LOVE: After Further Review
Five keys to an LSU championship run in 2011
By BEN LOVE
Tiger Rag Editor
Ten days removed from the Tigers’ spring game, it’s time to cast an eye toward the 2011 season.
All indications point toward LSU yielding a bountiful harvest on the gridiron for the fall on the horizon. But, as always, there are potential snags lying in the weeds for even the best-laid plans.
It’s those issues big and small that we’ll turn the microscope on today, identifying and then delving into the hurdles which stand between Les Miles’ team and championship dates both conference-wide (Dec. 3 in Atlanta) and nationwide (Jan. 9 in New Orleans).
But before we leap right into the top five keys to the 2011 season, here a few ”Best of the Rest” nominees fans should also monitor going into the offseason.
- Get consistent field-goal kicking from first-year starter Drew Alleman.
Alleman, a former prep kicking star at Acadiana High School, is yet to attempt a field goal for the Tigers. His predecessor, Josh Jasper, just capped off the only consensus All-American placekicking campaign in LSU history. Jasper was 28-of-34 and made seven field goals longer than 40 yards and three longer than 50 yards. That’ll be tough production to replace, but Alleman, who averaged 63.4 yards/kickoff in back-up duty last season, has the strong leg to do it.
- Decide on a left tackle who can best mesh with four returning starters on the line.
This might be the best (or at least most contested) position battle on the entire team come Fall Camp. With Joe Barksdale graduating, there are big shoes to fill on the quarterback’s blind side. Redshirt sophomore-to-be Chris Faulk got the nod throughout the spring, but heralded signee La’el Collins from Redemptorist High School figures to “compete with advantage,” as Miles likes to say. Both are giants and lend size to the position, and it’s likely only a matter of time before Collins cements himself as the Tigers’ left tackle of the future. The only reason this “key” wasn’t vaulted into the top-five? Because there are four experienced starters returning on the O-Line to ease the transition. Communication will be a big feather in the cap of this line, and that will help whoever steps into starter’s shoes, be it Faulk or Collins (or a combination of both).
- Bring along rising sophomore J.C. Copeland to bolster the fullback position.
It’s no secret LSU has had a near-impossible time finding a quality fullback since Quinn Johnson left the Tiger backfield following the 2008 season. The ‘Q’ cleared lanes right and left for Charles Scott that season. In the interim, LSU has lost two scholarship fullbacks (Dominique Allen in the summer of 2010 and Brandon Worle this spring) and a season ago relied on walk-on James Stampley to man the position. Now that Copeland appears to be the selection to start, it’s high time to develop the converted defensive tackle into a wrecking ball for Spencer Ware & Co. to follow. One added benefit of having a quality fullback? LSU won’t have to go into so many two-tight end formations — a transparent ploy to supplement the run game — and can bring a slew of talented receivers onto the field.
Now, onto the five biggest keys to LSU making a championship run in 2011.
1. Find a suitable replacement for Kelvin Sheppard at middle linebacker.
Said it before and I’ll say it again: It will be more difficult for defensive coordinator John Chavis to replace Kelvin Sheppard than Patrick Peterson or Drake Nevis. That doesn’t mean Sheppard was the best player of the three because that distinction goes to Peterson. It’s more about who’s standing in line behind Sheppard that makes him appear so valuable in retrospect — that, and his leadership abilities both on the field and in the locker room.
With Peterson turning pro, it’s easy to turn the keys to the CB spot to Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon, Ron Brooks, etc. Ditto for Nevis where the talented Michael Brockers awaits along with up-and-comer Anthony Johnson (and Bennie Logan, more on this in a bit). Filling in for Sheppard becomes a more interesting proposition because Kevin Minter has only 15 career tackles to his name. Sheppard, just for the sake of comparison, registered 116 stops (third in the SEC) a year ago and accumulated a mind-blowing 311 during his time on campus.
Minter, a rising redshirt sophomore, is being penciled into the Mike ‘backer spot because he best fits that mold and the other projected starters don’t. He’s unable to play either outside linebacker position, but should provide LSU with stout run defending in the middle (Minter is routinely one of the best Tigers during the Big Cat drill, an exercise all about leverage, pad level and driving the legs). Ryan Baker, who will spend most of his time at weakside ‘backer (and will replenish a lot of the leadership lost with Sheppard’s departure), is not a true candidate to play on the inside. Converted safety Karnell Hatcher could take some snaps at the Mike position, but he’s more likely to take over for 2010 starter Stefoin Francois on the strongside.
While Minter will get the first shot at replacing Sheppard, D.J. Welter is another player beginning to step to the forefront. The Notre Dame High School product is entering his redshirt freshman season and continues to push Minter. Providing depth in the middle will be third-year player Lamin Barrow, who is flexible enough to play all three linebacker positions.
One final note on replacing Sheppard: Chavis does have another “out,” so to speak, should no one consistently produce at middle linebacker in his traditional 4-3 base defense. With so much talent overflowing in the secondary, it’s more than conceivable that Chavis will opt for a nickel look when down and distance don’t dictate otherwise. Simply put, if the defense causes more havoc with Mathieu in instead of Minter/Welter/Barrow, you can expect the Chief to exercise this option more than in previous seasons.
2. Secure an every-down defensive tackle to go along with Michael Brockers.
In a similar vein to backfilling Sheppard’s LB spot, the LSU ‘D’ must also pinpoint not one, but two defensive tackles to take over for ‘10 seniors Nevis and Pep Levingston. The first replacement is virtually a no-brainer at this point. Michael Brockers, standing 6-6 and weighing 300 pounds, is a man on the inside and brings some experience to the table, even for a player who’s entering only his redshirt sophomore campaign.
Brockers played in 12 games last season, starting one, and had 22 total tackles to go along with a quarterback hurry and a forced fumble, which defensive end Lavar Edwards scooped and took to the house. Count on him to line up alongside ends Sam Montgomery and Ken Adams when the first whistle blows in 2011. Who’ll line up as the fourth member of the front line is another question altogether.
The obvious answer, especially from an experience standpoint, is rising junior Josh Downs. A product of Bastrop High School, Downs has been a fixture in the Tigers’ two-deep at defensive tackle since he stepped on campus, with 19 career tackles, 5.5 for loss, and a sack to his credit. He’s a high-energy player who excels at getting off the line and getting into the backfield, but that all-out playing style can be exhausting and often lends itself to injuries. And it’s that constant fatigue and susceptibility to injury which have limited Downs in the past and have, fairly or not, earmarked him as someone who’s not an every-down player going forward.
Barring injury, expect Downs to get the go when the season begins. Still, the LSU defense will need several more tackles to count on to spell Downs and give the occasional blow to Brockers. Most people’s pick would be true freshman Anthony “Freak” Johnson, the nation’s top high school defensive tackle in the Class of 2011. Johnson was impressive as an early enrollee during spring drills, but, like redshirt freshman Ego Ferguson, he’s going to have to earn his stripes. Johnson’s development is ahead of Ferguson’s at the current point, and both are expected to see early time in ‘11.
So, too, is rising redshirt sophomore Bennie Logan. The Red River High School product was position coach Brick Haley’s choice to start the Spring Game and run with the first team in Downs’ absence (Downs tweaked an ankle early in the spring). Logan played in only three games a season ago, posting a career-high five tackles vs. ULM, but will be neck-and-neck with “The Freak” once Fall Camp gets underway in August.
Bottom line: The Tigers need someone to emerge from the pack of Ferguson-Johnson-Logan to adequately man the defensive tackle position.
3. Develop (and trust) first-year players at same rate as 2010 freshman crop.
Remember that nagging knock on Miles that the Hat never played freshmen, that he stuck to his upperclassmen guns even when prodigious young talent had bullets in the chamber on the sideline. Well, if 2010 was any indication, you can throw that notion right out the window.
From the opening game in Atlanta last season, freshmen were put in big spots by the coaches and responded by making big plays. Sure, they had occasional low points and learning moments (think Tyrann Mathieu getting beat on the double move at Arkansas last November, a rare misstep for him), but overall the impact was profoundly positive. Mathieu’s exploits are well-known to all, but LSU also received key contributions from first-year players Eric Reid (safety), Tharold Simon (cornerback), Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue (running backs) while doling out additional P.T. to fellow true frosh Justin Maclin (defensive end), J.C. Copeland (fullback) and the receiving duo of Kadron Boone and James Wright.
With the exceptional crop of talent coming in this fall, Miles & Co. need to remember that template for developing freshmen and putting them into big-game situations. After all, the likes of OT La’el Collins, WR Jarvis Landry and DT “Freak” Johnson figure to be fixtures of the future at their respective positions. Each enters Baton Rouge among the top-five players in the country at his position and has something unique to offer the team right away.
Landry, who has hands like a Hoover and runs with the ball as well as virtually anyone currently on LSU’s roster, will compete with Boone and Wright for snaps at the No. 3 receiver position. Collins brings mammoth size and a considerable mean streak to a somewhat scarce position, in terms of depth. Ditto for Johnson, who also doubles as a vocal leader, an extremely rare trait amongst true freshmen entering the fold with upperclassmen.
If the coaching staff can cultivate these youngsters and replicate its great successes of last year, the LSU team as a whole will be better for it. Immediately.
4. Commit to a quarterback rotation — it’s time to stop playing favorites under center.
Whether you’re a proponent or detractor of the two-quarterback system, there’s no denying LSU would have likely lost games to Tennessee and Florida in 2010 without it. Against UT, Jordan Jefferson scored on the first play of the game (an 80-yard run) and back-up Jarrett Lee led a late fourth-quarter drive, converting a crucial fourth-and-long, to preserve a victory (albeit a nutty one). The next week in the Swamp, the duo again combined for a winning result as the coaching staff used the two-QB system to near-perfection.
My point? Simply that LSU has had success utilizing two signal callers when one doesn’t possess all the skills needed to be the guy. Throughout their respective tenures in Tiger Town, both Jefferson and Lee have shown glimpses of brilliance, but neither has proven he can lead a championship-caliber team on his own.
In 2010, LSU as a team passed for only 10 touchdowns through the air (versus 11 interceptions), and one of them came from a running back while three others took place in the Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M. That just will not get it done for a second straight season, despite all the talent that surrounds the quarterback position. And the spring showed everyone that the new Jefferson looks a lot like the old Jefferson. Not a knock against No. 9, just reiterating that LSU will not succeed to its utmost potential if Jefferson is the only guy taking snaps for the purple and gold.
He’s not an out-and-out runner and should not be labeled a “running quarterback,” but Jefferson is elusive and can make plays occasionally when the pocket breaks down. That, coupled with the fact he’s a senior and has been through the SEC fire, makes him a good candidate to start games off for the Tigers and play sporadically throughout.
But, to maximize the offense’s passing potential, LSU needs to commit to playing another quarterback in tandem with Jefferson. Every single week. And don’t hide from it, acknowledge that it provides certain advantages and embrace it. Whether it’s Lee or newcomer Zach Mettenberger who earns that niche role, the Tigers will be better off in 2011 if they cut their losses and stop waiting for a fourth-year player’s switch to flip.
5. Beat Oregon.
The final key is the simplest to say but may prove the most difficult to execute.
LSU’s season opener against the reigning Pac-10 champ in Arlington looms large as we approach the summer. Rivals.com recently ranked it the nation’s No. 1 non-conference game for a reason. Two powerhouses are coming together under one roof to play in front of the entire country. Unfortunately, one is all but certain to leave with national title hopes dashed.
The Tigers can’t afford a game one loss when they have such a murderer’s row to follow. It just takes out all the margin for error in the NCAA’s toughest conference. Consider, LSU takes on a rejuvenated Mississippi State on a Thursday night in Starkville and also travels to Morgantown, Tuscaloosa, Knoxville and Oxford. In addition, LSU plays host to Florida, Auburn and Arkansas.
It’s true Miles and the Bayou Bengals won it all in 2007 despite two losses, but that year was an aberration. Plain and simple. Two losses won’t get it done in 2011 if LSU wants to head down I-10 to New Orleans in early January. The best way to prevent that? Go West on I-20 in early September and vanquish the Ducks.
Editor Ben Love is Tiger Rag’s lead reporter on LSU football. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.