After one of the best offseasons LSU football has had in some time, the 2016 team could be poised for some great things. Les Miles has the best running back in college football, more returning starters than any other team he's had here, and hired one of the best defensive coordinators in the country to coach a unit that returns eight starters. The pieces could easily be in place for a run at the college football playoff -- the advanced statistics back that up as well.
But as with any team, there are question marks that have to be answered. Things that have to be improved upon, or steps that need to be taken. Over the coming weeks before we get into the meat of really previewing this team, we'll talk about some of those issues.
This week's stop on our own little version of the Tiger Tour will switch to the offense, namely settling on an offensive line combination and replacing last season's starting tackles.
It was a big part of the late-season swoon that led to all the Les Miles drama, but LSU's offensive line still put together a pretty strong 2015 season. The unit improved against the pass in coach Jeff Grimes' second season, statistically, as sacks overall dropped from 25 to 17, and sack rate dropped three percent, both in raw (9 percent in '14 to 6) and passing-down rates (11.3 percent to 8.1), while the adjusted rate improved by 13 percent. And while adjusted line yards remained pretty strong, the unit did dip in power success rate and stuff rate, most likely due to starting a pair of freshmen guards in Will Clapp and Maea Teuhema, who had their ups and downs. Tackles-for-loss allowed increased from 60 to 66 -- with 28 of those coming in that November slide.
There were, however, more ups than downs. The line blocked for the greatest rushing season in LSU history, and the aforementioned guard duo both ultimately earned freshman All-American honors. They, along with second-team All-SEC center Ethan Pocic return. The question marks will be replacing tackles Jerald Hawkins and Vadal Alexander.
Through two seasons and three spring practices, we know that Grimes' tends to look more for the "best five" when it comes to his lines. Find the top five players, then set the positions. We also know that thanks to some dynamite recruiting, he's stocked this unit with a lot of strong talent, enough that he has flexibility to let some more developmental-type prospects work their way in.
Aside from the returning Pocic, Teuhema and Clapp, the safest bet for the fourth spot is sophomore Toby Weathersby, who saw time as a true freshman last year as the line's sixth man, and even picked up a start late due to injury. He struggled against Ole Miss, but on the road, against one of the better defensive fronts on the schedule, that's understandable. As of the spring, he appears to have the best shot at the right tackle position, although nothing is set in stone as of yet.
There's more mystery at the left tackle position. Teuhema moved out to the position in the spring, and drew praise from coaches but failed to distinguish himself in the admittedly small sample size of the spring game. Granted, he was struggling with Arden Key, and that's going to happen to a lot of left tackles this season. Still, the thought of a guard moving out to left tackle, where he'll be on an island against pass-rushers fairly often. Teuhema was a pretty highly recruited tackle out of high school, but after playing near the 350-pound mark last season, he'll almost certainly have to drop weight. How much of that he manages will likely determine whether he's inside or out.
Redshirt freshman Chidi Valentine-Okeke will be in contention as well. There's no doubt the former five-star recruit has amazing talent for the position, but he also has all of two years of actual football experience. And that's including last season's redshirt year. In the spring, he definitely showed off the footwork you like to see, but his upper body hasn't caught up yet -- he can just be flat pushed around at times. But if it clicks, he'll be near impossible to keep off the field.
It also remains to be seen how the "Best Five" principle will factor in as well. Assume that Pocic, Clapp and Teuhema are automatics in some regard. If the Nos. 4 and 5 guys are Valentine-Okeke and Weathersby or a veteran like K.J. Malone, then they'll probably play tackle while the other three man the interior again. If it's Weathersby and say, Joshua Boutte or Garrett Brumfield, then Teuhema likely slides out to left tackle.
Three starters back on this front isn't exactly rebuilding, but given the losses there will be some reshuffling. The talent is here, and the depth is better than it's ever been, that much is for sure. But finding those last two pieces will be what ultimately determines how the line fits together.