Back in August of 2008, I wrote a post entitled "5 Players We Can Ill-Afford to Lose to Injury". The title was self-explanatory. I attempted to name off five players who were too important to the 2008 season for us to lose without significant costs. Those players were, in order, Ciron Black, Colt David, Darry Beckwith, Ricky Jean-Francois, and Richard Dickson.
Alas, Darry Beckwith got hurt and missed time, seeming to not return to full strength for the rest of the season. Ricky Jean-Francois ended up not being all that important despite being healthy. Many of us overrated him. Otherwise, it was a good list.
This year, I found the list of 5 essential players to be harder to compile.
1. Ciron Black, LT. Last year, we were mainly concerned about the fact that there was no backup plan to Ciron Black. backup left tackle Jarvis Jones had been expelled from the team and it appeared that if Black went down we would have to go with an out-of-position guard or a true freshman. Now we at least have a backup plan, as Greg Shaw did some nice things as a true freshman backup tackle last year, and we have a nice true freshman class of linemen as well. The depth is there, but Ciron Black is the most experienced player on the team, having been a full-time starter and every-down player for the past 3 seasons. He actually has a chance, if he stays healthy, to tie a record for most games started by a college player. If LSU goes to the SEC Championship Game and then to a bowl, Black will share that record. It will be a big luxury to have such an experienced player at left tackle.
2. Brandon Lafell, WR. I defended LSU's depth at wide receiver last night, but the fact is that Brandon Lafell is the only proven high-level player at that position. People seem to forget how productive Lafell was last year, and how productive the passing game in general was. In a league where Julio Jones and A.J. Green got most of the press, Brandon Lafell led the league in receptions, was second (to Green) in receiving yards, and tied for the lead in touchdown catches. He was a deserving 1st Team All-SEC player, and he is returning for a 5th season. The most productive wideout other than Lafell returning is Terrance Toliver, whose 22 catches last season for 257 yards was probably a disappointment, but it's not at all too late for Toliver to reach that vast potential. It would be nice to let him do it while Lafell is getting double-covered though.
3. Rahim Alem, DE. Alem is an outstanding player, but here is where the picking gets tougher. I really think the depth is there on defensive line that we will have good players there no matter what. Alem is just such a good pass rusher and such an athletic guy that he adds a dimension to the defensive line that would be very difficult to replace, even if we could easily plug a competent guy in there after him. I just don't think we could plug in a dynamic penetrator and pass rusher like Alem. If Alem were to get hurt, we would have to turn to unproven freshman Chancey Aghayere and Sam Montgomery in an attempt to find that spark.
4. Richard Dickson, TE. I picked him last year, saying:
The big passing target is going to be an important outlet for our young quarterbacks all season long. If they struggle to get the ball to the outside, Dickson will be there finding holes in the zone and giving them a big target to throw to. There is no receiving tight end to speak of behind him, and no receiver quite like him on the team, so he is going to be an essential part of the offense.
You could just cut and past the first two sentences of that entry here and it would still true. We still have young quarterbacks. We can still expect them to struggle at times. Dickson was our #3 receiver in both catches and yards last season, and I would expect the same this season. One difference is that I think we have better depth there now than we did last season, but like Ciron Black, Dickson has been a 3-year starter and it would be impossible to replace that experience.
5. Chad Jones, S. It gets harder and harder here. Chad Jones looks like a star at this position, but we are really getting into areas where the depth is also outstanding. If we were to lose Chad Jones, we could plug Danny McCray in there, and he would do very well as a regular safety, as opposed to nickel back where he has been used and where he struggles. Or we could insert Karnell Hatcher, who I thought was outstanding as a freshman backup last year. Or we could move Harry Coleman back to safety again. Jones is great but there are options, and losing him would not be the end of the world. The same could be said in varying degrees of Patrick Peterson, Drake Nevis, Charles Scott, Lyle Hitt, Joseph Barksdale, Perry Riley, and others who are sure to be important players on this team. You have to choose someone, so you might as well choose the best left-handed pitcher on the football roster.
Of course, this list could change between now and September 5, 2009, as it is always possible for us to lose more players to injury and/or attrition, screwing up the depth at various positions.
Who are your five?