BATON ROUGE, La. -- When Trai Turner trotted out onto Florida Field on Oct. 6 to play right guard for the injured Josh Williford in the first meaningful snaps of Turner's career, he said he had "jitters."
Understandable, considering Turner is a redshirt freshman who didn't figure to play much this season.
When it became apparent that Williford, who suffered a concussion against the Gators, would not return for the next series, the jitters came back as Turner worried about what surprises might await him on the field.
"It was every series," Turner recalled. "I had jitters every series I had to go out there."
That afternoon, which eventually resulted in a 14-6 loss, seems so long ago now for the New Orleans native.
Williford did not return for the rest of the regular season from the head injury -- he will be back for the Tigers for the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve against Clemson -- and Turner started the Tigers' final six games at right guard as part of an All-Freshman right side next to true freshman right tackle Vadal Alexander.
He's become part of a resurgent LSU offense that has so improved that it has gone from anemic at Florida to carrying the Tigers to wins in shootouts where the defense gave up points and yards down the stretch. Turner was on the field when the Tigers rediscovered the running game to beat South Carolina and was at right guard as Zach Mettenberger and the LSU passing game came into its own over the regular season's final four games.
Buoyed by existing chemistry with Alexander, who had practiced next to him as a second-team tandem since the spring, and tutored by offensive line veterans like senior center P.J. Lonergan and sixth-year senior tackle Josh Dworaczyk, Turner became a quick study.
He learned what SEC defensive linemen, so adapt at battling for the coveted "A" gap between guard and center, were like. He knew LSU's plays, but he learned the subtle differences between how the plays are rehearsed Tuesdays on a practice field and how they must be executed against an angry SEC defensive line on a Saturday. He figured out the adjustments that are made on the fly and got a feel for what it's like to try to do it all in front of 80,000 or more screaming fans.
It didn't take long before Turner quickly transformed himself to the point where that jittery guy in Gainesville seems long gone.
"I'm more experienced, more...put together," he said of where he is now. "Those are the best words I can use to describe it. More calm. More tenacity. I don't really get those jitters I had on each series. I still get jitters, but in that Florida game, in each series I had those jitters. I'm not so worried about messing up because I'm confident."
Transformations like Turner's are expected in LSU's program. LSU played 15 true freshmen this season, a side effect of having a program that routinely loses juniors to the NFL draft.
To coach Les Miles, it comes down to mental and emotional maturity.
"A guy like Trai Turner, who is really mature, really expects himself to play well, who really has great expectations to be able to step in and compete, those guys learn quickly," Miles said.
Once the lessons are learned, the physical gifts take over. While not blessed with the length of left guard and 2011 signing classmate La'el Collins, Turner is still formidable with a more compact and powerful build that makes him explosive at the point of attack. It makes for an interesting competition at right guard with Williford, who is five inches taller and heavier than Turner, while perhaps not as quick off the ball.
"We're out there, rotating around, seeing what's the best fit for the team," Turner said of the offensive line. "The best five are going to play."
As Williford competes to return to the right guard spot, he'll find that the player he's up against is, in many ways, not the same one that replaced him almost three months ago in Florida.