Three things we learned in the spring about the LSU Tigers:
1. QB race is on: If the spring game made anything clear, it’s that the quarterback race between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris was much closer than we might have anticipated prior to spring practice. Jennings followed a subpar performance in his first start -- LSU’s Outback Bowl win over Iowa -- with a disappointing effort in the spring game, where he threw two interceptions that linebackers returned for touchdowns. Meanwhile, Harris didn’t have a perfect performance, but he flashed a ton of potential and playmaking ability. Their competition will remain as the leading storyline of preseason camp.
2. Defense is on the upswing: LSU’s defense started slowly last fall -- a disappointing shift after ranking among the nation’s best over the previous few seasons -- but was back in fine form by the end of the season. It looks like John Chavis’ athletic bunch was heading back toward that style of physical, fast defense that LSU is known for. The starting defense surrendered just 179 yards, one touchdown and 3.9 yards per play in the spring game -- and that was without key players Jermauria Rasco, Ronald Martin and signees Jamal Adams and Clifton Garrett participating.
3. Not working with a full deck: Speaking of non-participants, it was a fairly ho-hum spring in Baton Rouge because of the number of absent players who will almost certainly play key roles in the fall. Only two of the 23 signees -- Harris and cornerback Ed Paris -- participated in spring drills, leaving LSU with barely more than 50 scholarship players taking part in the practices. Without players such as Adams, Garrett, tailback Leonard Fournette, receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn practicing, we simply haven’t seen what the 2014 Tigers will truly look like yet.
Three questions for the fall:
1. Who fills spots at safety? Apparently converted cornerback Jalen Mills has found a home at safety. But if he holds onto one of the starting spots, who gets the nod at the second safety position? Martin seemed like the favorite during the spring, but he was not healthy for the entirety and Rickey Jefferson took over in his absence. Corey Thompson also sat out while recovering from injury. And then you have Adams and fellow signees Devin Voorhies and John Battle, who will join the team this summer. It’s clear LSU’s coaches plan to fully weigh their options in the secondary once preseason camp opens and all of the candidates are on hand.
2. Can young players handle business early? This will probably be the determining factor in whether LSU contends alongside division heavyweights Alabama and Auburn in 2014 or whether this will be a transitional season ahead of potential title-contending teams in 2015 and 2016. It’s a lot to ask of freshmen to step into the SEC and perform competently right away, but LSU will almost certainly do that with several members of its star-studded signing class. There aren’t a ton of holes in LSU’s roster, but it needs the youngsters to fill a couple of them -- namely at receiver, tailback, defensive tackle and quarterback -- by playing with composure right out of the gate.
3. Who supplies the pass rush? One of the disappointing issues on defense last fall was LSU’s lack of a consistent pass rush. The Tigers finished the season with just 27 sacks in 13 games, which might have seemed like an even bigger drop-off since players like Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo had been such dominant pass rushers in the recent past. LSU operated without one of its top edge rushers (Rasco, who led the team with four sacks last season) during the spring, although Danielle Hunter notched a couple of sacks in the spring game. Hunter seems like the odds-on favorite to become LSU’s next great pass rusher, but he’ll need some help from a largely unproven group of linemen.
One way-too-early prediction:
Honestly it’s difficult to tell whether this is actually going out on a limb, but we believe Harris will become the Tigers’ starting quarterback by midseason if not sooner. Coaches Les Miles and Cam Cameron both said the quarterback competition will carry over into preseason practice, but Harris certainly made his case in the spring game. Although everyone insisted that Jennings performed better during other spring practices than he had in the lone scrimmage that was open for public viewing, he simply didn’t spark the offense the way that Harris did that day. Harris certainly struggled at points and made plenty of bad decisions himself, but he was far and away the more explosive playmaker that afternoon. That has to factor into the coaches’ decision-making process.