Unrealistic fan expectations hit an all-time new high during the 2015 season in the SEC when perennial winner Mark Richt was ousted from Georgia and LSU nearly did the same thing to head coach Les Miles at the end of a 9-3 season. At the heart of the matter for LSU is four consecutive losses to Alabama dating back to the 2011 season, when the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide 9-6 in overtime during the regular season before dropping the BCS National Championship Game 21-0.
The 2016 season is setting up as a make-or-break year for Miles and staff. The Mad Hatter does not have a contract extension yet, leaving many to speculate athletic director Joe Alleva is waiting to see how LSU fairs on the field before making any sort of long-term commitment. For Miles, the 2016 season is shaping up to be a good one, as the early exodus of talent to the NFL was minimal for the first time since the 2011 season. Standouts like offensive linemen Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins, linebacker Deion Jones, safety Jalen Mills, and cornerback Rashard Robinson will be hard to replace; but plenty of talent still remains on campus in Baton Rouge.
The groundwork laid during the spring will have a big effect on the outcome and play of the team during the 2016 season. From top to bottom there is very little tinkering that needs to be done but just enough to make LSU’s spring football an interesting time.
5 Storylines to Watch in LSU’s Spring Practice
1. Who will win the open offensive tackle spots?
Both tackle spots are open after Alexander graduated and Hawkins left following his junior season. The top three candidates that will push for a starting spot are Toby Weathersby, K.J. Malone and Chidi Okeke. The good news for LSU fans, the interior spots are set and in excellent hands. Ethan Pocic at center is tough to beat. Guards Maea Teuhema and Will Clapp on either side of Pocic make for one of the more formidable interior units in the nation.
If LSU can stay healthy up front, the talented crew from the 2016 recruiting class could all redshirt this season. If a true freshman pushes for time, look for Donavaughn Campbell, Willie Allen or Jakori Savage to make a move.
2. Who will replace Jalen Mills in the secondary?
Mills is off to the NFL, but his running mate, second-team All-SEC safety Jamal Adams, is back. The big question is who will pair up with Adams? Corey Thompson and Ricky Jefferson will get shots during the spring before the highly touted incoming freshmen arrive on campus during the summer. Eric Monroe and Cameron Lewis could challenge for early playing time. LSU is set at cornerback with Kevin Toliver II and Tre’Davious White. Toliver will miss the spring after having surgery on his shoulder, giving speedy Donte Jackson a chance to gain valuable practice reps. A true freshman to watch for at corner is Saivion Smith.
3. Who will replace LB Deion Jones?
Replacing Jones’ 2015 production from his outside linebacker spot will be difficult. Jones had a team-high 100 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, five sacks and picked off two passes. If there is a strength on the LSU defense it is the talent at linebacker. Duke Riley and Donnie Alexander are each capable with a slight nod to Riley getting his shot. Riley played in all 12 games last season, finishing with 24 tackles. Devin Voorhies and true freshman Michael Divinity could push for time as well as spring ball rolls into summer camp.
4. Stay healthy
The No. 1 goal for any college football team going through spring practices is to stay healthy. LSU is loaded all the way around and especially on offense. The Tigers are looking at a preseason top 10 ranking, which should be well-deserved especially if they can find two new starting tackles ready to take on outstanding SEC defensive ends. Any setback with an injury up front could derail Miles’ chance to end a four-game losing streak against Alabama and Nick Saban.
5. The progress of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron
The top priority of the spring is getting consistent quarterback play. The quarterback battle will evolve around returning starter Brandon Harris, 2014 starter Anthony Jennings, and Purdue transfer Danny Etling. Etling started 12 games for the Boilermakers and is eligible to play after sitting out the 2015 season due to NCAA transfer rules. He ran the scout team last year going up against a tough SEC defense during every practice – he should be ready to go.
LSU’s passing attack was ranked No. 105 in the nation, averaging 180 yards per game in 2015. The ranking and yards per game are not important with Leonard Fournette getting carries at running back. The telling stat is Harris’ 53.8 completion percentage. Be it Harris, Jennings, Etling or a fan out of the stands coming in under center, whoever drops back to pass has a very talented receiving corps with Malachi Dupre, Travin Dural and a whole list of others ready to fill the stat sheet. With Fournette lining up in the I-formation, the Tigers are seeing eight men in the box meaning passing windows are open all over the field. This should help the completion percentage when LSU does take its shots through the air, but that has not happened since Zach Mettenberger left the team for the NFL at the end of the 2013 season.
Pre-Spring LSU Outlook in the SEC
For the most part, LSU is stocked and ready to go in 2016. Three key position battles are up for grabs at both offensive tackle spots and quarterback. Everywhere else on the field the Tigers are set and looking good.
Miles did not pull the trigger on getting rid of Cameron in the offseason. He has put his faith in his offensive coordinator, which in turn could be the tipping point of Miles’ tenure in Baton Rouge. Will Cameron come through for Miles?
LSU fans have seen the Tigers pass the ball around the yard in the spring only to revert back to basic, ineffective plays during the season. Will the opening up of the offense during spring translate to the play on the field once the 2016 season kicks off? Only time will tell.
The culmination of all the efforts in the spring will be showcased during the spring game at Tiger Stadium on April 16, with a kickoff time of 3 p.m. CT.
— 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. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.