LSU will open the first of 15 bowl practices today in preparation for the Music City Bowl on December 30, with nine full days of practice up until a break for Christmas, then one more before departure for Nashville.
The practices, if we're being honest, are the most significant part of making a bowl like this, and the next week and a half or so is going to be incredibly important for the Tigers going forward. Truth to be told, you won't hear a lot of talk about Notre Dame specifically on the practice field until closer to Christmas, maybe not until after the holiday even. The first bank of practices will amount to a de facto spring, where LSU will work exclusively on itself.
It may come as a bit of a surprise, but player development kind of goes by the wayside a bit during the season for football teams. Coaches are too busy focusing on gameplanning and correcting game mistakes, and with a limited schedule there's only so much time you can devote to the back of the depth chart or to your redshirt players. Bowl practices give you a chance to check in with them so to speak. Assess their progression, see what you can look forward to from them in the coming year, things like that. For some players, it might be their first practices free from nagging injuries in a while. Or just free from the pressures of the daily grind of a season. For the players that will be around next season, it's a chance to take a real step forward.
In past years, players like Jerald Hawkins, Spencer Ware, Tharold Simon, Kwon Alexander or Ricky Jefferson, whom had all redshirted or played limited roles the previous seasons, took big strides through bowl prep. For some, it was reflected in actual playing time in the bowl game, others it was a leg up on the spring depth chart.
So here's a look at some areas of the team that LSU's coaching staff will be focused on over the next 10 days:
- Defensive Line Depth: the Tigers know what they have with their starters. They eyes will be on backups like Sione Teuhema, Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal at end and Frank Herron, Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore inside. Two guys on that list are going to have to start next year, and LSU will need to find more veteran depth at tackle as well. I'm told that Travonte Valentine is clear to play for LSU in 2015, so these practices give him a chance to show something as well. Trey Lealaimatafao will also be a guy to watch.
- Back Seven: LSU's linebackers are pretty set, depending on Kwon Alexander's plans for the NFL draft. In the secondary, this is going to be prime time for players like Jamal Adams, Ed Paris, Jefferson, John Battle, Russell Gage and Devin Voorhies. All of those guys will be asked to contribute more in 2015, given that both Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills could leave early for the NFL.
- Offensive line depth: LSU could be losing anywhere from two to four starters from the 2014 offensive line. Even if Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins return, there's likely to be some position reshuffling and a number of new faces. Where will Ethan Pocic play? The development of younger vets like Andy Dodd, Josh Boutte and K.J. Malone will likely determine that. Late-summer JUCO addition Jevonte Domond will also be assessed. Ditto the redshirted William Clapp and Garrett Brumfield.
- Seven on Seven on Seven on Seven: yeah, we all know that this passing game needs a lot of work, but it's going to take development on both the throwing and catching ends, and that means seven-on-seven work. Against the No. 1 secondary. Over and over again. Particularly with lots and lots and lots and lots of press coverage. If Travin Dural, John Diarse and Malachi Dupre could just get off the jam a bit better, that might have helped this passing game make one or two more plays. Trey Quinn was the one player who didn't struggle with it, but he needs to work through the drops issues he had late.
Oh...and of course...there's the quarterback. I'm not going to pretend to have an idea on what's going to play out there. Even the few sources I have don't really know. Here's hoping that the staff spend the next 10 days with both Anthony Jennings AND Brandon Harris starting from scratch. Declare an open race to the start to the player that puts in the best and hardest preparation. Is that game going to be definitive for 2015? Probably not, but it gives one player or the other a chance for one last in-game impression. The competition between Jennings and Harris won't be settled until one of them takes control of the job for some sustained period, but there's a chance to put them both on equal footing and create a jump-off point.