I answered five questions for friend Andy Bitter’s blog of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer this weekend and here are the Qs and As. We’ll be touching on a lot of this stuff in more depth as the season starts to inch closer, but this is what Andy ran.
Also, this is a feature similar to what I’ll do throughout the season with beat writers from upcoming opponents, a piece of content we’ll call ‘The Weekly Six-Pack.’
Andy Bitter: America’s favorite coach to kick around is back, although Les Miles always seems to get the last laugh. Yes, he wears his hat funny. Yes, he talks in a strange way. Yes, he eats grass. (Well, that one’s kind of weird.) But, despite his strange and occasionally reckless ways, the man knows how to coach. Despite all the heat he was feeling last year and an offense that was horrible, the Tigers won 11 games and hammered Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, giving LSU fans hope that it was a springboard to this season.
To see just how good the Tigers will be, I went to someone who’s helped me three straight years with this stuff, Randy Rosetta, who now works for the Scout.com website Tigers Sports. Here are his answers to a few questions:
AB: Jordan Jefferson has toiled three long years at quarterback, always tantalizing fans with a strong bowl performance before reverting back to his erratic play to start the next season. Now that it’s his last shot to make good on his career, is there a better chance he’ll be for real? How much of a mentor will Steve Kragthorpe be? And, for that matter, how much of a motivating factor will Zach Mettenberger be?
RR: A lot of folks have compared Jefferson to former Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell because for three years, two as the full-time starter, he has tantalized LSU fans with flashes of brilliance here and there but has never quite turned the corner. Now, similarly to Campbell, Jefferson enters his last season with a new offensive coordinator in Kragthorpe, who is regarded as a better quarterbacks coach than his predecessor, Gary Crowton. That all sounds good right now, and Jefferson has said the right things about a fresh start and being coached differently. He genuinely seems invigorated under Kragthorpe, but the proof will come the first time Jefferson faces a defense with enough athletes to frustrate him and the Tigers by taking away a facet, whether it’s what is expected to be more diverse running game or a passing game that Jefferson obviously keys.
Mettenberger’s arrival and the lingering presence of fellow senior Jarrett Lee should definitely motivate Jefferson because Miles had made it clear he won’t hesitate to shuffle quarterbacks if the offense sputters. Lee remains the immediate backup after sparking two wins last season and playing a key role against Alabama. And Mettenberger is looming in the background as the QB of the future – and perhaps the present if Jefferson falters. All of this adds up to Jefferson being more motivated than he’s ever been and that’s timely for LSU because its hopes of being a national championship contender rest on his shoulders.
AB: Are the parts in place for Jefferson to succeed? How are the Tigers going to replace Stevan Ridley? Is Russell Shepard’s recent compliance issue something to watch? And how good will the offensive line be?
RR: Yes, there is a ton of offense talent around Jefferson, although experience doesn’t equal the potential yet. LSU will be deeper and more versatile in the backfield with sophomore Spencer Ware as the likely starter, a guy who is a better receiver than Ridley and equally as adept at making holes when there isn’t one. Michael Ford and Alfred Blue give LSU some different changes of speed and freshmen Kenny Hilliard and Terrance Magee could also jump into the mix.
In the receiving corps, Rueben Randle enters his third year with an eye on being a more consistent deep-ball threat and Shepard gives LSU a dual-threat along the lines of former Florida star Percy Harvin. His compliance run-in shouldn’t cause much trouble, though he could sit out a game as punishment. There aren’t a bunch of other receivers who have logged much time, but the depth there is appealing with three promising sophomores and a crew of freshmen poised to take their cracks.
The offensive line is a team strength, with eight players back who have started at least two SEC games, giving Miles more depth up front than he’s had in his seven-year tenure.
AB: The Tigers lost a lot of prime talent on defense (CB Patrick Peterson, LB Kelvin Sheppard), but they always seem to be loaded on that side of the ball. Where will the stars be on defense and are there any glaring question marks?
RR: The answers here are yes and yes. LSU’s defense is as talented as it’s been since the 2003 national championship season, but most of that talent is raw and untested. That could lead to some early growing pains, but the parts are in place for a dominant defense, especially in a loaded secondary and up front where defensive line coach Brick Haley has the luxury of mixing and matching players to fit whatever scheme the Tigers are facing.
The glaring question mark is at the linebacker level, where LSU has to replace middle linebacker and unquestioned team leader Sheppard. Senior Ryan Baker will shoulder the leadership role from an outside spot, but there isn’t much experience to work with in the middle and the strongside will feature hybrid backers Stefon Francois and Karnell Hatcher, both converted safeties. Regardless of how the linebackers evolve, LSU is poised to run more 4-2-5 this season because of the talent glut in the secondary – in particular so playmaker Tyrann Mathieu will be on the field as much as possible.
AB: Alabama, LSU and Arkansas are expected to be near the top of the SEC West this year. The Tigers go to Tuscaloosa but host the Razorbacks in the regular season finale. What kind of shot do you think they have to claim the division title and get back to Atlanta for the first time since 2007?
RR: As usual, the West Division shapes up as a dogfight and I think LSU is in prime position to contend for a spot in Atlanta because of the way the schedule breaks. Besides having Arkansas at home to conclude the regular season, the Tigers’ home schedule is also favorable with Florida and Auburn headed to Baton Rouge this fall. I don’t think anybody will get through the West unscathed, but Alabama’s road schedule is more rugged than the Tigers and even a win against LSU in Tuscaloosa might not be enough.
AB: Miles answered some of his critics with an 11-win season last year, but now there are some lingering NCAA issues. First, the sanctions that were handed down last week that led to the school being put on one year of probation. Now the ongoing Willie Lyles saga. Are these going to be minor bumps in the road or something larger once all is said and done?
RR: Because Miles and the university were proactive with the previous infractions and have followed a similar method with the Lyles situation, the bumps don’t seem to be major right now. The big issue will be if the matter with Lyles lingers as a distraction, particularly when the calendar turns to October and November. Should the NCAA clear LSU before then, they will become minor but those are unknown ifs at this point. Because Lyles provided information to LSU on Mettenberger and a handful of other lower-profile recruits who are on campus, and because the school paid only $6,000 compared to Oregon’s $25,000, the flags aren’t nearly as red as they seem in Eugene right now.