The difference in one game during a college football season can easily shape the outlook of any fan base going forward. For LSU, after a 9-4 season in 2017, the fans were chomping at the bit to get at head coach Ed Orgeron heading into the '18 campaign. But following a 10-win showing (5-3 in SEC) that culminated with a No. 6 AP national ranking after winning the Fiesta Bowl, optimism is once again high in Baton Rouge and the loyalists are firmly behind their leader on the sidelines. With 16 total starters returning (eight offense, eight defense) and a top-five nationally ranked recruiting class heading to campus, hopes are once again high that LSU can compete for a division title in the SEC West.
Great college football seasons are not pieced together in-season, but molded over time. The foundation of every season is laid during spring practices, which gives the coaching staff an opportunity to see which players are ready to step up to the challenge to fill in for departed starters while getting a first look at incoming talent. For LSU that process begins now with the commencement of spring practices, which will lead up to the annual spring game on April 6. Can the Tigers lay the groundwork for a title run this spring?
5 Storylines to Watch During LSU’s Spring Practices
1. Evolution of QB Joe Burrow
The casual SEC fan may be surprised to find out that Burrow actually had more passing yards (2,894) than Georgia’s Jake Fromm (2,749) and fewer interceptions (5 vs. 6). But what separated the two distinctly were touchdown passes (16 vs. 30) and completion percentage (58 percent vs. 67). Burrow, who came Baton Rouge as a graduate transfer from Ohio State, won over LSU fans with his grittiness throughout the 2018 season. Potential signs of things to come were flashed during the final two games, when he threw for 270 yards and three touchdowns to go along with 100 yards and three more scores on the ground in the seven-overtime thriller against A&M, and followed that up with a season-high 394 yards and four TD passes in the Fiesta Bowl victory over UCF.
Burrow saved his best for last, as he completed 67 percent of his passes over the final four games. Can he continue to evolve and grow within coordinator Steve Ensminger’s offense to challenge his peers for the title of the SEC's top-rated passer? If so, LSU could have a dangerous offense.
2. Home-run-hitting tailback
There is an ironic twist that during Major League Baseball’s spring training LSU will be looking for a home-run hitter of their own. The Tigers' rushing attack was adequate in 2018, but underperformed to recent program standards, falling from 208 yards per game to 174. Nick Brossette emerged as a 1,000-yard rusher with 14 touchdowns and Clyde Edwards-Helaire was a serviceable backup, tallying 658 yards with seven rushing scores. Both averaged better than four yards per carry but neither could be counted upon as a 100-yard per game back capable of carrying the offense in tight contests.
While the talent on campus grinds it out this spring, all will be waiting for fall camp for the arrival of five-star tailback John Emery Jr. and four-star running back Tyrion Davis. Emery is an all-purpose back with blazing speed capable of changing the momentum of a game with one carry. Davis is a big back who can push the pile on short-yardage plays against stout run defenses.
3. Replacing LB Devin White
The only bad thing about having an All-American linebacker is when you have to replace said All-American linebacker. White decided to forego his senior year to enter the NFL draft, but showed out along the way by racking up 123 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss, and 10 quarterback hurries. Patrick Queen is expected to be the Tigers’ new stud middle linebacker in 2019. Queen played in all 13 games a year ago, making four start starts and recording 40 tackles. Time will tell if Queen is ready for the every-down pounding of going up against SEC linemen and running backs.
Potential help on the inside is coming this fall in four-star recruit Donte Starks and three-star Kendall McCallum.
4. Spreading the ball around
Burrow has all his weapons on the outside returning and has a few more heading to campus this summer. Justin Jefferson became his go-to guy (875 yards, 6 TDs) last season while Stephen Sullivan, Ja’Marr Chase, and Derrick Dillon all finished with more than 300 receiving yards each. Another deep threat needs to emerge, could 2018 five-star recruit Terrace Marshall Jr. fill that role?
Another need in the passing attack is a replacement for tight end Foster Moreau. Moreau had a solid senior season, hauling in 22 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns scores. Can Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College transfer T.K. McClendon take Moreau's place?
5. Filling holes in the secondary
If finding a replacement was not tough enough for Devin White, defensive coordinator Dave Aranda also must replace All-SEC performers in cornerback Greedy Williams and safety John Battle. One player to watch this spring at corner is five-star recruit Derek Stingley. Stingley, an early enrollee, will challenge other top corners like Kary Vincent Jr. and Kristian Fulton for playing time.
LSU’s recruitment of safeties has been consistent and top-notch. Replacing a three-year starter for most programs would be challenging, but the Tigers are loaded. Grant Delpit might be the best safety in college football. JaCoby Stevens, a former five-star, had a solid season in 2018 as he recorded 35 tackles and an interception. Todd Harris could make a push this spring and show he's ready for more playing time as well.
— 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.