SEC: Zach Mettenberger

LSU Tigers season preview

August, 12, 2014
Aug 12
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Previewing the 2014 season for the LSU Tigers:

2013 record: 10-3 (5-3 SEC). Beat Iowa 21-14 in the Outback Bowl.

Key losses: QB Zach Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, WR Odell Beckham, WR Jarvis Landry, LB Lamin Barrow, S Craig Loston, DT Ego Ferguson, DT Anthony Johnson, RB Alfred Blue.

[+] EnlargeLa'El Collins
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesLa'el Collins will anchor an LSU offensive line that will try to pave the way for the Tigers' inexperienced, albeit talented, skill-position players.
Key returnees: OT La'el Collins, DE Danielle Hunter, DE Jermauria Rasco, RB Terrence Magee, CB Tre'Davious White, OG Vadal Alexander, WR Travin Dural, LB D.J. Welter, LB Kwon Alexander, OT Jerald Hawkins, S Jalen Mills.

Instant impact newcomers: RB Leonard Fournette, QB Brandon Harris, WR Malachi Dupre, WR Trey Quinn, LB Clifton Garrett, S Jamal Adams, CB Ed Paris, DB John Battle.

Breakout player: It’s tempting to focus on Hunter or sophomore cornerbacks White and Rashard Robinson here, but let’s go with Fournette. As the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect and headliner of ESPN’s second-ranked 2014 recruiting class, the star tailback has already generated a ton of buzz. Magee, Kenny Hilliard and freshman Darrel Williams will all get some touches, but anything short of immediate stardom for Fournette would be a bit of a letdown.

Key position battle: Quarterback competitions always generate the most attention, and that will be the case this August at LSU. The battle between early enrollee Harris and sophomore Anthony Jennings started in spring practice -- and the freshman won the first round by clearly outplaying Jennings in the spring game. LSU’s coaches were in no rush to name a starter at the time, though, so Jennings still has a chance to prove he deserves the job. He engineered the game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive to beat Arkansas after replacing an injured Mettenberger and got a win (despite a disappointing performance) in his lone start, the bowl win over Iowa. Impressive dual-threat talent Harris is going to be awfully difficult to hold off, however.

Most important game: Oct. 4 at Auburn. Sure, the Alabama game (Nov. 8 at Tiger Stadium) is the game every LSU fan has circled, and the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin carries plenty of intrigue, but the Tigers’ midseason visit to the defending SEC champs might be the key to the season. LSU handed Auburn its only regular-season loss last season and has won six of the past seven in the series.

Biggest question mark: LSU is inexperienced at several key positions (most notably quarterback, receiver and defensive tackle), so the new starters’ abilities to quickly adapt to the grind of SEC football will likely determine whether the Tigers become serious contenders in the Western Division this season.

Upset special: Oct. 11 at Florida. The Tigers will be only a week removed from what could be a street fight against Auburn when they visit The Swamp. Injury-depleted Florida became a punch line last season, but the Gators have plenty of talent and a chip on their shoulders after crumbling in 2013. LSU is understandably favored here, but getting a win will not be easy here.

Key stat: 12-211. With Landry and Beckham combining for 72 percent of LSU’s receiving production (2,345 of 3,263 yards), there weren’t a lot of balls to go around to everyone else. LSU’s tight ends combined for just 12 catches and 211 yards, led by Dillon Gordon (6-88) and Travis Dickson (5-109). Cam Cameron’s offenses have typically made good use of the tight end, and the group believes it will be more active in the passing game this fall. Keep an eye on sophomore DeSean Smith (1-14), who caught a touchdown in LSU’s spring game -- a day when the tight ends combined for eight catches and 131 yards.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 8.01 wins

Bovada over-under: 9 wins

Our take: Les Miles has led the Tigers to a school-record four straight seasons with at least 10 wins. Because of the massive production losses on offense -- including the first combination of a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers in SEC history -- the Tigers are one of the biggest wild cards in the SEC. The defense looks like it’s rounding into the impressive form that characterized LSU’s best teams of the 2000s, but the Tigers’ record will likely rest on the progress the new quarterback makes, whether Fournette immediately lives up to his advance billing, and whether at least a couple of the young receivers can handle big roles. The window for this team is probably somewhere between eight and 10 wins. Let’s split the difference in our prediction and go with 9-3.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Maybe he doesn't want to give away anything to Wisconsin, maybe it truly is a tight battle -- and maybe it's both -- but LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said the quarterback race between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris is too close to call.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Harris
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsFreshman Brandon Harris made a heck of a first impression during LSU's spring game.
"The competition is so stiff every day in practice," Cameron said. "You can improve in two, two and a half hours like you wouldn't believe because the pressure you're under here every day. I've seen as much improvement in our quarterbacks this week as I've ever seen in a group of quarterbacks in that small a timeframe.

"And that has nothing to do with me as it does with the attitude of the guys, No. 1, but the amount of pressure John [Chavis, LSU's defensive coordinator] and his defense put on them. Any flaw a guy has is going to get exposed and get exposed in the first 30 minutes of practice."

LSU's assistant coaches, quarterbacks and freshmen spoke with reporters on Sunday for the first and possibly only time this preseason, so Jennings, Harris and Cameron were among the day's busiest participants.

Head coach Les Miles said he is not rushing yet to name a starter between sophomore Jennings and freshman Harris as he wants to allow a competitive environment to thrive.

"I think the naming of a starter will be when one separates himself from the other. And when it's a real advantage to name him as a starter because he needs to recognize as does the team that this is where we're going," Miles said. "We're not there."

[+] EnlargeAnthony Jennings
Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY SportsCan sophomore Anthony Jennings secure the starting quarterback job out of preseason training?
Also the Tigers' quarterbacks coach, Cameron agreed with that philosophy. The longer true competition exists, the better off Jennings and Harris will be, he said.

"My job is to make this decision as tough on Les as possible," Cameron said. "What do you mean by that? Well, we've got two guys that we feel confident we can win with -- if not three, if not four. We're not coaching one guy more than the other hoping he's the guy."

Cameron might even find roles for both quarterbacks to fill.

He's best remembered for leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas after replacing injured Zach Mettenberger last season, but Jennings played in nine games -- including contests against TCU, Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and his first start in the bowl win against Iowa -- in 2013.

Using him in spot duty made more sense because the dual-threat Jennings possesses a different skill set from Mettenberger, a prototypical dropback passer. However, Jennings and Harris are much more similar players.

Regardless, Cameron expressed confidence that whoever wins the competition will be ready to be successful once the opener against Wisconsin arrives on Aug. 30.

"I would say this confidently: we're going to have more than one quality starter here at LSU," Cameron said. "That's what we're charged with and we'll get that done."

Linebacker rotation?: Defensive coordinator John Chavis has rarely enjoyed the luxury that a deep group of linebackers might provide this season. Beyond starters Kwon Alexander, D.J. Welter and Lamar Louis, Chavis' position group runs two and three deep with quality players across the board -- and that might help not only on defense, but on special teams.

"If they're ready to play, we're going to play them. There's no question about that," Chavis said. "They're not any different than anybody else on our field. In an ideal situation, you'd like to have six starting linebackers and then they all could go play special teams and we could rest them on defense. Unfortunately we haven't been that way with depth.

"Is this a year that we can reach that? We're closer than we've been in the past."

In addition to players such as Deion Jones, Duke Riley and Ronnie Feist, Chavis has talented sophomore Kendell Beckwith trying to surpass Welter as the starting middle linebacker and one of the Tigers' top 2014 signees, Clifton Garrett, behind them.

It might be difficult to juggle, as there are only so many snaps to go around between the three linebacker spots. But Chavis seems confident that everyone who deserves to play will be on the field in some capacity.

"If you can go two deep and you don't have a drop-off, then that just makes your special teams even better," Chavis said.

No decisions on return men: Speaking of special teams, coach Bradley Dale Peveto said he is considering six candidates for the punt return and kickoff return jobs, but wasn't ready to identify them yet.

Tre'Davious White and Travin Dural are among the players known to be working at punt returner and Terrence Magee is among the kickoff return men.

"We had four great days in evaluating a lot of our team, got it down to six guys at each spot," Peveto said. "I don't really want to talk about that yet because we've got a great competition going on, but I'm going to tell you we've got enough. We've got some really good guys, some really talented young men who might compete for those positions."

Miles said earlier that Trent Domingue has taken over as the Tigers' kickoff specialist.

Right guard competition: Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes chuckled when asked how the right guard competition is shaking out.

"It's still shaking," Grimes said. "We'll let it go until somebody lays claim to it."

Seniors Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington have battled for the starting job at right guard, the lone spot where the Tigers lost a starting offensive lineman from 2013.

A Decade of Les: All-Miles team

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
10:00
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Les Miles opening his 10th season as LSU's head coach this week, we’ll use each day to review the decade with Miles helming the Tigers' program. Today we take a swing at naming a roster of the best players from the Miles era.

Let's break down the picks by offense, defense and special teams and discuss some of the tougher decisions.

OFFENSE
Among the most difficult positions to settle on were running back and wide receiver.

We went with Jeremy Hill (who set a record for a back with at least 200 carries by averaging 6.9 yards per carry in 2013) and Jacob Hester at running back. Because of his ability to play fullback, Hester -- the leading rusher on the 2007 BCS championship club with 1,103 yards and 12 touchdowns -- gets the nod over a host of talented alternatives like Charles Scott, Joseph Addai and Stevan Ridley.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Landry
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertJarvis Landry had 77 catches for 1,193 yards last season before being drafted by the Dolphins in the second round.
Receiver was an even more difficult position to evaluate. Wideouts such as Dwayne Bowe, Early Doucet and Rueben Randle all belong on the list, but we went with Jarvis Landry, whose 2013 (77 catches, 1,193 yards, 10 TDs) was the best single-season effort in the Miles era, and Brandon LaFell, a two-time All-SEC pick who is LSU's career receiving leader (2,517 yards) under Miles. We added Odell Beckham Jr. as an all-purpose player thanks in large part to a standout 2013 season (59 catches, 1,152 yards, eight TDs) when he won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player and ranked second nationally in all-purpose yardage (178.1 yards per game).

There are quarterbacks worth mentioning aside from JaMarcus Russell, namely Matt Flynn and Zach Mettenberger, but Russell completed one of the best seasons by a quarterback in LSU history in 2006 (232-of-342, 3,129 yards, 28 TDs) before becoming the top overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft.

La'el Collins gets the nod at one offensive tackle spot over candidates like Andrew Whitworth and Joe Barksdale, so he needs to prove he deserves that distinction this season. He has the potential to be the best pro prospect LSU has had at tackle under Miles.

LINEUP
QB: JaMarcus Russell
RB: Jeremy Hill
RB: Jacob Hester
WR: Brandon LaFell
WR: Jarvis Landry
TE: Richard Dickson
OT: Ciron Black
OG: Herman Johnson
C: Rudy Niswanger
OG: Will Blackwell
OT: La'el Collins
AP: Odell Beckham Jr.

DEFENSE
Defensive line and secondary have been loaded positions under Miles and John Chavis, so picking just two players at those positions wasn't easy.

[+] EnlargePatrick Peterson
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsPatrick Peterson won the Thorpe and Bednarik awards during the 2010 season.
At defensive end, we went with two-time All-SEC pick and eventual No. 3 overall draft pick Tyson Jackson and Sam Montgomery, LSU’s sack leader under Miles with 32.5 between 2010 and 2012, over alternatives like Barkevious Mingo and Melvin Oliver.

One tackle position was easy with 2007 Outland, Lombardi, Nagurski and Lott award winner Glenn Dorsey claiming one of the spots. The other tackle was a tough call, but we went with 2012 first-round pick Michael Brockers over a ton of great options such as Drake Nevis, Al Woods, Bennie Logan, Claude Wroten and Kyle Williams.

It would have been awfully difficult to pick just two cornerbacks if we hadn’t added a nickelback spot for Tyrann Mathieu to occupy. One of the SEC’s leading defensive playmakers of the 2000s, he definitely belongs on the roster, but Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne feel like no-brainers at corner, too.

At safety, it wasn’t much fun leaving All-American Craig Steltz off the list, but Eric Reid and LaRon Landry both made All-America teams, too -- and both of them became first-round draft picks, while Steltz went in the fourth round in 2008.

Linebackers Kevin Minter (130 tackles, 15 tackles for a loss in 2012) and Kelvin Sheppard (116 tackles in 2010) posted the top single-season tackle totals of the Miles era, while Ali Highsmith earned one All-America designation when he totaled 101 tackles and nine tackles for a loss on the 2007 BCS championship club.

LINEUP
DE: Sam Montgomery
DT: Glenn Dorsey
DT: Michael Brockers
DE: Tyson Jackson
LB: Ali Highsmith
LB: Kevin Minter
LB: Kelvin Sheppard
CB: Patrick Peterson
S: Eric Reid
S: LaRon Landry
CB: Morris Claiborne
Nickel: Tyrann Mathieu

SPECIAL TEAMS
LSU has had a bunch of electric kick returners under Miles. Peterson, Claiborne and Beckham would have been among the top options among kickoff returners, but since they're already on the roster, we went with Trindon Holliday, LSU's career kickoff return yardage leader under Miles (1,806 yards between 2006 and 2009). Peterson, Beckham, Holliday and Mathieu were phenomenal punt returners, so let’s add another new name to the list in Skyler Green, who ranks second all-time among LSU punt returners with 1,064 yards between 2002 and 2005.

It's tough to ignore LSU's single-season and career kicker scoring leader Colt David, but Josh Jasper is the most accurate field goal kicker in school history (83.9 percent) and trails only David on the kicker scoring list with 120 career points.

Brad Wing posted two of the top five seasons by a punter in school history in 2011 (an All-America season where he averaged 44.37 yards per punt) and 2012 (44.8), so he gets the nod over Derek Helton, Patrick Fisher and Chris Jackson.

LINEUP
PK: Josh Jasper
P: Brad Wing
KOR: Trindon Holliday
PR: Skyler Green
BATON ROUGE, La. -- With Les Miles opening his 10th season as LSU's head coach this week, we’ll use each day to review the decade under the eccentric Miles. Today we look back at the five best recruiting classes of the Miles era.

5. 2013
ESPN class ranking: Seventh
We’re making a call based on potential here, since several of the most talented members of this group have yet to make much of an impact (or haven’t played yet at all). Cornerbacks Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson and quarterback Anthony Jennings are the headliners thus far. But players like tight end DeSean Smith; defensive tackles Christian LaCouture, Greg Gilmore, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron; and linebacker Kendell Beckwith could all become household names among LSU fans before the 2014 season is over.

4. 2007
ESPN class ranking: Sixth
Wide receiver Terrance Toliver was the highest-rated prospect in this 27-man class, and he had a fine college career, but other 2007 signees became the more important college players. The Tigers had three players in this signing class (kicker Josh Jasper, defensive lineman Drake Nevis and offensive lineman Will Blackwell) who became All-Americans according to at least one organization. They also had six players (Blackwell, Jasper, Nevis, defensive lineman Joe Barksdale, safety Chad Jones and running back Stevan Ridley) who made at least one All-SEC team and six (Jones, Ridley, Nevis, Barksdale, cornerback Ron Brooks and receiver Demetrius Byrd) who became NFL draft picks.

3. 2011
ESPN class ranking: 10th
No. 2 overall prospect Anthony Johnson was the biggest fish in this class, but “The Freak” didn’t quite live up to his advance billing in three seasons at LSU before becoming an undrafted free agent in the most recent NFL draft. However, this class was loaded with impact players -- including two of the most productive receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham) in school history, a pair of All-SEC offensive linemen from 2013 (La'el Collins and Trai Turner) and several others who should make an impact this season (running backs Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, defensive end Jermauria Rasco, safety Ronald Martin and defensive tackle Quentin Thomas, among others). LSU also added quarterback Zach Mettenberger as a junior college transfer and signed running back Jeremy Hill in this class, although Hill didn’t contribute as a member of the team until 2012.

2. 2014
ESPN class ranking: Second
Yes, this is completely unfair. These kids haven’t played a single snap in college yet. Much like the 2013 class, it will be several more years before we know the full impact that this class will have at LSU. But with the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect (running back Leonard Fournette), the No. 1 players at three different positions (Fournette, receiver Malachi Dupre and offensive guard Garrett Brumfield) and other exciting additions like quarterback Brandon Harris, record-setting receiver Trey Quinn, safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Clifton Garrett, this could conceivably become one of the best recruiting classes in school history before it’s all over. Miles said on national signing day that he believes this class can help LSU contend for several national championships, and it certainly has the talent to do so.

1. 2009
ESPN class ranking: First
No. 1 athlete Russell Shepard was initially the crown jewel in the nation’s top signing class, but he wasn’t the guy who eventually made this such a successful class. Sure there were several star prospects who panned out in this class -- including No. 1 safety Craig Loston, No. 1 receiver Rueben Randle, No. 2 defensive end Sam Montgomery and No. 11 outside linebacker Kevin Minter -- but the Tigers got as much out of the players who weren’t considered to rank among the highest-rated signees at the time. The Tigers signed 10 ESPN 150 honorees in the 25-man class. Among those who didn’t make the list of the top 150 prospects: cornerback Morris Claiborne; defensive linemen Michael Brockers, Barkevious Mingo and Bennie Logan; offensive lineman Chris Faulk and linebacker Lamin Barrow. Claiborne, Brockers and Mingo all became first-round NFL draft picks, and five members of that group made at least one All-SEC team.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris for LSU's starting quarterback job will renew on Monday when the Tigers hold their first preseason practice.

Shortly after his team reported for camp on Sunday afternoon, LSU coach Les Miles said he will not set a deadline for when his staff must pick the starter for the Aug. 30 opener against Wisconsin.

“I never have, never will,” Miles said. “We’ll have to see each day, how they proceed, how things go.”

The competition between sophomore Jennings and freshman Harris started in the spring, shortly after Harris arrived on campus as an early enrollee. Jennings has a slight experience edge, having played as Zach Mettenberger's backup in 2013, but Harris clearly outperformed him during the Tigers’ spring game.

However, LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said at the time that he was in no rush to establish a quarterback pecking order -- and Miles said on Sunday that their abilities to make big plays, and avoid devastating ones, will factor heavily into the decision.

“I think maturity’s the whole deal. I think it’s the deal for both of them. I think recognizing the style of throw and the kind of play and seeing them understand what we’re trying to get accomplished, how we’re attacking a defense,” Miles said, “I think that is something that both guys have a good, solid base premise, but it’s going to be that time in the game where you have the opportunity to extend the play and make a play and their self-interpretation at some point in time will be, in my opinion, the criteria by which you pick the starter.”

For the first four practice days, the Tigers will split into two groups -- one that works out in the morning and one that practices in the afternoon. He said the quarterbacks will rotate between the two groups.

“We’ll give both guys an opportunity at helmet practices and shells [shoulder pads] practices with the first and/or the second center,” Miles said.

As for the rest of the team, Miles said he expected all of his players to report on Sunday except signee Travonte Valentine and defensive back Jalen Mills.

Valentine, a four-star defensive tackle prospect, has not yet been academically cleared to enroll at LSU, but Miles hopes a resolution will come soon.

“The high school and the [NCAA] clearinghouse have to communicate,” Miles said. “I think they’re doing that, I think they’re trying, so sometimes there’s easy answers and sometimes there’s not. Hopefully this will be an easy answer.”

Starting safety Mills remains indefinitely suspended following an offseason arrest, and his legal case has not yet been settled. Miles said “I don’t know what’s going on” with where Mills’ case stands, “so I’ll just go forward.”

“I really don’t know. I have not tried to, nor do I intend to pressure the process in any way. ... Jalen Mills, everybody in this room has a responsibility to handle his business and this is his business,” Miles said.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU officially added another name to its list of summer departures on Monday when a school spokesman confirmed that senior Rob Bolden intends to transfer.

In addition to the seven Tigers who sacrificed their remaining eligibility in order to enter the 2014 NFL draft, four others have announced plans to transfer, including defensive end Jordan Allen (Arizona) and quarterbacks Stephen Rivers (Vanderbilt) and Hayden Rettig (Rutgers). Now Bolden becomes the third player capable of lining up under center who has opted to continue his career elsewhere.

[+] EnlargeBolden
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesRob Bolden is the third player capable of playing quarterback to transfer from LSU this offseason.
Bolden played receiver this spring after spending the past two seasons as a backup quarterback at LSU -- he never appeared in an actual game -- and the two seasons before that as a part-time starting quarterback at Penn State. He transferred to LSU in 2012 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky investigation.

Had he remained at LSU, he would have been one of the most veteran players at whichever position he played. Of the nine wideouts listed on the preseason depth chart LSU released Monday, Quantavius Leslie is the only senior, there are no juniors and Travin Dural is the only sophomore.

Bolden attempted to put a positive spin on his shift to receiver during the spring, but obviously something changed since then. A report on Monday by SpartanNation.com had the Michigan native transferring to Eastern Michigan in order to play quarterback.

LSU's more pressing issue now is at quarterback, where the trio's departure leaves sophomore Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris as the only scholarship players and walk-ons Brad Kragthorpe, Jake Clise and Brandon Bergeron as reserves.

That isn't necessarily a nightmare scenario so long as Jennings and Harris stay healthy this fall. LSU used only two quarterbacks -- senior Zach Mettenberger and Jennings -- all of last season, even though Mettenberger dealt with minor injuries for a portion of the fall before suffering a season-ending knee injury in the regular-season finale against Arkansas.

It obviously helped from a continuity standpoint that Mettenberger was a fifth-year senior who possessed extensive college experience and an NFL-level skillset. Jennings and Harris are both early in their developmental cycle, which already leaves LSU with little breathing room at the position even before potential injuries enter the equation.

LSU's coaches made it clear during the spring that Jennings and Harris are their top two options -- hence the departures of the three backup quarterbacks -- so Bolden would have been nothing more than an emergency option as long as the youngsters stayed upright. But he would have been an awfully useful emergency option.

In 2010, Bolden became the first true freshman quarterback to start a game at Penn State in 100 years and he went on to start 17 games between that season and the next before transferring to LSU. Backup quarterbacks with that kind of major-conference experience aren't particularly plentiful, and now LSU has decided to spend his last season of eligibility elsewhere.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- In April, we broke down how LSU's offense led the nation in third-down efficiency last season by converting for a first down or touchdown 57.1 percent of the time.

The three key names in that endeavor were quarterback Zach Mettenberger, receiver Jarvis Landry and tailback Jeremy Hill -- all of whom ranked among the nation's most clutch third-down performers. All three are in the NFL now, however, so it will be important for LSU to identify new players capable of keeping drives alive on those all-important downs.

Let's take a look at what could become the key factors in LSU's attempt to remain successful on third down.

Quarterback efficiency, running ability

[+] EnlargeZach Mettenberger
AP Photo, Cal Sport MediaLSU will have a hard time matching the success on third down of departed quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
One of the two April posts focused on the need for the Tigers' quarterbacks to play efficiently. Let's face it, whoever wins the starting job -- whether it's freshman Brandon Harris or sophomore Anthony Jennings -- he's not going to zing third-down completions like Mettenberger did last year.

The fifth-year senior's 96.7 Total Quarterback Rating on third down trailed only that of Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston (96.9) among FBS quarterbacks. Mettenberger was 58-for-89 for 974 yards, nine touchdowns and one interception on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Of those 58 completions, 21 went for 20 yards or more -- a total that was second only to Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater (22).

Talented though they may be, a green freshman and a sophomore with one shaky start under his belt are not going to match that kind of passing production. As LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron indicated after the Tigers' spring game, they'll have to play it smart early in possessions in order to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distance situations.

Give the young quarterbacks this, though: both of them have an ability that Mettenberger simply does not possess, and it will almost certainly come in handy this fall. Both are good runners, so don't be surprised to see designed runs -- and scrambles after plays break down -- that result in first downs.

Jennings was credited with six rushing attempts on third downs last season, with two of them achieving first downs and another achieving a touchdown. Harris showed off some impressive wheels in LSU's spring game, rushing three times on third down for 45 yards and a touchdown. We'll certainly see more of that in 2014 than when the slow-footed Mettenberger was under center.

Filling Landry's shoes

The question isn't which LSU player replaces Landry's absurd production on third down. It's highly unlikely that one player will do that -- not this fall anyhow -- seeing as how Landry ranked third in the FBS in third-down receptions (28), second in receiving yards (474) and tied for first with six touchdown catches according to ESPN Stats & Information.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down receptions
35 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
30 -- Justin Hardy, East Carolina
28 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
27 -- Allen Robinson, Penn State
26 -- Willie Snead, Ball State

Third-down receiving yards
478 -- Jace Amaro, Texas Tech
474 -- Jarvis Landry, LSU
432 -- Shaun Joplin, Bowling Green
407 -- Ty Montgomery, Stanford
402 -- Antwan Goodley, Baylor

[+] EnlargeTravin Dural
AP Photo/Bill HaberTravin Dural caught the game-winning touchdown against Arkansas on third down.
LSU has only one returning wide receiver who was even targeted with a third-down pass last season -- Travin Dural caught 5 of 11 third-down passes where he was the intended target and scored two touchdowns, including the game winner against Arkansas -- so it would make sense for the Tigers to spread around the opportunities more evenly this fall.

But who will get those chances?

Dural is a given, followed by lots of uncertainty. Freshmen like John Diarse, Malachi Dupre, Trey Quinn, D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch will be in the mix, but it's possible that the quarterbacks will look more often to players at other positions.

Using veterans at TE, RB in passing game

Since the receiving corps is loaded with inexperience, a good alternative might be the positions where the Tigers return some experience.

They're extremely deep at tight end, and one of the talking points of LSU's spring practice was about how the position should be more active this season.

Last season, the Tigers targeted the tight end 10 times on third down, but came away with only three completions for 35 yards and one first down. In other words, this will be a two-way street. The tight ends must hold onto the ball consistently if the quarterbacks are to look their way more often.

If LSU's spring game was any indication, the chances will be there. Jennings and Harris targeted tight ends on four of their 12 third-down passes, with DeSean Smith catching two of them for 36 yards and a touchdown.

Likewise, tailback Terrence Magee made it a point this spring that he'd like to catch more balls out of the backfield this fall. The former receiver could be dangerous as a third-down target judging by his three receptions for 46 yards in that role last season.

Fullback Connor Neighbors (one catch on two targets for 4 yards and a first down in 2013) could also become more of a factor in the passing games now that he's taking over for J.C. Copeland in the backfield.

Who handles the backfield workload?

Hill was arguably the nation's most explosive third-down back in 2013, leading the FBS with an average of 13.28 yards per carry on third down according to ESPN Stats & Information. Although dozens of players carried the ball more times on third down than Hill's 18 attempts, he ranked 10th nationally with 239 yards thanks in large part to his touchdown runs of 37, 49 and 69 yards.

2013 FBS Leaders
Third-down yards per carry
13.28 -- Jeremy Hill, LSU (18-239)
11.92 -- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech (13-155)
10.76 -- Duke Johnson, Miami (17-183)
10.50 -- Larry Dixon, Army (12-126)
10.20 -- Tevin Coleman, Indiana (10-102)

Seniors Magee (eight carries, 44 yards, three first downs, one touchdown in 2013) and Kenny Hilliard (eight carries, 36 yards, two first downs, two touchdowns) have handled short-yardage duty well in limited work, but the X-factors might be freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams.

ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect for 2014, Fournette has LSU fans drooling over his combination of size, power and breakaway speed. He'll almost certainly play a leading role on third down -- and in every other type of running situation -- early in his college career. And Williams was no slouch himself as a prep star, rushing for 2,201 yards and 32 touchdowns as a senior at John Ehret High School in Marrero, Louisiana.

It's possible that LSU could use all four tailbacks in some capacity, similar to a 2011 backfield that utilized Hilliard, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford and Alfred Blue. Ware led the Tigers with 92 yards on 25 third-down rushing attempts that year, while Blue (16 carries for 85 yards) and Ford (13 carries for 77 yards) led the way with two touchdown runs apiece.

With inexperience at quarterback and receiver and a next-level talent like Fournette joining the backfield, conventional wisdom indicates that LSU will lean heavily on its veteran offensive line and the ground game, especially on third downs. The previously mentioned factors will certainly play an enormous role in LSU's attempt to remain effective on third down, but this might be a season where the rushing attack is the most important element in keeping the chains moving.
Here's a good way to survive the dog days of summer -- relive the glory of last year's best college football games.

ESPNU will count down the top 25 games and air all but four of them July 21-Aug. 3. Of course the SEC is well-represented. Game Nos. 6-25 have already been determined. Here's a look.

No. 23 -- Alabama 49, Texas A&M 42
Re-airdate: July 22, 7 p.m. ET
This Week 3 contest was a much-anticipated grudge match after Johnny Manziel and the upstart Aggies had upset the mighty Tide in Tuscaloosa, Ala., in 2012. The return engagement had fireworks from the start, as A&M's 628 yards were the most given up in Alabama's history.

No. 20 -- Georgia 44, LSU 41
Re-airdate: July 23, 10 p.m. ET
Two teams ranked in the top 10 slugged it out to the tune of nearly 1,000 combined yards, as the quarterback performances by Georgia's Aaron Murray and former teammate Zach Mettenberger were among the best of their careers.

[+] EnlargeMelvin Ray
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall & Co. were involved in four of the season's top 25 games, including three within the top 4.
No. 17 -- Auburn 45, Texas A&M 41
Re-airdate: July 25, 7 p.m. ET
Looking back, this huge upset on the road might have fueled Auburn's amazing season. One year after being beaten 63-21 by the Aggies, the Tigers roared back to national prominence behind QB Nick Marshall and RB Tre Mason. The Auburn defense gave up more than 500 yards to Manziel but came through in the end to preserve the win.
No. 15 -- Georgia 34, Tennessee 31 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 28, 7 p.m. ET
Just think of how differently we would have viewed UT's season had the Vols pulled off this upset. Georgia withstood injuries and a determined Tennessee team, and rallied to tie the game with five seconds left when Murray found Rantavious Wooten for a touchdown. UT's Alton Howard fumbled a sure touchdown in overtime, which set up UGA's game-winning field goal.
No. 11 -- Ole Miss 39, Vanderbilt 35
Re-airdate: July 29, 10 p.m. ET
The opening game of the season set a clear tone for high-scoring offense and thrilling late-game heroics. Vandy raced to a 21-10 halftime lead and then gave up 29 points, including a back-breaking 75-yard touchdown run by Jeff Scott with just over a minute to play.
No. 7 -- South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 (OT)
Re-airdate: July 31, 10 p.m. ET
Gamecocks QB Connor Shaw came off the bench to score 17 fourth-quarter points to send this one into overtime, where the teams traded touchdowns before USC won it with a kick. Missouri was slapped with its first loss of the season, but the Tigers won the rest of their games and the SEC East crown.

Now we need your help choosing a top five, and again the SEC is prominent with four choices available. Voting ends Monday. If you need help deciding, here's how I would rank 'em.

No. 5 -- Texas A&M 52, Duke 48
Manziel penned a memorable swan song in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, as the Aggies and Blue Devils piled up more than 1,200 yards of offense. Manziel passed for 382 yards and four touchdowns, ran for 73 yards and one TD, and led his team back from a 21-point halftime deficit.

No. 4 -- Florida State 34, Auburn 31
The Tigers' miracle season came crashing down when FSU rallied from an 18-point deficit, the largest ever overcome in a BCS championship game. A thrilling fourth quarter closed with Heisman winner Jameis Winston leading the Noles 80 yards in 66 seconds for the win.

No. 2 -- Auburn 43, Georgia 38
Any time a game evokes a nickname it has also earned a place in college football lore. This game got two of them -- "The Prayer at Jordan-Hare" and "The Immaculate Deflection" -- thanks to a 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown that Bulldogs safety Josh Harvey-Clemons tipped to Auburn's Ricardo Louis.

No. 1 -- Auburn 34, Alabama 28
Is there any doubt which game transcended the 2013 season into the history books? With his improbable, last-second, missed field-goal return, Chris Davis' 109-yard touchdown run -- the "Kick Six" -- was forever branded on the sport's collective consciousness.



SEC lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
Jun 27
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Strange seeing legions of soccer fans cheering about losses and ties, but that's World Cup group play for you. Next up in the knockout rounds, they'll settle any ties with a penalty-kick shootout. Seems only slightly more fair. At least college football has the Kansas tiebreaker and not some kind of punt, pass and catch exhibition.
BATON ROUGE, La. – At his national signing day press conference, LSU coach Les Miles ran down a list of names on a sheet of paper, rattling off details about each of the Tigers’ signees. But when he got to the new defensive tackle from San Antonio, Miles grinned and had to pause.

“I better call him Trey L. this minute,” Miles chuckled while struggling to pronounce Trey Lealaimatafao's last name. “It will take me several years to get to that. And I want you to know something, he’s a wonderful man and I pray that he’ll be forgiving my inability.”

Miles predicted it would probably take “a couple years” before he clears that verbal obstacle, adding that his struggles will provide reporters with fodder “to throw at me just about any point in time that you need to.”

I can’t make any guarantees, but I’d imagine the kid will cut Miles some slack. Sure, questions and jokes about your name might get annoying from time to time, but you definitely get used to it. Continuing to get angry about it won’t do any good and would only mean you’d walk around in an irritable state most of the time.

Mr. L. seems to share that perspective. Just this week, he tweeted instructions on how to pronounce it for those who understandably need some assistance.



Simple, right?

[+] EnlargeTrey Lealaimatafao
Tom Hauck for Student SportsHis last name isn't the only big thing about Trey Lealaimatafao's (left) game.
Anyway, once he becomes a legit LSU letterman, Lealaimatafao will tie for the longest last name in Tigers football history. I know because I looked it up myself.

These are the things you do when you’re a bored college football writer during the summer months. You get a wild hair and comb through the list of lettermen in the media guide, checking to see if the new signee actually has the longest name among the six pages and hundreds of lettermen listed from more than 120 years of Tigers football.

In case you were wondering -- and I know you were -- Lealaimatafao’s 13-letter last name ties with 1939 letterman W.H. Froechtenicht for the top spot on this important list. They edge former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger (12 letters), among others, by a single character.

Among some of the notable long names on the list: Ricky Jean-Francois (should hyphenated names count?) and All-SEC honorees Robbie Hucklebridge and Godfrey Zaunbrecher.

Ideally, Lealaimatafao will perform well enough at LSU that he eventually becomes a household name, not one that gives announcers nightmares.

At the very same introductory press conference, Miles compared him to a former Tiger who earned such “household name” distinction among LSU fans a few years back.

“What he would remind you of is Drake Nevis,” said Miles, referring to the Tigers’ former All-SEC defensive lineman. “He’s maybe a little taller, a little wider, maybe a little faster, but he has a very high motor and real acceleration on the field.”

For now, Lealaimatafao’s claim to fame will remain his difficult-to-pronounce last name, but that could change soon enough. If Miles’ comparison holds water, the transition might just occur sooner rather than later.

Second-year stars: LSU

June, 10, 2014
Jun 10
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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.

SEC lunchtime links

May, 19, 2014
May 19
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The conference finals have started in both hockey and basketball. Rookie minicamp just wrapped in the NFL. Meanwhile, we all sit and wait for college football to come back. Get your fix with Monday’s lunch links.
For the eighth consecutive year, the SEC led all conferences with the most NFL draft picks. When all was said and done on Saturday, the SEC had 49 former athletes selected. In 2013, the SEC had a league-record 63 players drafted, and after last year's draft, the league averaged 48.9 players drafted since 2006.

So I guess that whole run of seven straight BCS national championships had some real weight to it, huh?

The last time the SEC didn't lead the nation in draft picks was 2006, when the league had 37 players taken and the Big Ten had 41. This year, the SEC's only real competition in the draft was the ACC, which had 42 players taken.

[+] EnlargeJadeveon Clowney
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesJadeveon Clowney is the fourth SEC player to be taken first in the draft since 2006.
On Thursday, the SEC led the rest of the conferences with 11 first-round draft picks, including having Jadeveon Clowney selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans. Clowney became the fourth player from the SEC to be taken first in the draft since 2006. The SEC also had four players taken within the first 10 picks of the draft.

LSU led the SEC and the rest of the country with nine draft selections. Alabama was second with eight draft picks.

Every SEC team was represented in the draft, and here's a breakdown of how each school fared:

  • Alabama -- 8
  • Arkansas -- 4
  • Auburn -- 4
  • Florida -- 4
  • Georgia -- 2
  • Kentucky -- 1
  • LSU -- 9
  • Mississippi State -- 1
  • Missouri -- 4
  • Ole Miss -- 1
  • South Carolina -- 2
  • Tennessee -- 3
  • Texas A&M -- 3
  • Vanderbilt -- 3

After all the Johnny Manziel drama from the first night of the draft, the SEC had no shortage of intrigue during the next two days of the draft. Everyone waited for AJ McCarron to get drafted in the second round, but he didn't hear his name until the fifth round (No. 164 by the Cincinnati Bengals), and after Aaron Murray was taken a spot ahead by the Kansas City Chiefs. Zach Mettenberger, the quarterback many thought would go first from the SEC, was selected in the sixth round (No. 178) by the Tennessee Titans.

And perhaps the biggest news from the last two days was Michael Sam becoming the first openly gay player to be selected in the draft. The former Missouri defensive end -- and SEC defensive player of the year -- was selected in the seventh round (N0. 249) by the St. Louis Rams, and shared a powerful, historic and emotional scene on live television when he received the news.

It should come as no surprise that the SEC had yet another successful showing at the NFL draft. The league is absolutely stuffed with SEC talent. According to the SEC's official website, the SEC had 340 former players on active 53-man rosters on opening day of the 2013 season. Also, since 2006 the SEC has averaged nearly 280 players per year on NFL opening weekend rosters.

There were some surprising names not called during the three-day draft. Florida cornerback Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, who were viewed as top cornerback prospects before the 2013 season, went undrafted, as did former top offensive line prospect Antonio Richardson from Tennessee. Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard and LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson also were left out.

Here's a look at the SEC players taken after Round 1:

ROUND 2

42. Jordan Matthews, WR ,Vanderbilt -- Philadelphia Eagles
44. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama -- Buffalo Bills
51. Ego Ferguson, DT, LSU -- Chicago Bears
55. Jeremy Hill, RB, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
60. Kony Ealy, DE, Missouri -- Carolina Panthers
63. Jarvis Landry, WR, LSU -- Miami Dolphins
64. Justin Britt, OT, Missouri -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 3

75. Tre Mason, RB, Auburn -- St. Louis Rams
76. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas -- Detroit Lions
81. Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State -- Oakland Raiders
90. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss -- Indianapolis Colts
92. Trai Turner, OG, LSU -- Carolina Panthers

ROUND 4

101. Jaylen Watkins, DB, Florida -- Philadelphia Eagles
106. Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina -- San Francisco 49ers
123. Kevin Norwood, WR, Alabama -- Seattle Seahawks

ROUND 5

151. Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky -- Tennessee Titans
155. Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia -- Miami Dolphins
156. Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU -- Denver Broncos
159. Chris Smith, DE, Arkansas -- Jacksonville Jaguars
160. Ed Stinson, DE, Alabama -- Arizona Cardinals
163. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia -- Kansas City Chiefs
164. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama -- Cincinnati Bengals
167. Vinnie Sunseri, S, Alabama -- New Orleans Saints
169. Ronald Powell, LB, Florida -- New Orleans Saints
173. Wesley Johnson, OT, Vanderbilt -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 6

177. Jeoffrey Pagan, DE, Alabama -- Houston Texans
178. Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU -- Tennessee Titans
179. Jon Halapio, OG, Florida -- New England Patriots
181. Alfred Blue, RB, LSU -- Houston Texans
188. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams
193. Zach Fulton, OG, Tennessee -- Kansas City Chiefs
211. Jay Prosch, FB, Auburn -- Houston Texans
215. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee -- Pittsburgh Steelers

ROUND 7

216. Andre Hal, S, Vanderbilt -- Houston Texans
227. Kiero Small, FB, Arkansas -- Seattle Seahawks
228. Zach Hocker, K, Arkansas -- Washington Redskins
239. James Wright, WR, LSU -- Cincinnati Bengals
249. Michael Sam, DE, Missouri -- St. Louis Rams

SEC lunchtime links

May, 9, 2014
May 9
12:00
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Thursday night's draft was pretty entertaining, but let's not forget that the real entertainment starts next week when the greatest superhero ever returns!

Lunchtime links

May, 8, 2014
May 8
12:00
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It's draft day! Here's to your team making the right pick tonight.

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