Tiger football is officially back...practicing...at the Ponderosa this Friday. So let’s talk about this team — with a top-five recruiting class, which newcomer are you most excited to see, and among the returnees, who is your choice for breakout player?
For me it’s John Emery. Last season was the first year in ages where LSU didn’t have a true stud in the backfield. And while I’d certainly love for Clyde Edwards-Helaire to breakout and establish himself as the Tiger’s feature back, Emery seems to be a key missing piece. I think in the early part of the season the rushing attack will be more committee based like the late 2000s and early 2010s teams, but as the year progresses, I feel Emery will prove to be more of the Jeremey Hill/Leonard Fournette/Derrius Guice workhorse that Steve Ensminger has to keep on the field.
As for a returning player, I’m buying all the Terrace Marshall Jr. stock I can get my hands on. While Marshall may have played in every game last year, it never felt like he was fully recovered from that fractured fibula he suffered as a senior. Frankly I’m surprised he caught 12 passes last year, that felt high for such a quiet freshman year. But by all accounts Marshall is 100 percent back from the injury and once again looks like the guy that was the once the top-rated receiver in the 2018 class. If the offense has finally, truly changed, and the wide outs are let loose, I’m betting on Marshall reintroducing himself to the college football world.
Might not be the player I’m most excited to see, but putting money on the Siaki Ika to be the most productive newcomer. Partly due to the player and partly due to the situation. Playing besides Breiden Fehoko and Rashard Lawrence, who should be a bunch to handle already, the situation definitely sets up an already skilled Ika to have a fun freshman year. I split the breakout player between Terrace Marshall and Ja’marr Chase. A big season for Joe Burrow probably means a big season for a skill position guy. Statistically, Chase was better as a freshman, though I think it is a little premature to say he has a big edge over Marshall heading into 2019. Not really so much a breakout player, but I think Kristain Fulton is due to bring his game up another level this season. Now that his status with the team is 100 percent for the first time in his collegiate career it looks like Fullton is set up for a big senior year.
The freshman I’m most excited to see (besides Stingley because we’ve heard all about him) is Devonta Lee. Even though LSU currently has approximately 47 wide receivers returning from last year, none of them really had the blazing speed Lee has. I’m excited to see if Lee can take advantage of coverages designed to stop our bigger receivers like Marshall and Sullivan.
As for returners, I’m gonna buy into hope and say the whole offensive line. I think Lloyd Cushenberry and Damien Lewis in particular will be forces to be reckoned with, rather than serviceable, which they were for most of 2018. Adrian Magee will also be a solid starter, and Chasen Hines, Austin Deculus and Donavaughn Campbell should improve after seeing playing time last year. Throw in Kardell Thomas who is the most-hyped o-line prospect I can remember, and I expect this unit to really be what pushes the offense to another level.
Obviously Siaki Ika and Derek Stingley are two freshmen that are going to be in the starting lineup and/or regular rotation almost instantly. But among the other newcomers, I’m interested in seeing how Tyrion Davis-Price adjusts early on. Yeah, John Emery got more pub, but Davis-Price, in my opinion, had every bit the tools of a five-star and likely could’ve achieved the status if he’d played the recruiting coverage game a little more. And while Emery is more of the explosive multi-purpose weapon, Davis-Price is more that classic workhorse runner that you can rely on. That was something LSU didn’t have last year — plus, if the offense does cash the checks coming out of Joe Burrow’s mouth, it’s the kind of back they’re going to want in second halves to batter worn-out defenses. TDP has also gotten a ton of praise for his offseason work, so it wouldn’t surprise me at all if he jumped the line a little faster than Emery.
As for the returnees, put me down for a couple of seniors on the defensive front seven: Michael Divinity and Rashard Lawrence. Divinity was a very pleasant surprise last year at outside linebacker and did a little bit of everything well. And this spring, he looked a lot more comfortable inside. He can blitz, he has good speed and he can cover. Wouldn’t surprise me at all if he has an all-conference type of season. And we’ve been waiting for Lawrence to really put everything together for a while now. He’s shed some weight and looks to finally be healthy. I think he has the skills to do everything we want as a lineman — stop the run as a two-gapper and also make more plays in the backfield as a one-gapper. Plus, he has the help around him to keep seeing single blocks.
Newcomers... Stingley, Emery Jr., Davis-Price, Brooks and Ika are probably the guys most are expecting to be immediate contributors, but one guy I’ve kept tabs on is Trey Palmer. Palmer is in that freak athlete mold, and while he held down a four-star rating, he never quite reached that level of conversational esteem either nationally or within the fanbase as some of his classmates, like Devonta Lee. Palmer played a lot of spots in high school, so never really got the shot to be solely dedicated to his craft at receiver, so now, marry LSU’s strength program plus dedicated focus plus his natural abilities and you might see an Odell Beckham Jr. type rocket ship. Keep in mind, this kid is a state champion in the 100 and 200 meters. He’s gonna be the fastest receiver on the roster. It wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he becomes the guy LSU starts building packages for as the season goes on.
Returners, I’d say most of LSU’s returning stars already broke out (Fulton, Divinity, Phillips, Stevens). You know a guy like Lawrence is a good player, so if he leaps to greatness, is that a “breakout”? Kinda ditto for Breiden Fehoko, who I think goes to an entirely new level this year. So how about Stephen Sullivan. He’s shifted down to a more hybrid tight end role, which helps him from a pure “getting on the field” perspective. At six-foot-seven, 232-pounds, he’s always been an outsized receiver capable of bodying DBs up. But you’d have expected he become a more consistent threat by this point. I think this move is the perfect shift, as now he gets to match his size against more linebackers and nickels. Add to that Joe Brady’s hiring promises a heavier emphasis on passing, a more featured role for the tight end, and the allure of becoming an NFL draft pick, I think Sullivan is a guy that might leap from a 25-catch, 400-yard type to a 40-catch, 700-yard type.
Everyone has already said all of the obvious ones, so let’s double down on the obvious: Derek Stingley enters LSU as the most pro-ready player since Patrick Peterson. He’s not just there physically, but mentally. He already carries himself like an NFL veteran, much less an upperclassman. He’s going to be expected to come in right away and not just start, but dominate. Anyone want to doubt him?
Much like we joked about Peterson being a legit supervillain, and that we should all kneel before Zod, Stingley comes in already as a full on supervillain, ready to destroy everything in his path. Darkseid is.
To split the difference, I’m excited about both the newcomers and the breakout contenders in the running back corps. John Emery arrives on campus as a five-star prospect and can’t miss stud, another entry into LSU’s rich running back tradition. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is supposed to start and eventually lose his job to the much hyped new hero. But I wouldn’t be too sure about that. Even our studs tended to struggle a bit as a freshman as they adjusted to the college game, and I think the new offense should suit Edwards-Helaire’s skills perfectly. If he can start catching the ball in space instead of slamming into stacked fronts, Edwards-Helaire could see his production skyrocket.
But as for our breakout candidate... have we all forgotten about K’Lavon Chaisson? Do you know who led LSU in sacks last year? No peeking. It was Grant Delpit, with five. No knock on Delpit, who is awesome, but if a safety leads your team in sacks, you have serious issues with the pass rush. Chiasson had one sack last season before he left the season opener with an injury, never to return. Well, he’s back, and I think the rest of the SEC has total forgotten that LSU gets its best pass rusher back. If Chaisson can come in and deliver 10-plus sacks, it transforms this defense into really good into possibly the best unit in the nation. His year to shine was delayed, but make no mistake, it is his time to shine. Chaisson wasn’t on any of the media’s preseason All-SEC teams. Athlon went four teams deep and didn’t mention him. Phil Steele goes four teams deep as well, and still no mention. This collective oversight of Chaisson is going to look absolutely foolish come November. Chaisson is awesome, and it’s about time everyone gets reacquainted with that fact.
Stingley’s The Guy and I really don’t think any expectations are too large for him as a freshman. He’s going to be a monster. Since he’s the conventional pick I’ll go with John Emery, who I think is just going to be a force. Especially in this offense which I think is really tailored to his skill set. He’ll excel with the more space this offense should provide and really help out what was a terrible screen game and what’s long been an issue for LSU — getting backs involved in the passing game. He’s going to put up some of the most balanced numbers by an LSU back in awhile in my opinion, particularly for a freshman.
Most of the returnees on the team are experienced players who we’ve already seen break out so to speak so I’ll echo K’Lavon Chaisson, who if healthy is comfortably the best natural pass rusher on this team and will be one of the best in the entire SEC for my money. There’s a lot of talent on this defense especially in the front seven but his skill set in terms of getting to the QB will make it even more of a bigger force.
Most exciting newcomer for me has to be the hometown freshman Marcel Brooks. I was hoping they would have him bulk up and play at linebacker but I’m excited to see him at safety. May not see much time this year but the future is bright.
For the breakout player, give me Jarrell Cherry. The guy has bulked up to Terminator levels and I think can pair with Chaisson on the outside on passing downs and wreak havoc.
I take offense to the “LSU’s running backs weren’t good last year” narrative because Edwards-Helaire was actually hella effective when he had solid blocking, which was rare. But still, he’s not the /next level/ runner LSU needs to put them over the top. Emery might be that guy. I’m not expecting him to break out like Etinne did, but if he can provide a year a touch better than Fournette’s freshman year then I see that being the difference maker. in the run game.
Surprised no one has mentioned Johnathon Giles as a newcomer you’d like to see. Very good receiving seasons at Texas Tech and he’ll bring a veteran presence to... wait, you’re telling me Giles played last year???
Anyways, it’s tough not to say Stingley like everyone else. Supposedly, in 2017, he was targeted 18 times and had 11 interceptions and 6 pass breakups. People are going to throw at him too. Not sure how Aranda will deploy him and Fulton but you could see some press man snaps on the boundary for Stingley.
Breakout player kinda has to Burrow for this whole thing to work but if we’re looking at a guy who is not known at the national level, I’ll go with Racey McMath. Maybe this is the year LSU finally can create good match-ups with an athletic tight end.