True freshmen make impact at LSU

BATON ROUGE -- With a number of top prospects still considering the possibility of signing with LSU Feb. 6, they should remember one thing before they sign with the Tigers:

If you sign, you better come ready to play.

LSU brought in 21 true freshmen in the 2012 signing class, and 15 have played -- which is second in the country.

Between them, they have 31 starts this season at regular positions, including all 12 games by cornerback Jalen Mills. Throw in 12 starts for long snapper Reid Ferguson plus punter Jamie Keehn's start in the season opener (he'll start again in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl) and the Tigers have had a whopping 44 starts from true freshmen heading into the bowl game.

This doesn't even figure in the impact of redshirt freshmen such as starting right guard Trai Turner and nickelback Jalen Collins, both who made the SEC's All-Freshman team.

And all this took place on a 10-2 team that was a last-minute loss away from winning the SEC West title and playing for a spot in the BCS national championship game.

Here are the best of LSU's true freshman performers this year:

CB Jalen Mills

Starts: 12

Statistics: 52 tackles (fourth on team), 2 interceptions (third on team), 5 passes broken up (third on team).

How starting job was earned: The dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu during August camp bumped Mills, who would likely have played significant snaps as a nickelback, into the starting lineup.

Overview: Mills has been surprisingly solid. He was picked on early as teams avoided more-established junior Tharold Simon on the other side. But he more than held his own, showing the potential to continue LSU's line of dominant cornerbacks after Mathieu, Morris Claiborne and Patrick Peterson.

RB Jeremy Hill

Starts: 4

Statistics: 131 rushes, 631 yards, 10 TDs, all team-leading statistics.

How starting job was earned: He became the hot hand in LSU's by-committee backfield. He started becoming part of the game-day stable after opening-day starter Alfred Blue was lost for the season to injury.

Overview: After he started getting carries, it quickly became obvious Hill was the most talented pure runner in the LSU stable. He appears destined to be one of the elite RBs in the SEC for the next couple of seasons.

RT Vadal Alexander

Starts: 8

Statistics: Had 47.5 knockdown blocks.

How starting job was earned: Injuries. Left tackle Chris Faulk was lost for the season after one game to a knee injury and replacement Josh Dworaczyk suffered from the lingering effects of his own knee injury from a season ago. Right tackle Alex Hurst was moved to left tackle, making room for Alexander to start.

Overview: Alexander improved as the season went along. He looked overwhelmed against Florida in his second start. Within a couple of weeks, LSU was routinely gaining big chunks of yards running behind Alexander and Turner on the right side of the line.

LB Kwon Alexander

Starts: 2

Statistics: 11 tackles and two fumble recoveries in six games.

How starting job was earned: Attrition. Starting strong LB Tahj Jones was ruled academically ineligible during August camp. His replacement, Luke Muncie, lost significant weight because of an illness, creating the opportunity for Alexander.

Overview: Alexander was arguably the most promising of a talented group of true freshman linebackers when he was lost to a foot injury after two games. He'll return for the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

LB Lamar Louis

Starts: 5

Statistics: 13 tackles

How starting job was earned: The injury to Alexander.

Overview: Louis didn't play as much as previous starting strongside linebackers had. As LSU faced more pass- and spread-oriented teams down the stretch such as Arkansas and Ole Miss, the Tigers spent much of those games in a nickel package without Louis.

Long snapper Reid Ferguson

Starts: 12

Statistics: N/A

How starting job was earned: Penciled in as starter from day one after Joey Crappell's graduation following the 2011 season.

Overview: Ferguson had one high snap in the season opener against North Texas and since then, his name has rarely been uttered, which is good news for a snapper.

P Jamie Keehn

Starts: 1

Statistics: 3 punts for a 41.0-yard average.

How starting job was earned: Opening day injury to starter Brad Wing. Keehn will start again in the Chick-fil-A Bowl because Wing is suspended.

Overview: Keehn saved Ferguson's bacon in the opener, retrieving Ferguson's high snap and getting the punt off on the run. He's bigger and stronger than Wing. The question is, will he have the feel for killing punts inside the 20 like Wing?