Contention for a 2014 SEC championship is on the horizon for the LSU Tigers.
Wins, lots of 'em, and an SEC-championship berth are on the docket in 2014. That, of course, would not be possible without some solid brick-layering on the foundation of LSU football in 2013.
Yes, a 9-3 season is a bit of a disappointment for a spoiled fanbase wanting to win them all. And though the season provided unquestionable frustration with the defense allowing 22.7 points per game, a promising future was revealed through freshman performances on that same defensive side.
Offensively, Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry became the first quartet of Tigers to provide a 3,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers in one season. Because of the NFL draft, the Tigers will likely have to replace each of them.
So here we are. What's the state of the program after the Tigers lose their top stars on offense? Can the defense get back to its old ways? Will solid recruiting fill the holes these great LSU players left? Take a closer look inside.
The SEC is won within the trenches.
Luckily for LSU, the Tigers have plenty of soldiers returning to the battleground.
The only player on the offensive line who is likely to make the jump to the NFL draft is La'el Collins. Trai Turner (I expect him to return), Vadal Alexander and Elliott Porter will reclaim their positions with more than a year's worth of experience. And Jerald Hawkins will retain his right tackle position after being thrust into it at the beginning of the season. Add in Ethan Pocic and Evan Washington to this talented unit, and it's safe to say the Tigers will be fierce again upfront.
Defensively, Danielle Hunter, Christian LaCouture, Jordan Allen, Mickey Johnson and Quentin Thomas will all be back on the defensive line. Jermauria Rasco is eligible for the draft, but he will more than likely see the field again as well. That leaves juniors Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson as the only question marks, but with their inconsistent play this season, I'm willing to bet one of them dons purple and gold next season.
As for the skill players, Travin Dural, Terrence Magee and a crop of talented freshmen receivers that never saw the field return, with Anthony Jennings likely edging incoming talent Brandon Harris for the starting quarterback job.
The Tigers might not be as gaudy on offense, but an experienced offensive line should pick up the slack long enough for new skill players to gain comfort.
Back on the defensive side, Kwon Alexander, D.J. Welter, Lamar Louis, Deion Jones and Duke Riley will be featured as the linebacker corps. It's time for this group to reach its potential, which it sadly was not able to do in 2013.
And the return of DBU is on. Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson return at cornerback, Jalen Mills keeps his nickel position and the safety positions will be filled by veterans Corey Thompson and Ronald Martin. Depth won't be a problem either with Dwayne Thomas, Rickey Jefferson and Micah Eugene returning as well.
In short, a lot of talent with playing experience is back for the Tigers next season. Expect one of the best coaching staffs in the country to get this group back to title contention.
Fournette might be the greatest Louisiana prospect ever produced. So it goes without saying, Fournette is a must-have for Les Miles and his staff.
This 5-star running back and No. 1 prospect in the nation according to ESPN is the most coveted signature for Miles and company, especially after seeing Cameron Robinson, Laurence "Hootie" Jones and Cameron Sims leave the state of Louisiana for Alabama.
Can the Tigers keep this adept running back to fill the void of a likely NFL-bound Jeremy Hill?
Devante 'Speedy' Noil
You want flash in this recruiting class? A guy nicknamed "Speedy" could certainly furnish such excitement.
Noil is a 5-star wide receiver who lives up to his nickname. He's pretty much the Reggie Bush of high school football right now, as his change of direction is unparalleled at the prep level.
If the Tigers' dynamic duo at wide receiver takes that leap toward the NFL (both Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry would be selected on the first or second day of the draft), the Tigers will need a new game-changer on the outside. You can already hear it—"Hello everybody, meet Mr. Noil."
The Tigers need a flamboyant pickup on the defensive line. Looking at you, Mr. Willis.
If Noil or Willis decide to play at LSU, they could come as a two-man deal, as both players were teammates at Edna Karr.
Willis is yet another 5-star recruit from Louisiana. Could he provide that Barkevious Mingo/Sam Montgomery presence the Tigers desperately needed in 2013?
Keep an eye on
Brandon Harris and Ed Paris' impact on this recruiting class is paramount at the moment. Much like Russell Shepard became in 2009, both guys have become great advocates for this recruiting class, calling out others to sign with the Tigers like they have.
Ah, the man of the hour. Jennings not only received great publicity for his efforts in LSU's comeback win against Arkansas, but he also received ink for being the Tigers' starting quarterback in their upcoming bowl.
What better way to find out if Jennings can build upon the Arkansas win than to throw him right back into the fire? Judging by Jennings' cool late-game heroics against the Razorbacks, his poise should lead him into 2014 with a head of steam.
Travin Dural/DeSean Smith
Speaking of Jennings' heroics, let's not forget about the man who broke free for that 49-yard touchdown.
Dural will be the Tigers' most experienced target on the outside in 2014, reeling in seven catches for 145 yards and two touchdowns. His athleticism, as shown against the Razorbacks, should not be underestimated though.
Shockingly, he may not be the Tigers' best receiving target in 2014. Nope, that title may very well be reserved for Smith.
I watched this talented tight end last August, and he made quite an impression. It came as a shock that Smith did not play as a true freshman, but after learning Cameron's system, I fully expect Smith to be featured next season. His athleticism, speed and catching ability at the position make him the best catching tight end the Tigers have had since DeAngelo Peterson. Be on the lookout for this unsuspecting breakout.
Beckwith's the man we heard about every week at Les Miles' luncheon but failed to see a multitude of on the field in 2013.
Whether he plays defensive end or linebacker (I foresee him playing linebacker in place of Lamin Barrow), Beckwith will have a tremendous impact on the game. Heck, he did so in what limited action we saw him in (making big hits on kickoffs and a game-ending sack against Florida).
Can Alexander ever put it together?
Alexander has all of the tools to be a great linebacker. His speed allows him to cover receivers, his power and aggressive play makes him a hard-hitting defender on the inside and with that, his versatility makes him the Tigers' most athletic linebacker. He was held back by his own mistakes in 2013 though. If Alexander can master John Chavis' schemes, he will be a prime linebacker in the SEC.
The return of DBU rests on Robinson's shoulders.
He made waves in the 2013 season, but Robinson met the Tiger nation with thunder in his showing against Mike Evans last November. Robinson exhibited his true athletic ability in his shutdown performance against Texas A&M, and in 2014, his island should be a familiar scene for LSU fans.
No, Cam Cameron isn't going anywhere.
In past articles I've written, I've seen various fans comment saying they thought Cameron would leave after this season. You can put that rumor to bed.
In fact, it's quite the opposite. Jim Kleinpeter from The Times-Picayune stated in a recent article that Cameron might be Les Miles' successor. It's not that big of a stretch when you look at his impact this season (seven more points per game, nearly 100 more yards per game, 19 percent increase on third-down conversions and 14 percent increase on red-zone touchdowns).
Indeed, Cameron was the bright spot for 2013. As for John Chavis, well, he was far from it. His defense allowed 5.2 more points per game, 42 more yards per game and had nine less interceptions.
Chavis will need to prove his worth, as experience that lacked in 2013 will be gained in 2014.
And as for "The Hat," Les Miles needs to continue to accept accountability. Overall, he did a good job of managing games this season, but he struggled to get his team ready for inferior opponents (Ole Miss, Arkansas and Furman).
That's inexcusable for a coach who makes $4.4 million a year.
With all three coaches at the helm for 2014, it's safe to say the Tigers will be a featured favorite in the SEC title race.
Excitement should be felt throughout the fanbase entering 2014.
Remember all of those great recruits the 2013 signing class brought in? We've yet to see the best from them, and trust me, after watching these athletes practice in August, the best will come. Patience is a virtue, right?
Very soon, players like John Diarse, Avery Peterson, DeSean Smith, Rickey Jefferson, Duke Riley and Justin Maclin will become well-recognized by Tigers fans.
Mix those athletes with the returning starters and recruits, and that's an ingredient for instant success. Not to mention the gained experience on defense, which can't be stressed enough, especially after the 2013 season. At the very least, seven Tigers starters will return on defense next season.
There will be four gaping holes on the offensive side though, which brings upon these question marks:
Can Anthony Jennings successfully replace one of the best LSU quarterbacks in school history? Will Leonard Fournette choose LSU and fill in for Jeremy Hill? Can Travin Dural and other talented wide receivers meet the same type of production Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry supplied last season?
Only time will tell. One thing is for sure though—the core (the men embodied within the trenches) will be stronger, which gives LSU a fighting chance in the SEC.