Give your best guess on the starting offensive lineup for week one (baring injury), and your thoughts on some of the more interesting position battles on that side of the ball.
Obviously, the backfield is pretty set with Mettenberger at quarterback, J.C. Copeland at fullback and Alfred Blue at running back (pending resolution to Jeremy Hill's status). Two of your starting receivers will be Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., with some combination of Quantavious Leslie, Travin Dural, Kadron Boone and James Wright working their way through the different sets. I'm betting that Dillon Gordon takes over as the starting tight end, with Travis Dickson joining him in passing sets and Logan Stokes in running ones.
Things get interesting when you talk about the offensive line though. You have La'El Collins, Trai Turner, Vadal Alexander and Josh Williford as a solid base of returnees. Elliot Porter at center is a bit of a question mark given the consistency we've been used to out of P.J. Lonergan the last few years, but he did see enough action last year that I don't consider him that green.
How the starting lineup and the rest of the two-deep shapes up is where things get a bit interesting though. Jerald Hawkins had a great spring, and there's been some talk of him stepping in at right tackle, with Alexander sliding over to left guard and Josh Williford manning the T-Bob Hebert Memorial Swingman Backup position. And at least two true freshmen, Ethan Pocic and Josh Boutte, have the talent to step in quickly. Pocic worked at center in the spring -- was that where the coaches view him playing full time, or was that due to a lack of depth at that position? To me, if you think Pocic is one of your top 6-8 linemen, it makes sense to have him ready to go at multiple positions in case of injury.
QB Mett - Jennings
RB Blue- Hilliard - Magee
FB Copeland - Neighbors
This is a pretty easy one, honestly. I' assuming Hill will be suspended for at least the first game, which pushes everyone up the depth chart. As befits a Les Miles team, three backs will see significant carries, so the big winner of Hill's suspension is Magee. He will see 7-10 touches and get a chance to impress. The only real question in the backfield is who is the backup QB? I'm going with Jennings because I'm buying the hype. He will displace Rivers on the depth chart that quickly.
WR1 Landry - Boone
WR2 Beckham - Wright
WR3 Leslie - Boone
TE Dickson - Smith
Leslie will see the field right away, mainly because LSU was desperate last year for a big bodied deep threat. He fills a gaping huge need and Beckham better find some consistency or he's going to lose his #2 slot to Leslie. Boone is a guy who will back up everybody and hope to sneak in a few catches, as is Wright. However, Landry emerged late last year as a rock solid, sometimes spectacular wide receiver. He's the one guy I trust to catch any ball thrown his way. He's the player on LSU's roster the rest of the SEC is sleeping on. Landry is a stud and will be LSU's best player on offense in Week One (assuming Hill is out). Dickson will get the bulk of the tight end snaps, and a big receiving TE has been missing from the offense for a few years, but he will likely be pushed for playing time by DeSean Smith. By season's end, Smith might be the starter, but not in Week One.
LT Collins - Hawkins
LG Alexander - Williford
C Porter - Pocic
RG Turner - Willford
RT Hawkins - Alexander
The line is hard to predict, as Miles does like to give upperclassmen the benefit of the doubt. I think Williford will be an announced starter and probably get the first series as a courtesy, but I think Billy's right that he will be a super sub. Miles is a lineman at heart, and I think he can see the amount of talent in this unit and he wants to get it onto the field. I'm pretty excited that we'll have depth, talent, and experience. A lot of these guys were forced into action a little before they were ready last year, which should pay dividends this year. Jerald Hawkins may not be ready, but I think Miles wants to lockdown the left side of his line and make it a real force. Moving Vadal Alexander next to La'el Collins makes Mett's blind slide an absolute rock. That was not the case last year, as Mett got killed from the backside early last season. By taking a chance with a freshman on the outside at RT, Miles will play it safe in the middle and go with the veteran Porter at center. He's a lock, I think.
As mentioned the backfield is set.
I think there will be some shakeup at the WR spot, though. Leslie wasn't brought here to watch. Assuming he's ready, I see him starting on the outside, while they slide Landry into his more natural slot position. If we open the game in a 3 WR set I see this:
If we open in a big set, I could see Landry starting on the outside, due to his strong blocking. Then the question becomes who plays TE?
TE: Gordon/Stokes (running sets)
TE: Gordon/Dickson/Smith (passing sets)
Smith is the variable. He doesn't have the experience, but he's a more complete athlete/pass catcher than any other TE on the roster. Assuming he's come to camp focused, he'll be a guy they try to create looks for. Gordon's blocking will likely make him a Miles favorite. I think he'll be the starting TE by default. All this, of course, is contingent on play calling.
I think it'll be very fluid. I'm guessing this year, more than in the past few, there will be heavy rotations. There's just so many playable bodies. At WR you are looking at Leslie, Beckham, Landry, Boone, Wright, and Dural. And that's just assuming someone like Diarse or Peterson don't stand out in camp and earn some snaps.
At RB you have Blue, Hilliard, Magee and Hill with experience. Hill will get snaps, whenever he's allowed back. The other three will share the load early on.
At TE, you are looking at Gordon, Dickson, Smith, and Stokes. Gordon/Stokes are more of your glorified tackle TEs, blocking specialists. Dickson/Smith allow you to get a little more creative. We've also heard through the Spring that Cameron wants more from the TE in this offense, and Mettenberger seemed to develop nice chemistry with Dickson at points last year. I expect to see a lot of that.
Even at QB, there's no question Mett is the man, but Jennings seems to have wowed the socks off the coaches, so I won't be surprised if he's called in to run some option stuff.
The OL is the most established. I'm really curious to see who they believe are their best 5. It wouldn't shock me if Williford gets the start at LG, just as a nod to his experience, particularly opening the season on the road against a tough opponent. In that case, they'll trust his playing time and knowledge will override the more talented players behind (or next to) him. Personally, what I'd like to see is Alexander pushed down inside. I think he's more suited to grind it out in the middle of the line, rather than play on the edges. He's a good athlete, but not a great one at tackle. At guard, his athleticism starts to become an advantage. This all assumes someone is ready to take on that RT spot and play at a level that Alexander did, whether than be Hawkins or Pocic.
As the seasons wears on, I wouldn't be shocked if Alexander plugged LG and Pocic/Hawkins took the RT spot. Or even Pocic just takes the LG spot. Pocic doesn't have the experience, but he may be the 2nd most talented lineman on the team.
For the most part, I agree with both of you guys. However, neither of you mentioned Travin Dural as having much significant impact. I really like his skill set, and he seemed to make a significant move in the spring, moving ahead of guys like Boone and Wright. I think that Quantavioius Leslie is going to have to wrestle that #3 WR spot away from Dural, and I don't think Dural is going to give it up easily. Regardless of where each ends up on the depth chart, I think they both play a lot and could see several scenarios where both are on the field at the same time with either Landry of Beckham in the slot.
Am I the only one who thinks Pocic will win the starting job at center? I don't think the staff would have had Pocic playing there in the spring if they were totally comfortable with Porter. And from what I saw and heard, Pocic was VERY impressive in the spring. In the long term, LSU really needs Pocic on the outside...especially if this is the last season for La'El Collins. But for 2013, I think he's your starting center. Hopefully, either Andy Dodd or KJ Malone come in this fall and shows off the goods at center, which will enable Pocic to eventually move back to tackle.
I also really like the idea of putting Alexander at guard and having Hawkins start at right tackle. Hawkins was apparently giving Alexander quite a run for the job in spring anyway (Granted, Alexander was dealing with an injury). Regardless of whether Williford or Alexander gets the nod at left guard, I think that lineup is your most effective. I think Alexander looks like someone better suited for guard for the long term, and I like the athleticism that Hawkins brings on the edge.
I have a feeling the receiving corps is going to be very balanced, much like we've come to see out of the running backs. Everybody will have a chance to shine. Wouldn't shock me if 3-4 guys have 100-yard games.
So what newcomers are you most looking forward to, or other unknowns that you think could break out?
Leslie and Dural are obvious choices. But if I'm picking offensive players that have the best skillset to step in, I'll start with DeSean Smith and Jeryl Brazil.
Smith is the best receiving tight-end prospect LSU has signed in...as long as I can remember. He's a big body with soft hands and the athleticism to make plays all over the field. I know Barbe liked to line up him more as an outside receiver than a regular tight end, so that leads me to think that's how LSU will use him as well, especially around the goal-line. But if he hits the ground running, he's the kind of athlete you try to use as much as he can handle.
Everybody knows about Brazil's speed, and I have a feeling that with the Hill situation he winds up in a Trindon Holliday-like running back position. Running some speed sweeps, catching some swing passes out of the backfield and returning kicks. He's got more of the typical speed back frame as opposed to 5-6, 165 Trindon. You might not want to pound him into the line of scrimmage, but if he proves he can handle it, I could see him getting 5-10 touches a game.
Terrance Magee is another guy I'm intrigued by, especially with the running back depth chart in flux.
DeSean Smith is going to be the best LSU tight end since... geez, David LaFleur? The tight end position has been missing from the LSU offense for a few years now, ever since Richard Dickson pulled a disappearing act in 2009. The production has been spotty at best from the position since then, and it's been more of a sixth offensive lineman than a third or fourth receiver. He's going to be a star. But he's not going to be a star in Week One. He's slowly going to take over the position and he won't be getting first team reps until October or November. He should be a factor, but not a big impact player as a freshman. The guy who should remake our receiving corps is Leslie, as he's a big-bodied receiver we've sorely lacked.
I do agree with Kris that Pocic will eventually take over the center position, just not in Week One. Miles tends to defer to experience on the line, but especially so at center. This is Porter's job until Pocic pries it away. He has the talent to do just that, and I think he will, just not in the first week. I think Miles plays it safe against TCU and puts out a veteran to anchor the middle of the line.
For the most part, you guys have covered the newcomers who could make a big impact. Ethan Pocic, Desean Smith, Quantavious Leslie, Travin Dural as a redshirt, and Brazil. I think those are probably the main guys.
I love what Brazil can bring to the table as a possible kick returner and "change of pace" back. I loved Trindon Holliday, and when other teams have a guy like that -- whether it's Onterio McCalebb, Dexter McCluster, the Chris Rainey / Jeff Demps combination, or even a guy like Jeff Scott, I'll admit that I pucker up quite a bit. LSU has fared well against bigger, power backs in the past but those speed guys can beat even a perfect game plan. McCaleb's late touchdown at Auburn in 2010 comes to mind. I think Brazil can be that kind of guy. Carries could be tough to come by in LSU's backfield but even four to six touches per game for Brazil could prove very beneficial for LSU. I have heard a few not so flattering things about Brazil's toughness, but that's all second hand info and he'll get the chance to prove he belongs on the field this year. I think he'll get an opportunity at kickoff returner too.
As far as receiving the most snaps, Logan Stokes may be in contention. He's not going to be flashy, and I doubt he catches many balls this year. But he could end up being LSU's primary blocking tight-end.
I'll also throw out Jerald Hawkins as a guy that I could easily see emerge into a rock for LSU this year. If he does win the job at right tackle, he could be a fixture on the end of LSU's line for years to come.
Lastly, I've heard some terrific things about John Diarse towards the end of spring and this summer. I can't conceivably see him climbing into the mix with Leslie, Dural, Beckham, Landry, Boone and Wright for serious playing time, but thought it worth a mention that he's turning some heads out there. Starting in 2014, he could be a big name for LSU. Remember that not even Jarvis Landry played a whole lot (at receiver) as a true freshman.
That's going to be huge for Brazil. As much as people think LSU only plays bigger backs, they really just want guys that ran hard. Holliday always ran hard, he was just so small that you could only use him so much. Brazil's going to have to finish his runs if he wants to see the field.
I neglected to mention Brazil, but I could definitely see him contributing as well. I'm interested in what he will be... there's so many questions about him, as Kris alluded to. Is he tough? Can he be a RB? Is he a football player or just a track guy in pads? Does he love football?
Who knows? All I know is that he has talent to make a difference against TCU. It's up to him if he wants to tap into that.