After 11 full seasons on the sidelines in Baton Rouge, three SEC West Division titles, two SEC Championships, and one BCS National Championship, LSU fans, boosters, and administrators had enough of head coach Les Miles and his 112 wins with the Tigers. After starting the 2016 season 2-2, Miles was fired somewhat due to his inability to deliver on his promise to open up the passing game on offense.
Following Miles’ dismissal, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron got an eight-game test run as interim head coach. He went 6-2, officially ushering in a new era in Baton Rouge as the “interim” was removed from his title on Nov. 26.
On March 11, Orgeron will oversee his first spring practice session as head coach. The staff around him has undergone some big changes while some familiar faces remain. On defense, coordinator Dave Aranda is back but will have some holes to fill in his 3-4 base.
On offense, big changes are coming under new coordinator Matt Canada. What Canada’s offense will look like is anyone’s guess. The 45-year-old coach is considered a spread coordinator with stints at Northern Illinois and NC State, but stops at Wisconsin and Pitt also show an ability to adapt to the talent he has on the roster. It’s fairly safe to assume that LSU’s offense will feature more passes, power running, jet sweeps and misdirection to create confusion and mismatches.
In addition to installing a new offense, each year there are changes on LSU’s roster due to graduation and players leaving early for the NFL. Four of the biggest losses are of the early draft entry variety – running back Leonard Fournette, safety Jamal Adams, wide receiver Malachi Dupre, and nose guard Davon Godchaux. In addition, linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley, wide receiver Travin Dural, defensive end Lewis Neal, and tight end Colin Jeter have all graduated and exhausted their eligibility.
While the Tigers continue to recruit well, a lot of these younger players are unproven to this point. These spring practices will help Orgeron and his staff get a sense of who may be ready to take on a bigger role and how much work they have to do to get this team ready for the fall.
5 Storylines to Watch During LSU’s Spring Practice
1. Successful install of Matt Canada’s offense
Getting key personnel ready to compete in the SEC West is vitally important, but the success of the Tigers’ 2017 campaign falls squarely on how well Canada can implement his offensive system with the talent available. Canada has been lauded for his teaching style and approach along with his high-scoring offenses. LSU is Canada’s sixth school at which he has served as offensive coordinator since 2003, including two separate stints with Northern Illinois. If anything is to be expected, Canada has experience when it comes to getting everyone on the same page and having success relatively quickly.
2. Getting the most out of the quarterback position
Canada’s first project is improving LSU’s passing attack. Who will win out for the starting quarterback job – Danny Etling or Lindsey Scott? Etling was the prototypical game manager last season for the Tigers. In 11 games (10 starts), Etling threw for 2,123 yards with 11 touchdowns and five interceptions. Brandon Harris started the other two games, but he decided to transfer.
Scott, who redshirted in 2016, was a prolific dual-threat quarterback in high school but might have some difficulties in the SEC given his smaller (5-11, 210) frame. True freshman Lowell Narcisse will need time to develop but could be used in certain packages to take advantage of his dual-threat abilities and to give opposing defenses something else to think about.
3. Revamping the offensive line
One of the bright spots on the roster is the shape of the offensive line. Four starters are set to return, although center Will Clapp will miss spring practices because of a right shoulder injury. All things being equal, the only open spot to contend for is at right guard, which figures to be a competition between Garrett Brumfield and Adrian Magee.
LSU, as always, has recruited really well along the offensive line, especially over the last two seasons. Case in point: a pair of redshirt freshmen (Jakori Savage, Willie Allen) and true freshman Austin Deculus could push senior KJ Malone at left tackle. Deculus could pass someone on the depth chart at either of the tackle or guard spot. In fact, the entire line could be reshuffled by the end of the spring based on which players grasp Canada’s system and positional responsibilities the quickest.
4. Breaking in new receivers
The base of LSU’s offense is in place with Etling presumably at quarterback, Danny Etling, Derrius Guice at tailback, John David Moore and Bry’Keithon Mouton at fullback, Foster Moreau at tight end, and DJ Chark at the outside receiver. What hasn’t been determined is who will man the X receiver spot opposite of Charka and who will be a part of any three- or four-receiver sets. Look for Dee Anderson, Russell Gage and Drake Davis to battle for key reps this spring. In the fall, four-star recruits Stephen Guidry and Mannie Neatherly could make a push.
The other big concern is the backfield depth beyond Guice, who finished first in the SEC in rushing yards (1,387) last season after Leonard Fournette was hobbled by an ankle injury. Darrel Williams seems the likely choice after finishing third in rushing last season, but Nick Brossette could work his way into the picture.
5. Filling holes on defense
Coordinator Dave Aranda has the task of filling a few positions on his defense vacated by very talented players. The two biggest spots are at linebacker. Kendell Beckwith would have led the team in tackles had he not missed two games. Both Beckwith and Duke Riley recorded more than 90 tackles on the season. Beckwith’s big shoes at middle linebacker will likely be filled by Devin White, an SEC All-Freshman honoree last season. Devin Voorhies, a rising senior, also will get plenty of reps in hopes of making sure he’s ready for an expanded role. At the inside backer spot, Donnie Alexander, another senior, is penciled in to take over for Riley.
Versatile lineman Christian LaCouture is back after missing his senior season due to injury, which is great news for LSU. Sack specialist Arden Key is out for the spring for personal reasons, so that will give Michael Divinity, Ray Thornton, K’Lavon Chaisson and Sci Martin a chance to make a strong impression on the coaching staff. Ed Alexander, who also received SEC All-Freshman recognition, and Greg Gilmore are the likeliest options to replace Davon Godchaux at nose tackle, an important position in a 3-4 defense.
The Tigers once again are loaded in the secondary, especially at corner and nickel, with no room for guys to take a practice off without the possibility of being replaced. The big hole to fill is at strong safety with Jamal Adams gone. Freshman JaCoby Stevens will get first crack at it.
Pre-Spring Outlook for LSU in the SEC
No matter the names on the back of the jersey or who is in control of the team on the sidelines, the immediate goal for any LSU team is to beat Alabama and win a SEC West title. The rest from there should take care of itself. The problem is Alabama is still going to be Alabama in 2017 right along with the rest of the SEC West. Nothing will be easy.
The reality is Ed Orgeron is in the midst of a rebuilding project focused in the pocket. If new offensive coordinator Matt Canada can work his magic effectively, the Tigers will have a wide-open offense that will excite the fan base and help put more points on the board. If not, a lot of pressure will be put on incoming true freshmen Lowell Narcisse and Myles Brennan to be the gunslingers desired. If the freshmen cannot get it done, LSU may still be another two seasons away from living up to the hope and promises of a fully balanced offense. All hinges on finding that one quarterback to plug in with all of the rich talent up and down the roster.
— 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.
(Ed Orgeron photo by Chris Parent, courtesy of LSUsports.net)