BATON ROUGE, La. - For the past two seasons, the LSU football team has been in the spotlight - both in the Southeastern Conference and nationally.
Two years ago, the Tigers swept through 12 regular season opponents and whipped Georgia in the SEC title game. However, LSU couldn't finish the deal as it dropped a 21-0 decision to Alabama in the national title game.
This past year, a team loaded with NFL draft choices on defense couldn't complete the job in its regular-season game against the Crimson Tide. The Tigers let Alabama drive for a game-winning touchdown in the last minute. As a result, the Tide went on to the national title and LSU played in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The Tigers will be under the radar in the SEC West in 2013. LSU still has the talent to win the division, but most of the preseason talk will surround Alabama and Johnny Manziel-led Texas A&M. The Tigers have a tough schedule with Florida and Georgia as its Eastern Division opponents.
LSU once again received spotty quarterback play in 2012 with Zach Mettenberger as a first-year starter. Coach Les Miles hired former Baltimore Ravens coordinator Cam Cameron to run his offense. Miles can only hope Cameron can be as successful as John Chavis has been with the defense.
Chavis was hired as defensive coordinator following the 2008 season when the Tigers had difficulty stopping the opposition. Chavis has turned out productive defenses and NFL-ready players. In the past four drafts, LSU had 19 defensive players picked as compared to seven offensive players in that time.
In spring practice, Cameron introduced a new system at a new pace. Mettenberger put up good numbers in the spring game - 12-of-19 for 236 yards and two touchdowns, but they came against second and third-team defensive players.
There is less depth on this Tigers team than the ones which have posted a combined 34-6 record the past three years. Miles stressed throughout spring drills that the freshmen joining the team this summer will have an opportunity to play - not just on special teams.
"When this team reconvenes in June with a real quality freshman class, it should be a strong team," Miles said. "There's a lot to build on. When we get to the summer, we will recognize that we have a quality opponent to start the season. We will look forward to playing TCU."
The offense is more experienced, although the legal status of tailback Jeremy Hill has put a cloud over that side of the ball. But, it all comes down to how Mettenberger performs. LSU has been successful recently with average quarterback play. The Tigers will not have that luxury in 2013.
BIGGEST THING YOU LEARNED ABOUT LSU THIS SPRING
For the first time in a few seasons, depth could be an issue in a few areas on the team. The recent legal problem for Hill could pose problems at the tailback position. Hill is currently indefinitely suspended from the team. If Hill doesn't return, there are just three scholarship tailbacks on the roster - Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee. Moreover, Blue is coming back from knee surgery and had no contact during spring practice.
The starting offensive line is set with four returning players who have been starters. La'El Collins made the move from left guard to left tackle. Josh Williford, who missed the last half of the 2012 season due to a concussion, shifted from right guard to left guard. Guard Trai Turner and tackle Vadal Alexander are back on the right side of the line. Elliott Porter won the center job during spring drills. But, none of the second-unit offensive linemen has taken a snap for the Tigers. Injuries forced Turner and Alexander to play earlier than expected last year and there was a period of adjustment.
On the defensive line, LSU lost six players - four of whom were drafted in the first five rounds of the NFL draft. Tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and end Jermauria Rasco have been key substitutes for a couple of seasons. Now, they find themselves in the starting lineup. Those three players are ready for the SEC. The problem involves the other players in the defensive line rotation. There will be at least two true freshmen who must be prepared to handle immediate playing time.
QUESTIONS LSU RECEIVED ANSWERS TO THIS SPRING
There will be more depth at both the wide receiver and tight end position in 2013. Redshirt freshman Travin Dural, who missed last year with a knee injury, is pushing seniors Kadron Boone and James Wright to be the No. 3 wide receiver. The tight end position was a concern prior to spring practice. But, the three tight ends - Travis Dickson, Dillon Gordon and junior college transfer Logan Stokes - all enjoyed productive springs.
Defensive end Jordan Allen and middle linebacker D.J. Welter are two redshirt juniors who sat out last season. Allen suffered a knee injury in the second game of the year. Welter was academically ineligible for the regular season. Everyone assumed that Rasco would be one starting defensive end. Allen apparently has beaten out sophomore Danielle Hunter for the starting spot on the opposite side of the defensive line. The Tigers needed a replacement for middle linebacker Kevin Minter. Lamin Barrow, who had an excellent junior campaign at weakside linebacker, was a candidate to move into the middle. However, Welter was given the first shot at Minter's old spot and he held on to that job throughout spring practice.
QUESTIONS STILL LINGERING FOR LSU AFTER SPRING
The arrest of Hill, who was already on probation from an incident which occurred while he was in high school, and the health of Blue have placed concerns about the running back position. Miles has said that he will let the legal process play out for Hill. Blue indicated that he is healthy, but no one will know for sure until he is tackled in live action. The Tigers signed no running backs back in February.
LSU has a great tradition of placekickers under Miles - Colt David, Josh Jasper and Drew Alleman. But, no kicker stepped forward to grab the field goal/extra point job. James Harrison will once again handle kickoffs, but he has been inconsistent as a field goal kicker. He didn't kick in the spring game. Colby Delahoussaye and Trent Domingue are walk-ons who are competing with Harrison. In the spring game, both walk-ons missed a field goal attempt and Delahoussaye missed an extra-point try.
There was also no decision reached on the No. 2 quarterback behind Mettenberger. Stephen Rivers had an excellent spring game - 7-of-10 for 185 yards and two touchdowns. January enrollee Anthony Jennings caught the attention of the coaches with his poise. Jennings also has the mobility which both Mettenberger and Rivers lack. The duel between Rivers and Jennings will continue through August practice.
PLAYERS WHO STEPPED UP DURING SPRING
Returning starting wide receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry looked like big-time players during spring practice. Both receivers caught six passes in the spring game. Beckham gained over 200 yards, while Landry accounted for more than 100 yards. Collins, a highly-regarded offensive lineman coming out of high school two years ago, showed that he can be a very good left tackle. J.C. Copeland, a bruising blocker at fullback, may also be more involved as a runner and pass receiver.
Tahj Jones, who was academically ineligible during the 2012 regular season, was impressive at strongside linebacker in spring practice. Jones will be a starter at linebacker for the first time in his career as a fifth-year senior. A number of defensive backs missed practice time due to injuries. That situation gave the backups plenty of snaps. Sophomore safety Corey Thompson showed that he is ready to get into the rotation. In fact, he could challenge Ronald Martin for a starting spot.
PLAYERS WHO NEED TO STEP UP HEADING INTO THE SUMMER
Hilliard was a non-factor at tailback in the second half of the 2012 season. With the uncertainty surrounding Hill and Blue, Hilliard needs to return to his freshman year form. Hilliard had no more than a mediocre spring practice. LSU also needs significant help on the inside of the offensive line behind the starters. True freshman center Ethan Pocic, a January enrollee, and guards Jonah Austin and Fehoko Faniaka must make improvement during the summer.
Hunter was expected to be a starter at defensive end, but his adjustment period is taking longer than expected. Hunter must be able to give the Tigers at least 20 plays per game. Defensive tackle Quentin Thomas had his moments during spring drills. However, he must be more consistent to jump into the rotation. The three sophomore backup linebackers - Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones on the outside and Lamar Louis in the middle - must be ready to perform if injuries hit the starters.
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