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AREAS WHERE LSU FOOTBALL MUST IMPROVE TO TAKE THE NEXT STEP
Part 1: Offensive Line
It all starts in the trenches.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Tiger offensive line, and with good reason. After coming up with solid units in the past few years, the drop-off in 2018 was pretty dramatic, and it wasn't just because of Ed Ingram's absence. Some LSU players who had to step up didn't, and the newcomers just weren't ready. Saahdiq Charles improved as the season went on but his move from right to left tackle might need to be re-examined. Austin Deculus solidified the right side, but only after junior college transfer Badara Traore didn’t live up to expectations. Senior left guard Garrett Brumfield was the most dependable of the group, but he's gone. Damien Lewis at right guard was a pleasant surprise and Lloyd Cushenberry exceeded virtually everyone’s expectations at center and has been praised for his consistency.
The question isn't whether this group will be better. It almost has to be after a sub-par 2018. The question is: How much better? This unit was overwhelmed like no other LSU line vs. Alabama and struggled all year to protect quarterback Joe Burrow. That forced Steve Ensminger to scale back the offense for the sake of maximum protection. LSU can't afford to go through another year like that. Charles and Deculus are talented and can improve. And hopefully, Traore can provide them with some competition or even win one of the jobs. All of them will need to get stronger and more athletic. Lewis and Cushenberry seem to be on the right track.
But it’s not just about these guys. An influx of recent signees and young returning players should ramp up the talent pool and make everyone better by virtue of competition. LSU signed a quartet of O-linemen in December – 5-star guard Kardell Thomas, 4-star guard Anthony Bradford, 3-star tackle Thomas Perry, and 3-star center Charles Turner. And then there’s four-star OT Ray Parker who didn’t sign in the early period but could still be part of this class. It’s unlikely that any of these guys will come in an overtake a returning starter, but it’s not a stretch to expect Thomas to challenge for the starting role formerly occupied by Brumfield.
As intriguing as these guys are, the ones who probably stand a better chance of immediately impacting the O-line are a trio of returning youngsters – guard Chasen Hines, and tackles Cameron Wire and Dare Rosenthal. Hines played in eight games this year and started in one, while Wire and Rosenthal didn’t see any action and are destined for red shirts. I understand that the staff is very high on Ware and feels like Rosenthal’s potential is off the charts. LSU’s O-line picture could change dramatically if former starting guard Ed Ingram is back in the picture after being indefinitely suspended back in August following sexual assault charges. There is some unofficial chatter that suggests that’s a distinct possibility, but at this point, it’s just that: chatter.
One way or another, LSU’s offensive line needs to return to LSU standards. The Fiesta Bowl showed us what Joe Burrow can do when he has time to throw the ball, and it doesn’t take much to imagine an improved running game behind signees Tyrion Davis and John Emery if LSU can win the frontline battle. Of all the areas where LSU needs to grow in 2019, this one’s the most critical.
Part 2: Red zone
As good as Cole Tracy was at kicking field goals, his presence may have been part of the Tigers' problems in the red zone. LSU may have been a little bit timid when it crossed the opponents’ 20, knowing Tracy was almost automatic. But that's not the only reason LSU floundered to a 52 percent TD scoring rate in the red zone, 12th in the SEC and 119th in the nation.
One factor was the unit we talked about in Part 1 of the series – LSU’s offensive line. LSU has to be more physical in the trenches and keep from allowing penetration on first down. It also needs to be cut down on pre-snap penalties, something that should come as this unit matures and gels. Remember, LSU tried seven different personnel combinations in the first eight games of the season. Settling on a starting five early on and staying healthy should help considerably.
LSU was also hampered by not having a true second blocking tight end available to pair with Foster Moreau. Jamal Pettigrew would have been that guy but missed the season with an injury, and now the coaching staff has to find another to pair with him. They may have the guy they want in Charles Turner, who at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds played OL but has the athleticism to move. Pettigrew and Turner could also be weapons in the passing game from the TE spot, as could a healthy Thaddeus Moss. If LSU can avoid losing two TEs to injury again this offseason, this position group should help in the red zone.
What also would help is a true power runner, something rising sophomore Chris Curry or incoming freshman Tyrion Davis-Price might develop into. It's been a while since LSU hasn't had a “bruiser” in the backfield before this past season. They don't necessarily need another Leonard Fournette, just another Kenny Hilliard. Curry is listed at 219 but could easily carry 225 or 230. Davis-Price is listed at 223 but checked in at 230 in last week’s All-American Bowl. We might also see more runs by Joe Burrow on the goal line from option sets. Those are a nightmare to defend, especially when the QB is as tough and gritty as Burrow.
Also, LSU needs to develop one of these big receivers into someone who can work the fade pattern and win jump balls in the end zone. It seemed like LSU didn't try this near enough in 2018. LSU returns four receivers who are 6-foot-4 or taller: TE Pettigrew (6-7) and WRs Terrace Marshall (6-4), Dee Anderson (6-6), and Stephen Sullivan (6-7).
No doubt about it, red zone woes cost the Tigers a ton of points this year, but the good news is LSU seems to have all the pieces in place to show dramatic improvement there in 2019. Last season, Cole Tracy’s 33 field goal attempts were the third most in the nation. Here’s hoping his successor has far fewer opportunities in 2019.
Part 3: Run Game
LSU’s running game succeeded despite a lot of doubts, but there were times it wasn’t effective enough for LSU to put opponents away. If quarterback Joe Burrow becomes more of a factor as a runner, this could change. I doubt Steve Ensminger wants him running 15 times a game, but something like 6-8 intentional carries would help the running backs perform better. It also wouldn't hurt to start working a speed back into the rotation in the mold of Darren Sproles, and TaeProvensis a good candidate for that kind of “change of pace” role. And as mentioned in the red zone category, LSU needs to find a designated power back to pick up the short yardage calls and goal line duty.
No running game can function without a good offensive line and LSU will have to be a lot better there. It's not just the starters, but the depth has to be good enough to push the starters and fill in when they're hurt. Having a second blocking tight end will help immensely as offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger has said he loves to use two tight ends to throw a changeup at the defense. Having Jamal Pettigrew back will help, but LSU needs to develop another blocking tight end, possibly incoming freshman Charles Turner. I think this will give LSU that more physical presence Coach Ed Orgeron said he wanted from his running game as he waved goodbye to Matt Canada.
But the thing that should make the most difference in LSU’s run game – in 2019 and beyond – is the addition of an outstanding tandem of elite in-state running backs, John Emery (5-11, 210) and Tyrion Davis-Price (6-1, 230). Emery is a five-star prospect who is rated higher by the national recruiting services than any LSU running back since Leonard Fournette, and that includes Derrius Guice. Davis-Price isn’t far behind. There’s certainly no guarantee that these true freshmen can come in and surpass the likes of Clyde Edwards-Helaire,LanardFournette, TaeProvens, and Chris Curry, but the running back position is one where it’s not unusual to see true freshmen make significant impacts. Considering the extreme talent level of these two backs, we’re expecting nothing less.
Part 4: Return Game
We see fewer and fewer kickoff returns because of the stronger and stronger legs out there, but Clyde Edwards-Helaire showed how vital it can be with a 77-yard return to start the Fiesta Bowl. If Edwards-Helaire is going to begin the 2019 season as the No. 1 running back (as experience suggests he will), LSU would be well-served to find someone else for the role of kickoff returner. With all the speed and talent at wide receiver, they should have plenty of options. Also, running back Tae Provens could be an asset here with a way to get him on the field. Provens might also challenge for the punt return job.
Right now LSU needs to find a punt returner who can be a lot more decisive than any they had this season. Jonathan Giles spent most of the season in that role and didn’t really get it done. Justin Jefferson replaced him and muffed a punt after losing his footing in the Fiesta Bowl, and he let another roll about 20 yards. There’s no reason to think Jefferson can't improve and hold onto the job, except for maybe the fact that LSU signed a “generation talent” this December who could very well excel in that role. Of course, I’m talking about Derek Stingley, Jr. During his prep career at Dunham school, the five-star prospect returned a whopping 15 punts/kicks for touchdowns and was a scoring threat virtually every time he touched the ball.
Whether it’s Stingley, Jefferson, Edwards-Helaire or anyone else, LSU needs to elevate its return game to LSU standards. LSU averaged only 5.82 yards per punt return (100th in the nation and LSU ’s lowest average in over a decade) and this was the first season that LSU failed to record a touchdown in the return game.
Part 5: Pass Rush
LSU entered the 2018 season expecting to have a pretty formidable pass rush. But after K’Lavon Chaisson went down with a season-ending injury in Game 1, things were never the same on defense. As a result, LSU entered the Fiesta Bowl with just 29 sacks, the program’s fewest in a season since 2014. A big Fiesta Bowl performance from defensive end Rashard Lawrence (two sacks and four tackles for loss) – and the team’s total of five sacks against UCF – elevated LSU’s sack total to match last year’s. Still, comments by Coach Orgeron made it clear that the staff lamented the loss of Chaisson throughout the season and tried a myriad of approaches to mitigate his absence.
Having Chaisson back in 2019 should be a big help, but it doesn't necessarily mean the Tiger pass rush issues will be solved. Chaisson missed the entire season and there's no guarantee he will return to form, plus he had only two sacks as a freshman. But there's also no reason to think he won't be 100 percent and raring to make up for lost time. Still, LSU’s defensive staff will have to coach up guys like Andre Anthony and Ray Thornton, OLBs similar to Chaisson. That would create depth and increase competition. LSU had to rely too much on Grant Delpit as an edge rusher and the defense would be better off if Delpit can roam the secondary more. Another issue could be the departure of Devin White, an excellent pass rusher who created blocking issues that would free up other rushers. As of the time of this writing, we still don’t know if he’ll return for his senior season or enter the NFL draft as a projected first-round pick. One player we know will be back is fellow linebacker Michel Divinity. He’s coming off his best season as a Tiger and could figure heavily into the pass rush.
Of course, getting Rashard Lawrence back for his senior season would bode well for an improved pass rush too, which is just one reason why his upcoming announcement is so highly anticipated. He served notice that he can be a quarterback’s nightmare in the Fiesta Bowl and could be even more of a factor next season. Another thing that would help is having Tyler Shelvin, Dominic Livingston, or Saika Ika secure the nose-tackle position so that Breiden Fehoko doesn’t have to play there and can create a strong depth rotation at end. Glenn Logan made worlds of improvement and might be ready for the next step. LSU also needs to get rising sophomores Travez Moore and Jarrell Cherry involved. Both came in with reputations for outside pressure. Having depth allows the frontline players to go harder and stay fresh into the fourth quarter when a pass rush matters most.
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