Updated: Feb 26, 2021
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by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
5 THINGS TIGER FANS SHOULD BE EXCITED ABOUT
(NOT IN ANY ORDER)
1 . RETURNING STARTERS (ESP. O-LINE)
While the Tigers' 3rd nationally ranked 2021 class brought in major talent for the next few seasons, the biggest priority was securing the return of 20 out of 22 LSU starters. Once Orgeron's staff made it happen, the 91% reinstatement of crucial leaders, NFL-ready stars & gritty warriors greatly improved the Tigers' overall outlook for 2021.
I will tell you now...the clearest indicator of an LSU title run has always been returning starters...just look at the NFL Draft every year to understand the talent & continuity the Tigers replace every year.
When studying the seasons where the program put it all together for a championship (or in 2011's case, an undefeated title run) the main ingredients were always a mix of veterans and youth, maybe even a dash of the unknown quantity star, too...yet every time (without fail) these championship squads were anchored by returning starters in key positions, especially through the spine (for example 2019's spine: QB Burrow, RB Clyde, center Cushenberry, DT Shelvin, LB Queen, Safeties Jacoby Stevens / Grant Delpit, punter Zach Von Rosenberg & kicker Cade York or 2003's spine: QB Matt Mauck, RBs Justin Vincent / Joseph Addai, Rimington-winner Ben Wilkerson, DTs Lavalais / Oliver, LB Alexander, safety LaRon Landry, punter Donnie Jones & kicker Colt David).
LSU'S candidates to take those spots are enticing, one after another...even the unproven gems or players who struggled in 2020: the slate is clean now.
One position group required more attention than any other...accordingly, Coach O's #1 priority coming into the offseason?
Taking care of the trenches for 2021 as well as 2022 (2022 commitments of Will Campbell, Ben Bordelon & Lucas Taylor).
Thanks to the returning starters along both trenches, headlined by all 5 starting offensive linemen and 3 starting senior D-linemen, combined with a litany of unbridled freshman or sophomore talent, O & D-Line coaches James Cregg & Andre Carter (even Coach Orgeron) will have no shortage of options.
In addition, don't overlook the importance of convincing strong locker room characters & National Champions such as WR/CB/QB Jontre Kirklin, FS Todd Harris or LB Micha Baskerville to make one more geaux 'round; Not to mention every single returner could use an NFL Draft boost for 2022, a second chance for overlooked guys like Kirklin, Harris, Hines or Cam Lewis to shine for the GMs or Draft scouts.
While star players may grab the headlines, grit wins championships...
Thanks to LSU's returning starters, the Tigers have their veteran / locker room presence to combine alongside their younger firepower on both offense & defense.
2. OFFENSIVE FIREPOWER
When you scan through the list of LSU's available 2021 receivers, running backs, quarterbacks or even tight ends, many Tiger fans would chuckle at the riches staring back at them on the screen.
Offensive Coordinator Jake Peetz has an army of aerial assassins to go with his stable of ground & pound / gash & flash warriors...of course, all led by four potential starting quarterbacks...
Assisted by a skill-position-heavy freshman class chockfull of intergalactic power-strokers (Thomas Jr, Bech, Smith, Hilton), a sophomore unit headlined by SEC-record-breaker / Tigers' #1 WR Kayshon Boutte (as well as Ja'Marr Chase-protege Koy Moore) & incoming juniors poised or yet to break out like Trey Palmer or Jaray Jenkins, no quarterback should fail when throwing to these guys.
To go with the high octane passing attack, Peetz's running back-oriented offensive proclivities will combine alongside the towering depth at the position, leading to a potent offensive attack based on balance.
RBs Coach Kevin Faulk has a number of Grade A backs at the position, beginning with our projected #1 starter Ty Davis-Price, backed by the extremely skilled John Emery Jr, rising sophomore Tre Bradford, walk-on Josh Williams, freshman touchdown machine Corey Kiner or Alabama-defecting track star Armoni Goodwin...the 2021 running backs group is more loaded than Bobby Gillespie.
So, this offense....on paper....should put up 35+ points in every game, correct?
I think so...
3. HIGH OCTANE 2021 DEFENSIVE POTENTIAL
As long as there were still questions about the stability of the Tigers' defensive coaching staff, Coach Orgeron's program couldn't turn the page on 2020's defensive "disasterpiece".
But once Coach Orgeron hired Defensive Coordinator Daronte Jones, DL Coach Andre Carter & LBs Coach Blake Baker, everything fell into place.
A massive enthusiasm began to permeate throughout LSU HQ for the first time since the pandemic began; the rumors of Eli Ricks' impending transfer turned out to be true, yet once Jones was hired, the talk of Eli going anywhere disappeared. In fact, I can confirm Eli is "excited" by the new DC.
All-American CB Derek Stingley Sr told OTB his son was extremely impressed by Jones, freshman & senior DTs Jaquelin Roy & Neil Farrell Jr both publicly voiced their approval, too. In fact, LSU Odyssey reported how Daronte Jones called incoming freshman Sage Ryan himself, to which Ryan told LSUODYSSEY.COM "everything was great, he down to earth".
In fact, when offensive players are stopping in the hallway to listen to your meetings, giving you a "you're the man" type point, when you're talked about like a longtime veteran Tigers coach only a month into your tenure, then you must be doing something inspirational...accordingly, this LSU defense needed Daronte's humanity as much as his football brain.
LSU has players with world class abilities in every position, often three or four men deep...they just needed confidence, a clear defensive plan & honesty.
With the two best cornerbacks in America & a stacked defensive line (which should be the strongest / deepest D-Line in America), defensive coordinator Daronte Jones just needs to figure out who will be his two starting safeties and linebackers, LSU's two weakest positions last year.
If this 2021 defensive unit can figure out the middle of the field, they will be a top 5 national defense, only a year after the program's worst ever defensive season (124th out of 128 national squads).
Still, if Blake Baker fails to maximize the potential of LBs Damone Clark, Micha Baskerville, Josh White or Mike Jones Jr, LSU may not find themselves leaking touchdowns and big gains with the propensity of 2020, however they will struggle in much of the same fashion.
As far as straight up talent collection, there has never been a better LSU QB room...though regarding success, they're still chasing 2003's Matt Mauck, Matt Flynn and JaMarcus Russell as far as pure championships (4 total) & 2006's Flynn, Russell or Perriloux (4 total).
But when all is said and done, Myles Brennan, T.J Finley, Max Johnson & Garrett Nussmeier could come close to those hallowed names & titles...
LSU's 2021 QB collection features a trio of quarterbacks claiming at least 1 SEC victory as a starter, two holding multiple victories over SEC opponents & a litany of LSU records shattered by Myles Brennan & Max Johnson in such a little chunk of playing time...then, Garrett Nussmeier rounds out the Tiger QBs with a thoroughly decorated high school career and an undefeated senior year.
So you have three proven winners wearing purple & gold uniforms, two record breaking slingers & a hotshot freshman possessing a biblical array of talents....so, how the hell will Jake Peetz or D.J Mangas choose LSU's 2021 starting quarterback?
Brennan has already broken records over a tiny 3 game starting stint & will have two years of eligibility left; Finley & Johnson begin their sophomore season possessing some crucial game experience, each holding multiple SEC victories; Brennan & Finley have the better arms, Johnson is the most multi-dimensional, but don't be surprised if Nussmeier becomes a bowlful of Burrowisms....It would be a big surprise for many if "Nuss" started as a freshman, though he's not far off at all...
Myles has the elder statesman's edge, possessing the great arm, smart brain while holding the mindset to be the guy; T.J Finley's large body, pro-style capabilities and unorthodox movements afford him a huge opportunity here, while Mad Max Johnson should be given every chance following his starting debut defeat of #6 Florida or 435 yard clutch passing game vs Ole Miss, his brilliance on 3rd & 4th down compared to the other quarterbacks (Max ended at 21/54 on 3rd for 39%, going 6/7 on 4th down tries including 3 touchdowns; Myles recorded 9 for 39 resulting in a weak 23% on 3rd down, while T.J Finley posted a respectable 28/68 for 41%) or his lack of turnovers compared to the other two.
Regardless of talent, I believe Peetz will choose the better decision maker within his offensive framework....and right now, I'm hearing there's already a front-runner & someone not far behind in second place: Max Johnson & Myles Brennan.
5. WEAKENED RIVALS
Alabama are leaking talent left and right, losing three LBs Ale Kaho, Kevin Harris and Ben Davis, DB Eddie Smith, kicker Joseph Bulovas, DL Ishamel Sopsher (40 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFL, 1 FF, 2 FR total, 22/29 FGs made) and they've now lost 11 quality coaches / dominant recruiters in Offensive Coordinator Steve Sarkisian (HC at Texas), RBs Coach Charles Huff (HC at Marshall), TEs Coach Jeff Banks (assistant for Texas), OL Coach Kyle Flood (assistant at Texas), defensive analyst Charlie Strong (Urban Meyer's Jaguars), Major Applewhite (OC at South Alabama), Butch Jones (HC at Arkansas State), previous GA Gordon Steele (OL at South Alabama), Rob Ezell (TE assistant at South Alabama), former GA Andy Kwon (Arkansas State TE Coach) & last year's QBs Coach A.J Milwee (leaving to Sarkisian's Texas for the same job).....if you thought Coach Orgeron replacing the offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, LBs and DL was a monumental task, just feast your eyes here....
Sure that looks bad...still, we're talking about Alabama here, they'll be fine right?
I don't know...I just don't know...we saw what happened to LSU when we lost pillars of the 2019 staff (Joe Brady, Dave Aranda, Tommy Robinson) and how their absences affected our younger players....I think we may see the same slide for Alabama this year.
Hiring RBs Coach Robert Gillespie, OC Bill O'Brien, TEs Jay Graham, analyst (former A&M HC) Kevin Sumlin as well as OL Coach Doug Marrone, this could be a year where Alabama suffer through a far less streamlined season.
In fact, you could argue 2021 may be Alabama's weakest team (on paper) since 2013 or 2014, losing 28 receiving TDs from Smith & Waddle's NFL ascension while QB Mac Jones foregoes his final year of eligibility for the Draft, handing 2020 freshman QB Bryce Young the keys; Not helping Young's case for a stunning 2021? A large O-line exodus of experienced stalwarts like Alex Leatherwood, center Landon Dickerson & Deonte Brown; I also wonder who will rise up to take the #1 CB spot left by Patrick Surtain II...perhaps no one?
Maybe worst of all for Saban's program? Losing the undisputed best running back of 2020 & 2018 Najee Harris, taking his 30 overall TDs over 10 games and heading to the NFL.
As for the other SEC Championship game participant, Dan Mullen's Gators lose many to the NFL Draft: Heisman candidate QB Kyle Trask, WRs Kadarius Toney & Trevon Grimes, TE/WR juggernaut Kyle Pitts, LB Ventrell Miller and their biggest loss (for LSU's needs) has to be CB Marco Wilson.
Meanwhile, Jimbo Fisher's Texas A&M just enjoyed their best ever campaign since they joined the SEC West, losing only 1 game overall & nearly taking part in their first College Football Playoff. Just like Alabama and Florida's vacancies following uber-success, the much-maligned Aggies said goodbye to some of their top front seven talent (Buddy Johnson, Bobby Brown, Anthony Hines), key WR Jhamon Aubson, as well as three offensive linemen: LT Dan Moore Jr, RG Jared Hocker & center Ryan McCollum... not to mention having to find a new starting quarterback after Kellen Mond finally left.
Alabama, Florida and A&M are facing the exact issues LSU dealt with throughout 2020's offseason....we'll see how events transpire, but for all intents and purposes, 2021 looks like a tough year for the above trio of SEC rivals:
With these three SEC powers having to replace starting quarterbacks, #1 receiving targets, key offensive linemen, while simultaneously suffering the departures of crucial coaches or glaring misses on defense, Coach O's Tigers are not only in the perfect shape to take advantage, they simply must if they want to take control of the SEC from Saban's Alabama anytime soon.
No better time than now...
Overall, there's a great vibe going on at LSU right now, the program maintaining a relaxed focus taking over every meeting room, hallway or corridor in the building.
And you cannot overlook this:
Following Coach Orgeron's turbulent 2020, both personally & professionally, he's started 2021 in fine fettle. For the first time in his career (due to FCS playing in the Spring) the 4x National Champion has been able to enjoy his son's performances at quarterback for McNeese State...and Cody Orgeron has only elevated his game since his father's attendance.
Do not underestimate the power of Coach O "the face of LSU" feeling better, sounding more enthusiastic than usual (if that's possible) and less embattled / defensive than he became towards the end of an extremely difficult & exhausting year.
He sounds rejuvenated, looks healthier and more rested....do not overlook the importance of elevated mental health when it comes to the Tigers' upcoming 2021 season...it sure as hell played a major role in ruining 2020, so the hope is the opposite has already been established.
5 THINGS LSU FANS SHOULD BE WORRIED ABOUT
by Lonn Phillips Sullivan
Copyright 2021 Uninterrupted Writings Inc LLC
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