Top 10 storylines heading into LSU spring practice
BATON ROUGE, La. — For the first time in more than a decade, the Tigers entered spring camp with a new energy and different level of excitement surrounding new head coach Ed Orgeron.
“We feel that we have an excellent staff,” Orgeron said during his spring practice preview press conference. “We feel that we have an excellent football team. We got some holes to fill. I’m excited about going out to practice with these guys and getting them better at technique and fundamentals, toughness and playing at a full measure.”
Offensive development will take center stage this spring as offensive coordinator Matt Canada begins to install his new system while further developing each player.
Orgeron’s promise to open up the passing game is just what fans wanted to hear after years of suffering through the increasingly predictable offenses during Les Miles’ final seasons.
Although most of the focus will be on the offense leading to the April 22 spring game, position battles rage throughout the defense as second-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda looks to replace eight starters, including possibly two first round NFL Draft picks in the secondary in former LSU defensive back Tre’Davious White and safety Jamal Adams.
Practice started Saturday. Here are the top 10 storylines to watch:
1. Canada’s new offense: For years, LSU fans drove its family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and any one else that would listen crazy complaining about the offensive woes.
Canada seems to have the answer: a dynamic passing game coupled with a punishing ground attack.
“We are still going to run the football here with Derrius Guice as our running back, but we are going to open up the offense, throw it down the field with multiple shifts in the formation,” Orgeron said. “That’s what he is known for.”
During his season at Pittsburg in 2016, Canada’s offense achieved an impressive balance, averaging 225.1 yards rushing and 221.7 through the air each game.
In comparison, the Tigers averaged a lopsided 233 rushing yards per game and 190.1 passing yards per game.
Although LSU might not achieve perfect balance as the Tigers continue to lean on Guice, any step in that direction will be viewed as a positive.
With the expectations surrounding the offense sky high, Orgeron focused on the complex nature of the challenge facing Canada.
“As coaches we can sit in this office and have great ideas, but we’ve got to go out and execute it on the field,” Orgeron said. “I think he’s going to start slow. He’s going to feel his offense. Just like Dave did last year. … He’s able to adjust to the personnel. He is going to put most of the stuff in and the basics. We will go from there.”
2. Defensive line depth following Arden Key’s leave of absence: While Orgeron remains confident the Tigers’ dominant pass rushing defensive end/outside linebacker Arden Key will return to the team, the youth along the LSU defensive front prepares to take advantage of the opportunity created by his absence.
“If I was … any of these other guys that are coming in and have an opportunity this spring to show what they can do, I would take that as a challenge,” former LSU All-SEC defensive end Chuck Wiley told Saturday Down South. “(Key) is not here. Here’s your opportunity. Here’s your reps. Here’s your chance because we don’t know when he is coming back. We don’t know what his situation is. …We wish him well. We’ll pray for him, but the next man has to come in and step up.”
Prior to Key’s decision to step away from football, the Tigers’ defensive line was set for a transition year in 2017 with the loss of Davon Godchaux, Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal, who combined for 145 tackles, 19.5 tackles-for-loss and 14 sacks a year ago.
Key tallied 56 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks and 11 quarterbacks hurries, becoming the premier pass rushing threat.
Without Key, Orgeron noted the Tigers will be replacing five of their front seven from last year.
Even if Key doesn’t miss a game in 2017, the Tigers will need to develop another Key-esque option to wreck havoc on third downs and in other passing situations to create pressure on the quarterback from the outside with his speed, Wiley told Saturday Down South.
Orgeron specified rising sophomore defensive end Andre Anthony, rising sophomore linebacker Ray Thornton and rising sophomore linebacker Sci Martin are developing well and may be crucial during Key’s absence.
Only Martin has experience, playing in five games in 2016. All three were highly recruited.
Defensive lineman Christian LaCourture’s decision to return to LSU in 2017 after missing last season with a torn ACL provides a consistent, experienced leader for the young defensive line.
“On the defensive front, we are excited about Christian LaCouture coming back,” Orgeron said. “He brings tremendous leadership to our football team, and we are so happy that he is back. He looks quicker. He is healthy. He looks ready to go. We are going to play him at the end position, where [Davon] Godchaux played last year.
3. Options along the O-Line: After the Tigers’ 2-year backup, rising senior center Andy Dodd decided to transfer, the depth at center took another hit when Orgeron announced junior offensive lineman Will Clapp will not participate in spring practice.
Clapp spent the past two seasons at guard, but Orgeron noted “there is a possibility” of Clapp transitioning over to center this season to replace the void left by former center Ethan Pocic.
Besides center, the Tigers also look to build depth along the rest of the line after the graduation of offensive guard Josh Boutte and Pocic, who notched 49 combined starts.
“We lost some good guys there,” Orgeron said. Guys are going to have to step up. (Rising sophomore Donavaughn Campbell, young guys like that are going to have to step up. (Rising junior) Garrett Brumfield is going to have his chance. Those guys are going to have to come after it.”
Since breaking into the lineup on point after attempts in 2015, Brumfield has played in the past 23 games. Campbell played in four games last season.
4. Next in line at LB: The departure of Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley to the NFL ushers in a new era for the linebackers. Beckwith and Riley, the Tigers two-leading tacklers in 2016, combined for 184 tackles and 15 tackles-for-loss.
“Replacing Duke and Kendell Beckwith will be a challenge, but we are going to get it done,” Orgeron said. “(Rising sophomore) Devin White and (rising senior) Donnie Alexander are going to be playing middle linebacker right now, but we are also excited about Tyler Taylor, Jacob Phillips and Patrick Queen. Those guys are going to have to come in and contribute.”
White (above) played in every game during his freshman season, recording a sack, 30 tackles and three tackles-for-loss.
Alexander is the top returning tackler from last season (No. 6 overall with 45) after the annual mass exodus from LSU’s defense, leaving the New Orleans native with the daunting responsibility of stepping up into the leadership role embraced by Riley and Beckwith in 2016.
Leadership will be crucial as the Tigers welcome Taylor, Phillips and Queen in during the summer.
5. Stepping into the light: D.J. Chark and Company. LSU’s young wide receiving corps is an area of concern for many fans after the top two left for the next level.
Former LSU wide outs Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural accounted for 64.5 percent of the wide receivers’ catches.
Without the productive duo, rising senior D.J. Chark is primed to break away as LSU’s main target. Chark recorded just a single catch for 12 yards in his first 13 games as a Tiger before Danny Etling took over as the starter. During Etling’s 10 starts, the Alexandria, La. native tallied 25 catches for 454 yards, averaging 18.2 yards per catch and 45.4 yards per game.
Behind Chark lies an inexperienced, but talent-laden group of wide outs. Many freshman and sophomore receivers aim to become familiar names in 2017.
“We’re going to give them all opportunities,” Orgeron said. “There’s no certain pecking order. We’ve some athletes there. (Rising sophomore wide receiver) Stephen Sullivan and all of those guys are good athletes. We’ll see.”
Sullivan’s 6-6 frame combined with his explosiveness can be a match up nightmare.
Although Sullivan did not make a catch last season, fellow rising sophomore wide receivers Dee Anderson and Russell Gage notched a combined 135 yards on nine catches in 2016.
6. Freshmen safety duo primed compete for playing time: Despite the early departure of Adams, coaches are confident freshman safety early-enrollees – Grant Delpit and JaCoby Stevens – can make an immediate impact.
“We are excited about our safeties. Grant Delpit and JaCoby Stevens coming in Todd Harris Jr. (will join the Tigers this summer),” Orgeron said. “We have some guys coming in at safety. We have some guys who can come in and play. We are looking forward to these guys in spring ball, especially with Grant and Jacoby being here.”
By hauling in two of top four ranked safety prospects in the Class of 2017, defensive backs coach Corey Raymond continues the legacy of LSU as “Defensive Back University.”
Delpit returns home to Louisiana after his family was displaced to Houston by Hurricane Katrina. In his senior season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., Delpit had 47 tackles, one tackle for loss, six pass breakups and five interceptions.
After establishing himself as one of the top safety recruits in the Class of 2017, Stevens looks to become the next top-rated Tiger to impress at LSU. The Murfreesboro, Tenn., product comes south as 247Sports’ top safety prospect. Stevens recorded 61 tackles and nine interceptions during his senior season.
Delpit and Steven’s large frames, 6-3 and 6-2, respectively, provide an advantage in coverage, particularly against jump balls.
The freshmen join experienced rising senior safety John Battle, who took over then-senior Rickey Jefferson’s free safety position after Jefferson broke his leg.
In 2016, Battle tallied his first seven career starts and finished the season with career-high 39 tackles and four pass break-ups.
7. Open QB competition fuels development: Despite the feeling outside the program that rising senior Danny Etling is a lock to retain the starting position, Orgeron made it clear there will be competition for the quarterback spot.
“Danny is the leader right now,” Orgeron said. “He will probably end up being the leader, but we don’t know that. I wanted to make it open for (rising sophomore) Justin (McMillan), for (rising sophomore) Lindsey [Scott Jr.], for (freshman) Lowell (Narcisse), for (freshman) Myles (Brennan). That’s what we told them when we recruited them. We want to give them a chance.”
While these words might read like every day coachspeak, Orgeron reveals in them a cornerstone of his philosophy: competition fuels development.
Under Miles, LSU struggled to develop NFL-ready quarterbacks.
This spring, Canada can begin to change the Tigers’ reputation by using competition to push Etling and develop the younger quarterbacks.
Orgeron singled out Scott for his success as the scout team quarterback last season, particularly how he well he mimicked Louisville’s Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson leading up to the Citrus Bowl.
“Before I became head coach I ran scout team and Lindsey was my quarterback,” Orgeron said. “The year before that, Danny was the scout team quarterback. I saw that in Danny and see the same thing in Lindsey. He is very smart and can run the ball. He is strong and can throw the ball well. He is going to be right up there in the competition.”
8. Next in line for “DBU:” For LSU to continue its legacy, the Tigers look to replace the playmaking ability of yet another elite cover corner, White.
After starting 11 games opposite White last season, rising junior defensive back Donte Jackson returns as the next lock-down corner.
Jackson’s speed and ever-improving technique translated into the Tigers’ second-most pass break-ups with eight and passes defended with 10, only trailing White in both categories last season.
Along with a host of corners who saw the rotation in 2016, LSU has two experienced defensive backs who could vie for the cornerback slot opposite Jackson.
Rising junior Kevin Toliver II has recorded 13 career starts despite logging just five starts last season. Toliver’s 6-2, 193-pound frame gives him the size to be able to challenge tall receivers with physical play at the line of scrimmage in man-to-man coverage.
Toliver posted five pass break-ups, an interception and 35 tackles, including two tackles-for-loss, during his freshman campaign.
“Kevin Toliver can be an excellent football player,” Orgeron said. “He just needs to remain more consistent.”
Rising senior Ed Paris has played in every game of his career, including starting two last season. Paris tallied 10 tackles and a pass breakup in 2016.
Although Toliver and Paris enter the spring with starting experience, Raymond has proven his ability to develop young talent into dynamic playmakers.
“He is very proud of his tradition that he has built here and carried on,” Orgeron said. “I am proud of Corey Raymond. He is an excellent coach, he is a LSU Tiger and he is doing a tremendous job right now.”
9. Defensive evolution in Aranda’s second season: After leading the Tigers to No. 10 ranking nationally in overall defense in his debut season, Aranda looks to develop players at each level to further implement his vast playbook.
“It’s just good to see our defensive staff together, cohesive in our second year under Dave Aranda,” Orgeron said. “We are excited about the things that he wants us to do. His notebook is full. He has a tremendous mind for football. We are looking forward to this spring.”
Last year, Aranda was in the same position as Canada is this spring – a new coordinator beginning to establish the basis for his complex system. It is impossible to teach every nuance of a system in a single season, so Aranda simplified it.
Heading into 2017, Aranda has two major advantages compared to last season.
First, the returning Tigers have a firm understanding of the basics, allowing Aranda to add in distinct changes in coverages and schemes to further disrupt offenses.
“Dave has a menu of defenses, and we ran three last year,” Orgeron said.
Secondly, Aranda recruited the incoming freshmen specifically to fit his 3-4 defense.
Rising freshman nose tackle Tyler Shelvin, who will join the team in the summer, is the quintessential stalwart nose tackle to hold the center of the defensive line in Aranda’s 3-4 system.
“When you are a 3-4 front, you’ve got to have that Vince Wilfork-type guy in that middle,” Wiley told Saturday Down South. “He’ll fit the mold. He’s going to be athletic as well. He can move. He’s very strong. He’s very hard at the point of contact. In certain situations, I think he can get to the quarterback.”
10. Who helps Guice? Coming off his 2016 SEC-rushing title, Guice is the Tigers’ unquestioned top running back after Leonard Fournette’s early exit to the NFL.
Although the Tigers have grown accustomed to a revolving door at the position, LSU enters spring practice without an next-level backup.
A trio of returners will aim to develop under new running back coach Tommie Robinson to become the clear No. 2 behind Guice in the spring before the Tigers’ rising freshman Clyde Edwards-Helaire enters the mix during the summer.
Rising senior Darrel Williams is the most experienced back behind Guice. In 35 games played, the Marrero, La., product posted 831 yards on 174 carries.
In 2016, Williams notched 233 yards on 52 carries with three touchdowns, making him the only back besides Guice who has scored as a Tiger. Williams’ consistency gives him an advantage over his less-seasoned peers.
Despite seeing only limited action, rising junior Nick Brossette has capitalized on his opportunities, averaging 9.7 yards per touch last season.
Rising sophomore Lanard Fournette, Leonard’s 5-10-inch, 199-pound younger brother, had just 13 yards on five carries last season as a redshirt freshman.
With Guice expected to handle the workload, the Tigers could return to the backup by committee model with Williams, Brossette, Fournette and Edwards-Helaire splitting the remaining carries.