Well, the NFL draft is officially in our rear-view mirror. Eight LSU players were selected by NFL teams, and then another eight more were signed as free agents. Now, the hard work of replacing all of that talent begins again, and the cycle of college football continues.
I don’t want to get bogged down too much in recriminations over last year, but the biggest factor that cost Les Miles his job was simple: this was supposed to be LSU’s year. All of the pieces were in place for one of the best teams in recent memory, and instead, LSU limped home to a 9-4 record. Which is only disappointing when you have sky-high expectations.
Such is life, but now Ed Orgeron has to replace an inordinate amount of talent without all of the good feelings of coming off a successful campaign. He can sell renewal a little bit, but the fact remains, LSU’s roster took a mammoth hit this offseason.
But how big?
On the one hand, replacing an all-timer like Leonard Fournette seems to be a monumental task, but really, it’s a task that has already been largely completed. Thanks to Fournette’s injury troubles last season, he only took 129 of the team’s 429 carries. That left 325 carries for the rest of the LSU backfield. And on 70.8 percent of the carries, they gained 70.5 percent of the yards.
Thanks to Derrius Guice, LSU returns the offense’s most productive player last season, and the team returned nearly three quarters of its rushing offense.
And it’s not just Guice, as Williams and Brosette’s return means the entire depth chart for most of last season returns. LSU loses a superstar, but will not miss a beat.
The offense also returns 90.9 percent of its passing attempts and 93.9 percent of its passing yards thanks to Danny Etling taking over the starting job so early in the season. Etling does lose his top two targets in the passing game, but that’s not that huge of a loss, given their overall lack of productivity.
The team only returns 38.5 percent of its receptions and 39.6 percent of its receiving yards. Worse yet, only one wide receiver with at least 10 catches returns (Chark with 26), and only one wideout with 100 receiving yards comes back (Chark, again with 466).
But it’s not like LSU lost Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Dupre and Duval COMBINED for a line of 69-873-4 which would only rank 4th in the SEC in receptions and 7th in yards were they just one person. To have your top duo so outperformed by the rest of the conference is, obviously, not a good thing. This is actually a chance for the talented underclassmen to get a shot to show their stuff without anyone blocking their path.
Even the offensive line returns a healthy amount of experience. LSU returns 36 of a possible 60 offensive line starts, as well as 48 man games of experience. OK, that means there’s going to be a neophyte starting on the line this year, but it also means there are three solid starters returning between Clapp, Malone, and Teuhama.
So, all in all, Matt Canada has a lot to work with as he starts his new gig. He has no excuses to not put together a productive offense. He has experience on the line, a deep backfield including a potential Heisman contender, loads of raw talent in the receiving corps, and a returning starting quarterback.
No, the issues will all be on the defensive side of the ball, where Dave Aranda has his work cut out for him.
Getting Arden Key back is not just a blessing, it is virtual necessity. The defense is losing six players who started at least 10 games, and nine players who started multiple games. And these weren’t just guys who ate minutes, these were the team’s stars.
LSU loses all of its top five tacklers, eight of its top nine players in tackles for a loss, every single player on the team with multiple sacks save one (thank God for Key), and four if its top five players in passes defended.
LSU only returns 42.7 percent of its total tackles, 45.7 of total sacks, 42.5 of tackles for loss, 33 percent of interceptions, and only 25 percent of its fumble recoveries. Take away Key, and those numbers drop even more dramatically.
Outside of Arden Key, who is the most productive LSU defender returning? Donnie Alexander leads in tackles, which gives some encouragement he could have a Duke Riley-like breakout season. OK, Donte Jackson started 11 games and had 10 passes defended, marking him as a legit defensive stud. But after that, the pickings get slim.
LSU has for years relied on its defense to win games. And while the team suddenly isn’t going to put out a massively porous unit, this is the least experienced LSU defense in quite some time. We expect Aranda to wave a magic wand and make it all okay, but you still need talent to do that.
There is talent on the roster, it’s just inexperience, unmolded talent. Well, it’s time for the kids to grow up in a hurry. If Ed Orgeron’s first season is to be a success, and put last year in the rearview mirror, the defense needs to fill those holes left by guys now in the NFL. And they need to do it quickly.