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1/12/19 5:45 am CST

Good morning, Tiger Fans,

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Let’s start with some great news on the football front: Defensive end Rashard Lawrence is returning to LSU for his senior season! He announced his decision with this tweet containing a video that shows not only what an outstanding player he is, but what a leader he is in the locker room. Having him and fellow starting defensive end Breiden Fehoko back for their senior seasons is obviously huge news for the 2019 Tigers. Their decisions to return, along with linebacker Michael Divinity’s, are also a strong indicator that Coach Orgeron is succeeding in reversing the recent trend of so many Tigers leaving early. Now all eyes turn to three other draft-eligible Tigers –cornerback Kristian Fulton, offensive guard Damien Lewis, and linebacker Devin White – to see if the good news continues. Players have until midnight on Monday, Jan. 14 to declare for the draft.

Moving on, it was great hearing from many of you yesterday about our series on Areas Where LSU Football Must Improve to Take The Next Step. Most of you agreed with our five selections – offensive line, red zone, run game, return game, and pass rush – but several of you pointed out two things we didn’t mention in our series, developing a killer instinct and playing with greater discipline. Killer instinct pertains to finishing games strong. As one reader put it, “that means playing to win and not to simply hold on.” He added, “Win it with the offense on the field instead of relying on the defense to make a stop!” As for the greater discipline thing, that means playing with greater self-control, committing fewer senseless penalties, and letting one’s play speak for itself. A couple of readers I heard from yesterday pointed to Clemson’s style of play in the championship game and noted that they were only flagged once, didn’t commit any foolish penalties, and didn’t showboat. I agree with those two additions and appreciate the feedback. That said, I want to make it clear that I feel very optimistic about the future of LSU football and feel that Coach Ed Orgeron has the team moving in a positive direction. The five areas we mentioned in our series should be better next year, and the discipline things should improve as the team matures. As noted in the opinion piece Jim Kleinpeter wrote last week, it’s not unrealistic to expect LSU to return 15 of the Tigers’ 22 starters next season, which in itself is a big reason for optimism. 

In football recruiting, the hottest news at this time is that former Dunham School standout Mike Williams has left Texas and is now enrolled at LSU, according to TigerDetails. The post by Jerit Roser is only accessible to their subscribers, so I don’t know what it says beyond the headline. But what I do know is that Williams was a heck of a player at Dunham School and was a standout at LSU’s D-line camp back in June of 2017. We had him at No. 20 on our list of Top LA Prospects for 2018. He had offers from LSU, Alabama, Tennessee, and others, but ultimately chose Texas. He’s now reportedly up to 275 pounds and could be a solid addition to LSU’s D-line, but he’d have to sit out a year per NCAA transfer rules. As for whether he would count towards this year’s 25 initial scholarship limitation, probably not. I say that because I assume he would take advantage of an NCAA rule revision that became effective last August 1. If I understand that rule correctly, he could be a walk-walk-on for the first year as he gains eligibility, and then sign a scholarship the following year without counting as one of the 25 initial counters. (See Proposal 2017-59 on this page, which was adopted as became effective on 08/01/2018)

Two more recruiting tidbits: Yesterday Coach Ed Orgeron was in my hometown of Lafayette and stopped in at St. Thomas More to check in on 2020 quarterback Caleb Holstein (6-5, 210). Holstein will be highly rated on our list of Top LA Prospects for the Class of 2020, which we’ll begin revealing later this month. Also, 2020 OT Brady Ward (6-7, 310) of Mobile, Ala. tweeted that he is taking an unofficial visit to LSU this weekend. His father, Brian Ward, played for LSU in the 1990s. 

Turning to hoops, the LSU men’s basketball team will look to replicate last year’s success in one of college basketball’s most difficult venues when the Tigers take on Arkansas this evening. With a 5 p.m. tip on the SEC Network, the Tigers challenge an Arkansas team that is 1-1 in conference play. The Hogs defeated Texas A&M, 73-71, before falling to Florida, 57-51. The SEC is so stacked this year, Arkansas is a middle-of-the-pack team that’s just as dangerous as any team in the conference. If you look at the conference standings, Tennessee, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and LSU are at the top with winning records, and at the bottom, you have teams like Mississippi State and Auburn, who have both been ranked nationally for most of this young college basketball season. So it’s not cliché to say you have to bring it every single conference game this season.

As far as tonight’s game goes, the Tigers will see if they can once again dominate the paint against a team that presents another challenge. With Daniel Gafford, an SEC All-Freshman selection a year ago, Arkansas has one of the most talented big men in the conference. Gafford is currently fifth in the league in scoring (16.4 points per game) and second in the league in rebounds (9.6). So Arkansas has a good inside presence, though the Hogs don’t exactly shoot it all that well (11th in the conference in field goal percentage). The good news is, thanks to Kavell Bigby-Williams’ performance, the Tigers were able to match Alabama’s physical play inside with Naz Reid having an off night. And LSU is making 49 percent of its shots so far this season. With many more offensive weapons at hand in this year’s contest, it’ll be interesting to see if Will Wade can coach circles around Mike Anderson as he did in last year’s 75-54 victory at Bud Walton Arena.

Now, with 34 days until the start of LSU baseball, I’m happy to pass along a bit of news gleaned from James Moran of Tiger Rag. In his article, Coach Mainieri says that just about all of the pitchers who were nicked in fall ball have progressed amazingly well. These include sophomore Ma’Khail Hilliard, who missed a ton of time due to shoulder soreness. He’s now throwing without pain and is on track to compete for a spot in the starting rotation. Another player competing for a spot in the rotation is sophomore Eric Walker, a 2017 Freshman All-American who was sidelined last season due to Tommy John surgery. He felt some arm soreness after his final outing of fall practice, but Mainieri says he’s all good and there’s no cause for concern, according to the article. Those two, along with senior Zach Hess and freshman Landon Marceaux, appear to be the frontrunners for filling out LSU’s starting rotation, and what a strong rotation that would be. Other pitchers who left fall ball at less than 100% health include Caleb Gilbert (shoulder surgery), Matt Beck (elbow soreness), Cole Henry (stress reaction/arm), Rye Gunter (stress fracture/back) and Easton McMurray (undisclosed). The article suggests that all are in good shape and that AJ Labas (shoulder soreness) has progressed to the point of throwing off flat ground. We’ll have much more on baseball between now and the season opener, especially once I have a chance to ride out to Baton Rouge and speak to Mainieri myself during LSU’s Media Day event on the 25th of this month, which is when LSU will begin preseason practice. The Tigers, ranked No. 1 in preseason polls by Perfect Game and Collegiate Baseball, start the season on February 15 against UL-Monroe. Thirty-four days and counting!

In gymnastics, it was a rough night for No. 4 LSU as the Tigers’ streak of 17 consecutive SEC dual meet wins came to an end with a 196.700-196.275 loss at No. 17 Auburn. Senior McKenna Kelly suffered an ankle injury while warming up for her floor routine, and the Tigers were never quite the same after that. Meanwhile, Auburn was on fire in front of a boisterous home crowd. Coach D-D Breaux’s Tigers will look to bounce back when they return to action against Florida on Friday, January 18 at 7:40 p.m. in the PMAC. 

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Have a great Saturday, Tiger Fans!

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1/11/19 5:35 am CST

Good morning, Tiger Fans,

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Without any big news to get to this morning, let’s jump right to our series on areas where LSU football needs to improve to be a contender next year. So far, we’ve covered four areas – Offensive Line, Red Zone, Run Game, and Return Game. Onward we geaux…

AREAS WHERE LSU FOOTBALL MUST IMPROVE TO TAKE THE NEXT STEP

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. 

Now that we’ve given you our five areas where LSU needs to improve (and several reasons to expect improvement), we welcome your input. Depending on what kind of feedback we get, we might extend the series or share some responses.

In football recruiting, most of the talk has been about the Tigers’ 2019 class, but LSU has quietly been putting together an outstanding 2020 class. With nine commitments – eight four-stars and one five-star – LSU sits at No. 2 in the 247Sports Composite Team Recruiting Rankings. One player who could elevate this class to the top of the rankings is visiting this weekend, 5-star running back Zachary Evans (6-0, 205) of Houston. He attends Northshore High, the same school K’Lavon Chaisson attended. Evans is currently considered a lean to Texas A&M, but that could change after this weekend. 

A few closing briefs:

• The LSU Lady Tigers basketball team followed up its impressive home win over ranked A&M with a big road win over Ole Miss, 55-41. Ayana Mitchell led the team with 16 points and four rebounds, while Shanice Norton and Khayla Pointer each scored in double digits. Here’s LSU’s recap on how the Lady Tigers improved to 2-0 in conference play.

• The fourth-ranked LSU gymnastics team is hitting the road to take on No. 17 Auburn tonight at 7:30 p.m. The meet between teams that each started the season 1-0 a week ago will be televised live on the SEC Network. First vault is set for 7:35 p.m. and John Roethlisberger and Alicia Sacramone Quinn will have the call.

• In coaching carousel news, the only thing worth reporting at this time is that Alabama offensive line coach Brent Key is leaving to join Geoff Collins at Georgia Tech and Bama’s co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach, Josh Gattis, has been hired by Michigan to be its offensive coordinator. As of now, no word on LSU staffing changes or who might fill the position vacated by Jerry Sullivan’s retirement, but we’re keeping an eye out.

• Lastly, just so you know… Thirty-five days and counting until LSU baseball at The Box! Thirty-eight degrees in January and here I am with a bad case of spring fever. Bring it on!

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