OPINIONS & OBSERVATIONS: Our First Glance at the Tigers
Our first impressions of the LSU Tigers as they open spring drills at the Charles McClendon Practice Facility
by Matt Deville
Tiger Rag Senior Editor
(At left) New LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis watches linebacker Perry Riley go through drills. (Photo by Matt Deville)
The LSU Tigers returned to the practice field for the first time in 2009 Thursday afternoon for the opening session of spring drills at the Charles McClendon Practice Facility.
It was the first time the Tigers had come together since toppling Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve.
There was a different mood among the LSU football team, one of a fresh start, a new beginning. The Tigers stumbled to an 8-5 record a year ago, compiling an even more disappointing 3-5 SEC record losing their last four league games in a row.
Issues at quarterback and on the defensive side of the ball plagued LSU throughout the duration of the 2008 campaign.
Under center, coach Les Miles faced the notion of starting an inexperienced quarterback. Sophomore Andrew Hatch got the first nod before an injury led to Jarrett Lee taking the reigns. Lee had his moments, but set records for interceptions thrown for opposing touchdowns.
By the final week of the regular season, LSU started its fourth string quarterback against Arkansas. Jordan Jefferson was technically the No. 4 quarterback heading into the 2008 campaign behind Ryan Perrilloux, Jarrett Lee and Andrew Hatch.
Jefferson came within an eye-lash of winning his first career start in Little Rock losing 31-30 to the Razorbacks. He picked up his first win beating the Yellow Jackets in impressive fashion in Atlanta on New Year’s Eve.
Speaking of that loss to Arkansas, it wasn’t the true freshman’s fault the Tigers dropped their second straight game to the Hawgs. The LSU defense folded in the game’s final minutes and a beleaguered secondary gave up a last-second touchdown pass.
After a season dominance on the defensive side of the ball in the national championship season of 2007, the Tiger defense lost key players and all of its leadership following that historic season.
LSU replaced Bo Pelini with co-defensive coordinators Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory, which proved to be one of Miles’ few gaffes in hiring personnel.
Also, the Tigers were never able to fill the voids left by players like Glenn Dorsey, Craig Steltz, Ali Highsmith, Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon, both in ability and leadership.
Needless to say, after the 2008 nightmare ended, Miles had to re-assess the situation.
He re-tooled the defensive staff hiring longtime Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis, who left Knoxville when Philip Fulmer was fired last year. Miles also added new defensive line coach Brick Haley, new secondary coach Ron Cooper as well as a new tight ends coach Don Yanowsky.
The new defensive coaches weren’t the only fresh faces on the practice field yesterday as a handful of early enrolled true freshman and junior college transfers joined the Tigers for the first workout of spring practice.
In the four periods the media was allowed to watch practice, here are a few observations of note:
It never fails the focus of a first practice typically revolves around the quarterback position. Thursday was no different.
True freshman Russell Shepard was all the rage for the local media as over 30 members of the press turned out to see Miles’ prized recruit from the Class of 2009.
The only problem was Shepard seemed not quite ready for prime time.
The 6-1 true freshman from Houston never seemed to find a good rhythm throwing the football during Thursday’s individual portion of practice. To say he wasn’t throwing a perfect spiral would be generous. As a matter of fact, of the reps witnessed by the media, Shepard failed to toss even one “good ball” in the direction of a wide receiver.
Shepard measured 6-1, 179 pounds on the official spring roster. But standing next to the 6-4, 219-pound Jefferson, the nation’s top prep player looked even slimmer.
Sure enough, it was just one practice, but considering the poise shown by Jefferson and the fact Lee is hanging around, “Shep” might find himself in the slot more often than under center.
As for Jefferson, he exuded much more confidence taking the “first string” snaps during Thursday’s workout. The spiral was tight, his presence was strong and the majority of his throws were on the money.
The official roster lists Jefferson at 209, but he told the media after Thursday’s drills he was up to about 219 or 220. When asked about the weight gain, Jefferson said he had been trying to put on weight, which led to a follow-up question about would the weight gain affect his scrambling abilities.
“I see myself more as a pocket passer,” he said.
While Jefferson has been putting on weight, Lee looks as if he might have shed a few pounds. A trimmer, more fit looking Lee took the “second string” snaps on Thursday and looked sharp during the individual period.
And as Shepard had his issues, the other true freshman quarterback was wowing media members with impressive arm strength.
Tupelo, Miss. freshman Chris Garrett also enrolled early and is taking part in spring drills. He was throwing in the “fourth” position of the quarterback rotation, but it was safe to say he might possibly possess the strongest arm among all Tiger signal callers.
Garrett is every bit of the 6-4, 220 pounds that he is listed on the official roster. And the zip on his ball was reminiscent of Josh Booty. Shepard has gotten lots of publicity and may indeed live up to the hype down the road, but Garrett was awfully impressive and stole the spotlight on the first day out.
Moving around the practice field, LSU will go through spring drills with only 11 offensive linemen to work with.
“We have no three’s,” Miles said Thursday evening. “That means some true freshmen are going to have to step up and contribute in the fall.”
None of those true freshmen are on campus just yet, but one redshirt freshman sure drew some attention on Thursday.
Thomas Parsons looks like he is ready to contribute in a big way. Listed at 6-5, 276 pounds, Parsons resembles a smaller Andrew Whitworth and definitely has the frame to add even more weight.
Miles said afterwards, Josh Dworaczyk is the likely suspect to step into the void left at left tackle by Herman Johnson. The head coach added the center position is up for grabs, so to speak, as Will Blackwell, Patrick Lonergan and T-Bob Hebert are all in the mix.
Blackwell made the transition from defensive end to the offensive line and Hebert took part in some drills, but wore a green non-contact jersey while still recovering from a leg injury last season.
While Miles was vague on who is the heir apparent at center, running back Charles Scott kind of let the cat out of the bag during an interview session after practice. The senior running back indicated Josh (Dworaczyk) and P.J. (Lonergan) were doing a good job filling in the holes on the offensive line.
As for the wide receivers, Brandon LaFell looks like a man among boys with an NFL body to boot. Terrance Toliver seems to have gained no weight during the offseason still standing a very lean 6-4, 194.
Tim Molton seems to have taken on some added initiative in the offseason adding some weight and determination. On one pass route, Molton, adjusted to a poorly thrown ball, made a one-handed grab before tumbling out of bounds. On his way down, he managed to barrel roll through assistant sports information director Bill Martin.
“He ran great routes, made nice catches and showed great speed,” Miles said afterwards. “I expect him to play a lot of football. I think his speed, quickness, his ability to run routes and his ball skill will help him (get on the field). If the ball is thrown to him, he’s going to catch it.”
Seldom-used defensive back John Williams made the transition to wide receiver and went through drills with the wideouts on Thursday. It might be the move that finally gets Williams on the field.
Another player who saw action at a different position is wide receiver DeAngelo Peterson. Peterson took some snaps at tight end and Miles indicated it is something they are “trying out.”
As for injuries, Miles indicated Jacob Cutrera is recovering from offseason surgery and will not take part in spring practice. Stefoin Francois will also miss spring drills recovering from an injury and Kentravis Aubrey sustained a serious back injury that has likely ended his career.
Shomari Clemons was observed wearing a green jersey as was defensive back Brandon Taylor and Hebert.
We’ll have more observations from the defensive side of the ball a little later.