LSU Spring Football 2013: Offense, and Sharpening the Spear

Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

“We don’t make policy here gentlemen…coaches…civilians…do that. We are the instruments of that policy. And although we are not in a game, we must practice as though we are. The tip of the spear…had best be sharp.”

When people ask me about the LSU offense (my wife gets annoyed when strangers do it while we're at dinner, but hey, a blogger's job is never done) and what kind of improvements it needs, I look back to the 2011 team.

"But Billy," you're probably saying, "that offense ranked 86th in the country -- shouldn't LSU aim higher?"

I'll tell you, random reader whose voice is in my head for some reason. Efficiency.

Yes, the 2011 Tigers averaged all of just 355 yards per game, and 2012 topped that with 374. However, they averaged 5.7 per play, a number that ranked a perfectly respectable 50th nationally. They converted 44 percent of their third down situations, good for 30th in FBS. And most importantly, they were fourth in the country in red-zone conversions with a 93 percent scoring rate; the 72 percent touchdown rate ranked 12th. Total offense can be a deceiving stat. When your defense forces punts and turnovers and your special teams has one of the best seasons any unit of its kind has ever had, your offense rarely has far to travel. That LSU team did a great job of moving the chains, grinding out drives and cashing in on scoring opportunities. Doing those things can make an offense incredibly effective (LSU averaged 35 points a game and topped 40 nine times). And even with more average yardage in 2012 and a more productive passing game, the Tigers took step backs in all of these areas

It's not the end-all/be-all. Big plays can be pretty damn important. However, for a struggling offense, striving for efficiency first is a very attainable goal. And that's why it should be the Tigers' first focus this spring under new coordinator Cam Cameron.

Don't think of this spring as discovering a new weapon, so much as sharpening the old one.

So let's look at the tools the revamped offensive staff has to work with:

  • A talented quarterback with a season's worth of experience, which included a number of highs and lows.
  • 285 carries for 1,556 yards worth of rushing and 24 touchdowns from the rest of the returning backfield.
  • The top five receiving threats from 2012, with some new blood on hand and more expected in the summer.
  • Five offensive linemen with starting experience and several new talents expected to contribute and provide depth.

These things don't come without baggage. Zach Mettenberger ran the gamut of first-year jitters. His road/home stat splits reflect an inconsistency that would be expected from most new starters, but most hoped to avoid with the 6-5 Georgian. The offensive line had its struggles, both in pass-protection and in consistently opening holes in the running game. And the receiving corps looked mostly like a group of secondary targets without a true No. 1 to command a defense's attention. Drops and mental mistakes were issues all season long.

We'll get more in-depth to the various position battles as we go, but we'll start where we always do, up front with the offensive line. With some new blood, LSU will have as much depth and talent this spring as ever. There's just enough experience to not really call it a rebuild, but there are some question marks and potential re-shuffling expected. Elliot Porter is a lock to man the center position, and the right side is likely set with sophomores Trai Turner and Vadal Alexander. The left side is where things get interesting. La'El Collins returns and could very well team with Turner to be one of the best guard tandems in the country, but there's been talk of moving him out to left tackle for a long time now, and if there's ever been a time it's this spring. This will likely depend on the performance of redshirt frosh Jerald Hawkins and JUCO transfer Fehoko Fanaika. Expect Greg Studrawa to use some combination of that trio on the left, while also working senior Josh Williford at a number of spots as a backup swing man, similar to T-Bob Hebert and Josh Dworaczyk in recent years.

Outside, last year's top four receivers, Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Jr., Kadron Boone and James Wright, return after a very up and down 2012. It felt like an incomplete group -- four No. 2- or 3-type receivers without a true go-to target. There's some new blood on hand in the bodies of true freshman Avery "don't call me Johnson" Peterson and John Diarse, and redshirt Travin Dural was very popular with the staff prior to a season-ending knee injury in Fall camp. But it's unclear whether Dural will be able to work much with his recovery, and the coaches are expected to be cautious. Overall, the competition here will get really interesting once Quantavius Leslie and DeSean Smith arrive in the summer, but if the passing game is going to improve this group will be featured prominently. JUCO tight end Logan Stokes appears to have an early bead on the starting gig, though Travis Dickson closed out last season with some nice receiving days.

In the backfield, the Tigers are as thin as they've been in some time, with just four scholarship tailbacks plus versatile fullback J.C. Copeland and his backup, walk-on Connor Neighbors. Still, that number includes a budding superstar in Jeremy Hill and two veterans that have had their share of big moments in junior Kenny Hilliard and the returning Alfred Blue (whom appeared poised for big things himself before a knee injury after two games). Junior Terrence Magee will likely return to running back, after spending some time as a WR in 2012 due to depth-chart numbers at the time. Competition here will be incredibly interesting, and could play a major role in shaping whatever changes Cameron brings to the offense.

That, of course, leaves quarterback. The one position that appears relatively settled. Mettenberger has the starting job fairly locked up, with sophomore Stephen Rivers behind him. Rob Bolden and freshmen Hayden Rettig and Anthony Jennings will be fun to watch as well, but we'll get to them at another time. As previously stated, Mettenberger's first season as a college starter was very uneven. He struggled on the road, but really had some nice moments at home, including a tremendous three-game stretch in November. Overall, his accuracy and decision-making were solid, but he struggled with the finer points of the game. Feeling pressure in the pocket. Throwing on the run. The deep ball was a constant source of frustration -- his passes tended to flutter a bit, and the lack of a true deep-threat that could adjust didn't exactly help. Looking back, I suspect that it was mostly due to Mettenberger pressing to make the perfect throw on his down-field opportunities. Holding on a bit too tight and trying to aim the ball perfectly into a receiver's hands. Deep balls are much more about placing the ball near a spot the receiver can run to rather than bulls-eyeing them perfectly. And that's definitely an area you can expect Cameron to focus on.

In his opening press conference, Cameron talked about starting with what Mettenberger does well and then building the passing game out from there. After 13 games, the power of Mettenberger's arm was abundantly clear. He can absolutely drill in the slant and curl passes, and has no problem throwing intermediate routes to the far sideline -- a luxury that can't be understated, but struggled finding his outlets under duress. Some of that can be attributed to inexperience, and some to playing behind a patchwork line at times last season. But there's room to grow here, and if Mettenberger, the line and the receivers can focus on those little things and rise together, they'll be in position to make big things happen a lot more often.

LSU doesn't release an official spring depth chart, but here's a best guess, based on what we know and what we suspect at a few positions. More to come as practices begin.

Position

Player

Ht./Wt.

X

86 Kadron Boone (Sr)
82 James Wright (Sr) - or -
83 Travin Dural (RS-Fr)

6-0, 207
6-2, 203
6-2, 180

LT

65 Jerald Hawkins (RS-Fr) - or -
70 La'El Collins (Jr)
77 Ethan Pocic (Fr)

6-6, 300
6-5, 321
6-7, 285

LG

70 La'El Collins (Jr) - or -
60 Fehoko Fanaika (Jr)
75 Evan Washington (Jr)

6-5, 321
6-6, 340
6-6, 324

C

55 Elliot Porter (Jr)
56 Trai Turner (So)

6-4, 300
6-3, 306

RG

56 Trai Turner (So)
74 Josh Williford (Sr)

6-3, 306
6-7, 332

RT

78 Vadal Alexander (So)
71 Jonah Austin (So)
66 Derek Edinburgh (RS-Fr)

6-6, 350
6-6, 329
6-8, 316

Y

84 Logan Stokes (Jr) - or -
41 Travis Dickson (Jr)
85 Dillon Gordon (So)

6-5, 253
6-3, 230
6-5, 280

Z

3 Odell Beckham, Jr. (Jr)
2 Avery Peterson (Fr)

6-0, 187
6-1, 180

Slot

80 Jarvis Landry (Jr)
88 John Diarse (Fr)

6-1, 195
6-1, 205

QB

8 Zach Mettenberger (Sr)
17 Stephen Rivers (So)

6-5, 230
6-8, 225

RB

33 Jeremy Hill (So) - or -
4 Alfred Blue (Sr) - or -
27 Kenny Hilliard (Jr)
14 Terrence Magee (Jr)

6-2, 235
6-2, 220
6-0, 231
5-9, 212

FB

44 J.C. Copeland (Sr)
43 Connor Neighbors (Sr)

6-1, 272
5-11, 236

X
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