No. 4 LSU
Coach:: Les Miles (62-17 in six seasons at LSU; 90-38 in 10 seasons overall) | Staff
Last season: 11-2, 6-2 (T-2nd in SEC West; beat Texas A&M in Cotton Bowl) | 2011 schedule
Returning starters (minimum seven starts last season): Offense (
: TE Chase Clement, G Josh Dworaczyk, G T-Bob Hebert, T Alex Hurst, QB Jordan Jefferson, C P.J. Lonergan, WR Rueben Randle, WR Russell Shepard. Defense (7): E Kendrick Adams, LB Ryan Baker, CB Morris Claiborne, E Lavar Edwards, LB Stefoin Francois, FS Karnell Hatcher (moved to LB), SS Brandon Taylor. Special teams: None.
OVERVIEW: The Tigers parted ways with former coordinator Gary Crowton, who now is at Maryland, and former Louisville and Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe was brought in as quarterback coach and coordinator. But Kragthorpe had to give up coordinator duties late last month, when he announced that he had Parkinson's disease. The new coordinator is line coach Greg Studrawa, but he will follow Kragthorpe's blueprint. Kragthorpe, like Crowton a former NFL assistant, prefers a pro-style attack, but there will be some elements of the spread. How Studrawa - who was Bowling Green's offensive line coach under Urban Meyer - handles the play-calling will be a storyline to follow this season.
BACKFIELD: Kragthorpe's key pupil is senior QB Jordan Jefferson, who last season did his best impression of a mediocre Conference USA quarterback. Jefferson has some physical tools, most notably his running ability, but he never has been more than a middling passer. Can Kragthorpe coax more out of him? It's not a stretch to say that if Jefferson can become just a competent SEC quarterback, LSU can win the league - and the national title. JC transfer Zach Mettenberger, who began his career at Georgia, signed with LSU amid much fanfare, but he didn't live up to the accompanying fervor during spring practice. Senior Jarrett Lee looks as if he will be the backup. LSU lost 1,000-yard rusher Stevan Ridley, but the Tigers should be fine at tailback. There is talent, but it is unproven. A committee approach is possible, though it seems likely that sophomore Spencer Ware - who had a big Cotton Bowl (102 yards) - is the guy the coaches want to win the job. He has good size (5-11/223) and also the speed to run away from people; he was a high school quarterback in Ohio. Fellow sophomores Alfred Blue and Michael Ford also will be in the mix. Blue, Ford and Ware combined for 89 carries, 542 yards and five TDs last season.
RECEIVERS: There are some great athletes, but they have been criminally underutilized, partly because of issues at quarterback but also partly because of a lack of imagination on offense. Rueben Randle is a former five-star recruit, but in two seasons, he has just 46 total touches. He has the size and speed to be a big-time deep threat, but he also lacks consistency. Russell Shepard is another former five-star recruit. Shepard has had some success on reverses and the like, but he's still a bit raw as a receiver after playing quarterback in high school. He had 33 receptions last season, but he averaged a paltry 7.7 yards per reception and scored just once. He's the kind of athlete who needs to place stress on opposing secondaries by running crossing routes and fly patterns. Depth is a question, as the only other receivers on the roster who had a reception last season are Kadron Boone (four) and James Wright (two). True freshman Jarvis Landry was a five-star recruit and should see plenty of time this fall. DeAngelo Peterson is a big-time athlete who headlines a deep group of tight ends. Again, though, LSU's tight ends have suffered from a lack of use as receivers.
LINE: This is a rather anonymous group, but it's still one of the best lines in the SEC and one of the top 10 in the nation. It's a big, physical, nasty unit. RT Alex Hurst is getting a lot of preseason acclaim. The one new starter is LT Chris Faulk, a former four-star recruit. His backup is Chris Davenport, who was a five-star signee as a defensive tackle. Gs Josh Dworaczyk and Will Blackwell, C P.J. Lonergan and G/C T-Bob Hebert - the son of former NFL QB Bobby Hebert - are either returning full- or part-time starters. Depth looks good in the interior, but a bit iffy on the outside. Expect at least one true freshman to see time as a reserve.
OVERVIEW: John Chavis seemingly has been coordinating defenses in the SEC since the turn of the century - and we mean the 1900s, not the 2000s. "The Chief" likes an aggressive, attacking unit, and with the Tigers, he has a bunch of good athletes to do his bidding. At times, he takes too many chances, but opposing coaches know a Chavis-led defense also is going to make a few big plays each game. LSU lost a star player at each level of its defense - T Drake Nevis, LB Kelvin Sheppard and CB Patrick Peterson - but the talent is on hand for another sterling unit.
LINE: Nevis was a disruptive force in the interior, but expect the havoc to be wreaked by the ends this season. Sophomores Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo have big-time potential as pass rushers, and Montgomery, especially, seems ready for a breakout season. Mingo needs to get better against the run. Returning starter Kendrick Adams is a steadying force, but he hasn't been a big-play guy. Lavar Edwards, who will back up Montgomery, is another end who is solid against the run. There is untested talent in the middle. Keep an especially close eye on true freshman T Anthony Johnson, who was the nation's top high school defensive tackle last year. Johnson enrolled early, went through spring ball and was atop the depth chart going into fall camp. He is a freakish athlete for a guy who goes 6-5 and 300 pounds, and he eventually should be a pass-rush threat at tackle. He's expected to start alongside sophomore Michael Brockers, who signed as an end but has moved inside. He also has great size (6-6/300) and good side-to-side mobility. Their sheer athleticism will serve them well, but their inexperience will hurt at times. Depth is OK on the inside, but not close to as good as it is at end.
LINEBACKERS: This is the potential defensive weak link. Returning starter Ryan Baker needs to be a steadying influence. He's coming off an 87-tackle season and should vie for All-SEC - and maybe even All-America - honors this season. He's not the biggest guy (he's listed at 6-0, with "listed" being the operative word), but he weighs 230, runs well and knocks the slobber out of people. Both his running mates will be converted safeties. Stefoin Francois made the move before last season and was adequate in his first season at the position. He made 37 tackles last season, and he needs to be more productive this season. The new middle 'backer will be Karnell Hatcher, who made 11 starts at free safety last season. Hatcher wasn't the fastest guy around, but he was fast enough to rank third on the team with 64 tackles last season. He weighs just 215 pounds, though, and it will be interesting to see how he holds up against the run at linebacker instead of safety. His backup is Kevin Minter, a former four-star signee who is exceptionally strong but was a non-factor as a redshirt freshman backup last season. Baker is a given, but the other two spots are question marks.
SECONDARY: Peterson was the nation's best cornerback last season, but he won't be missed as much as you'd expect. Indeed, even without him, LSU still might have the best set of corners in the league with Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu, who was a first-team freshman All-America performer last season. Claiborne (6-0/177) is long and lean, while Mathieu is the more physical of the two. Mathieu had 57 tackles, two picks, seven pass breakups, 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss last season, playing mostly in a nickel back role. Both have good speed and will be used as return men. Backups Ron Brooks and Tharold Simon are solid, too. Senior Brandon Taylor is the returning starter at strong safety, but he'll have to fend off sophomore Eric Reid, who made three late-season starts when Taylor was injured. Taylor probably is the "safer" pick, but Reid has a much bigger upside. The free safety should be sophomore Craig Loston, another former five-star prospect. Loston didn't flash as expected last season, but perhaps a season of seasoning will help. His backup is Derrick Bryant, who has made 14 tackles in three seasons.