By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Assistant Editor
The human spine comprises 33 vertebrae working as one.
The backbone of the LSU football team is made up of two tackles, two guards and a center doing very much the same thing.
As long as it’s doing its job, the untrained observer never really notices, but if a single weak link in the chain breaks, the entire offense is left paralyzed. A team can have all the explosive ball-handlers in the world, but the game of football is still won and lost by the big guys in the trenches.
So while swarms of local media elbowed each other for ringside seats to hear freshmen Leonard Fournette, Brandon Harris and Malachi Dupre hold court at LSU’s Media Day, the Tigers’ offensive linemen kicked back, snapped a couple selfies and joked around with any reporter who ventured to the back-left corner of the indoor practice facility.
Most of them only did so to get a quote on what it was like to block for the aforementioned youngsters.
If you ask left tackle La’el Collins, they wouldn’t have it any other way.
"We’re not the big-time camera guys. We’re the guys in the back of the scene just playing our role and going with it,” Collins said. "But everyone in this group and on this team knows we’re putting in the work. We understand we have to lead this team because we are the most veteran group, so that’s what we’re going to do.”
The offensive line has been circled as the strength of the 2014 Tigers since January, when Collins announced he’d be putting off the NFL draft and returning to Baton Rouge for his senior season.
With right tackle Jerald Hawkins, left guard Vadal Alexander and center Elliott Porter back as well, Collins anchors an offensive line that returns four of five starters from a group that performed well for most of last season.
Trai Turner opting to leave for the NFL draft opened up a vacancy at right guard. Turner was a good player who will be missed, but with seniors Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington leading the battle to replace him — sophomore Ethan Pocic is in the mix as well — all reports indicate any drop-off should be minimal.
"I haven’t noticed any difference with any of the three playing next me to me,” Hawkins said. "All three are smart, athletic and physical, so when they get in there’s been no problem with communication and we just get to work.”
For now it sounds like Fanaika is ahead, but even if he does win the starting job, Washington and Pocic are still valuable players because of their versatility. Washington has played both guard and tackle spots during his time at LSU, and Pocic is pushing Porter at center and can play all five positions along the line.
LSU coach Les Miles has said throughout fall camp that no matter which of the three start at right guard, he expects all three to see significant snaps this season.
"Whoever wins the starting spot will definitely be ready to play,” Washington said. "The competition has gotten better every day. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if all three of us play during the season because we’re such a cohesive group with eight-or-nine people who can step in and contribute. We all go in there with a starter mentality.”
With the top seven leading the way — and a few talented youngsters behind them — LSU’s collection of offensive linemen has the combination of four things every coach would want from any group: ability, experience, versatility and depth.
Don’t try to tell Cam Cameron his linemen aren’t skill players.
The architect behind the Tigers’ offense may be known for his work with quarterbacks and the passing game, but he won’t let such a slight toward his big men go by without an immediate correction.
"They’re all skilled positions,” Cameron said. "We have big-skill and mid-skill, but they’re all skilled positions. Our tackles are athletes. Our centers are athletes. Our guards are athletes. They have to be able to move and block skilled guys on the defense, so you better have skilled guys blocking those skilled guys.”
Cameron went on to point out how most of today’s offensive linemen were either tight ends or basketball players in high school.
"I don’t know how you play today’s game without a high level of skill,” he said.
Luckily for Cameron, the skill level of his already-solid offensive line has been on a steady rise ever since Jeff Grimes took over as the Tigers’ offensive line coach in January.
None of them meant it as a knock against former offensive line coach Greg Studrawa, but the first word out of nearly every Tiger’s mouth when asked about Grimes was either "technician” or "intense.”
Since arriving in Baton Rouge from Virginia Tech, Grimes has put the Tigers to school on everything from terminology to hand placement to footwork. Grimes is the kind of coach that gets everything possible out of each minute of practice, and his players have felt the attention to detail rachet up.
"Practices are more intense when it comes to technique,” Hawkins said. "We’re not just working on blocking the front seven. He’s showing us the steps and footwork to get out to the next level of the defense and go after safeties and cornerbacks as well. Since the spring he’s really opened my vision to seeing football as a whole.”
In order to get his linemen on defensive backs in the open field, Grimes went to work literally shaping them to fit his system.
He wanted to go away from the monstrous maulers of years past and instead sculpt his line into a finely-tuned group of athletes.
It’s always dangerous to stand between a group of 300-plus pound men and their food. That’s precisely what Grimes has done.
"Coach Grimes is just a bit more of an enforcer,” Collins said. "He doesn’t play around about our weight, and he’ll stay on us to make sure we’re right where we need to be to perform at a high level. He’s really on us about what we do and don’t eat, and I think that’s going to take us to the next level.”
Collins was already the best lineman on the team when Grimes arrived, but part of the reason he returned was to solidify himself as a guy that can play left tackle at the next level and is deserving of being a first-round pick in the NFL draft.
Grimes told Collins he knew how to make that happen and said Collins has bought in to what he’s teaching.
The season hasn’t even started yet, and Grimes is already raving about what a success story Collins has been.
"[Collins] has had a great camp so far,” Grimes said. "He’s made vast improvement in his footwork and the minor details of the game. He’s just getting better every day.”
When Collins — the unquestioned leader along the offensive line — got on board with Grimes’ plan, the rest of the group followed suit.
The results are striking, as all of the LSU linemen have come into camp having lost weight, gained muscle or both.
"It’s hard, because we used to go out as a group and tear up a buffet,” Collins said. "Man, they’d have to chase us out of there sometimes.”
Kaminari, a sushi and hibachi buffet just off campus, is the group’s destination of choice.
From the next chair over at Media Day, Hawkins chimes in that Washington is the biggest eater on the team, claiming to have seen him put down eight plates of food in a sitting.
Washington, sitting one more seat down the row, confirms his teammate’s story, but acknowledges Grimes’ dietary plan has had him slacking lately.
"I’ve already lost 20 pounds since the spring, and I still got a few more to go,” Washington laughed.
Fall camp is a time of great expectations and bold proclamations.
The adrenaline starts pumping when players report to camp, and it’s a long month to wait and overanalyze what little information comes out from that point until kickoff finally arrives.
So naturally, it didn’t take long for the question to change from "how good is this offensive line?” to "is this the best offensive line in Miles’ decade at LSU?”
Miles fielded the question early in fall camp.
"I’m not ready to describe it as my best offensive line ever,” Miles said. "I agree with how they are proceeding. They're talented. I need them to come to the field ready to play.”
There’s no way a coach as tight-lipped with the media as Miles is going to inflate his team’s ego by saying yes, but the potential is there. There’s been good line play ever since Miles arrived at LSU, but this year’s mix of veteran leadership and talent could make it one of the best if it puts the work in.
Going into his fifth year in the program, Washington doesn’t remember a team with this much depth up front.
"I don’t know about before that, but since I’ve been here, this is the deepest group of offensive linemen we’ve had,” Washington said. "Our potential is limitless. We just need to go with the coaching we’re getting right now and we could be great.”
Porter has been in the program almost as long after transferring from Kentucky. He’s excited about this group, but he wasn’t ready to say this was the best offensive line he’d seen come through Baton Rouge.
However, he did compare it to a group that did some special things.
"Back in 2011 when we played for a national championship, we were really good and we were really deep,” Porter said. "We had young guys like myself, La’el and Trai Turner who didn’t even start. You look around this room and it’s pretty similar, so I’d put this group in that same category.”
Anchored by tackles Chris Faulk and Alex Hurst, that line was so dominant at the point of attack that the Tigers could almost always move the ball despite inconsistent quarterback play.
With inexperience under center and throughout the receiving corps, Cameron is counting on this season’s line to do the same thing.
"Everything here starts up front, and we believe that,” Cameron said. "We have a head coach who is a former offensive lineman, and the line is the foundation of everything we do, whether it’s run blocking or protecting the quarterback. It allows us to be multiple and balanced. That’s key.”
The fate of the 2014 Tigers may very well be decided by the play of their offensive line.
Still though, they’d rather you point your cameras elsewhere.