LOVE: After Further Review
What to expect from LSU spring practice
Redshirt sophomore safety Craig Loston, pictured left, and the rest of the LSU secondary could be without several key members during spring practice, at least in the early going (photo by Joe Gallinaro).
By BEN LOVE
Tiger Rag Editor
It’s funny how much Mardi Gras moves things in south Louisiana.
A year ago, Fat Tuesday came on Feb. 16, 2010. In accordance, the LSU Tigers football team observed the statewide holiday to end all holidays and then went about the business of fasting and repenting (read: participating in spring football, the Training Camp of the college game which can feel like a Lenten sacrifice).
Of course, there was a pause for the cause which pushed things back. The hiring of Steve Ensminger as tight ends coach bumped Spring Ball ‘10 from its original start date of Feb. 25 to the 26th and then ultimately to March 1.
But I digress.
Anyway, here we are in 2011, having again arrived at the Funnest Tuesday of Them All, and we’re still three days away from the start of LSU’s spring practice on Friday, Mar. 11.
The bottom line: Many of the natives are growing restless, especially given the fact the fans haven’t seen their Tigers since the Jan. 7 throttling of Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.
Well, I’m here today to bridge the gap between Mardi Gras and pigskins flying at the Ponderosa.
Consider this a guide for what to expect from the early stages of LSU spring practice, which runs from this Friday through the Spring Game on April 9 (3:00 p.m., ESPN).
Not trying to play Nostradamus, but there are certain things which are more evident than others, and today I’ll lay them out for you.
1. A flock of younger defensive backs, including some in back-up roles, will get experience and reps which normally wouldn’t be available.
This is one of the few upsides to injury. As Les Miles updated last Thursday, senior safety Brandon Taylor (foot) and junior cornerback Mo Claiborne (ankle) are still battling back from lower-body injuries. Miles didn’t rule either out of spring just yet, but indicated neither player would be ready to go for day one. Here’s what Miles had to say on both:
“Mo Claiborne came off of the bowl game with a pretty significant ankle (injury). He really hasn’t returned to speed at this point, but we expect him to be back at some point for spring.”
“Brandon Taylor may well make it back for spring. He came off a pretty significant foot injury and his prognosis is very good, so we’re not ready to rule him out of spring. But we are going to moderate his progress and it’ll come slowly.”
In addition to upperclassmen injuries, there’s also Karnell Hatcher’s transition to consider. Miles confirmed Thursday that the senior from Delray Beach, Fla., is likely to make a move to outside linebacker for the ‘11 season. No time is better for experimental moves than spring football. What that means, in my opinion, is that you can expect Hatcher to work a lot of reps at ‘backer this spring, even if that won’t be his final destination come September.
Here’s what all of the above means: First-team reps - and the more intense level of coaching that inherently comes with that - for Craig Loston, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon. There will also be more of the playing time pie to go around for Ron Brooks, Tyrann Mathieu and Ronnie Vinson.
Now, out of those six, Mathieu, Reid and Simon project as starters next season anyway (with Mathieu and Simon interchangeable at corner depending on nickel or base formations). But imagine the confidence to be gained this spring, at least early on, when all three figure to be the main options counted on at their respective positions, not just another option.
Brooks may be a senior, so spring is old hat for him, but Loston, a redshirt sophomore, and Vinson, a true sophomore, will benefit from increased time while Taylor is out and Hatcher is learning a new position.
Just to clarify, Brooks, Mathieu and Simon are cornerbacks while Loston, Reid and Vinson are safeties. There are whispers Vinson could get some looks at corner this year, as well. And, of course, Brooks and Mathieu also have experience sliding inside to nickel and Mustang roles.
What’ll be interesting is that Mathieu might get more straight-cornerback reps this spring than intended with Claiborne out. So LSU fans will get a small glimpse of what life would be like with Mathieu and Simon on respective islands.
Like Miles said Thursday: “Spring ball is a time for young guys to step to the front for the first time in a live drill and say to their team, ‘Count on me.’”
2. Jordan Jefferson will lead the quarterbacks out of the gate. Zach Mettenberger will flash the best, most technically sound mechanics. Les Miles will officially decide on neither by the time spring closes.
Not meant to be a knock on Miles at all. More of a reminder to fans to inhale and exhale when April 9 comes and goes and there’s still no definitive word. In fact, the seventh-year head coach told reporters at that recent press conference it’s not his modus operandi to make that type of decision without having seen Fall Camp.
“Historically, I’ve not been one to promote somebody early. I probably will head in the same direction. I think if we were taking first reps, certainly Jordan Jefferson would be that guy.”
So, as I see it, that’s an important statement when framing this whole “quarterback battle” in your mind. Miles knows Jefferson, is familiar with his abilities, and likes him as the early favorite because he’s a senior and because Miles hasn’t seen Mettenberger in action yet.
That’ll change beginning on Friday. Miles and new offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe will see Mettenberger ad nauseam. And all early indications from a few players coming out of 7-on-7 sessions (which coaches can’t attend or view) is that the coaches will eventually see a player more polished in the technical aspects than his peers, Jefferson and fellow senior Jarrett Lee.
But Jefferson, and to a lesser extent Lee, both have experience on their side. It’s amazing to think of the expectations heaped on Mettenberger by so many, and we quickly forget the Georgia native hasn’t taken a single snap of college football to date.
Bottom line: This is where the most eyeballs will be this spring, no doubt, but to Miles and the staff, this spring will be more about improving the drop backs, throwing motions, etc., of all three than it will be zeroing in on who will start under center for LSU in ‘11.
Cue Miles again, “The point of this spring is to improve this team and to really focus on the specifics that can be repeated and repeated and repeated - to give them the opportunity and advantage in coaching and in repetition.”
Nowhere on the field is this more important than at quarterback for the Tigers.
3. Redshirt sophomore Chris Faulk will continue to turn heads and will leave spring football as LSU’s starting left tackle.
The natural reaction for many when reading this is to say, “Well, that’s only because La’El Collins isn’t on campus yet.”
To those fans and followers, I hear you. Collins is a phenomenal talent with the combination of size and a mean streak coming out of high school that LSU hasn’t seen in some time.
Is he ready to start in the SEC from day one? At most of the league’s member institutions, probably. At LSU, maybe. But the reason won’t be because of the typical rhetoric - True freshmen just don’t start on the offensive line in the SEC.
No, the reason, if indeed that’s how it turns out, will be Chris Faulk.
The emergence of Faulk, who came to Baton Rouge with credentials of his own as a four-star recruit from Northshore High School in the LSU Class of 2009, has been a boon for Miles and offensive line coach Greg Studrawa.
The 6-6, 316-pound tackle has certainly waited his turn in line.
In the time since Faulk arrived on campus, he’s had to sit behind - and has presumably learned from - both Ciron Black and Joe Barksdale. With Barksdale graduating, Miles recently listed Faulk atop the list of replacements for No. 78.
“Our offensive line’s veteran. We’ll look to replace (Joe) Barksdale. I think Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst and that offensive line looks pretty capable and very ready to come into the spring. To me, they can be better. They’re a veteran group, but that veteran group can give us some advantages.”
Reading between the lines, Miles expects a bit of youthful infusion to improve an otherwise “veteran” line composed of Josh Dworaczyk, P.J. Lonergan, Will Blackwell and Alex Hurst (and yes, that is meant to read left to right from LG to RT).
And between Collins and Faulk, Miles expects to fill in that vacant left tackle spot, protecting his quarterbacks and creating holes in the running game.
Miles and the staff have long liked Faulk, which is why, when Hurst went down seven or eight games into last season, Faulk became the primary plug-in at right tackle, even supplanting Greg Shaw, a junior at the time (while Faulk was a redshirt freshman).
Expect Faulk to leave this spring as LSU’s starting left tackle and expect the battle at that position to be one of the most heated come Fall Camp.
Just don’t be surprised if Faulk takes the field on the first offensive play next season in Arlington. Collins’ time is coming, and I predict the true frosh will play more and more as next season wears on, but Faulk is regarded highly by the staff for a reason - the guy, with tremendous size, can play.
In addition to these three big-ticket items, here are three more bullet points for fans to consider as LSU kicks off spring practice this week:
- Junior Chris Tolliver is a strong consideration for the No. 3 wide receiver, at least until Jarvis Landry weighs in come Fall Camp. I expect Tolliver, who the coaches like to run deep, to compete favorably this spring with young guns Kadron Boone and James Wright.
- The battle at middle linebacker will get interesting, and the monkey wrench could be redshirt freshman D.J. Welter. With Hatcher (or Stefoin Francois) potentially penciled in at Sam and Ryan Baker at Will, the Mike spot could come down to Welter and redshirt sophomore Kevin Minter. Miles doesn’t seem to love the notion of Baker at Mike, so watch as this competition heats up. We’ll see if Welter is ready to crack the starting line-up.
- Call me crazy, but I get the sense Miles may not immediately turn to Michael Ford at running back after Spencer Ware. Ware certainly carries the label of “starter” into the spring, but Alfred Blue, Jakhari Gore and Kenny Hilliard will get some run. Unless Ford proves he’s mentally into the game as an every-down back, expect Blue and Gore to present themselves as viable options in different situations (Blue more of a physical threat and Gore more of a third-down back).
Editor Ben Love covers LSU football and men’s basketball for Tiger Rag. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.