OVERVIEW: The Tigers parted ways with former coordinator Gary Crowton, who now is at Maryland, and former Louisville and Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe was brought in as quarterback coach and coordinator. But Kragthorpe had to give up coordinator duties late last month, when he announced that he had Parkinson's disease. The new coordinator is line coach Greg Studrawa, but he will follow Kragthorpe's blueprint. Kragthorpe, like Crowton a former NFL assistant, prefers a pro-style attack, but there will be some elements of the spread. How Studrawa - who was Bowling Green's offensive line coach under Urban Meyer - handles the play-calling will be a storyline to follow this season.
BACKFIELD: Kragthorpe's key pupil is senior QB Jordan Jefferson, who last season did his best impression of a mediocre Conference USA quarterback. Jefferson has some physical tools, most notably his running ability, but he never has been more than a middling passer. Can Kragthorpe coax more out of him? It's not a stretch to say that if Jefferson can become just a competent SEC quarterback, LSU can win the league - and the national title. JC transfer Zach Mettenberger, who began his career at Georgia, signed with LSU amid much fanfare, but he didn't live up to the accompanying fervor during spring practice. Senior Jarrett Lee looks as if he will be the backup. LSU lost 1,000-yard rusher Stevan Ridley, but the Tigers should be fine at tailback. There is talent, but it is unproven. A committee approach is possible, though it seems likely that sophomore Spencer Ware - who had a big Cotton Bowl (102 yards) - is the guy the coaches want to win the job. He has good size (5-11/223) and also the speed to run away from people; he was a high school quarterback in Ohio. Fellow sophomores Alfred Blue and Michael Ford also will be in the mix. Blue, Ford and Ware combined for 89 carries, 542 yards and five TDs last season.
RECEIVERS: There are some great athletes, but they have been criminally underutilized, partly because of issues at quarterback but also partly because of a lack of imagination on offense. Rueben Randle is a former five-star recruit, but in two seasons, he has just 46 total touches. He has the size and speed to be a big-time deep threat, but he also lacks consistency. Russell Shepard is another former five-star recruit. Shepard has had some success on reverses and the like, but he's still a bit raw as a receiver after playing quarterback in high school. He had 33 receptions last season, but he averaged a paltry 7.7 yards per reception and scored just once. He's the kind of athlete who needs to place stress on opposing secondaries by running crossing routes and fly patterns. Depth is a question, as the only other receivers on the roster who had a reception last season are Kadron Boone (four) and James Wright (two). True freshman Jarvis Landry was a five-star recruit and should see plenty of time this fall. DeAngelo Peterson is a big-time athlete who headlines a deep group of tight ends. Again, though, LSU's tight ends have suffered from a lack of use as receivers.
LINE: This is a rather anonymous group, but it's still one of the best lines in the SEC and one of the top 10 in the nation. It's a big, physical, nasty unit. RT Alex Hurst is getting a lot of preseason acclaim. The one new starter is LT Chris Faulk, a former four-star recruit. His backup is Chris Davenport, who was a five-star signee as a defensive tackle. Gs Josh Dworaczyk and Will Blackwell, C P.J. Lonergan and G/C T-Bob Hebert - the son of former NFL QB Bobby Hebert - are either returning full- or part-time starters. Depth looks good in the interior, but a bit iffy on the outside. Expect at least one true freshman to see time as a reserve.
an inside look
THE LINGERING QUESTION: Can QB Jordan Jefferson get the job done? He was adequate as a sophomore in 2009, then regressed badly last season, throwing 10 picks and just seven touchdowns. He has good mobility and can hurt opponents with his legs, but he simply has to become a better passer if LSU is to realize its vast potential. New quarterback coach Steve Kragthorpe will help - but how much?
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The young defensive line dominates, lessening the pressure on a questionable linebacker group, and the secondary feasts when opposing quarterbacks have to run for their lives. Jefferson becomes a competent quarterback, with LSU mostly relying on its running game but also getting some timely completions from Jefferson. The Tigers win out and head to New Orleans for the national title game. Remember that both of LSU's titles in the BCS era have come in New Orleans.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Jefferson stays the same and the passing attack withers on the vine. A strong rushing attack simply isn't enough against this schedule. In addition, outside of Ryan Baker, the linebackers underachieve and the run defense suffers in the showdown games. And LSU misses K Josh Jasper, who attempted 68 field goals in the past two seasons. LSU loses twice but still goes to New Orleans - for the Sugar Bowl, though, and not the national title game.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: It's all about the pass offense. LSU threw for 251.6 yards per game in 2006, but the passing numbers have dropped every season since - to 225.3 in '07 to 201.3 in '08 to 181.8 in '09 to 155.6 last season. That's a scary fall, and it must be reversed.
OVERVIEW: John Chavis seemingly has been coordinating defenses in the SEC since the turn of the century - and we mean the 1900s, not the 2000s. "The Chief" likes an aggressive, attacking unit, and with the Tigers, he has a bunch of good athletes to do his bidding. At times, he takes too many chances, but opposing coaches know a Chavis-led defense also is going to make a few big plays each game. LSU lost a star player at each level of its defense - T Drake Nevis, LB Kelvin Sheppard and CB Patrick Peterson - but the talent is on hand for another sterling unit.
LINE: Nevis was a disruptive force in the interior, but expect the havoc to be wreaked by the ends this season. Sophomores Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo have big-time potential as pass rushers, and Montgomery, especially, seems ready for a breakout season. Mingo needs to get better against the run. Returning starter Kendrick Adams is a steadying force, but he hasn't been a big-play guy. Lavar Edwards, who will back up Montgomery, is another end who is solid against the run. There is untested talent in the middle. Keep an especially close eye on true freshman T Anthony Johnson, who was the nation's top high school defensive tackle last year. Johnson enrolled early, went through spring ball and was atop the depth chart going into fall camp. He is a freakish athlete for a guy who goes 6-5 and 300 pounds, and he eventually should be a pass-rush threat at tackle. He's expected to start alongside sophomore Michael Brockers, who signed as an end but has moved inside. He also has great size (6-6/300) and good side-to-side mobility. Their sheer athleticism will serve them well, but their inexperience will hurt at times. Depth is OK on the inside, but not close to as good as it is at end.
LINEBACKERS: This is the potential defensive weak link. Returning starter Ryan Baker needs to be a steadying influence. He's coming off an 87-tackle season and should vie for All-SEC - and maybe even All-America - honors this season. He's not the biggest guy (he's listed at 6-0, with "listed" being the operative word), but he weighs 230, runs well and knocks the slobber out of people. Both his running mates will be converted safeties. Stefoin Francois made the move before last season and was adequate in his first season at the position. He made 37 tackles last season, and he needs to be more productive this season. The new middle 'backer will be Karnell Hatcher, who made 11 starts at free safety last season. Hatcher wasn't the fastest guy around, but he was fast enough to rank third on the team with 64 tackles last season. He weighs just 215 pounds, though, and it will be interesting to see how he holds up against the run at linebacker instead of safety. His backup is Kevin Minter, a former four-star signee who is exceptionally strong but was a non-factor as a redshirt freshman backup last season. Baker is a given, but the other two spots are question marks.
SECONDARY: Peterson was the nation's best cornerback last season, but he won't be missed as much as you'd expect. Indeed, even without him, LSU still might have the best set of corners in the league with Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu, who was a first-team freshman All-America performer last season. Claiborne (6-0/177) is long and lean, while Mathieu is the more physical of the two. Mathieu had 57 tackles, two picks, seven pass breakups, 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss last season, playing mostly in a nickel back role. Both have good speed and will be used as return men. Backups Ron Brooks and Tharold Simon are solid, too. Senior Brandon Taylor is the returning starter at strong safety, but he'll have to fend off sophomore Eric Reid, who made three late-season starts when Taylor was injured. Taylor probably is the "safer" pick, but Reid has a much bigger upside. The free safety should be sophomore Craig Loston, another former five-star prospect. Loston didn't flash as expected last season, but perhaps a season of seasoning will help. His backup is Derrick Bryant, who has made 14 tackles in three seasons.
The Tigers need a new kicker, a new punter, a new kick returner and a new punt returner. The punt coverage was excellent last season, but the kickoff coverage was shaky at times, surprising considering the number of top-flight athletes available for special teams duty. The new kicker is expected to be junior Drew Alleman, who hasn't made a field goal in a game since he was a senior in high school in 2007. Alleman also could double as the punter; he punted twice as a redshirt freshman, averaging 25.5 yards per attempt, with one a pooch punt downed inside the 20. The other possibility at punter is redshirt freshman Brad Wing, an Australian who attended one year of high school in Baton Rouge. He is a former Australian Rules Football player. Peterson handled all the return duties last season, but they will be shared by the starting cornerbacks this season, with Claiborne returning kicks and Mathieu punts.
the recruiting side
Average national rank past 5 years: sixth
The buzz: LSU did what it does best - the Tigers scored big at home. All told, LSU signed 23 players, including 16 from Louisiana. That state had a 2011 class that was incredibly strong at the top, and LSU landed the best of the best - OT La'El Collins, DT Anthony Johnson and WR Jarvis Landry. Each was a five-star recruit and each has the ability to contribute early, especially Johnson, who comes to Baton Rouge as the country's No. 1 defensive tackle recruit. In the SEC, you never can have enough quality tackles. - KEITH NIEBUHR
Johnson was a prime recruit who impressed coaches during the spring. If he carries that over, he will be a freshman All-America selection. Guys who are his size but also have quickness are a treasured commodity. Alleman will be important, as well. LSU attempted 68 field goals in the past two seasons, and unless the offense undergoes an incredible transformation, there likely will be a lot of field goals attempted again. If Alleman is spraying those kicks around, LSU obviously will be in trouble.
It gets serious quick, with the opener against Oregon in Arlington, Texas, in what might be the most anticipated non-conference game of the season. Game 2 is a yawner against FCS member Northwestern State (La.), but then comes a Thursday night game at Mississippi State (yes, the cowbells already are ringing) followed by a trip to West Virginia. Oregon, Mississippi State and WVU combined to win 30 games last season. After that, it calms down a bit, but there still are road games against Tennessee, Alabama and Ole Miss and home contests against Florida, Auburn and Arkansas. The Nov. 5 showdown with the Tide likely determines the SEC West title - and it could be a de facto elimination game in the national title hunt.
The pieces are in place for a great season. Whether it's a great season depends on Jefferson - and that has to make LSU folks uneasy. Jefferson was not good last season. His supporters will point out that he has a lot of talent surrounding him. His detractors will point out that he had a lot of talent surrounding him last season, too, when LSU lost twice. And there is no time to get comfortable with the revamped offense, what with three big games in September, including the opener. Jefferson doesn't have to be a star. But he also can't afford many low points, and with this schedule, some low points are going to lead to a loss - or even two.
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