Despite some key losses, linebacker Devin White will be back to anchor Dave Aranda's defense this fall
If LSU head coach Ed Orgeron thought the 2017 season was nerve-racking, he will truly have his hands full in 2018. After the Tigers posted a 9-4 (6-2 SEC) record last season, the entire roster seemingly turns over with nine key seniors graduating and six underclassmen declaring early for the NFL. But, if recent history teaches us anything, the Tigers will have a winning season in 2018. The big question is, can the Bayou Bengals get back to the double-digit winning form last seen under former head coach Les Miles in 2013?
If there was a fan base accustomed to winning but fretting for good reason over the upcoming college football season, LSU would be atop the list. The worries start up front on offense. The offensive line will be without first-team All-SEC center Will Clapp and tackles K.J. Malone and Toby Weathersby. The backfield will be without starting quarterback Danny Etling, All-SEC running back Derrius Guice, and on the outside, All-SEC return specialist/receiver DJ Chark. The good news, LSU is always among the best in the nation at recruiting, and recruiting players that fit their system.
The defense has a lot of holes to fill, especially up front. Linemen Christian LaCouture, Arden Key, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron are gone giving defensive coordinator Dave Aranda extra work this spring to ready his troops. The secondary will miss Donte Jackson, Ed Paris and Kevin Toliver II, but if there is an area of depth where LSU will not drop off, it is on the back end of its defense.
The cause for concern is worthwhile, but the talent and coaching to pull it all together for another nine-win season, or better, is there. Here are three good reasons to be optimistic about LSU in 2018:
1. New offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger
Beyond Ensminger’s very successful, yet temporary stint as the Tigers' interim OC in 2016, the former LSU quarterback (1976-79) has a wealth of experience working as a position coach. Perhaps the only true shortcoming of the LSU program since the Tigers’ winning era began under Nick Saban in 2000 has been the development of quarterbacks. Is Ensminger the man to turn it around?
Ensminger previously coached quarterbacks and was offensive coordinator and/or passing game coordinator at Georgia (1991-93), Texas A&M (1994-96), and Clemson (1997-98). Ensminger knows the talent on hand in Baton Rouge well, having served as tight ends coach for the Bayou Bengals since 2010. As interim offensive coordinator in 2016, LSU's offense averaged 32 points and 465 yards per game over an eight-game stretch. The foundation for success is there.
2. The Myles Brennan era begins
Over the past two seasons, fans were consistently down on starting quarterback Danny Etling. Known more as a game manager than a dynamic playmaker, the senior has used up his eligibility, meaning there will be a new face under center this fall. The presumptive starter will be Brennan. He appeared in six games for the Tigers as a true freshman in 2017, completing 14 of 24 passes for 182 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. While at St. Stanislaus High School in Mississippi (2014-16), he posted two seasons of more than 5,200 passing yards, ending his career with 15,027 yards and 165 touchdowns. He can sling the ball all over the field. Playing in Ensminger’s pro-style attack should fit Brennan better than former offensive coordinator Matt Canada’s option-based system.
3. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda
There are aspects to life that are certainties — the sun rising in the east, taxes, and a great Aranda defense. In Aranda’s first season in Baton Rouge, the Tigers finished their 2016 campaign as the nation’s No. 10 defense (314 ypg) and effectively replicated the results in '17, ending the year at No. 12 (316 ypg). There are big holes to fill across the board, but Aranda has perhaps the best returning linebacker and best cornerback in the SEC in Devin White and Greedy Williams.
The young and hungry defense has White and his team-leading 133 tackles and 14 tackles for a loss back for his junior campaign. Williams was better than advertised during his freshman season coming up with 38 tackles and a team-leading six interceptions. Another head-hunter that will help replace a void in the secondary is Grant Delpit. The freshman safety was all over the field collecting 60 tackles, three tackles for a loss, with nine passes defended and eight breakups in 2017.
Fair or not, the heat will be on head coach Ed Orgeron in 2018 in just his second full season at the helm. LSU fans expect the Tigers to challenge for a SEC West title every year; 9-4 seasons will not cut it, especially with the 24-21 albatross home loss to Troy hanging out there. The Matt Canada experiment as offensive coordinator did not yield the expected results. The offense stumbled from 423 yards per game in 2016 under Cam Cameron to 411 yards in '17. Steve Ensminger’s success moving the ball down the field and putting points on the board coupled with the Tigers’ win-loss record will dictate optimism for the future.
A good way to shut down “hot seat” talk before it gets started? An LSU win in Arlington, Texas, over the Miami Hurricanes on Sept. 2 right out of the gates.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.