10 biggest questions I have as LSU enters preseason camp
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect Myles Brennan’s injury.
LSU returns most of its starters from last season.
It has added a top 5 recruiting class.
It has revamped its coaching staff.
In other words, the Tigers could be better than their 5-5 record last season.
They were picked 3rd in the SEC West in the league’s preseason poll.
But not great either.
LSU’s fate depends on how many questions wind up being answered positively.
Here are the 10 biggest questions (and answers) I have as LSU enters preseason camp:
10. Will this season’s coaching staff be better than last season’s?
This group has had the advantage of a more conventional spring and summer thanks to loosened COVID restrictions.
This group is significantly younger and has been much better at communicating with the players.
There’s no guarantee that all 6 first-year assistants will be better than their predecessors, but as a group they will definitely be an upgrade.
9. Which true freshmen will have the biggest impact?
Answer: DT Maason Smith, DB Sage Ryan, WR Deion Smith and WR/TE Jack Bech.
LSU had the No. 3 recruiting class in America, so there are a lot of impressive newcomers arriving.
But with 18 starters returning, the newcomers face a lot of competition from more experienced players for opportunities.
Still, some true freshmen will break through in 2021.
The Tigers plan a deep rotation on the defensive line, routinely use 5 defensive backs and have an open competition at wide receiver.
8. Which position group will be most important to the team’s success?
Answer: the offensive line.
The Tigers need virtually every unit to perform better than it did last year.
Several position groups have the talent and depth to do just that, but one stands out.
The offensive line had a sub-par season in 2020 as various combinations were used. Line coach James Cregg was fired and replaced by Baton Rouge native and former Arkansas assistant Brad Davis.
Starting left tackle Dare Rosenthal waited until the summer to transfer to Kentucky, opening the door for Cameron Wire, who played well in a utility role last season.
So the offensive line is adapting to change, but it has the talent, experience and depth to be better than last season.
It will be and so will the Tigers.
7. Which new coach will have the biggest impact?
Answer: Defensive coordinator Daronte Jones.
Davis will have a big impact. So too will offensive coordinator Jake Peetz, passing game coordinator J.D. Mangas, defensive line coach Andre Carter and linebackers coach Blake Baker.
But the confusion, lack of confidence and overall poor play of the defense were the Tigers’ biggest liabilities last season.
Jones was brought in to replace Bo Pelini and get rid of the confusion, cultivate confidence and significantly upgrade the play of the defense.
He’ll do all of that and have a very big impact.
6. Will someone emerge as a featured running back?
LSU has a stable of good running backs.
Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. return for their third seasons.
Armoni Goodwin and Cory Kiner have the talent to contribute in their first seasons.
Any of the 4 might be a featured back on a different team. But none will separate themselves from the other 3 enough to become a featured back.
And that’s OK because running back by committee works just fine when each member of the committee is capable.
These 4 are.
5. Which veterans will emerge as key receivers?
Answer: Jaray Jenkins and Koy Moore.
We know Kayshon Boutte will be one of the top receivers in the SEC this season. He sent that message down the stretch last season, adding an exclamation point when he set a conference single-game record for receiving yards in the victory over Ole Miss in the season finale.
The Tigers will use several additional receivers and there are several qualified candidates, including the aforementioned freshman duo of Smith and Bech, but a couple of veterans will emerge.
Jenkins and Moore will become more consistent threats and discourage defenses from ganging up on Boutte.
4. Which position group will be most improved?
Answer: The linebackers.
Orgeron is counting on every group to be improved. Some have more room for improvement than others, and some have more potential for improvement than others.
The linebackers struggled last year, but they have been bolstered by JUCO transfer Navonteque Strong and Clemson transfer Mike Jones.
Throw in returning veterans such as Damone Clark, BJ Ojulari, Andre Anthony and Micah Baskerville and you have a much-improved unit.
3. Who is the strongest candidate for a bounce-back season?
Answer: Ed Orgeron.
The obvious answer is Derek Stingley Jr. and he will bounce back and have an outstanding season.
But that is almost universally expected, so it’s not a big question going into preseason camp.
Another candidate whose bouncing back is far more questionable is Orgeron himself.
But with the chronic underestimation of him, lowered expectations because of last season, a revitalized staff, a veteran team of returnees and an influx of talented veterans and youngsters, the Tigers are prime candidates for a bounce-back season.
So is their head coach.
2. Will the secondary be elite?
The cornerback duo of Stingley and Eli Ricks is as good as any in the country. Safeties Todd Harris Jr., Jay Ward and the aforementioned Ryan, as well as the depth provided by Raydarious Jones, Dwight McGlothern, Cordale Flott and Cameron Lewis, make the secondary a special group.
1. Who will be the starting quarterback?
1. Is Max Johnson ready to be the starting QB?
The quarterback competition ended Monday when LSU announced that Myles Brennan will undergo surgery to fix a “severe injury” to his non-throwing arm. He will miss a significant amount of time, meaning Johnson will be the starter indefinitely, beginning with the season opener at UCLA on Sept. 4.
Brennan’s 3 starts last season before suffering a season-ending abdominal injury were just 1 more than Johnson had at the end of the season, though it was his 4th season in the program compared to Johnson’s 1st.
Nonetheless the competition was expected to be very close, so Johnson winning by default doesn’t mean he isn’t qualified. In fact his performances in back-to-back season-ending victories against Florida and Ole Miss were outstanding.
He’s more mobile than Brennan and he looked polished beyond his years, thanks to his education from his father – long-time NFL and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brad Johnson.
Johnson can handle the job, but Brennan’s absence leaves only true freshman Garrett Nussmeier as a backup at UCLA on Sept. 4.