Filling In The Blanks
Top 10 Countdown -- Number 7
Thus far Wisconsin, Louisville and Virginia Tech have been selected as the number 10, nine and eight teams, respectively, in my unofficial preseason poll. The countdown continues with one of the South Eastern Conference heavyweights, LSU.
Louisiana State finished 2006 with a record of 11-2, including a 41-14 thrashing of Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers have the personnel to make a run at a league and national title, as do most of the teams in the top 10. However, they must replace the number one overall 2007 NFL draft pick, JaMarcus Russell. The talented signal caller was one of the main reasons LSU finished the year with only two losses, so the development of quarterback Matt Flynn will be critical.
Also gone is defensive leader LaRon Landry. Landry, the first round draft choice of the Washington Redskins, was a force in the Tiger secondary. Not only did the talented safety lead the team in tackles, he recorded three interceptions, broke up four other passes and was one of the main reasons that LSU ended the year with the third rated defense in the nation, allowing only 242.77 yards of total offense per game.
The good news for LSU is that eight starters return on defense. Though Landry will be sorely missed, the Tigers still have plenty of talent to shut down opposing offenses, led by All-American defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey. Dorsey would have likely been a first round draft pick if he would have come out of school early, but opted to return for his senior season. Dorsey led all defensive linemen in tackles with 64, including 5.5 tackles for losses and three sacks. Marlon Favorite, a junior with plenty of experience, will start at the other tackle position in LSU's 4-3 defensive alignment. Tyson Jackson, a 6-5 292 pound junior, will be a force from his defensive end position. Jackson led the team in sacks a year ago with 8.5, while recording 37 tackles. He, along with sophomore Ricky Jean-Francois, should be among the best defensive end tandems in the Southeastern Conference.
The Tigers, who were 14th in the nation against the run in 2006, should be as good if not better with all three linebackers returning. Ali Highsmith, a play maker from the "Will" linebacking spot and a preseason All-American, will anchor a unit that is among the best in the SEC. Highsmith recorded 63 tackles and 2.5 sacks, while breaking up four passes in 2006. He will be joined by middle linebacker Darry Beckwith (65 tackles) and outside linebacker Luke Sanders (35 tackles), giving the Tigers an experienced and talented linebacking corps.
If there is any concern on defense it will be at safety, where the Tigers must replace Landry and Jessie Daniels. Daniels was one of the team leaders in tackles with 47 and an effective pass defender for LSU in 2006. But, like most top notch programs, LSU has quality athletes salivating at the opportunity to show their skills. Craig Steltz and Curtis Taylor have the inside track to grab the two starting safety spots. Steltz saw plenty of action last season recording 42 tackles, intercepting four passes, while breaking up five more. He is so highly regarded that he has been selected to the second team all SEC preseason team by the SEC Conference coaches.
There are no questions regarding the cornerback positions, with two senior starters returning. Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon have received preseason recognition from the conference coaches, with Jackson being selected to the SEC first team and Zenon to the third team. Jackson had an amazing 14 pass breakups in 2006 and Zenon 12. The cornerback tandem is one of the best in the nation and will give opposing quarterbacks a fit.
The offense, as mentioned earlier, must replace Russell. Russell was the third highest rated passer in the nation last year, completing 232 of 342 passes for 3,129 yards and 28 touchdowns, while throwing only eight interceptions. Waiting for his chance is senior Matt Flynn. Though Flynn has seen limited duty, he has shone when given the opportunity. In 2005, Russell was lost for the Peach Bowl game against Miami with a wrist injury. All Flynn did was win the Peach Bowl MVP Award by completing 13 of 22 passes for 192 yards and two TD's. Though one game can be deceiving, it does show that Flynn can compete on the big stage against a quality opponent. He certainly will not be a Jamarcus Russell, but there shouldn't be a great drop off either.
Only six starters return from last year's offense, but three of those are along the offensive line. As those who follow football know, the line is the engine that drives an offense. It is critical for any offense to succeed and LSU looks to be in good shape along the front line. Anchoring the unit is returning preseason All-SEC selection, Will Arnold. Arnold, who plays right guard, will be joined by returning center Bret Helms and returning tackle Ciron Black, along with Carnell Stewart and Herman Johnson, both of whom have plenty of experience, to form a formidable wall for Flynn and his stable of running backs.
Though LSU's offense seems solid at quarterback and along the offensive front, there are many question marks at wide receiver and running back.
Early Doucett is the only starter returning at the wide receiver position. Doucett had a good junior season, with 59 receptions for 772 yards and eight touchdowns. He will be Flynn's primary target, but will probably be double teamed much of the time, making it imperative for the Tigers to develop another option. Sophomore Brandon LaFell is the top candidate to start opposite Doucett. LaFell has big play ability, evidenced by his 28 yard per catch average a year ago. Flynn will also be looking for tight end Richard Dickson to take some of the heat off of Doucett.
There is a lot of potential at the running back slot, but it is still unproven. Keiland Williams, a sophomore, was the starting tailback coming out of spring and was impressive during his freshman campaign, rushing for 436 yards on 76 carries for a 5.7 yard per carry average. He will likely be joined in the backfield by fullback Jacob Hester who accounted for 457 yards on the ground in 2006. Alley Boussard, a part time starter a year ago, will also be in the mix, if he gets back into the coaches' good graces after violating team rules in the spring.
Kicking specialist Chris Jackson, who handled both place kicking and punting, graduated leaving the Tigers without a proven field goal kicker or punter. Jackson was a four year starter and replacing a reliable kicker like Jackson will not be easy.
LSU finished third in the final BCS rankings last year and has the defense to challenge once more for the SEC championship and a national title. However, there are many question marks that must be answered on offense for LSU to achieve their lofty goals. Much will be known after the Tigers face Virginia Tech's stingy defense on September 8 in Baton Rouge. Should the offense pass the test, then LSU will be a legitimate national title contender.