LSU’s 2015 season ended in bizarre fashion, as there was plenty of doubt on coach Les Miles’ future entering the regular season finale against Texas A&M. However, after beating the Aggies, Miles was retained for 2016 and returns a roster capable of contending for a spot in the College Football Playoff. For LSU to win the SEC and claim a playoff spot, the passing game has to improve behind quarterback Brandon Harris. Running back Leonard Fournette will carry the offense once again, but Harris and his receivers have to provide more balance. Dave Aranda was one of the top coordinator hires in the nation, and the defense should rank among the best in the SEC with 10 returning starters.
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Previewing LSU’s Offense
Returning as a Heisman Trophy frontrunner after setting LSU’s single-season rushing record, Leonard Fournette will once again buoy a Tigers offense that broke out in a Texas Bowl win against Texas Tech but is still searching for a consistent passing game. Fournette will be a workhorse, but returning quarterback Brandon Harris gets his two leading receivers back — along with a new position coach in Dameyune Craig — in hopes of reinvigorating a stagnant passing attack.
Harris and Purdue transfer Danny Etling battled throughout the spring, when Harris took most of the first-team reps. Harris said offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s move from the press box to the sidelines in the Texas Bowl aided his progression and said it’d be “paramount” to the unit’s success this year.
It also helps to have Fournette, who needs 13 yards to become the fastest back in school history to reach 3,000 yards. The development of sophomore Derrius Guice could give Fournette an opportunity to lighten his workload. They will run behind an offensive line that absorbed the losses of senior Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins — LSU’s only early entrant into the NFL Draft. Ethan Pocic, whom Les Miles has called one of the most versatile linemen he’s ever coached, steadies the line at center.
Previewing LSU’s Defense
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LSU’s third defensive coordinator in three seasons, Dave Aranda ushers in a new era, bringing a 3-4 alignment to Baton Rouge for the first time in Les Miles’ tenure.
Returning ends Arden Key and Lewis Neal will now play a more stand-up, outside rushing role, though Aranda’s flexible front won’t allow them to abandon the traditional, hand-in-the-dirt position. Interior linemen Christian LaCouture and Greg Gilmore will stay inside, but Aranda’s preached a more aggressive, active plan for them to get up the field.
Kendell Beckwith headlines an otherwise thin linebacking corps that was boosted by the emergence of mid-year enrollee Devin White in the spring. Donnie Alexander also impressed in spring to earn a spot. Senior Duke Riley, who saw some time at middle linebacker last season, expects to play more outside in Aranda’s scheme.
The scheme may change, but LSU’s loaded defensive backfield will not. Tre’Davious White, who was chosen to wear the program’s revered No. 18 last season as a junior, returns for a final season in Baton Rouge after leading the team with seven pass break-ups last season. Jamal Adams, a hard-hitting junior who had four interceptions last season and played his way into second-team All-SEC honors, returns at safety alongside Rickey Jefferson — another three-year letterman and rising senior in this veteran, deep position group that promises to anchor Aranda’s new-look defense.
Previewing LSU’s Specialists
Trent Domingue started last season 10-of-10 and was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist, eventually finishing 13-for-17 in his first season as LSU’s primary placekicker. Reloading the Australian punter pipeline, the Tigers will likely turn to Domingue or Aussie redshirt freshman Josh Growden to replace the graduated Jamie Keehn, another Aussie who was LSU’s starting punter for the last three seasons.
LSU returns 18 starters from a team that, at its peak, was No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings and had the presumed Heisman Trophy winner. A trip to Tuscaloosa sent the season, and Miles’ job security, into a tailspin before the Tigers ended their season on a two-game winning streak and kept Miles. Aranda’s arrival interjected exuberance into a defense that struggled at times last season, but it was hardly the main problem. LSU’s offense will need to, once again, refine its passing game and get consistent quarterback play if the Tigers hope to live up to their lofty preseason expectations.