reasonable to point out that nobody was better than LSU in third-down offense in 2013, when future NFL rookie starters Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry manned the skill positions.
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron had to replace all of those players last season, and he did it mostly with freshmen and sophomores. It was reasonable to expect a drop-off, although LSU’s fall from a 57.1-percent conversion rate in 2013 to 39.9 last season (69th in the FBS) was a considerable tumble.
“Anytime you do something that’s that extraordinary, you’d like to duplicate it,” Cameron said. “But to think realistically that you’re going to replace basically your entire skill group, and then most of those guys were Day 1 starters in the NFL, it’s … is it impossible? I don’t know. Is it unlikely? Probably.”
Particularly when many of the opposing defenses resided in the SEC West. LSU played only two games last season when it converted better than 50 percent of its third downs for either a first down or a touchdown -- against FCS-level Sam Houston State, when it went 8-for-12 on third down, and against Kentucky (7-for-13). Conversely, the Tigers turned in a couple of horrendous showings on third down, particularly in conference losses to Mississippi State (2-for-13) and Auburn (0-for-13).
“Top to bottom it was probably as good a defensive group as we faced,” Cameron said of last season’s Western Division competition.
Third down will be a key statistic to watch early this season as LSU’s offense attempts to improve on its 2014 growing pains. Both Miles and Cameron are optimistic that the Tigers’ conversion rate will rise now that quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris, plus the bulk of their young receiving corps, have full seasons of SEC competition under their belts.
“We’re expecting the same thing from these guys,” Miles said, referencing the progress made by Beckham and Landry as they gained experience, “and we’re expecting also that these quarterbacks, having been through the system now right around five times, they ought to be really comfortable with the call and understand where they’re supposed to go with the ball.”
That, of course, will be the biggest factor. Leonard Fournette and the running game should be highly productive, although matching Hill’s FBS-leading 2013 average of 13.3 yards per carry on third-down runs will be difficult -- and the offensive line looks to be in good shape. The tight ends and receivers are much improved as well.
If the quarterbacks can make the proper reads, and consistently get the ball where it needs to go, that could help the Tigers’ conversion rate improve.
“I was really pleased with really all our quarterbacks, the decision-making they made,” Cameron said of their performances in the spring game. “And when quarterbacks are making good decisions and guys are making plays, you can move the football, you’re going to score points.”
Cameron was quick to point out that improvement is not entirely on the quarterbacks’ shoulders, however. He looked back to the spring game and pointed out that there were times where players needed to be better aware of exactly how far they needed to advance the ball in order to move the chains.
LSU’s offense converted 10 of its 22 third downs (8-for-11 by the starting offense and 2-for-11 by the reserves) in the spring game, but there were several occasions in which the Tigers wound up with fourth-and-short when a heads-up play might have achieved a first down and extended the drive.
“Third-down awareness is important,” Cameron said. “And I think sometimes guys lose track of not just the down, but they’ll lose track of the distance. We came up in the spring game several times fourth-and-1, fourth-and-2 and it wouldn’t have been hard to extend themselves to where they would have been able to get the first down.”
Inexperience is no excuse for such missteps, though, Miles said. Some of the skill players might be relatively new to college football, but most have been playing the sport for a long while by now.
“Recognizing where the sticks are is pretty elementary to me,” Miles said. “Geez, it’s third down. If you don’t know where you’re catching the ball and if you don’t know where the first-down marker is, we have some other things to teach.”
Conversely, it’s fair to point out that not only did the starting offense convert 73 percent of its third downs in the spring game, but that six different players were responsible for those conversions. In addition, the starters averaged 16.5 yards per play on third down, including gains of 50 yards to DeSean Smith, 45 to D.J. Chark and 41 to Travin Dural.
Spreading the ball around more effectively was a theme of the spring for LSU’s offense, and its coordinator came away pleased by what the Tigers accomplished in that department. If that trend continues in the fall, it won’t just help improve their third-down conversion rate, it should help the offense function more effectively overall.
“[I was pleased by] just getting everybody involved. I think that’s critical in offensive football,” Cameron said. “You don’t want it to be a one-man show, whether it be a tailback or whether it’s just a quarterback. I think when you can get tight ends involved, when you can get receivers involved, the entire backfield, multiple backs, it’s great for morale, it helps you build depth, it helps you play better in the fourth quarter. That’s going to be important when we’re going into the season."