Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spring Practice Update


After 7 spring practices, here's an update on some of the things I've been hearing thus far.

A lot of eyes have been watching the quarterbacks and they're all seeing the same things, namely that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee are noticeably better than Chris Garrett and Russell Shepard. That's understandable and almost expected after just 7 practices. A lot of onlookers have commented on the noticeable improvement in Jarrett Lee. He's throwing harder, more accurately, and with a quicker release. He also appears to be more comfortable in general than a year ago. Everyone who has commented on Lee in practice was also quick to point out that he's not going against a defense when they were able to watch. As we know, Lee didn't get into trouble last year due to a lack of talent but rather a lack of good decision making. The word on Jordan Jefferson is that he's out at practice acting like he's the starting quarterback. He's also performing like the starting quarterback looking equally as impressive as Lee throwing the ball. True freshman Chris Garrett has turned a lot of heads too. While he's obviously not going to be on Jefferson and Lee's level after a handful of practices, he's performing extremely well and better than expected. So what about Russell Shepard? As a passer, most say he looks like a true freshman. But everyone has also said that he's shown marked improvement in the short amount of time he's been out there. As far as playing other positions, he's starting to get looks at receiver but make no mistake that he's a quarterback right now. Due to his unique athletic ability, LSU is of course going to do everything they can to maximize his talents and that means playing other positions. So when you hear about Shepard running routes at receiver, don't think too much of it.

No big surprises at running back thus far. Charles Scott, Keiland Williams, and Richard Murphy are the veterans and they're performing and acting like it. Unfortunately, the big news has been injuries. Backup tailback Stevan Ridley suffered a knee injury and he might be ready by the fall, but probably not until mid-season. LSU won't suffer at tailback without Ridley but they will suffer at fullback. Ridley was going to get a lot of looks at fullback. He wasn't going to be a mauler of a lead blocker like Quinn Johnson, but he was going to be an adequate blocker and a versatile threat similar to when Jacob Hester used to play fullback. As the blocking fullback, converted offensive lineman Richard Dugas was impressing the coaches and making a statement but he too suffered a knee injury and is out indefinitely.

Brandon Lafell looks like a #1 wide receiver and Terrance Toliver looks like a #2 receiver. The battle for the third spot is underway with redshirt freshman Tim Molton having a big spring and competing with senior Chris Mitchell. A guy who was previously lost on the depth chart, John Williams, is making a statement this spring and might find his way onto the field this year. I haven't heard much about Chris Tolliver, RJ Jackson, or Jhyrn Taylor.

The big news with the tight-ends is that former receiver Deangelo Peterson is now working with the tight-ends. He's of course exceling with the receiving drills and just trying to keep up with the blocking drills. Peterson is still hovering around 200 pounds, so he's at least 30 pounds away from being an SEC tight-end. I wouldn't be surprised to see him redshirt this year and take over the receiving tight-end role after Richard Dickson's senior year.

The big surprise on the offensive line thus far is that T-Bob Hebert has been practicing and running with the first team. I didn't think he'd be ready to go until the end of spring, but he's out there right now. That seems to indicate that he'll be fully recovered from his knee injury and be the guy at center in 2009. No real surprises with the first team offensive line with Ciron Black and Joe Barksdale at the tackles and Josh Dworacyzk and Lyle Hitt at guard.

Two big things to note on the defensive line. First is that junior Pep Levingston is making a statement to nail down the left defensive end position. He's holding off the younger guys and acting like a veteran. Second is that Al Woods really seems to be responding to new defensive line coach Brick Haley. He's showing signs that he may finally break out and have a very productive season.

Everyone has been talking about the linebacker position and how John Chavis is coaching these guys up. The spirit among the linebackers is at a level not seen before, and they're finally receiving some top notch coaching. They're reportedly responding well to it. Perry Riley, Kelvin Shephard, and Jacob Cutrera are the clear leaders to win the starting positions. True freshman Kevin Minter is turning some heads and making a statement. After what I've heard about him, I'd be shocked if he redshirts in 2009. If there's a disappointment, it's that sophomore Ryan Baker hasn't made more of a statement. We'll keep looking for him to make a move.

Thus far, it appears that the starters in the secondary are Patrick Peterson and Chris Hawkins at cornerback and Chad Jones and Harry Coleman at safety. One surprise is that while Hawkins was out for a few days, it was Brandon Taylor who replaced him in the starting lineup, not Jai Eugene or Phelon Jones. Taylor is currently running with Jai Eugene on the second team. Also briefly, Karnell Hatcher was working with the starters at strong safety. He's now running with Danny McCray on the second team at safety. Les Miles continues to mention Ron Brooks by name as someone who is standing out, but he's with Phelon Jones on the third team at cornerback. My guess is that Brooks will see the field a lot as a nickel or dime back.

We've also heard GREAT things about the kicking game. New punter Derek Helton looks like he's going to give LSU an upgrade from 2008's punting game. And Josh Jasper should be able to fill Colt David's big shoes.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring Practice Preview: Defensive Backs


LSU lost only senior safety Curtis Taylor off last year's squad, but we may see a whole lot of change in the defensive secondary. That change starts with new secondary coach Ron Cooper who comes to LSU with a hell of a resume from South Carolina. He's made his mark by consistently putting defensive backs into the NFL and by playing a role in some of the SEC's best defenses over the last several years. Two more of his pupils, Captain Munnerlyn and Emanuel Cook, are expected to be high draft picks next month. In truth, LSU's secondary was a mess last year. DB coach Doug Mallory was also the defensive coordinator, and the lack of attention spent on coaching the defensive backs was evident in their subpar play on the field. I'm also not sure that the most talented players were on the field and to top it off, LSU had a screwy substitution pattern that seemed to confuse all 11 players on defense while simultaneously frustrating all 92,000 people in the stands. I expect all of that to change with Ron Cooper running the show.

Replacing Taylor at free safety is going to be junior Chad Jones. After a very promising freshman season where Jones made a number of big plays, the coaches asked him to do too much last year. Jones played some at safety, some as the nickel back, and some as the dime back. Jones is probably good enough to play any of those positions, but it's difficult for a player to learn the nuances of three different spots. It's just too much to learn, especially for a guy who was trying to play college baseball. What we got was a player who performed adequately but didn't excel at any one of those positions. To be kind, it was a wasted year for Jones. One of the first things the new defensive staff did was anoint Jones as the #1 guy at free safety. It's his position to lose. No more nickel and dime. He'll be on the field for every snap. Jones is a very rare talent. He's 6'3" 220 pounds yet one of the fastest players on the entire team. During his freshman season, he showed that he's a pretty good blitzer so the coaches can get very creative with how they use him. I'll be tentative with my expectations for Jones, but I'll just say that I won't be surprised if he ends up on some All-SEC teams this year.

So who will play the other safety? The guy who will get the first look will be senior Harry Coleman who started a year ago. Coleman struggled through most of the 2008 season, like most of LSU's defenders did. He did lead the team in tackles, but he had trouble in coverage and he really struggled with his tackling. Coleman does have some ability, and I wouldn't be too surprised if he holds off the others and opens 2009 as a starter. As I mentioned in yesterday's update, he could be a candidate to get a look as a linebacker but nothing has happened yet.

Coleman's stiffest competition may come from senior Danny McCray who, much like Jones, was mis-used in 2008. McCray is a safety. He's a good safety. Yet, the coaches kept playing McCray as the nickel back and asking him to cover receivers one-on-one when he proved over and over that he just couldn't do it. Because he was routinely getting toasted, he became the scapegoat for a lot of fans upset with the play of the defense. I don't blame McCray. I blame last year's coaching staff for putting him in the wrong position. Later in the year when McCray played safety, he played well. He won't get the big hit like Harry Coleman and he's not as good a blitzer, but he's a lot more reliable. I'm expecting he'll practice and play exclusively as a safety this year, but it remains to be seen.

One of the surprises this spring could be sophomore safety Karnell Hatcher, who played sparingly last year. He did play though, which means he caught the eye of the coaches. Hatcher has good size at 6'1" 195 pounds and showed good speed and range last year. I definitely wouldn't be surprised to see him make a move and maybe even win a starting position this year. Hatcher will almost certainly make an impact on special teams.

True freshman Rocky Duplessis is participating in spring practice and trying to make an impression. Duplessis looks an awful lot like Craig Steltz on his highlight films and we'll see what he can do.

Sophomore Stefoin Francois is unfortunately injured and it sounds like a pretty serious injury. He won't be practicing at all this spring and he could be out for the entire 2009 season. Francois was highly recruited out of high school and was looking to this year as one to make a statement. He'll have to wait for now.

In the fall the nation's #1 high school safety, Craig Loston, will join the mix and I think he'll see the field. Loston is a serious ball player. While I don't see him taking over one of the starting positions at any time in 2009, I do think he'll make an impact. LSU also welcomes Josh Johns.

At cornerback, LSU has an embarrassing amount of talented players...more than any team in the SEC. I'm curious to see how it all shakes out.

Locking down one corner position is sophomore Patrick Peterson. Peterson earned a starting job about halfway through last season, his true freshman season. Now, he's ready to take the next step and become a star. Peterson has everything you could want in a lockdown cornerback. He's 6'1" 200 pounds. He's plenty fast and plenty strong. And he can stick to receivers like glue. I fully expect Peterson to establish himself as one of the top corners in the SEC this year, which should set him up for All-SEC and All-American honors in 2010. While LSU has lots of talent, I can't see anyone starting ahead of Peterson.

The big question is who will start on the other side of Peterson? The smart money is on either senior Chris Hawkins or junior Jai Eugene who were both starters last year. Eugene was ultimately repalced in the starting lineup by Peterson while Hawkins remained a starter for the entire season. Both guys played OK last year but not great. They both made some good plays and both got beat as well. Eugene, in my opinion, showed a lot more toughness and willingness to tackle. Both Hawkins and Eugene are feverishly trying to hold off a number of younger players, including 3 very talented sophomores.

Brandon Taylor, Phelon Jones, and Ron Brooks have all shown a whole lot of promise in limited playing time last year. Taylor and Brooks also made their mark on special teams. The competition is going to be very intense, not only in battling Hawkins and Eugene for a starting position, but to win the nickel and dime positions as the 5th and 6th defensive backs in passing situations. Brooks is a fan favorite for the enthusiasm he shows on kickoff coverage teams. He's also a candidate to return kickoffs. Phelon Jones is a very solid, very reliable player who could potentially play some safety too. That makes him a good candidate to play nickel or dime. Lastly, the coaches think Brandon Taylor could be another lockdown corner similar to Peterson. They're very excited about him, and he may be the most likely to see the field this year.

Sophomore Derrick Bryant is another player who will try to impress the coaches. Bryant impressed enough last year as a true freshman to win himself a spot on special teams. He also played some in the secondary in mop up duty. Bryant is a versatile player that practices at both cornerback and safety. We'll keep an eye on where he's practicing this spring.

Redshirt freshman Ryan St. Julien is yet another very talented guy who'll try to get on the field this year. St. Julien is still very thin and needs to add some bulk before he's ready for the field. He's 6'1" 175 pounds right now, so he's heading in the right direction because he was in the 160s for most of last year. With all of the players in front of him, St. Julien will likely have to be patient in his career before seeing the field later down the line. He reminds a lot of people around the program of Jonathon Zenon.

LSU didn't sign any true cornerbacks in this class but it's very possible that Morris Claiborne will practice at corner. He was recruited as an athlete and could play either receiver or DB.

All in all, the talent is entirely too plentiful in the secondary for LSU to play as poorly as they did in 2008. I'm expecting tons of improvement next year, and that starts this spring.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spring Practive Preview: Linebackers


LSU has to replace 3-year starter Darry Beckwith as the "Mike" or middle linebacker this spring, but all other contributors return.

LSU also has a new linebackers coach in John Chavis who is also LSUs' defensive coordinator. Chavis routinely had big-time players at linebacker while at Tennessee, so the evidence suggests that the man knows how to find talent at linebacker and that he can maximize their talent once on the field. While Tennessee had over 10 linebackers drafted just this decade, LSU has had just 1 LB drafted (Bradie James) since 1990. Chavis-coached linebackers are known for having lots of speed, and Chavis mentioned in an interview that he'd like to use a big safety as the third linebacker. The rationale in doing this is that rather than substituting out the 3rd linebacker in place of a defensive back in passing situations, that third linebacker would have the ability to cover. The lack of constantly substituting players in and out simplifies things and eliminates a lot of the confusion we saw a year ago. The player who seems best suited to make such a move would be Harry Coleman, but nobody has moved yet.

Though Beckwith received more post-season accolades, Perry Riley outplayed him and the rest of LSU's linebackers in 2008. In his first year as a starter, Riley showed very good speed and ability, and he made a number of plays. He finished the season with 7 tackles for loss, a very good number for a linebacker. Riley is now a senior and one of the leaders of the linebacking corps. He's the only guy in my opinion who is assured a starting position for next year. He's currently working as the strongside linebacker.

Kelvin Shephard, a starter as the weakside linebacker last year, struggled throughout most of 2008. His athleticism was evident, but he overran a lot of plays and missed a lot of tackles. These things can and probably will be fixed with better coaching this season. Last year, Shephard came off the field in the nickel package, so if Chavis experiments with a safety playing linebacker, it could be at Shephard's expense.

The favorite to replace Darry Beckwith as the middle linebacker is senior Jacob Cutrera. Cutrera has been a very solid backup during his time at LSU, but has battled a number of injuries. He's 100% healthy now and looking forward to a very productive spring. Reportedly, Coach Chavis loves Cutrera and thinks he can be a big-time player as a senior. I personally thought Cutrera outplayed Beckwith last year when given the opportunity. When on the field, Cutrera has struggled with overrunning plays or filling the wrong gaps, and those things come with experience.

The top reserve is likely sophomore Ryan Baker who really made a name for himself last year on special teams. Baker made a whole lot of big-time hits and tackles covering kickoffs, including the very first kickoff of the season against Appalachain State. Baker practices as Shephard's backup at the weakside linebacker. Speed is Baker's biggest asset, but he's still awfully small at just 6'0" 213 pounds. After seeing him excel on special teams, a lot of fans wondered why they didn't see more of him at linebacker. The answer probably has to do with his size. If Baker played, we'd probably see him make a lot of plays in the backfield, but we'd also probably see him get run over if an offensive lineman or a tight-end got their hands on him. Many thought we could see Riley or Shephard move to middle linebacker with Baker taking over one of the outside positions, but that has not happened to this point. Baker will get his opportunities in 2009 but it doesn't look like it will be as a starter unless he really impresses the new staff during spring.

True freshman middle linebacker Kevin Minter graduated high school early in order to participate in spring practice. Minter is physically ready for SEC ball at 6'0" 230 pounds. He's reportedly done really well in the weight room and at conditioning workouts. After seeing him, a lot of people don't think Minter will redshirt this season. He'll likely be the top backup to Jacob Cutrera and could play some special teams. The coaches may want to get him as much playing time as possible in 2009 because he's likely the starter at middle linebacker in 2010 and beyond.

Sophomore Shomari Clemons completes the two-deep as Perry Riley's backup. Clemons, a converted safety, is up to 6'1" 232 pounds. He hasn't made much of an impact since moving to linebacker, but he's gotten on the field with special teams. He'll likely remain a top backup during the spring, but I'm not sure if he'll be able to hold off the younger guys when they arrive in the fall.

Redshirt freshman Kyle Prater is still trying to make his mark. I honestly haven't heard much at all regarding Prater from the practice field during the 2008 season. He's 6'1" 220 pounds and playing one of the outside linebacker positions. I do know that Prater performs very well in the weight room, but we'll have to wait and see whether that translates to performance on the field.

Redshirt freshman Kellen Theriot is unfortunately injured and won't be participating in spring practice this year. I have high hopes for Theriot because he's a very quick, very athletic, and very strong player. He's got good size at 6,1" 230 pounds. I see him as the perfect modern middle linebacker. He's a tough kid who can fill the gap on running plays between the tackles, but he has good enough speed to chase down ball carriers or receivers on the edge. I don't know what Theriot's injury is or how bad it is. Hopefully, he'll be ready to go by the fall. If healthy, I think Theriot may replace Minter as the #2 middle linebacker, and he's an easy choice to be on kick coverage teams.

Speaking of the fall, LSU will welcome 3 additional players to the linebacking group. Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones will both likely be outside linebackers. Barkevious Mingo will also play on the outside but may end up practicing with the defensive ends.

Due to the coaching ability and track record of John Chavis, don't be surprised if the linebackers as a whole are the most improved group of players on the field next year.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Spring Practice Preview: Defensive Line


Even though spring practice is well underway, I'm going to keep concentrating on my "previews". I'm going to try my best to finish them up in the next couple of days. Then, I'll give a review of the things I've been hearing from spring practice thus far.

At defensive line, LSU lost quite a bit of contributors from a year ago. Gone at defensive end are 3-year starter Tyson Jackson and 2-year starter Kirston Pittman as well as top backup Tremaine Johnson. At defensive tackle, LSU lost Ricky Jean Francois and backup Marlon Favorite. Eyes will be focused on all the position battles taking place to replace those departed veterans.

Although he didn't start last year, Rahim Alem found himself on a number of All-SEC teams after finishing third in the SEC with 8 sacks. Starting his career as strictly a pass rushing specialist, Alem has developed into a complete player. He's now 255 pounds and can be an every down player in the SEC. Alem is sure to be a starter. He needs to continue working on more than pass rushing, and he needs to teach the younger players all he can. Alem was flagged for some unsportsmanlike conduct penalties last year, so hopefully he's learned from those mistakes.

The other defensive end position is totally up for grabs. Junior Pep Levingston will get every opportunity to win the job. Levingston has been a top backup and waiting his turn behind some very talented players. When he played last year, he mostly played inside as a defensive tackle. He played extremely well in the Peach Bowl against Georgia Tech, using his quickness to shoot through interior gaps and blow up running plays. This spring, he's back to playing defensive end. He'll have to hold off a number of younger players looking to get on the field. We could also see Levingston slide inside to play tackle in obvious passing situations or if LSU continues to use the "Express" package of 4 defensive ends at once.

1 sophomore and 3 redshirt freshmen are also competing at defensive end, and it's unclear who is ahead of who at this point.

Chase Clement is a very well together 6'5" 255 pound player who has drawn rave reviews in practice since he arrived on campus last fall. He's a complete defensive end who can do everything well. He reminds me of Chase Pittman or Melvin Oliver from years past.

Sophomore Sidell Corley is someone we haven't heard a lot about despite being highly acclaimed out of high school. Corley is 6'3" 274 pounds and by all accounts, a solid player but not a play maker. He's also practiced some at defensive tackle. We'll see if he makes his move this spring.

Another guy who has impressed at practice is Lavar Edwards. Edwards practices at both defensive end and defensive tackle so he's another guy who can play both. He's 6'4" 280 pounds but looks to be all muscle without any wasted weight. It will be interesting to see where he ends up and if he's able to make an impact at either position.

The last guy competing for playing time this spring is Chancey Agahyere, who was the most highly regarded out of high school. Aghayere struggled through fall camp as a true freshman while still rehabbing an injured knee. Now that he's fully healthy, we'll see what he can do. He's listed at 6'4" 269 pounds, which means he's already gained quite a bit of weight since high school when he was considered a pass rusher. Perhaps the injury had something to do with that.

In the fall, pass rushing specialist Sam Montgomery joins the fold as does Bennie Logan and Mike Brockers.

At defensive tackle, LSU has 3 veteran guys who have played a lot that are returning and I suspect that regardless of who starts, all 3 will rotate quite a bit.

The NCAA granted Charles Alexander a sixth season of eligibility due to the many injuries he's suffered throughout his career. And that will once again be the story with Alexander...injuries. He's been a very good player when healthy, but he's rarely been healthy over the past few seasons. He's healthy right now and is the leader of the defensive line. This spring, I'll just be looking for him to finish practice and to stay out of the training room.

Drake Nevis is now a junior and looks to be a major contributor to LSU's defensive line. Nevis has played very, very well when in the game and he inexplicably didn't play in a lot of games towards the end of last season. I personally didn't understand this because LSU's defensive line struggled and Nevis was one of the few guys who made plays. Regardless, he'll be heavily in the playing rotation this year, even if he doesn't win a starting job. With a change of defensive coaches, Nevis could be a surprise player this year on defense.

The third veteran is Al Woods who as a senior has yet to live up to his high school billing. I always thought Woods was probably better suited for the offensive line, but he's remained at DT. He's been a solid backup but certainly nothing spectacular. It's time for him to really make a statement. Woods is a huge, space-eater type of defensive tackle at 6'4" 320 pounds. He won't get into the backfield and make many tackles behind the line of scrimmage. But his value comes in forcing the defense to use two linemen to block him, which frees up others to make plays.

Barring injury, those 3 guys will see the majority of work at DT for LSU in 2009. Some other guys are trying to work their way into the rotation though.

We already talked about Pep Levingston, Lavar Edwards, and Sidell Corley who play both tackle and end.

The other guy who exclusively works at defensive tackle is redshirt freshman Cordian Hagans who has impressed at practice. Hagans is a very athletic 6'4" 285 pounds. He only played football for a couple of years in high school so he's still very raw as a football player at this point. We'll see how much of an impact he can make this spring.

In the fall, several guys join the fold. First is junior college transfer Aikeem Hicks, who is another guy that could play tackle or end. Hicks is a big boy at 6'6" 300 pounds. LSU also welcomes high school All-Americans Chris Davenport and Josh Downs. Hicks is likely to play next year while the other two guys will have to really impress in order not to redshirt.

All in all, LSU has a lot of quality depth and a lot of talent but not as much as experience as we're accustomed to. I really think these guys will flourish under new DL coach Brick Haley and despite the losses of personnel, the line play will be much improved.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Spring Practice Preview: Tight-Ends


Spring practice started today, and I'm hustling to finish up these previews before LSU gets too involved into spring practice.

LSU returns their entire group of tight-ends from a year ago, and they didn't add anyone new. So, there shouldn't be any real surprises.

Back for his senior season is All-SEC performer Richard Dickson, who has caught just over 30 passes in each of the last two years. If he has another similar season, he'll leave LSU as the Tigers' all-time leading receiver for a tight-end. He'll once again give opposing defenses another thing to worry about as they gameplan against LSU. Dickson really worked hard on improving his blocking, and he was a big part of LSU's success in the running game last year. DJ Williams from Arkansas will likely be the choice for Pre-Season All-SEC but Dickson will surely be on the 2nd team. Like the rest of LSU's team leaders, Dickson needs to stay healthy and do his best to set the example for the younger players.

The 2nd tight-end will likely be Mitch Joseph once again. Joseph did a nice job fulfilling the role of the blocking tight-end in LSU's offense. However, he was very one dimensional as he didn't catch a pass all year. He's obviously got the inside track for the #2 spot again, but he'll have some competition this year. At 6'5" 260 pounds, Joseph has the frame to be an effective blocker.

LSU has two players who redshirted a year ago who are now ready to compete for playing time.

The guy who may push Joseph for the blocking tight-end role is Matt Branch. Branch looked super coming out of high school, and at 6'6" 245 pounds, he's a bit more athletic than Joseph and presents a better target in the passing game.

LSU also has Tyler Edwards who is ready to play this year. Edwards is built more like Richard Dickson, and at 6'3" 235 pounds he's more of a receiver than a blocker. However, Edwards is very versatile. He split time last year practicing at tight-end as well as fullback. Les Miles has stated that Edwards will only be practicing at tight-end this spring. Without any true fullbacks on the roster this fall, Edwards could be used as an H-back type of lead blocker in certain formations.

LSU didn't sign any tight-ends in the Class of 2009, so we won't see any newcomers in the fall. The above 4 guys make up LSU's repertoire at tight-end for next season.

Spring Practice Preview: Offensive Line


LSU looks to replace departed seniors Herman Johnson and Bret Helms on the offensive line this year. The good news is that both starting offensive tackles return to anchor the line. LSU has sufferered an absurd amount of attrition at offensive line over the last few years. That unfortunately continued this off-season as backup lineman Ernest McCoy left the program. Over the last 3 years, LSU has lost McCoy, Jarvis Jones, Zhamal Thomas, Matt Allen, Mark Snyder, and Steven Singleton. It's like the OL position is on a self imposed probation. Because of that, we've seen defensive linemen Will Blackwell and Joe Barksdale move to the offensive line.

After flirting with the idea of leaving early for the NFL, Ciron Black returns to LSU for his senior season. We all know what Black can do. He's been a starter at left tackle since his freshman season. He's probably the best offensive lineman in the SEC, and he'll be on several pre-season All-American lists. This spring, Ciron needs to concentrate on staying healthy, setting an example, and teaching the younger players as much as he can.

Returning at right tackle is junior Joseph Barksdale. In his first year a starter, Barksdale was solid but not as consistent as you'd like. I expect he'll much improved this season as the former defensive tackle was still very new to playing offensive line last year.

The other returning starter is senior right guard Lyle Hitt. Most assumed that Hitt would slide over to play Center in 2009; however, Miles stated in his press conference last week that Hitt will remain the starter at right guard. Hitt is a solid player, but not spectacular and he's not a guy that's going to win any All-SEC Awards. At times last year, most notably against Florida, he was a liability as defensive linemen went around him and through him. As a senior, I'll look for Hitt to be more consistent.

So that leaves starting positions open at left guard and at center.

At left guard, we won't see a whole lot of competition. The coaches have done nothing but praise Josh Dworacyzk since he's been on campus. He simply had to wait for his turn to shine. Dworacyzk played last year as the 3rd tight-end in goal line situations, and he also played as a backup at guard. I imagine he'll transition easily into the left guard spot and be a 3-year starter for LSU. He is a guy the coaches feel will one day be an All-SEC caliber lineman.

The competition for Center will be much more open. The "plan" was for sophomore T-Bob Hebert to slide into the starter's role at Center this season. However, Hebert is still recovering from the knee injury he suffered last season and probably won't be 100% for spring practice. If he does practice, it likely won't be much. So for the spring, LSU is looking to a couple of guys to step up and win the position. Sophomore Will Blackwell is probably the most likely to be the #1 Center by the end of spring. Blackwell, a former defensive lineman, is only in his second year playing offense. He's plenty big enough at 6'4" 298 pounds and he's strong as a bull. His competition will come from redshirt freshman PJ Lonergan, who has reportedly been very impressive during his first year on campus. In my opinion, it would be a surprise if Lonergan beat out Blackwell, but we'll keep a close eye on this during spring. In the fall, will a healthy T-Bob Hebert be able to unseat either Blackwell or Lonergan? I suspect not. In 2010, Hebert may take over at Center while Blackwell slides over to Guard to replace Hitt, but it's tough to speculate things that far into the future. There's some talk of using Hebert some as a fullback too.

As for the backups, I've been hearing some very good things about a couple of second year players. Offensive tackle Greg Shaw played some as a true freshman last year, and he'll probably be the #1 backup at both left and right tackle. The coaches really like what he has shown so far. Redshirt freshman Alex Hurst has also been impressive in his first year. Probably one of the top backups at guard, the 6'6" 330 pound lineman supposedly plays with a very mean streak. He might not be Kyle Turley, but I hear that he's close. Also between Lonergan and Blackwell, whoever is not playing Center will be one of the top backups at guard.

Redshirt freshmen Clay Spencer and Thomas Parsons are also in the mix and will be looking to impress this spring. I'm guessing their time will come in 2010 and beyond.

In the fall, LSU welcomes 4 more offensive linemen to the mix. Of that group, offensive tackle Chris Faulk is the most likely to earn any playing time. He looks like he may be the #4 offensive tackle next year. Stavoin Lowe, Carneal Ainsworth, and Josh Williford are all probably looking at a redshirt season.

Spring Practice Preview: Wide Receivers


Quite a bit of intrigue will surround the wide receiver position this spring. A lot of new faces will be trying to step up and earn the way into the rotation for playing time.

The only certainty is that Brandon Lafell will be back as LSU's primary receiver. After enjoying an All-SEC season where he caught 61 passes for 903 yards and 8 touchdowns, Lafell strongly considered leaving for the NFL before ultimately deciding to return for his senior season. With another similar season, Lafell will be among LSU's all-time greats at the receiver position. In fact, with 67 receptions this year he'll be LSU's all time receptions leader. He has an amazing knack to consistently get open. He has struggled with drops in the past, but was much improved in 2008. I suspect he'll continue to improve. Lafell will be one of the leaders of this team and can make his biggest impact this spring by setting the example for the younger players and helping them develop. I wouldn't be surprised to see Lafell on some pre-season All-American lists.

We saw 6'5" Terrance Toliver really come on at the end of last season, and that's a pretty good indication that he has the inside track on being the starter opposite Lafell. Toliver really seemed to have a good rapport with Jordan Jefferson, which is also a good sign. I'd be very encouraged to see Toliver have a strong spring and put a strangle-hold on the #2 WR position. Most receivers really blossom in their third year with the program, and I'm hoping Toliver is no exception. Looking back, Early Doucet had 26 receptions in his second year, but then exploded for 59 receptions his third year. Brandon Lafell had just 5 receptions in his 2nd year, but followed that up with 50 receptions his third year. Toliver had 20 receptions in his 2nd year. Hopefully, he shows similar improvement in Year #3.

A lot of players will compete for the #3 receiver position. The player with the most experience is senior Chris Mitchell. Mitchell was the #3 receiver at times last year, though he didn't do a whole lot to convince the coaches to keep him there. Toliver replaced him late in the year and by the end of the year, Mitchell barely played. Mitchell caught just 8 passes for 115 yards, the biggest of which was the long TD catch against Auburn which jump-started LSU's second half rally. His play was otherwise pretty uninspiring, and a lot of fans remember his key drop against Alabama which would have given LSU a go-ahead touchdown late in the game. Mitchell does have outstanding speed, and he could develop into the deep threat role that Demetrius Byrd occupied the last 2 years.

Among the younger players, one name that keeps popping up is that of redshirt freshman Tim Molton. Les Miles mentioned Molton by name in his press conference a week ago as a player who shows the ability in practice to contribute a lot this season. Molton is a former high school teammate of quarterback Jordan Jefferson. He's 6'3" 173 pounds and reminds me a lot of a younger Brandon Lafell. At 173 pounds, he'll want to gain some weight before the fall. But the reports say that Molton runs great routes and explodes out of his cuts. Defensive players have mentioned him as a guy that stands out at practice. Molton also has great speed and could be a very good deep threat. He'll look to make a statement this spring, and I expect he'll see the field quite a bit in 2009.

Senior RJ Jackson will try to be in the mix. Jackson had a promising future if not for a bad knee injury a few years ago. He hasn't been the same since. But Jackson, an ultimate team guy, keeps plugging away. He's a mainstay on special teams units and he has seen spot duty as a receiver. He's one of LSU's best blockers as a receiver, and he's found a niche in that role. In fact, it's been a bit of a "tell" that when Jackson is in the game, it's either a run to his side or a quick receiver screen to his side. Jackson goes into his last spring practice trying to make his mark and earn his way into the regular playing rotation.

Deangelo Peterson is another guy who has a lot of promise. Peterson played as a true freshman last year while Tim Molton redshirted so that means at one point last year, the coaches thought Peterson could help the team win more. Peterson is more ready to play from a physical standpoint. While he doesn't have superb speed, he's a very well put together 6'3" 200 pounds. He also played some special teams last year. At fall camp last year, Peterson's name often got mentioned as one that really stood out. That talk subsided as the season went on, and now we're hearing more about Molton. I'm very interested to see if Peterson makes a move this spring. I've heard some talk about possibly putting some weight on Peterson and turning him into a receiving tight-end, but he's got about 30 pounds to go before that can even be possible. In fact, if the staff is really considering that, I'm not sure what that says about his prospects as a wide receiver.

Out of high school, the most heralded receiver of the 2008 class was Chris Tolliver, who redshirted last year. Tolliver has good size at 6'1" 180 pounds and he has elite speed. Throughout last year, the word on Tolliver was that his talent was evident, but that everything didn't click with him just yet. Once he learns the nuances of the receiver position, the potential is very high with him. He's another guy that would excel in the deep threat role if given the opportunity. I would also keep an eye on Tolliver for kickoff returns.

The forgotten man, at least so far, is redshirt freshman Jhyrn Taylor. Taylor, at 5'11" 174 pounds, is a smaller shiftier type of wideout. I haven't heard good or bad regarding Taylor since he arrived on campus. I just haven't heard anything at all. I'd be shocked if Taylor found himself in the mix in 2009. Right now, it seems that he's a guy that will have to work hard, be patient, and hope to make a difference later in his career.

Sophomore John Williams started his career as a defensive back. After failing to make an impact on defense, he moved to wide receiver and practiced there all last year. Now, the spring roster has him listed as a defensive back again. So I'm not sure what to think. Highly regarded out of high school, Williams hasn't panned out thus far. His biggest impact has been on the scout team, where he emulated the option QB of Georgia Tech leading up to the Peach Bowl. LSU's defenders said after the game that Williams was harder to stop in practice than the Yellow Jackets' QB in the game. Maybe Williams should work at QB this spring?

The only other things to watch this spring will be to see who else is practicing at wide receiver. I suspect we might see Richard Murphy practicing with the wideouts some. We may also see true freshman Drayton Calhoun work with the wideouts.

In the fall the nation's #1 receiver prospect from high school, Reuben Randle, enters the mix and many already have him penciled in as the #3 receiver. Randle will certainly see the field a lot this year, but I think it will be mid-season before he's entrenched as the #3 receiver in LSU's offense.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

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