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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Two-A-Days: LSU Tigers

Over the past few weeks, I've traded emails with beat writers for each SEC team, along with Georgia's three other BCS-conference opponents to get some insider insight into what fans can expect from UGA's competition in 2009.

Each day, we'll preview two teams, culminating with a big-picture look at the SEC and a deeper look at the biggest issues facing your Georgia Bulldogs. To submit a question for the Georgia entry in Two-A-Days, send me an email with the subject line "Two-A-Days" and I'll do my best to find you an answer.

To read the previous entries in the series, click HERE.

The 13th entry in the series is the LSU Tigers.

Head coach: Les Miles (5th season)
2008 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC)
Total Offense: 368.08 (5th SEC, 55th overall)
Total Defense: 325.54 ypg (9th SEC, 32nd overall)
On the docket: LSU opens the season on the road at Washington on Sept. 5. The Tigers travel to Georgia on Oct. 3.

A year removed from a national championship, 2008 was a disaster for the Bayou Bengals. LSU spent most of the season trying to find a quarterback, which led to a turnover prone offense, despite a number of solid playmakers. More concerning, however, was the defense, which allowed more than 50 points in two of three games against Georgia and Florida. The Tigers finished strong, however, demolishing Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. So will LSU turn things around and build on its bowl victory? I talked to James Varney of the New Orleans Times-Picayune to get some answers.

David Hale: One of the biggest question heading into the spring was at quarterback. Jordan Jefferson finished up the season last year and looked decent, but Jarrett Lee and true freshman Russell Shepard are pressing him for snaps. Who has looked the best in the spring and who do you expect to have the starting gig when the season finally kicks off in the fall?

James Varney:
Jefferson is, without a doubt, the No. 1 quarterback right now. Barring catastrophe, he'll be the guy. Now the starting LSU QB has gotten hurt at some point the last two seasons so history suggests the backup will play. That's Lee right now - again, definitely. Shepard will be in several packages - he is going to play as a true freshman. But don’t expect to see him under center.

DH: While the quarterbacking concerns haunted the Tigers last year, the defense may actually have been the bigger disappointment. LSU allowed teams to top 50 on them twice, and finishing ninth in the SEC in scoring defense. In comes new defensive coordinator John Chavis along with two other new defensive assistants. What kind of changes have they implemented and have you seen a new attitude among the Tigers' D since Chavis' arrival?

Certainly the attitude is good; the energy level seems very high. The biggest changes are 1. using three linebackers more often than before and not having the chaotic substitution issues; 2. more zone as a result; and 3. making it clear to just about every player that they’re on-field time is up for grabs every practice.

DH: Speaking of the defense, LSU was virtually helpless against the pass at times. The Tigers finished 11th in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 216 yards per game through the air. What has been done to shore up the secondary and cut down on the big plays?

The new secondary coach, Ron Cooper, is more vocal than Mallory and South Carolina was No. 2 nationally last year against the pass so he's obviously got a clue. He also has many drills ending with someone throwing a ball to the defender (and one drill like that the QBs run where the defender, like a receiver, just goes on a fly and is supposed to catch it). Personnel-wise, the biggest changes are Chad Jones locked in at free safety and Harry Coleman moving from strong safety to linebacker.

(*NOTE: Since this interview, LSU corner Phelon Jones has announced he is transferring.)

DH: Keiland Williams is a guy who oozes with potential, but he's yet to really have that breakthrough season. Heading into his senior season, Les Miles has singled him out as one of the main guys who needs to step up if LSU is to get back into the thick of things in the SEC East. Has his attitude changed any this spring, and what do you expect from him in 2009?

Keiland’s off-field attitude has never been the problem. As far as I can tell, he's a great guy and quite well spoken. But, for whatever reason, he has this timidity that surfaces on some plays in game situations. Especially with Ridley getting hurt, I expect Charles Scott to be the featured back. Remember, Scott rushed for more than 1,000 yards and 18 touchdowns last year so he’s no slouch.

DH: After seeing the team this spring, what jumped out at you in a positive way, and what would you say are the biggest questions LSU still needs to answer before the season begins?

Judging strictly from the spring game, Shepard is an exciting player who lives up to the hype. At a minimun, I think he will assume the touches that went to Trindon Holliday (obviously if Holliday goes pro in track) and in terms of consistent positive yardage Shepard will be better. I’m not convinced the 3-linebacker scheme works as much as Chavis seems to want it to, but Coleman, a late shift, improves the speed of that unit and I think Jacob Cutrera in the middle helps if only because Darry Beckwith was hurt a lot last year. A still unanswered question is defensive line. Other than Rahim Alem, LSU has no proven players on that unit.

* James Varney is the LSU beat writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. You can read his LSU coverage HERE and find his LSU blog HERE.

NEXT UP: The Mississippi State Bulldogs with Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal beat writer Brad Locke.

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