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2008 Football Preview: The Cornerbacks

No position is more fraught with uncertainty entering the 2008 season than cornerback.  Gone are multi-year starters Jonathan Zenon and Chevis Jackson.  Enter a number of very athletic but very inexperienced young corners.  

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From left to right and high to low, we have #4 Jai Eugene, sophomore, #29 Chris Hawkins, junior, and freshmen #13 Ron Brooks, #31 John Williams, #25 Phelon Jones, and #7 Patrick Johnson (true freshman).  None of these guys have ever started a college game, and only two of them have ever played a down of college football.  None of them are known quantities.  Any of them could conceivably play and conceivably start.  

While corner may not be as important a position as quarterback, the uncertainty here is even greater and more intriguing than at that position, where we are pretty certain one of two players will be the starter and the only other mystery is whether there will be a platoon.  Here, we really have no idea at this point what's going to happen.

Of the six the most experienced are Jai Eugene and Chris Hawkins.  Jai Eugene was a highly recruited cornerback back in 2006, when LSU won a recruiting battle against Michigan.  Eugene was a high school quarterback, and he's taken some time in learning how to play cornerback.  When pressed into service against Kentucky because of an injury to Chevis Jackson, Eugene really struggled.  He's athletic, but his ball skills were lacking and he often got caught out of position.  In other games in which he saw action due to a lopsided score, he committed a number of pass interference penalties.

Now one year wiser and one year more experienced at cornerback, he is the provisional starter, but the competition to keep the job will be fierce, and Eugene will have to cut down on his mistakes in order to be the starting cornerback.

Chris Hawkins actually looked pretty darn good when he got into the game last year, narrowly missing a couple of spectacular interceptions.  He's the grizzled veteran of this group, and perhaps lacks the athleticism of the younger corners, but he could be just the steady corner who could win this job.  He emerged from spring as the starter at Jonathan Zenon's old spot, but again it will be difficult to keep.

Ron Brooks is a redshirt freshman who is quick and exciting with the ball in his hands.  He's a terrific athlete with speed and change of direction.  I look for him to get involved in the return game at some point.  Observers of spring practice said that Brooks looked very very good indeed at corner.  He is perhaps a little small for the position, but if he can be a playmaker, that won't stop him from getting on the field.

John Williams is something of a clone of Ron Brooks.  Williams is, incidentally, a cousin of former Tiger great Dominick Davis.  John Williams is another young Tiger whose presence may be felt sooner in the return game than at the line of scrimmage.  He seems, from reports, to be perhaps behind Ron Brooks at cornerback.

Phelon Jones is a player.  Getting Jones out of the state of Alabama was a recruiting coup.  He is definitely a player, and there were reports last year that the coaches had some second thoughts about redshirting him.  It wouldn't at all surprise me if he saw action either as a starting corner or as a nickel/dime back.

Patrick Johnson was a stud recruit for the 2008 class, and early reports are that he has looked just as good as expected if not better.  I feel it is safe to say that he will play, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if he wins the starting job in time for the start of SEC play.  It wouldn't shock me if he's the starter against Appalachian State.  The only thing that makes me hesitate to say that is Les Miles' historic reluctance to play freshmen over veterans.  But when faced with an opportunity to get a great player on the field (Chad Jones, Richard Dickson) he has played the young guy, at least in a role.

I think cornerback is eventually going to be a strength for LSU, but the question is whether we will be hurt by poor play at the position before we discover who the best players are, and will it take most or all of the season for the players there to develop?  In any event, this is probably the most interesting position to watch this Fall for movement on the depth chart.

Whoever doesn't win the cornerback position could conceivably compete for the nickel or dime back positions.  I think Phelon Jones, due to his size, could be particularly useful at those positions.