LSU Preview: Talented Tigers Hope to Catch SEC by the Tail

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LSU Preview: Talented Tigers Hope to Catch SEC by the Tail
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
LSU enters 2009 hoping for redemption after a five-loss campaign in 2008, the most ever for a defending BCS Champion.
Les Miles brought in a new defensive coordinator, the longtime Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis, in hopes of improving a unit that was gouged at times a year ago.
Also, the QB situation seems to be settled after a year of shaky play. The Tigers have a lot of talent in Baton Rouge and to find out if they are ready to contend again we talked with And The Valley Shook.

LSU went 8-5 last year, but lost three of their last four before destroying a hot Georgia Tech team in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. How do you explain the up and down season?
The up-and-down season was directly related to our quarterback play and the fact that our schedule got tougher as the season went on.
Jarrett Lee started out the season pretty well. We got through the Mississippi State game with Lee still playing pretty solid football, but then things started to fall apart for him. He was throwing more and more interceptions, and while early in the season he had been making good plays to partially make up for the interceptions, he stopped making the plays and kept throwing the interceptions.
It also didn't help that Andrew Hatch got hurt mid-season. Hatch had only slightly more talent for quarterbacking than I do, but he was a steadying influence and an overachiever who took a lot of pressure off Lee.
When he got hurt, Lee lost that security of knowing there was someone behind him who could do good things, and he did not respond well.
Two of the three losses you mention were to very good teams: Alabama and Ole Miss. The third one occurred when Jefferson was making his first start [against Arkansas].
It also didn't help that apparently, the relationships between the players and the defensive staff appeared to deteriorate at around this time.

Who is the real Jordan Jeffersonthe one we saw against Arkansas or the one we saw in the bowl win?
I think the real Jefferson is closer to the one we saw in the Chick Fil-A Bowl than the one we saw before.
If you watched the Arkansas game, you saw a quarterback that the coaches just didn't trust to open up the playbook. You also saw a lot of freshman mistakes, which is perfectly understandable, considering he was a freshman making his first ever start against an SEC team in late-season form, no less.
Against Georgia Tech, he was playing with more practice reps under his belt and with a more varied playbook in his head. He developed rapidly between the end of the regular season and the bowl game.
This is not to say we are not concerned. Going into a season with a true sophomore starting quarterback with two career starts is not the equivalent of sleeping on clouds, but we are cautiously optimistic that Jordan Jefferson will make some plays over the course of the season.

In what role will we see talented true freshman Russell Shepard?
I think you will see Shepard in a Percy Harvin-esque role of being a hybrid runner/receiver with some Pat White thrown in, as he will spend time behind the center.
The word sneaking out of camp is that Shepard is the real deal and quite possibly an immediate impact player as a runner.
I don't think you'll see Shepard as an over-the-middle receiver or anything like that, but I think we'll see some short passes and screens to him to try to give him the ball with a little space. You'll also see sweeps and draws being run to him.
I was hoping he would be given a chance as a return man. If you watch his high school videos, you see a young player with a knack for seeing where the space is and a knack for making a move on a player to get past him and then running away from him. That sounds like a step-by-step recipe for a punt returner.
Of course, he also has to be able to catch a wobbly punt falling from 30-40 yards in the air with 220 pound gunners running at him and wanting to hit him very hard, which is not a trivial skill at all.

Three starters are back on the offensive line. Will this unit be better in '09 or stay about the same?
I think the offensive line will be a strength of the team.
We are still worried about the center position, where we have to replace one of the great overachieving players of the decade in Brett Helms. A couple of young players are fighting to take his place and we don't know how that will turn out. We also have to replace Herman Johnson, who always sort of left us wanting more. 
Josh Dworaczyk (pronounced "duh-ROSS-ick") is getting raves in camp. I expect second-year starter Joseph Barksdale to make a big jump in his production at right tackle, and of course, it's a great luxury to have the steady play of four-year starter Ciron Black at left tackle, who could have taken his game to the NFL after last season. Lyle Hitt at right guard doesn't wow anyone, but he brings a lot of experience as a third year starter.

What can new defensive coordinator John Chavis do for a defense that ranked 10th in the SEC in total defense and last in pass defense?
We sure hope that Chavis can do a lot. The first thing he can do is get players into the right position.
Last year, our best safety (Chad Jones) was our dime back and filled in as linebacker or rover. Our best cornerback (Patrick Peterson) didn't start until around Game Nine. Our starting strong safety was too slow for the position.
We've moved that strong safety (Harry Coleman) to linebacker, and the dime back (Jones, arguably the best athlete ever to attend LSU—seriously, he chased down Darren McFadden from behind when McFadden was in a dead sprint and he was the best left-handed pitcher on the baseball team this year) has been made the cornerstone of the safety group.
After putting players in their correct positions, his next task is to make sure none of them are confused about where they're supposed to line up or what their assignments are on any particular play.
Last year, you could visibly see defenders looking to the sideline to be given the signal on what they were supposed to do as the ball was being snapped. You could also see players rushing on and off the field while the offense was set to snap. I've never seen anything like it at this level. It is no surprise that under these circumstances, the defense failed so miserably.
Given that, it's not going to be hard to upgrade that system. Chavis has not completely avoided criticism in his career. He has been dogged for being too passive on third and long, and I wonder about his reported nickel and dime package strategies for this year, but we're going to be a lot better at defense this year than we were last year.

The defensive line lost four players with at least seven starts last year. Who is going to step up here and continue the tradition of strong LSU lines?
Along with quarterback, defensive line is probably the biggest question mark on the team. We really will have to replace a lot of talent and experience.
The good news is that we have a defensive end who was a backup last year but really should have been a starter.
Rahim Alem was an impact defensive end last year, but in another great move by the defensive coaches, he was only put in the game in obvious passing situations, even though the starter was generally unproductive.
The starter was Kirston Pittman, who was very good in 2007, but for whatever reason did not seem to have it in 2008. At least one service named Alem as first team All-SEC after the season due to his high sack number, which is amazing when you consider that he did not start a game for LSU.
We have a defensive tackle we think can be an impact player as well. Drake Nevis has been waiting his turn, and some have said he should have been given his turn a little earlier.
He has had some minor nagging injuries in his career, but when healthy and given a chance to play, he has always played very well. If he can stay healthy and can take the pounding of being a starter rather than a situational substitute, he could be an excellent player for us.
The other tackle spot will see a rotation of Al Woods and Charles Alexander, both of whom are big, space-eating seniors.
Woods has struggled with inconsistency and poor technique, while Alexander has struggled with injuries (he's a sixth year senior). When Alexander was at his best (early in the 2007 season before he tore his ACL again), he was outstanding. Last year he was clearly not 100 percent. We're hoping he's healthy and that the new defensive staff can get more out of Woods than the previous one could.
The really big question on the defensive line is the depth. Outside of the people named, every one of our defensive linemen is going to be a freshman or a redshirt freshman. We will have to use at least an eight-person rotation, and we just don't know what those last three will give us.

Which freshmen are going to make a significant impact this year?
Shepard will probably be the biggest impact freshman, for reasons we've already discussed.
In addition to him, we will be looking to true freshman wide receiver Rueben Randle to be a contributor.
He was the No. 1 receiver in the country in the 2009 class, according to the services. I don't think we're going to see Julio Jones or AJ Green-like immediate production from Randle, in part because we already have a couple of very good and experienced receivers ahead of him, but he should be an important part of the wide receiver rotation.
It wouldn't surprise me at all if he starts the season as our No. 3 receiver behind Brandon Lafell (the leading receiver in the SEC last year in both receptions and touchdown receptions).
We will see freshmen play on the defensive line as well. There is just a necessity there. It may be redshirt freshmen, such as defensive tackle Lavar Edwards or defensive ends Chase Clement or Chancey Aghayere, or it could be true freshmen like Michael Brockers (maybe the next Tyson Jackson), Josh Downs, Chris Davenport (consensus five-star, but still a little raw), or Sam Montgomery (maybe the next Alem).
If safety Craig Loston can get cleared by the [NCAA] Clearinghouse and if he's healthy enough to play (he may need wrist surgery), I would expect him to be an impact player on special teams immediately.
If he could have enrolled in school when the rest of the players enrolled at the beginning of summer, I think he could have competed for the strong safety spot alongside Jones.
The coaches love offensive lineman Chris Faulk, who could be Black's backup and heir apparent.
Running back Michael Ford is drawing raves, but the depth at that position is daunting, with three seniors and a junior among the running backs.
Any number of other freshmen could contribute on special teams as well.

The SEC West looks like a three-headed monster with Alabama, Ole Miss, and LSU. The Tigers face both on the road, but who do you think presents the bigger challenge: Alabama or Ole Miss?
I think Alabama is the better overall team if both are healthy (factoring in that Ole Miss DE Greg Hardy is never healthy), but you always have to be wary of a team with a really good quarterback like Jevan Snead. It's really hard to answer that question right now, because I'm really not even thinking about games that far into the season.
By then, accumulated injuries (or lack thereof) will have impacted all three of these teams, and we'll know more about what the new starters and young players can do. Right now, I say that Bama is the scarier team because they have a lot more talent on defense.

What is your prediction for LSU?
I have an idiosyncratic opposition to doing predictions. I invented a new scientific principle called "football chaos theory." It tells us that the outcome of a football game is determined by a number of factors that cannot be reliably predicted and that too much randomization goes into the game to make a good prediction.
Sure, we can say that LSU is likely to beat the University of Washington, but we don't know that for certain. Those who think they can predict the outcome of football games, particularly those that are months in the future, are fooling themselves.
I will say that I think we have a very good team capable of beating anyone if things go right, certain players and positions develop, and if we avoid crushing injuries.
I think there are five games on the schedule that scare me (Georgia, Florida, Ole Miss, Bama, and Arkansas). The season will probably be determined by the outcomes of those games, but there are certainly other teams out there that can pull an upset on us if they bring their best game and we do not.
My Thoughts on LSU...
The Bengal Tigers have about as much talent as any team in the nation, but like Richard said, they need to get it in the right places.
Jefferson looked very good in the bowl game and I think he should be a much better QB this year.  The lack of ability at that position last year cost LSU a couple of games with turnovers. There is plenty of talent at the skill positions for Jefferson to get the ball to. 
The offensive line is of some concern. Considering all the talent they have had here before, the line has not been as dominant as it should have been the past few years.
Defensively, Chavis should be a steadying force on a defense full of talent but lacking direction a year ago. Six of the top seven tacklers return and we should see much better numbers this year. Despite some losses, the defensive line is still one of the most physically imposing units in the nation.
I think Les Miles is a good coach and don't understand why he has not been taken more seriously as one of the best in the nation.
He does have a BCS Championship, which most coaches cannot say. That said, this is a big year for Miles to quiet the critics after a very disappointing season a year ago. He needs to quiet the critics who say he cannot win without Nick Saban's players.
However, LSU does not get any scheduling breaks this year, playing both Florida and Georgia from the East while having to face West favorites Alabama and Ole Miss on the road. 

My prediction
9-3, 5-3, Bowl Game
Best Case Scenario: 10-2
Worst Case Scenario: 8-4

Vegas odds
BCS Championship 20/1
SEC Championship 9/2 (tied 2nd)
Win Total - 8.5
Thanks again to And The Valley Shook for their insight.
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