BATON ROUGE, La. – Louisiana State's annual spring football scrimmage featured a notable lack of buzz.
That wasn't the only thing missing.
Injuries left the Tigers without starting quarterback JaMarcus Russell, three of their top four running backs, two starting offensive linemen and both starting safeties.
The absence of star power and the onset of Final Four fever resulted in a remarkably low turnout for Saturday's scrimmage at Tiger Stadium, even after school officials waived the usual $5 admission fee. Although an official attendance figure wasn't announced, a scan of the stands revealed about 3,000 fans – less than half of last year's total of 8,233.
Even as the success of the men's and women's basketball programs pushed LSU spring football into the inside pages of local sports sections, the Tigers didn't sense anything out of the ordinary about this preseason.
The lack of attention from fans or the media never lowered the team's intensity.
"It's never been flying under the radar for us," LSU coach Les Miles said. "We're focused with blinders on here anyway."
They needed that focus to deal with a rash of injuries that sent plenty of starters to the sidelines. LSU could have filled an all-star team with the guys who sat out Saturday's scrimmage.
Chris Jackson, who regularly handles the Tigers' kicking and punting chores, couldn't punt Saturday as he recovers from Tommy John surgery on his elbow. Jackson did participate in the kicking drills.
An Inside Look
Old reliable: Defensive line. Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten are on their way to the
NFL, but the Tigers still look solid up front. Don't be surprised if junior defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey earns All-SEC honors in his
first year as a starter.
Promising newcomer: Running back Trindon Holliday. This 5-foot-5, 165-pound
freshman dynamo ran 19 yards on an end around and delivered a 68-yard kickoff return despite losing his balance around midfield. "If you give
him a crease, it can be a very costly event for you," LSU coach Les Miles said.
Unit that needs work: Offensive line. The Tigers already were reeling from the
departures of Andrew Whitworth, Rudy Niswanger and Nate Livings. Losing Will Arnold and Ryan Miller to injuries this spring
prevented an inexperienced group from establishing chemistry.
Happy Returns: Chevis Jackson had a 71-yard punt return to go along with
Holliday's long kick return. And that doesn't even include defensive back Daniel Francis, who also nearly broke one.
All those injuries allowed several younger players to get more opportunities than usual. If nothing else, LSU's coaching staff learned this spring that several banner recruiting seasons have provided the Tigers with an extraordinary amount of depth.
"It was just seeing what we had for the future basically, with people getting injured and other people having to step up," junior linebacker Ali Highsmith said. "You looked at what you had for years to come.''
The most notable backups to make a name for themselves this spring were junior quarterback Matt Flynn and redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Perrilloux, who took turns directing the first-team offense in Russell's absence.
But they weren't the only players to make an impression.
The injuries to Broussard and Vincent forced junior fullback Jacob Hester to fill in at tailback. Hester carried the ball well enough to prove he could handle either backfield assignment this fall.
"I'm really confident with Jacob Hester, to be honest with you," Miles said. "I'd have no reservations handing him the ball in any number of situations in any number of games."
Hester and redshirt freshman Antonio Robinson combined for 118 yards on 21 carries in Saturday's scrimmage. Other underclassmen who made a name for themselves this spring included redshirt freshman running back Trindon Holliday and redshirt freshman defensive end Ricky Jean-Francois.
The Tigers' top two spring performers included a new starter on defense and a returning starter on offense.
Junior defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey also showed star potential as the Tigers try to replace Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten on the front four. Dorsey backed up that all-Southeastern Conference duo last season.
"He's going to be a great leader and tremendous player for us inside," Miles said.
Senior wide receiver Dwayne Bowe made a convincing case that he's ready to emerge as the Tigers' top pass-catching threat. Bowe caught three touchdown passes Saturday and finished the scrimmage with seven receptions for 136 yards.
While Bowe continually caught passes in one end zone, an even more encouraging scene was taking place at the other end zone. That's where Broussard, Vincent, Landry and Daniels were running without any noticeable limps, raising hopes that all the injured starters would return in time for the Sept. 2 season opener with Louisiana-Lafayette.
Although the performances at Saturday's scrimmage offered plenty of encouragement for upcoming seasons, the Tigers probably won't challenge for an SEC or national championship this fall if most of their top players remain on the sidelines.
"It'll be fun to see as many as 11 or 12 starters return to action for the start of our season," Miles said after the scrimmage. "I think it's pretty nice and pretty comforting to see we have a good football team (at the scrimmage). And when you add those guys who weren't in uniform today and add a couple of freshmen who will add depth and speed in certain situations, it will be a pretty strong football team to start the season."
Making the Grade
Quarterback: 8.5 JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux give LSU arguably more depth at this position than any other
school in the nation. The only concerns involve Russell's health and the possibility of a quarterback controversy.
Running back: 8.0
A more suitable grade would be "I" for "Incomplete." If Alley Broussard and Justin Vincent are healthy, the Tigers have one
of the top offensive backfields in the land. If not, then LSU must rely heavily on the versatile Jacob Hester.
Wide receiver: 8.0 Dwayne Bowe, Craig Davis and Early Doucet combined for 102 catches and 16 touchdowns last year. Bowe's
three-touchdown performance Saturday certainly offers reason for optimism.
Tight end: 6.0
Returning starter Keith Zinger caught just seven passes all last season, but he had two receptions Saturday. Is it an indication the
Tigers may throw to their tight ends more often?
Offensive line: 6.5
This is probably the Tigers' greatest area of concern. How do they replace All-SEC tackle Andrew Whitworth and Academic All-America center
Defensive line: 8.0
LSU also suffered major losses on this side of the line, but the Tigers are confident the return of Chase Pittman and the emergence
of Glenn Dorsey can help compensate for the departures of All-SEC selections Kyle Williams and Claude Wroten.
The good news: Ali Highsmith is back after finishing second on the team with 75 tackles last year. The bad news: Highsmith is the
only returning starter on the linebacking corps.
Defensive back: 8.5
Assuming they're healthy, All-America candidate LaRon Landry and returning starter Jessie Daniels should give LSU one of the
SEC's top safety duos. Chevis Jackson also returns after starting every game at cornerback last season.
Special teams: 8.0 Chris Jackson, who handled both the kicking and punting duties last year, should return after recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Jackson fared much better as a punter than as a kicker last year. If Jackson isn't healthy, the Tigers have plenty of insurance plans.
Brady Dalfrey looked particularly impressive Saturday, averaging 56.7 yards on three punts including a 70-yarder.
For more coverage of LSU spring football, check out TigerBait.com.