LSU football opens spring practice Tuesday with a decidedly different landscape.
After coming off a 15-0 season and national championship in 2019, LSU had to replace 15 starters and two new full-time coaches. After the coronavirus pandemic wiped out virtually all of spring practice, the Tigers never crawled over .500 in its revised 10-game SEC only 2020 schedule.
LSU’s lone winning streak of the season in its last two games helped the Tigers finish 5-5 and avoid their first losing record since 1999. It led to an active December and January in which head coach Ed Orgeron revamped his coaching staff and was able to convince approximately 14 starters who could have declared for the NFL draft or concluded their eligibility to return in 2021.
In a complete flip from a year ago when the Tigers lost virtually all of their starters, they will open spring practice with 22 starters — all 11 on offense, nine on defense and two specialists.
Here’s seven storylines to look for during the Tigers’ 15 spring practices:
New blood on the coaching staff
Orgeron made five new hires – including an offensive and defensive coordinator – which helped lower the average age of LSU’s entire coaching staff by 10 years.
Orgeron and defensive coordinator Bo Pelini agreed to mutually part ways after one season after LSU posted the school’s worst-ever defense allowing 34.9 points and 492 yards per game. That unit was the Tigers’ first to yield more than 30-plus points and 400-plus yards per game, including six of 10 games in which their opponent rolled up 500-plus total yards.
Replacing Pelini is Daronte Jones, who coached with former LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda at Wisconsin in 2015. Jones had spent the past five season in the NFL, most recently as the defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings.
LSU also hired linebackers coach Brett Baker, who replaced the position Pelini handled, while Andre Carter left the Miami Dolphins to coach the Tigers’ defensive line after Orgeron moved Bill Johnson to an analyst role.
Long-time assistant coach and beloved offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, a former LSU quarterback, moved to an analyst role and was replaced as offensive coordinator by Jake Peetz, the former quarterbacks coach of the Carolina Panthers. Orgeron also tapped into his resource with former LSU passing game coordinator Joe Brady and hired DJ Mangas as passing game coordinator to replace Scott Linehan.
Hotly-contested quarterback competition with three QBs with SEC starts and wins
A year after LSU had minimal returning quarterback experience after the loss of Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow, the QB room this spring is crowded with three QBs who all started games last year and a hot-shot signee itching to show his stuff.
Because of an abdominal tear sidelined redshirt junior starter Myles Brennan last season after the third game, the Tigers started true freshmen TJ Finley and Max Johnson in the final seven games.
Brennan, who completed 79 of 131 passes for 1,112 yards with 3 interceptions and 11 TDs at the time of his injury, appears healthy after winter conditioning. Finley, Johnson and early enrollee Garrett Nussmeier are expected to get the opportunity to compete and learn Peetz’s offense which supposedly in theory mirrors LSU’s 2019 record-setting unit.
Finley went 2-3 in his five starts, completing 80 of 140 passes for 941 yards with 5 interceptions and 5 TDs.
Johnson left the greatest impression, though. He led LSU to a pair of wins in the final two games of the season, a 37-34 road upset at then-No. 6 one-loss Florida, and a 53-48 home conquest of Ole Miss the regular season finale in which he rallied the Tigers with a pair of TDs in the game’s final 5:31.
He passed for an LSU freshman record 435 yards against the Rebels and accounted for five TDs, passing for three and rushing for two. For the season in six games of action, Johnson completed 88 of 150 (58.7 percent) for 1,069 yards passing, 8 TDs and 1 interception. He also ran for 119 yards and two TDs on 54 carries.
Development of back-up offensive line
Orgeron used his recruiting magic to convince his entire starting offensive line to return for another year.
Returning tackles Austin Deculus and Dare Rosenthal, guards Chasen Hines and Ed Ingram and center Liam Shanahan represent a combined 86 career starts.
That leaves offensive line coach James Cregg with the task of developing LSU’s offensive line of the future which return just two players – Cam Wire and Charles Turner – who have combined to start in six games.
Last year’s starting group played the majority of the season. But Cregg knows he must create quality depth from a group of highly recruited signees who haven’t taken meaningful snaps in their respective careers.
Along with Wire (6-6, 311) and Turner (6-5, 287) LSU is hopeful of being able to develop Xavier Hill (6-3, 307), Marcus Dumervil (6-5, 310), Anthony Bradford (6-7, 355), Marlon Martinez (6-4, 325), Kardell Thomas (6-3, 325) and Thomas Perry (6-6, 329).
Finding a replacement for multi-talented specialist Zach Von Rosenberg
When punter/placekick holder Zach Von Rosenberg decided to relinquish his title as the nation’s oldest player officially ending his college career at the conclusion of last season, the 30-year-old former minor league pitcher left not only a legacy of quick-witted social media banter, but also quite a sizable void on the field.
LSU signed the nation’s No. 1 punter in Peyton Todd of West Monroe, who is already on campus and going through offseason workouts with eight other freshmen.
Kickoff specialist Avery Atkins has been previously mentioned by Orgeron as having suitable punting skills.
During his career, Von Rosenberg evolved into one of LSU’s most reliable punters and one of the most consistent in the SEC, leading the league last year with a 43.9 average.
He punted 59 times last season with 18 punts for 50-plus yards with a long of 61 yards. He also never had a punt blocked in 157 career attempts and never botched a placekick hold for current placekicker Cade York or his predecessor Cole Tracy.
LSU’s tight ends group shallow after departure of Arik Gilbert
LSU enjoyed having five-star freshman Arik Gilbert for eight games last season before the Georgia native quit after catching 35 catches for 368 yards and 2 TDs.
Backup tight end Tory Carter (4-42, 0 TDs) opted out after the Alabama game.
That left LSU extremely thin at a position in which 2019 starter Thaddeus Moss set a school record tight end receiving mark of 47 catches for 570 yards and 4 TDs.
Sophomore Kole Taylor, who was best known last season for having his shoe yanked off and thrown by a Florida defender that resulted in a pass interference penalty keeping LSU’s game-winning drive, is the team’s most experienced player. He had two starts in the seven games he played, catching 6 passes for 36 yards and no touchdowns.
Former LSU pitcher Nick Storz (6-5, 260) has given up baseball to concentrate on football full-time. He played in all 10 games last season and was credited with a special teams tackle but didn’t record any offensive statistics.
Senior Aaron Moffitt, a former defensive end, missed the 2020 season with an injury, while the Tigers also signed Jalen Shead (6-4, 240) of Olive Branch, Miss.
Early enrollees eager to learn
Maason Smith (6-6, 312), the nation’s top-rated high school defensive lineman in 2020, enrolled in LSU in January and began off-season workouts along with eight other December signees.
Smith, a five-star prospect, is one of five newbies designated to play defense with Zavier Carter (6-5, 190) of Atlanta and Landon Jackson (6-6, 260) of Texarkana, Texas both ticketed for the outside linebacker/defensive line.
Derrick Davis Jr. (6-1, 190) of Monroeville, Pa. is one of LSU’s top-rated safeties in the class and will help lend depth at that position, while the nation’s top-rated junior college linebacker Navonteque Strong (6-2, 220) of Gulf Coast (Miss.) Community College is expected to bolster the middle linebacker position.
Four-star Nussmeier (6-2, 172) of Flower Mound, Texas is part of LSU’s talent-rich quarterback position and will get the opportunity to develop a rapport with wide receiver Deion Smith (6-3, 203) of Jackson, Miss. – the state’s top-rated receiver.
The Tigers were also able to bring in punter Peyton Todd and four-star prospect Garrett Dellinger (6-4, 307) of Clarkston, Mich, their lone offensive lineman from the early signing period.
Developing a wide receiver corps around Kayshon Boutte
LSU’s 2020 wide receiver depth took plenty of hits, starting with preseason opt-out of 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner JaMarr Chase and then Terrace Marshall Jr. opting out following game 10 vs. Alabama.
That led to the emergence of freshman Kayshon Boutte over the final three games of the season. He finished as the team’s leading receiver with 45 catches for 735 yards and 5 TDs, highlighted 14 catches and an SEC record 308 yards with 3 TDs in the Tigers’ season-closing win over Ole Miss.
Boutte is the headliner in a group that gained additional experience last season and appears primed for more growth this year. Jaray Jenkins (23-397, 2 TDs) and Jontre’ Kirklin (13-184, 3 TDs) both decided to return for another year while Koy Moore (22-177) and Trey Palmer (10-108) showed signs of potential.