LSU struggled last year, going 8-5 amidst whispers of “Saban’s players are gone.” Confusion reigned on defense, but quarterback play got the headlines—LSU had seven interceptions returned for touchdowns, and 16 overall. LSU fans expect both to be fixed this year—but the whispers won’t go away until the football team delivers on the field this fall.
What went wrong?
Problems on defense were obvious: Substitutions arrived late, players were often caught looking at the sideline for play calls or coverage assignments while the ball was being snapped, and blown coverage (particularly by linebackers and safeties) was frequent. The co-defensive coordinator experiment was a bust.
The offense performed well for most of the season—gaining more yards against Georgia and Alabama than any other team did—but self-destructed with those interceptions.
After the Alabama game (four interceptions) the starting quarterback, Jarrett Lee, regressed, and the offense sputtered the last few games. Lee’s passer efficiency averaged 140 through seven games, but only 81 for his final four games. This wasn’t just about interceptions, but also about the fragile psyche of a freshman quarterback.
Offensive coordinator Gary Crowton has a history of starting strong and then tailing off in subsequent years (Oregon, Chicago Bears, BYU)—was the pattern repeating itself at LSU?
Crowton has done better inheriting a quarterback, than he has in developing his own; could he have managed Lee better?
The Road Back Begins This Spring.
The entire defensive coaching staff was replaced. John Chavis, formerly of Tennessee (nine top-three SEC defenses in 14 years at UT), is the new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.
Joining him are defensive backs coach Ron Cooper (who led the Gamecocks to consecutive top-four pass defenses), and Brick Haley (from the Chicago Bears), on the defensive line.
Changes are apparent already. Charles Alexander, granted a sixth year of eligibility, said it’s more like the old way of doing business.
When asked if that meant the way Bo Pelini coached, he said "I think I might take it all the way back to my true freshman year when coach (Nick) Saban was here, it's backs to the wall and nothing but maximum effort. Not to take anything away from coach Pelini, but this style is more intense. It's what we need after last season."
Chavis is also scrapping the “chess-match” approach of last year, where the co-defensive coordinators tried to shuttle players on and off the field with every offensive package change, to get the perfect personnel match-up.
Chavis says he only has two packages; base (4-3), and dime. He relies on using speedy linebackers—perhaps even a converted safety—that can cover; his fastest starting linebacker is his nickel back.
The biggest losses on either side of the ball are on the defensive line, where LSU will have at least three, and possibly four new starters this fall.
On offense, there’s a lot more depth at quarterback this spring (more on that later), and LSU has weapons to support him – Brandon LaFell (929 yards, eight TDs, No. 2 SEC receiver last year), and Charles Scott (1174 yards, 18 TDs, second in rushing yards among returning SEC players).
Notable Position Battles this Spring.
Quarterback: Jefferson’s MVP-winning performance in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl convinced many he is the chosen one for 2009, but they’re overlooking his less than 50 percent completion percentage on the season. Jefferson’s zero interceptions in his two starts, however, give him the inside track as starter.
Lee put up good numbers during the season, but threw too many interceptions to hold onto the job.
Two freshmen are early enrollees participating in spring practice: Russell Shepard, a dual-threat phenom who will see the field in some capacity this year, and Chris Garrett, a strong-armed, very accurate passer that may be the sleeper of LSU’s recruiting class.
Fullback: Yes, LSU still uses a true fullback, and loses a good one, Quinn Johnson, to the NFL. Look for fullback by committee this spring, with Charles Scott probably lining up there sometimes ala Jacob Hester, until recruit Dominique Allen arrives this summer.
LSU may go with more one-back sets, or use an H-Back (TE Tyler Edwards most likely), if a suitable replacement doesn’t step forward.
Receivers: Brandon LaFell is a lock at one position. Terrance Toliver (6’4”, 194 pounds, 22 receptions), has shown flashes of ability, but needs to become more consistent to provide a steady No. 2 receiver.
Chris Mitchell and Tim Molton will battle for the third and fourth spots; watch for Molton (6’3”, 173 pounds, 4.45), who teamed with Jordan Jefferson in high school, to move up the depth chart this spring.
Reuben Randle, leading receiver in the U.S. Army High School All-American Game, arrives this fall. Richard Dickson (31 receptions, five TDs) will be a reliable weapon at TE in his third year as starter.
Running Back: Charles Scott is the headliner, backed up by fellow senior Keiland Williams (83 carries, 444 yards). Look for junior Richard Murphy to be the star of the spring game for a third consecutive year; will it finally transfer to the regular season this year? Stevan Ridley and incoming freshman Michael Ford will provide depth.
Offensive Line: LSU must replace Herman Johnson (left guard) and Brett Helms (center), but Ciron Black (left tackle) bypassed the NFL and returns for his senior campaign. Lyle Hitt, a dominating run blocker, will return for a third year starting at right guard, and Joe Barksdale starts for a second year at right tackle. Depth is a concern, as only 11 offensive linemen are present for spring drills.
Defensive line: The biggest question mark on the roster, other than possibly quarterback. LSU may open with new starters at all four positions. Rahim Alem (eight sacks), was a pass-rushing specialist last year, but is he an every-down end that can stop the run?
Lazarius “Pep” Livingston and Chase Clement will compete at the other end. Charles Alexander (DT) returns for a sixth year, but has yet to fully rebound from knee surgery in 2007. Man-child Al Woods (6’4”, 323 pounds), and Drake Nevis will compete with Alexander at defensive tackle.
Linebacker: The responsibilities will change here more than the personnel. Perry Riley and Kelvin Sheppard return at the outside positions; Jacob Cutrera, long time (and frequently injured) backup, is the favorite in the middle. Freshman Kevin Minter may challenge for the middle linebacker spot; watch for special-teams demon Ryan Baker to make his case for Sheppard’s position.
Secondary: Should be the strength of the defense in 2009. Sophomore cornerback Patrick Peterson (6’1”, 205 pounds), appearing in spot duty before claiming the starting job for the last four games, may end up the best ever at LSU; besides his coverage skills, he’s an asset against the run, finishing third on the team in solo tackles.
The other corner spot is up for grabs; Chris Hawkins is the favorite, but Jai Eugene (started eight games last year), and Ron Brooks are possibilities also, and will provide quality depth. Chad Jones moves to free safety, and Harry Coleman is likely to repeat at strong safety. Karnell Hatcher and true freshman Craig Loston are two more names to watch at safety.