Glenn Guilbeau / Gannett Louisiana
BATON ROUGE – Excuse me, did I wake you? Tired of watching soccer and college baseball, which are basically the same thing lately? Let’s take an early summer look at the fall.
LSU football coach Les Miles continues to recruit as well as anyone, but he continues to lose as many players as anyone early to the NFL. Will this vicious cycle catch up to him in the 2014 season? Or will his new players just get better faster because they have to?
LSU lost a school record 11 non-seniors who decided to enter the NFL Draft after the 2012 season. Following the 2013 season, LSU lost another seven non-seniors. Miles found himself with several empty helmets again and has been scrambling to get up to the 85 scholarship limit. The classes of 2010 and ’11 classes were ranked sixth coming in, but both were depleted before Miles saw them develop fully.
The biggest losses for 2014 are at wide receiver, where Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry each left for the NFL as juniors after having 1,000-yard seasons in 2013. Those two caught 136 of the 151 passes quarterback Zach Mettenberger completed to wide receivers last season. Oh, and Mettenberger was a senior, so he is gone, too.
Consequently, the Tigers do not have experienced receivers to help along an inexperienced quarterback, nor do they have an experienced quarterback to help inexperienced wide receivers. Since Miles started at LSU in 2005, he had one or the other. Not the case this season.
“It is like we’re starting all over again,” said junior Travin Dural, the most experienced returning wide receiver. He caught seven passes last year. Incoming wide receiver Malachi Dupree needs to be very good very quickly.
The starting quarterback could be Anthony Jennings, who took significant snaps in only two games last year as a true freshman.
He did not play well in his only start in the bowl game and played as poorly in the spring game. Or it could be true freshman Brandon Harris, who was a January enrollee, went through spring practice and looked remarkably good in the spring game.
LSU has never started a true freshman at quarterback in a season opener and has not started a true freshman at quarterback in any game since Herb Tyler in 1995.
“We’re going to need more than one quarterback this season,” offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Cam Cameron said simply.
In other words, if one is not good enough yet, then you use two. Harris will enter August practices in a dead heat with Jennings for the starting job.
Either or both quarterbacks will likely struggle early on.
Fortunately, LSU does return a strong offensive line, especially with Collins at left tackle. Three other starters return in center Elliott Porter, left guard Vadal Alexander and right tackle Jerald Hawkins. The nation’s best tailback, Leonard Fournette out of New Orleans, will replace early departing tailback Jeremy Hill and is expected to be as good or better right away. He may have to be.
“We’re a ways away,” Miles said of his quarterbacks after the spring game.
There is another gaping hole at defensive tackle, where juniors Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson – a pair of jewels from the 2010 and ‘11 classes – left early for the NFL. Underclassmen Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas will have to dive in. The ends are very good in Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco, who both started last season.
“Our linebackers will be the strength of the defense,” Miles said. Outside linebackers Lamar Louis and Kwon Alexander and middle linebacker D.J. Welter all started at times last season. But the best of the bunch may be Kendell Beckwith, who is pushing Welter.
The secondary remains talented with cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson, who started as freshman last year. Jalen Mills, who started at corner in 2012 and 2013, moved to safety alongside veteran Ronald Martin in the spring and looked very good.
“I think our defense is going to be back to what it was in 2011,” White said.
But then Mills got arrested for felony second degree battery of a woman just last week. For a minute there, it looked like LSU might actually enter a season for the first time since 2010 without a starter suspended for the opener or more games.
Unlike two previous major arrests of key LSU players, though, Mills’ alleged offense was not caught on tape. He has a chance to have his charges lessened or dropped as there are stories out there that have another woman hitting the victim. If Mills did hit the woman and is found guilty of second degree battery, he needs to be kicked off the team. If that happens, though, the Tigers recruited very well at that position for the 2014 class and have enough talent to replace him.
The biggest challenge facing LSU’s defense is not the depth chart or the police blotter. It is the two-minute defense. The Tigers gave up late scores to lose four games in the last two seasons to Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ole Miss. In three of those games, the offense scored 24 or more, which should have been enough. In the other, LSU scored 17, but that should have been enough, too, as it was against Alabama.
LSU’s defense will be under additional pressure this season because the offense will likely not be able to score as much as it did last season with Mettenberger, Beckham and Landry.
On paper, this all looks like 8-4.
But if there is a quarterback coach out there who can get more than an average season out of Jennings or Harris, it is LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. And it’s about time LSU got something out of a freshman quarterback. In addition, LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis has been too good for too long to have a third straight so-so season.
On green paper, if Cameron and Chavis earn their million dollar salaries, LSU should be 10-2 or maybe 11-1 and right in the mix. Now, go back to counting sheep for the summer – or watching the World Cup and the CWS.