Kleinpeter: LSU still stuck a cut below college football’s elite

A college football team staggered by violations of the law got a boost from a different kind.

The law of averages caught up with an LSU squad staggered by legal difficulties from the first day of fall camp when the NCAA reinstated cornerback Kristian Fulton last week after his erstwhile last-chance appeal was shot down.

With the help of a four-page letter/plea by Athletic Director Joe Alleva, the NCAA changed some language in its charge against Fulton, which allowed it to justify shaving a year off an overly-harsh, two-year suspension. He’s eligible immediately.

Clearly, it doesn’t save the season, but it does move the momentum needle back toward the positive. LSU still has a lot to overcome after losing starting guard Ed Ingram, backup inside linebacker Tyler Taylor and wide receiver Drake Davis to indefinite suspensions for issues that have cast a shadow over camp. But it’s got to make the squad overall feel better going into Sunday’s season opener vs. Miami at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington.

Which brings us to and 2018 preview and prediction.

Fulton’s reinstatement strengthens LSU at a position it was already struggling with for depth, and underscores that this Tiger team will bank on defense. The team’s two best players – linebacker Devin White and cornerback Greedy Williams – are preseason All Americans and the depth has been rebuilt.

My feeling is that with the amount of experience and depth the defense has, and the fact it is the third season under coordinator Dave Aranda, defense will carry this team, especially early in the season. The offense will be working out the kinks of Steve Ensminger’s new offense — the third new offense in the same three seasons – and will have to weather an inordinate number of turnovers, penalties and other mistakes as it adapts to a quarterback (Joe Burrow) who arrived three months ago.

I had a chance to listen to Aranda speak at the LSU coaches’ clinic two years ago. What I gathered was that it was going to take a minimum of three years to unleash the full potential of what he likes to do. His defenses have already been impressive, and he’s been working with the key pieces of the third for two years.

The foundation of a good defense is the line and this one is going to be better than last year’s. LSU’s rotation in 2017 was bolstered by fifth-year seniors starters Christian LaCouture, Greg Gilmore and, to a lesser degree, Frank Herron, another five-year guy. None were drafted. With Breiden Fehoko and Rashard Lawrence slated to start, we’re looking at two sure-fire NFL picks.

White is a player-and-a-half in the middle and has talent around him. Jacob Phillips had moved ahead of Taylor, Michael Divinity is having his best fall camp and sophomore pass rush specialist K’Lavon Chiasson appears poised for a breakout season like the player he replaced, Arden Key, did two years ago as a sophomore.

The secondary has returning starters at safety in John Battle and Grant Delpit. The only question is the starter opposite Williams. Fulton, a five-star recruit, might win the job during the season, but even if he doesn’t, there is enough experience for coaches to feel confident, especially with the addition of transfer Terrence Alexander.

One wild card is JaCoby Stevens. The No. 1 safety prospect from the 2017 class wasted his freshman year when coaches asked him to move to wide receiver. He’s the classic safety/linebacker hybrid that the NFL has become so wild about and I can see Aranda using him as such, an element he didn’t have last year.

Offense is simply an unknown. It could come out with a bang on Sunday, but it’s more likely going to be a work in progress with Ensminger holding back until the unit coalesces. The biggest variable is the offensive line, which was a bit disordered even before Ingram was suspended. The Tigers can’t expect to have him at all in 2018. Left tackle Saahdiq Charles is solid, but the interior three spots are up for grabs. Garrett Brumfield, the other returning starter, might have to open at center instead of guard. Adrian Magee and Austin DeCulus haven’t settled the right tackle job yet.

The skill positions are all manned by new faces in a new offense with a new quarterback. It’s no wonder penalties and other mistakes marked the first scrimmage. Ensminger will likely run something scaled down and conservative, at least in the first three weeks with the Tigers going to Auburn Week 3. Running backs will rotate even more than in the past and who plays will depend on the situation. There will be several empty set looks in each game.

It’s apparent that freshmen Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall have moved past veterans Davis, Stephen Sullivan and Dee Anderson. Jonathan Giles, Justin Jefferson and Derrick Dillon join with the freshmen for the top five in the rotation. Tight end Foster Moreau, the top returning receiver, might end up leading the team in catches.

Special teams will get more attention with the addition of former NFL coach Greg McMahon. The punting was highly efficient with the tandem of Josh Growden and Zach Von Rosenberg and should remain so, but the addition of transfer placekicker Cole Tracy will be big. He’s got distance but even better accuracy, hitting 68 of 84 (27 of 29 last year) with a long of 53. He’s going to win at least one game for LSU in 2018, which plays into my prediction for the record.

At first glance, LSU looks like a 7-5 team with this killer schedule, but I’m going to give them 8-4, and that one game is just because the Tigers signed Tracy. I don’t see LSU as a program in decline, but it might be stuck a cut below elite for a few more years.

About Jim Kleinpeter 12 Articles
Jim Kleinpeter is a graduate of the LSU School of Journalism. He sportswriter for 37 years, including 33 years at the Times-Picyaune.

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