Inside look at how LSU’s starting five is coming together up front
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Toby Weathersby has lost count of how many times he’s watched the tape of his only career start — it never gets easier.
It came on the road last season against Ole Miss. Weathersby, as a true freshman, has already entrenched himself as LSU’s sixth lineman, a ‘swing man’ who’d fill in if one of the starting five needed a break of got hurt.
Well, left tackle Jerald Hawkins couldn’t play due to an injury. Vadal Alexander slid to the other side of the line and Weathersby got the nod at right tackle. Both veterans provided advice and wisdom, Weathersby said, but the rookie struggled in a 38-17 Rebel rout.
“I’ve actually watched that too many times,” Weathersby said Thursday. “Just wondering what I was doing wrong, with me coming in knowing I had some shoes to fill. It was a lot of mistakes I was making, maybe just because I was a young player, but knowing I still got expectations to uphold.
“So watching that film, it made me cringe sometimes just looking at myself because I knew I could do better than that.”
Today the sophomore is one of three “starters” named by Les Miles to take the two starting tackle jobs vacated by his former mentors. He says the game has slowed down for him enough so that he’s ready for a crack at the full-time starting gig.
Conversations with LSU’s offensive linemen Thursday helped bring some clarity to the biggest position battles for an offense that returns its starting quarterback, the entire backfield behind him and two leading receivers.
K.J. Malone, at least during Tuesday’s scrimmage, LSU’s final live action before the season-opener against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, took the majority of the first-team reps at left tackle. The junior has impressed on the blind side since the start of fall camp.
“He has ridiculous arm length,” Will Clapp explained. “For a guy who is 6-(foot)-4, he has arms as long as his dad. And then his quick feet. Naturally, he’s one of the fastest guys in the o-line room. With that combination, he’s really a natural left tackle.”
His father, of course, is Hall-of-Fame hoopster Karl Malone. The Mailman has been a fixture around the Football Ops Facility in recent weeks.
Weathersby and Maea Teuhema — the favorite to land the left tackle job before a sprained ankle cost him the first few practices of camp — are rotating in and out at right tackle “about every other series,” according to Weathersby. Teuhema has also played some left tackle, per Weathersby.
Clapp, who played right guard last season, took most of the reps at left guard during Tuesday’s scrimmage. The sophomore declared his surgically-repaired hip “100 percent” healthy with no serious limitations. He attributed some missed practices early on to “pushing it a little too hard” and too soon, but said he’s practiced and scrimmaged in full the past few weeks.
While Clapp says he still takes the occasional rep at right guard, he’ll likely begin the season on the left side. Senior Josh Boutte said he’s taken most of the first-team reps at right guard and hasn’t taken many on the opposite side. He played there for the entirety of Tuesday’s scrimmage, he said.
“Maybe there was a week or so I was at left guard, and I was comfortable at it,” Boutte said. “But I think coach (Jeff) Grimes likes me at right guard for whatever reason. And I really like it. I like working with Toby Weathersby and Maea at right tackle when were duce blocking and stuff like that.”
Boutte began last season as LSU’s starting left guard only to lose his job to a then-true-freshman Teuhema after just one game. He can point to the holding call that wiped out a Travin Dural touchdown and banished him to the bench.
That can be a tough pill to swallow, particularly with an upperclassman running low on years of NCAA eligibility. But teammates say the massive road-grater never sulked. He then reported to camp in the best shape he’s been in since arriving at LSU, determined to nail down a starting job.
“Jerald Hawkins, Vadal Alexander, they just kept telling me to keep working,” Boutte said. “And it’s working out for me. It’s my last season, and I’m trying to make the best of it. Coach Grimes tells me every day that he’s proud of me for how hard I’m working.”
One thing Grimes won’t tell him: who will start against the Badgers.
Scrimmage reps can indicate what a starting lineup will look like, but Boutte said Grimes likes to keep him in the dark. A motivational tactic aimed at keeping his big men hungry. It’s also meant to breed competition and develop depth.
“I’m glad he didn’t tell me,” Boutte claimed, “because, honestly, like every practice I’ve been trying to maul guys and dominate, so it’s been working out for me. So if he wants to keep us in the dark until the first game, I’m fine with that.”
Most coaches prefer to have settled on a starting five with the season opener quickly approaching. LSU, meanwhile, has two sophomores rotating at right tackle, a first-time starter working at left tackle, and two guards who switched sides from where they played last season.
Having so many moving parts up front can be problematic if the unit lacks cohesion. That’s where having a three-year starter and All-SEC center like senior Ethan Pocic provides Miles and Grimes with greater latitude to tinker.
Pocic’s versatility — Miles has long contended he could play anywhere along the line — also makes him a wealth of information for the younger players to go to.
“Having him on the side of you, he’s like the brains of the offensive line,” Boutte said. “We make calls. If we’re wrong, he’ll correct us on it.”
Weathersby added: “I’m still learning. I still ask Pocic to this day what I can do on a certain play to make it better. Little technique issues, I still ask him.”