BATON ROUGE -- After battling injuries early in his freshman season in 2011, LSU's Jarvis Landry struggled to get into the wide receiver rotation.
So he found a home as a special teams ace, providing the coverage units with 11 often bone-crunching tackles while delivering equally crushing blows as a blocker on return teams.
Now that Landry has become not only a likely starter, but quite possibly a go-to guy, at wide receiver, does that mean his days providing the Tigers with a special teams spark plug are over?
Don't count on it, head coach Les Miles said. For players like Landry, free safety Eric Reid and running back Alfred Blue who once made their mark on special teams, that role doesn't go away just because they've seen their every-down role increase.
"The responsibility of guys like Eric Reid [on special teams] is to make sure that spot you played is played like they would play it, or, they play it," Miles said. "If you looked at our national championship year , Jacob Hester [LSU's leading rusher that season] ran down on kickoffs. Our starting safety ran down on kickoffs.
"It's important enough so that our veterans play those snaps."
The emphasis on special teams pays off for the Tigers, who had an All-American punter in Brad Wing last season, the most accurate kicker in the SEC in Drew Alleman and some of the nation's best returners in Tyrann Mathieu and Morris Claiborne (both now departed). A big part of that is the quality of the players LSU chooses to use on special teams.
That means if Landry isn't returning kicks and punts -- a role he's contending to graduate to -- he'll be blocking on those teams.
Special teams aren't necessarily a reflection of the starting lineup, however. Miles pointed out that walk-on Jeremy Peeples is a candidate to be involved on special teams and reserve safety Rockey Duplessis has been a special teams specialists. And young players might make their mark first on special teams before they ever get the chance to show what they can do at their position.
A season ago, Jermauria Rasco used solid play on special teams to open the door to getting snaps as part of the defensive line rotation. Miles said talented true freshman defensive end Danielle Hunter could take the same route this season.
"I hope he looks at the opportunity to play great on special teams to be a signal that he is, in fact, ready to play a lot of defensive football," Miles said of Hunter.
"They're both stepping up," Simon told reporters, quickly adding, "Mills is stepping up real good. Collins has a little more work to do, but he's stepping up too."
Simon said he believes that if LSU goes to a nickel package, Mills would be the nickel back and Collins would play cornerback.
No Downer: Miles said if senior defensive tackle Josh Downs is able to stay healthy this season, he could surprise people.
"He really is a talented guy," said Miles of Downs, a three-year letterman who has never cracked the starting lineup, mainly because a long list of injuries. "If he had longevity in his play, if he could go plays in a row over time, he'd be a real quality next-league, next-level player. But he's been nicked and comes out of games.
"But his play is really good and I think he is more mature and he's counting on him to have a great year, which is the most important piece. He wants it."