With Spring Practice Officially dead and buried, it is time to look at some of the questions we still have.
1. How will the revamped offensive line perform? Last year, the offensive line was one of the strengths of the team, as we ran well and generally protected the QB as much as it could be expected against SEC defenses. This year, we have to replace 2 of the veteran linemen in Brett Helms and Herman Johnson, both of whom will be in an NFL training camp. Coming out of Spring, it looks like their spots will be taken by sophomores Josh Dworaczyk and T-Bob Hebert. What we do not know and can hardly even speculate about at this point is whether those two are really good, or if they're just "better than the alternative". Offensive line play is always the most important determining factor about how an offense will perform, as poor line play will adversely affect both the running and the passing games, and good line play will open up holes for your running backs and make your QB very comfortable in the pocket. The play of Dworaczyk and Hebert will go a long way to determining how this team will perform offensively this year. We know Ciron Black is as solid as a left tackle gets, and Lyle Hitt is a 3-year starter, so we know what he brings. We will also need Joseph Barksdale to step up his play and go from being "promising" to being "studly". Word is he is on his way to doing just that, but we will have to see.
2. Will we get consistently good quarterback play? LSU fans rightly have high hopes for Jordan Jefferson and Russell Shepard, and we actually have something of a luxury in having Jarrett Lee as an experienced player beginning the season in a backup role. The problem remains however that we have a VERY young quarterback group. We don't have any quarterback who's been around long enough to be a junior, and Jarrett Lee's 9 starts makes him by far the most experienced on the roster. Jordan Jefferson has showed great promise, but we need to remember that he is just a true sophomore, and he has started only 2 games. We enter the 2009 season with the least experience at the QB spot of any team in the conference, though South Carolina has a somewhat comparable situation.
3. Will we have productive complementary players at the skill positions? Brandon Lafell is an outstanding player and a true #1 receiver. Will we have a quality #2, #3, and #4, or will we have to rely on TE Richard Dickson even more? After a couple years of looking really great in his uniform, it is Terrance Toliver's turn to become a reliable producer. Whenever a player transitions from sophomore to junior year, you have to stop talking about his potential and start talking about his production. At 6'5" and with outstanding speed and athleticism, Toliver's potential is through the roof, but it's time to do something with it. He ended last year on a high note, catching 16 passes in his final 5 games, after catching only 6 in the previous 8. If he continues that pace and breaks a few nice gains out of it. We will also need Chris Mitchell, RJ Jackson, Tim Molton, or one of the other receivers to step up play as well. Rueben Randle or even Russell Shepard could figure into this in the Fall.
At running back, we know Charles Scott is a good power running back with the intelligence and durability to be a #1 tailback. But you need more than that. Keiland Williams was inconsistent despite solid line play, though he got more productive as the season wore on. I will speculate that I think he was not in optimum condition at the beginning of the year and he lost a step of speed. He needs to be a speed back, so he needs to get that step back. Junior Richard Murphy had a disastrous sophomore season after having high expectations heading into the season. One of these two guys will have to step up play for LSU to reach its potential. We do not know if Stevan Ridley will be sufficiently recovered from his injury to be a factor in the 2009 season. If Keiland or Murphy or Ridley can't be productive behind Scott, we may see a lot of Michael Ford when he reports for his freshman season.
4. Who will be our backup defensive linemen?
Unlike an offensive line, a defensive line cannot live by its starters alone. It needs depth. It needs a rotation. We believe we have our top 4 offensive linemen in Pep Levingston, Drake Nevis, Al Woods, and Rahim Alem. We think they are going to be very good-to-outstanding players. Levingston would be a big surprise to me. I did not really expect that of him, and I am pleased to hear the good reports. The questions are who will be backing those guys up, and how will they perform when they're needed? Charles Alexander brings experience to the defensive tackle position, as he will be on his 6th year of eligibility and was a full-time starter last year. Other than Cheese, our backups will be very green. Redshirt freshmen Lavar Edwards, Chancey Aghayere, and Chase Clement appear to have the inside track. I loved Aghayere when he was a prospect, but he has had to battle back from high school injuries.
5. Whither the defensive backfield?
We think we're pretty sure that, barring injury, Chad Jones and Patrick Peterson are going to be the starters at corner and at free safety. Other than that, it's all a mystery. Chris Hawkins was the only player to start all 13 games last year in the secondary, but he was on the Purple team for the spring game, which would suggest that he has been passed up on the depth chart. Jai Eugene took his place. Last year's starting strong safety has been moved to linebacker. Ron Brooks has won accolades at the position, but no one has said he's won a job. Karnell Hatcher was a standout last year as a true freshman, and he will have something to say about who plays that spot. At corner, we have Hawkins, Eugene, and Brandon Taylor battling for the last starting spot opposite Patrick Peterson. At strong safety we have Ron Brooks and Karnell Hatcher. Plus we have Derrick Bryant who played a bit as a freshman and who certainly isn't giving up. Even if we can make some educated guesses about who will be starting, we have absolutely no idea who will come into the game in nickel or dime situations. There's been some noise we won't have a true nickel package, but we know we'll have a dime. And let's not forget that super-prospect Craig Loston will be here soon.