If there are three problems on this LSU team right now, I think we could categorize them as, in order from most concerning to least: a) problems on the offensive line, b) problems at quarterback, and c) problems at defensive line.
I really think the problems at quarterback will work themselves out as Jefferson gets more experienced and comfortable. The question is whether that process will culminate this year or next. Furthermore, I think there is little that Les Miles and the rest of the coaches can do to help that situation along other than help Jordan Jefferson by putting him in positions to succeed. I.e., by not telegraphing a ton of screen passes all the time. We'll see how that goes.
The problems we really need to talk about, though, are the problems on the offensive line and on the defensive line. My personal opinion is that the defensive line has played reasonably well in the last two games, which is why this is not one of the two biggest problems. We have had numerous injuries, however, and that's why it's on the list.
The story of LSU's depth problems on the defensive line, and at defensive tackle in particular, starts with recruiting and subsequent position changes or attrition. LSU has recruiting literally tons of defensive linemen in the last 5 years, starting with Lyle Hitt in 2002 and continuing to the 2009 class when we signed a very large number of defensive linemen. Here is a list of those defensive linemen who are no playing defensive line for LSU: Lyle Hitt (position change), Ricky Jean-Francois (declared for NFL), Joseph Barksdale (position change), Kentravis Aubrey (injuries), Sidell Corley (transfer), Will Blackwell (position change), Cordian Hagans (position change).
What all the moves from defensive line over to offensive line have done to our offensive line is a story for another day.
The second part of the story of why we are having depth problems at defensive line is the story of redshirting. Redshirting is, of course, the practice of not putting a player in the game for an entire season and keeping his year of eligibility. On the whole, the practice is down in college football as more and more coaches rely heavily on freshmen. Les Miles has been somewhat old school on this topic, redshirting as many new players as possible.
So far this year, the following true freshmen have played: Defensive tackle Josh Downs, cornerback Morris Claiborne, wide receiver Reuben Randle, and quarterback Russell Shepard. If there have been more, I did not see them. Some very heralded recruits appear to be headed to a redshirt, including 5-star recruits Chris Davenport and Michael Ford as well as other players who were expected to contribute immediately, like fullback Dominique Allen, defensive linemen Michael Brockers and Sam Montgomery, linebacker Barkevious Mingo, offensive tackle Chris Faulk, and safety Craig Loston (whose rumored injury may be the culprit here).
The football program can only have 85 scholarship players at a time. If we are committed to steadfastly refusing to play 20 or more of them, you can see where this can wreak havoc on your depth. Having about 1/4 of your scholarship players voluntarily unavailable leaves you vulnerable.
In particular, it leaves you vulnerable to injuries, and this is what is delivering the killing blow to our defensive line depth. Starting defensive end Lazarius Levingston ("Pep", to you) continues to be out with a leg injury. JUCO transfer Akiem Hicks has yet to play this season due to a variety of ailments, and the rumor is this problem may persist. And then last Saturday towards the end of a blowout win, true freshman Josh Downs left the game with a leg injury, the severity of which is a closely guarded secret
Les Miles was trying to get through the season using only 4 scholarship defensive tackles: veterans Charles Alexander, Al Woods, and Drake Nevis, plus true freshman Downs. If Hicks can come back, he would have been the 5th. I'm not sure this was ever a smart plan, especially considering Charles Alexander's extensive history of being unable to stay healthy. Alexander's been excellent so far this year, and has stayed healthy as far as we know, but you just can't count on that to last. Asking those 4 to take all the snaps seems like it's inviting injuries, as those players wear down.
Anyway, Les Miles has decided to move true freshman defensive end Michael Brockers, who at 6'6" 285# certainly has the size to play inside, over to defensive tackle and is prepared to pull the redshirt off of him. This has been reported at the premium sites, but I don't feel bad about repeating it here because it was pasted right on the freely available front page of Tigerbait.com yesterday.
He is bound and determined, I guess, to keep the redshirt on Chris Davenport, who is a natural defensive tackle. I don't have a problem with moving Brockers inside. The man is a giant and got rave reviews all through pre-season, and was expected to contribute this year as a result. If the need is on the inside rather than on the outside, so be it.
The most serious concern remains the offensive line, which simply has not played well. The good news is that it appears everyone is aware of that. Numerous stories have come out recently where players are acknowledging that the offense is sputtering. Here is Les Miles' take:
"Offensively, here I am: I’ve come off the game and I’m mad," Miles said. "I didn’t think we rushed the football well enough. I always like to rush the football. We rushed for 175 yards. I’m sitting there going, ‘Wow, when did we do that? Was I there? ’"
There’s something unsettled, uncertain, about the team that isn’t reflected on the stat sheet or the scoreboard. The problem is one of maximizing production. A problem of execution, not scheme or imagination. It’s as if a chef has every ingredient on hand but hasn’t yet struck the proper mix, Miles said.
"I think we’re looking for the best recipe, but I don’t know that we’ve found it just yet," he said. "I don’t think change is necessary, I think it’s more efficient and better."
I think we've all come to accept that Les Miles is not the smoothest guy in the room, and these quotes won't change that perception, but at least he agrees with us that there is a problem and is willing to acknowledge it publicly. This is a sharp change from last year's issues with the defensive schemes, which Les Miles to this day has refused to criticize, even after letting both defensive coordinators responsible go.
There are also rumors that Miles attended the offensive line unit meeting early in the week and let the group have it. It's a start. At least he is not blind to the problem. Let's see if we can fix it now.