Tigers look to get coaching staff and players on the same page this spring after a disappointing 5-5 campaign
If LSU head coach Ed Orgeron did not get through to his players in the spring of 2020 that the previous season was the past and the future is the focus, the 5-5 campaign in the fall should have emphatically stamped home the point. When the 2021 season gets going, the Tigers will have a roster full of familiar names but the look on the sidelines will be drastically different with a critical spring session in hopes of contending for another SEC title.
If Orgeron wanted to put the 2019 national championship season in the rearview mirror, he most definitely wants to forget about the 5-5 effort that wrapped in December without a bowl game. Shocking defeats to Mississippi State, Missouri, and Auburn resulted in a sense of urgency. Goodwill among the fan bases in the SEC lasts only so long, resulting in a reshuffling of Orgeron's coaching staff. Spring ball in Baton Rouge is typically more about the players, but this spring is just as important for the assistant coaches when it comes to getting in sync with a retooled roster and Orgeron's vision.
5 Storylines to Watch During LSU's Spring Practices
1. Defensive coordinator Daronte Jones
Of all the new coaches feeling the heat to succeed from the jump, the biggest spotlight is on Jones. Under former DC Bo Pelini, LSU went from allowing 343.5 yards per game to 492. The good news for Jones and LSU is that only two defensive starters have departed — linebacker Jabril Cox and safety Jacoby Stevens. Jones may already have a replacement for Cox in Clemson transfer Mike Jones Jr.
Jones' five years of NFL experience coaching defensive backs is much needed in Death Valley. LSU was worst in the SEC against the pass last season, allowing teams to throw for 323 yards per game. At times starting cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr. and Elias Ricks looked lost and the entire secondary appeared to lack communication pre-snap on switches and coverages. The Tigers' pass rush also was lagging in comparison to recent seasons with just 25 sacks.
2. Offensive coordinator Jake Peetz
After seven years in the NFL working with quarterbacks and two different stints at Alabama as an analyst (2013, '18), Peetz gets his own offense to run. Even though LSU had to navigate three different starting quarterbacks and in-season opt-outs from its two top receiving targets, the group was still able to put points on the board to the tune of 32 per game. Adding to the possibility of Peetz enjoying first-year success, the entire starting offensive line is back with depth behind that group.
But the offensive line has plenty of room for improvement as establishing the run was a persistent issue in 2020. In half of LSU's games, the Tigers were held under 100 rushing yards. The team also scored multiple touchdowns on the ground just twice (South Carolina, Ole Miss). There are talented options up front, such as left guard Ed Ingram, but the focus this spring is making this unit a cohesive force that can win tough games on the road.
3. Pairing a receiver with Kayshon Boutte
LSU has been blessed with three amazing receivers going back to the 2019 season in Ja'Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, and Terrace Marshall Jr. The next in line appears to be Boutte, who led the team in receiving (735 yards) as a true freshman and finished second to Marshall in both receptions (45) and touchdown catches (five). With Marshall off to the NFL and tight end Arik Gilbert, the gem of the 2020 recruiting class, in the transfer portal, a second go-to target must emerge this spring.
The potential options include Jontre Kirkland. Kirkland provides senior leadership and was an end zone magnet for LSU last season, turning three of his 13 receptions into scores. Koy Moore is a speedster who posted 177 yards on 22 catches as a true freshman last season. Among the 2021 recruits, four-star Deion Smith is already on campus. All eyes will be on Peetz and passing game coordinator DJ Mangas to see what they can do with this group of pass-catchers.
4. Wanted: a lead tailback
LSU has a talented and experienced backfield with options in Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. But neither has taken that big step forward to emerge as the Tigers' next 1,000-yard rusher. Davis has the frame (6-1, 232) to log a bunch of carries and get 100 yards a game. Emery has the size (5-11, 215) and incredible speed, but nagging injuries have slowed the former five-star's progress. Chris Curry, who was third on the team in rushing last season, announced in January his intentions to transfer to Utah so he won't factor into the mix.
Following Curry's departure, Kevontre "Tre" Bradford could make a push for a larger role this spring. As a true freshman, Bradford gained 58 yards on 10 carries last season. The next challengers — incoming 2021 recruits Armoni Goodwin and Corey Kiner — will not arrive until summertime.
5. Also wanted: a sack master
Coming off the edge, Andre Anthony (5.5) and BJ Ojulari (4) led LSU in the sack department in 2020. The lack of a pass rush was such an issue a year ago that safety JaCoby Stevens was third on the team with three sacks. Between Neil Farrell Jr., Glen Logan, and Joseph Evans, there was no real pass-rushing threat at defensive tackle in LSU's 4-3 alignment.
The addition of Andre Carter as defensive line coach is expected to pay dividends. Carter has the experience, playing 13 years in the NFL while coaching linemen the last two seasons for the New York Jets. The Tigers' defensive line must be more effective in generating pressure to help out the secondary. End Ali Gaye was solid against the run, recording 32 stops and 9.5 tackles for a loss, but managed just two sacks despite leading the team in QB pressures (5). For this unit to be elite, in a 12-game season LSU needs to surpass the 35-sack mark.
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— 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.