First, I really like Pete Fiutak. He's a very knowledgeable guy. He's forgotten more about college football than I'll ever know. The problem is that college football is just too big of a world for one person to be expert in all of it. No national reporter or national figure knows our team better than we do. The flip side is that Pete Fiutak knows a hell of a lot more about Eastern Michigan than I would ever want to know.
Secondly, despite all that, Pete Fiutak may have insights that I don't have. He may have some super-down-low sources within the team that feed him information that the ordinary local press does not get. I doubt that's strictly true, but it is entirely possible that some of the things he says that make me cast a sideways glance may be more true than I realize.
I don't think we should use Fiutak to learn more about our team, but it is nice to look at him and get an insight into what fans around the country may be thinking.
With the preliminaries out of the way, let's parse out what he says.
While this might not be the SEC's best team, it's good enough to have a puncher's chance against anyone in the league (more specifically, Florida in an SEC title game and on October 10th in Baton Rouge), and if you win the SEC title, you're in the discussion for the national championship.
But this year's team might need a break or three to move up the timetable. Remember, LSU needed a minor miracle just to get to the 2008 BCS Championship game, and this year's schedule is way too hard for anyone to get through alive. Even with a conference slate (with Georgia and Florida from the East, along with road trips to Alabama and Ole Miss) that would force most teams to make plans to hang out with their families for the holidays, there's reason to think this will be a bounceback year that should reestablish LSU among the elite.
So he doesn't think we're #1, but he thinks we could end up there if we get some breaks. I don't have a big problem with that. We have to face the fact that while Georgia is perceived to have lost their window of opportunity for now, and while Ole Miss may be getting too much love, and Alabama has to replace a lot of production at QB, OL, and Safety, the Florida Gators are loaded. Just plain loaded. And while we have talent and we have the ability to beat anyone, beating Florida is going to be a tall order if everyone arrives healthy for that game.
On the new defensive coaches:
The defensive front that struggled to get into the backfield should be far more aggressive with Chavis directing the way, and that should help a fast secondary that didn't get a whole bunch of help against the better passing teams.
What to watch for on defense: More attacking. It's not like the defense was awful last year, but it wasn't the high-flying disruptive machine it was in previous years. This year's D should make far more plays in the backfield, it'll come up with far more takeaways, and it'll start to look a little bit like the defense that now-Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini put together. The speed is there and the talent is solid across the board, and now the defense that gave up a not-that-bad 326 yards per game last year should be a brick wall.
The defense wore the LSU uniforms, and it had several players that were part of the team that won the national championship in 2007, but it didn't look like LSU. The pass rush was spotty, the secondary was a sieve, and there weren't nearly enough big plays all across the board. Welcome to 2009, and welcome to John Chavis, the former Tennessee defensive coordinator who's going to have this ultra-athletic group flying around.
Strength: The scheme. Play time is over. As if defensive coordinator John Chavis isn't going to whip this group into enough of a frenzy, there's Brick Haley, a former assistant for the Chicago Bears, who has the potential to make this group special. This year, the front four will get to pin its ears back and get into the backfield.
I would say this qualifies as "very complimentary" of the new guys, and by extension very critical of the old guys. I think this is right. Last year's team (and even the teams under Pelini) tried to outsmart and out-trick the other team with fancy formations and unpredictable schemes. We ended up just getting ourselves out of position and confusing our own players.
I believe this year's team will play much more aggressively than that.. While at this level of football, it take football smarts to succeed, 75% of playing defense is playing fast and getting after the football. I think this year's defense will emphasize that a lot more than last year's.
On Jordan Jefferson:
The quarterback play that was so lousy at times and was directly responsible for two losses should be far better now that Jordan Jefferson appears to be ready to be a leader and a playmaker, and not just a caretaker.
What to watch for on offense: Better quarterback play. Jarrett Lee tried his best, and was trying to get through his first season without collapsing after Andrew Hatch had injury issues. He collapsed. The 16 interceptions forced the coaching staff to adjust the gameplan on both sides of the ball to hide him, and then enough became enough. Lee was raw, but freshman Jordan Jefferson was really raw and extremely erratic. However, he showed signs of becoming a playmaker. This spring, Jefferson was far more consistent and far more accurate while top recruit Russell Shepard was solid. If LSU's quarterbacks were better last season, the team would've been 10-3 and would've beaten Alabama and Arkansas.
I am not quite sold that Jefferson's going to be a strength of this team. He is still very inexperienced, and while he had an excellent Peach Bowl performance and we can expect improvement, we simply must go into this season expecting Jefferson to make the kinds of mistakes that second-year quarterbacks make on a regular basis.
I would expect significantly improved QB play over last year's performance, however. Let's keep in mind though that it's not like Jarrett Lee was inept. We were in the middle of the pack of the SEC in passing yards, and actually moved down that list after Jefferson replaced Lee. We had a wide receiver lead the league in receptions and touchdown catches. Lee was able to crank out some yards through the air. He just made a lot of mistakes that led to turnovers and points going the other way as well.
I think this year we are not going to see as much passing yardage as we saw. I say that because I think we aren't going to pass as much as we did last year. I think some of those passes will be replaced by quarterback draws and/or "Wildcat" type plays.
The 6-4, 210-pound sophomore has a nice arm, but not an elite one, and he has good running skills, with 134 yards and a touchdown, but he wouldn't necessarily be considered dangerous. However, he has nice speed and was far more accurate this offseason than he ever was during last year. To say he stepped up his game is an understatement.
I think they're actually selling Jefferson a little short on the talent department. He was not heavily recruited nation-wide, but I think he probably would have been had he stayed healthy in his junior year of high school. When Jefferson came to the team, I said he had the best tools of anyone there. He has the best tools of any recent LSU quarterback other than Jamarcus Russell (if you count "head" as a tool, otherwise he is also behind Ryan Perrilloux). I think he has a higher upside than Matt Flynn had or Rohan Davey had. He has that much talent.
On A couple incoming freshmen:
Superstar recruit Russell Shepard will likely end up working at wide receiver early on, but he proved this spring that he was good enough to be used at quarterback, his real position. The 6-1, 179-pounder isn't exactly JaMarcus Russell size-wise, but he's a devastating runner and an accurate enough passer to not make a slew of big mistakes. If he's in, he's running and will be trying to get the short to midrange passing game going. He's not going to push the ball deep on a regular basis early on.
While super-recruit Russell Shepard is a quarterback, he's way too good a player to sit on the sidelines and watch Jordan Jefferson. The 6-1, 179-pound speedster can be used in a variety of way lining up under center as a change-of-pace runner, as a running back, or most likely, as a dangerous playmaker in three and four wide sets. He can do it all.
As good as recruit as Shepard was, Reuben Randle might have been better. Arguably the nation's top receiver prospect, the 6-3, 195-pound true freshman has all the tools and all the ability to be the next LSU first round NFL draft pick. Used as both a quarterback and a receiver in high school (no, he didn't throw to himself), he threw 20 touchdown passes and ran for 683 yards and 12 scores, and as a junior he caught 55 passes for 1,058 yards and 11 scores. It's all there with size, toughness, athleticism and deep speed to become the starter on the other side of LaFell or the No. 2 option on the X.
It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Shepard used extensively as a receiver, but it will probably more in the way of a Reggie Bush type receiver, in that he would not be asked to run a lot of routes. Instead, he would catch the ball at or near the line of scrimmage on screens or dump-offs and try to make something happen with his legs. The kid has simply never played receiver, and it's not as easy a position to learn as it sometimes looks. There is a lot of technique there, and Shepard would be way behind in learning it.
I think the Rueben Randle description is about accurate, though I would not be expecting Julio Jones-type or AJ Green-type numbers from his this year. As mentioned, I do not think that LSU will be passing as much next year as we did this year, and neither Green nor Jones had a 1st team All-SEC receiver running alongside him last year. Green had the most talent around him, but he also had an established throw-first QB with a cannon arm getting the ball out there. If Randle catches 30 passes, I would consider that a very pleasant surprise.
The team's top defensive recruit this year was Chris Davenport, a 6-4, 318-pound block of granite who was out for most of his senior hurt, but was still considered among the nation's top tackle prospects. Very big and very active, he was a man among boys in high school and has the body and strength to be a factor right away somewhere on the interior.
I'm not so sure. It's a little harder to break into the playing rotation on the lines than it is to break into it at the skill positions. Most freshman big men need to physically mature and work their bodies a lot to really be strong enough to be ready for SEC competition. Most are a little soft in the middle and lack the definition you like to see. Even if the upside is there, it usually takes a year or so to really start reaching it. Can anyone name the last true freshman to make an impact at LSU on either the offensive or defensive line. Hint: it hasn't happened while Les Miles has been the coach. The last one I remember was Marcus Spears, which was 8 years ago.
We'll continue with our thoughts on this in the next installment.