Updated: May 19
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Right now at this crucial crossroads on the path to a National title, where do we find Coach Ed Orgeron's squad?
It's hard to say...mostly because the answers you'll hear mostly depend on whom you ask:
Before LSU's 2020 title defense even began, every single mainstream college football fan were already calling our 2019 season a "fluke"...a "flash in the pan"...and all 2020 accomplished was adding just enough lingering doubt to justify their purple & gold prejudice:
For those LSU haters, it felt like the Tigers traded 2019's G.O.A.T glory in exchange for a prolonged curse:
First, last season's squad started with enough freshman talent alongside experienced, NFL-ready upperclassmen to contend for the SEC West as well as a CFP Playoff position.
But once the pandemic hit the globe and each player had their own harrowing experiences, these Forever Tigers made tough (and much criticized) choices to opt out for the season, suddenly, sorrowfully (yet understandably) ending their Tiger careers.
You can't tell me the presence of Ja'Marr Chase doesn't make a massive difference last year....especially when Myles Brennan was putting up historic numbers through 3 games without an offensive line or running attack....
You can't tell me Tyler Shelvin plugging the middle wouldn't have helped last year's horrendous defense....in fact, versatile DB Kary Vincent Jr's speed-for-days / hard-tackling / playmaking attributes were made to protect a defense like 2020 LSU's porous unit (let alone his ability to cover at nickel eliminates many of Flott's blown coverages).
Sounds like a defense who could've used Marcel Brooks, too....
Last season should've been massively different, yet due to the opt outs, transfers, even straight up horrific luck, LSU never had a chance (Stingley's hospitalization on the eve of week 1, countless injuries or Covid absences, social / political unrest affecting the team, facing #6 Florida carrying only 50 scholarship players and finishing the game holding 46), suffering heavy defeats vs Miss State, Auburn, Texas A&M and Alabama (rushing for 2 yards or less during those defeats), starting QB Myles Brennan going down with one of the rarest injuries in college football, or 2007/08 National Championship-winning mad-dog Bo Pelini entering with loads of hype and leaving as soft as a lamb with his tail between his legs...tucked next to his $6,000,000.
We watched this guy shrink on the sidelines of Death Valley before our very eyes.....a kind of historically woeful Benjamin Button thing geauxin on there. Pelini seemed completely satisfied with mediocrity and ripping his LSU legacy to shreds...careless, soulless....rooted to the spot.
"Just shut up and pay me..." is what it looked like to all of us.
We witnessed a savage lack of communication, energy, trust & unity....many of our Tigers were just as uncertain about their coaching staff's plans as we were....
....everything felt wrong.
Wait a minute!!!!
Why am I opening this piece reminiscing about 2020, the one season we've all planned on binge drinking enough to forget?
Because as far as football is concerned, what we've witnessed during 2021 proves the difference from last year to now is palpable.
Coach Orgeron is harvesting the program's 2019 mentality, underscored by smart coaching hires on defense & offense, nestled alongside total aggression in all three phases:
From Greg McMahon's consistent special teams to Jake Peetz's ambitious offense, the 2021 squad possess elite talent, championship experience, and a unified spirit across the board....but can Orgeron's Tigers retake National Championship glory from Alabama, winning their 2nd title in 3 years?
Halfway through LSU's off-season, with recruits due to fill up campus throughout June as fall camp lingers on the horizon, we take inventory of Coach O's 2021 team:
Below, we use our own grading system, charting our biggest worries and tracking our "fear factor"....aka how uneasy we feel about each unit (lower numbers being "not worried at all", higher numbers signifying "increased concern").
Biggest Worry: How quickly freshman punter Peyton Todd can settle in
Fear Factor: 1/10
McMahon's special teams unit will try to absorb the absence of Zach Von Rosenberg with freshman wunderkind Peyton Todd, while Cade York remains the best kicker in college football.
"I feel the only worry with McMahon's solid unit has to be leaning on a talented (though inexperienced) freshman punter....but that's really it. Avery Atkins is a touchback machine from kickoffs, hardly ever booting it out of bounds, Cade York is a gutsy Vinatieri figure who we trust & rely on in the final seconds, displaying his veins filled with ice-water against Florida and throughout our 2019 title victory.....and he's only entering his junior year!!!"
"We are wealthy on special teams, with loads of impact returners too, potentially Trey Palmer makes the role his own (2 return TDs in his 2 seasons at LSU, 1 punt and 1 kickoff).
Or is #7 Derek Stingley itching to still be that guy in the return game?
I say forget everyone else: Trey is the guy, protect Derek Stingley Jr......still, freshmen burners Chris Hilton Jr, Sage Ryan, Matthew Langlois and Armoni Goodwin deserve return chances."
Biggest Worry: Safety & LB health & consistency
Fear Factor: 4/10
What a hell of a turnaround....
Much like comparing Matt Canada's 2017 offense to Ensminger / Brady's 2019 unit, Pelini's 2020 defense doesn't even belong in the same sentence as this vicious 2021 wrecking crew:
Defensive Coordinator debutant Daronte Jones' hard hitting, playmaking defense won't be returning to his former protege Dave Aranda's 3-4 set up, yet defensive coaches Jones, Raymond, Carter & Baker will nonetheless attempt to surpass the production of Aranda's underrated 2019 unit, placing extremity and severe intensity on to one emphasis: supply our offense the ball.
But this defense is all about two things:
Really, both our secondary and defensive line could be so productive and violent in their gravitational pull, their abundant strengths may make up for a variety of weaknesses at linebacker or safety.
"I saw plenty of fundamentally strong tackling, a night and day technique differential compared to last year: disciplined pursuit, no over-running, no over-aggression, just calculated takedowns at the point of reception.
Our defense maintained a beastly cancellation of any and all yards after catch, a complete 180 degree shift from 2020's porous showing. I see our safeties coming down and laying the hits, joining Blake Baker's linebackers and making their job easier, all three phases of our defense smacking into the ball carrier's momentum.
You could see far more gang-tackling and unselfish pursuit in one Spring Game than you did throughout all of last year, defenders flushing ball carriers or quarterbacks straight into their approaching teammates.
Continuing 2020's hardcore turnover creation, LSU's defense started the spring strong by picking off passes or forcing fumbles at will:
Jay Ward picked off 4 passes during scrimmages, Derek Stingley Jr peeled out 3, and our defense collectively forced 6 turnovers during the nationally televised Spring Game. If you count the exhibition on SEC Network+, the Tigers' defense have now forced 4+ turnovers in 3 of our last 4 appearances, under both Pelini or Jones....
We also witnessed an unorthodox pass-rushing scheme that'll make offensive line coaches' blood curdle, looking away in feverish doom as DT Maason Smith loops around the edge while DE Ali Gaye stunts inside....
Let it be known: QBs and offensive coordinators will have no clue when & where these linemen are coming....
As far as overall defensive personnel:
Jones was expected to lean on free safety Todd Harris as his defensive leader, but that looks to be a role tailor made for Jay Ward, the DBU rep who's already posted 4 interceptions during spring ball, all at a new position.
How much rides on the contributions of Mike Jones Jr???
The outside linebacker / strong safety hybrid will soon be at LSU, most likely taking a spot among the starters and providing the team with a boost of experience & speed over the middle, both in run support or coverage.
Linebacker Damone Clark hopes to turn the page on 2020's disastrous campaign, and while we're pulling for our #18, we've seen some of the same deficiencies begin to creep up once again; it's going to be a big deal for him to rebound from last season, but while this may sound nuts, he may have an even higher calling:
Don't judge Damone's performances by the number of mistakes made, watch for how he organizes, supports and runs our linebacking corps. If he can improve upon his hesitancy, attack the line of scrimmage with full gusto, as well as successfully orchestrating high octane play from our linebackers, then Clark will have his greatest season as a Tiger.
Overall, it's been a stunning turnaround from Daronte Jones' men.....complete proof of how toxic Bo Pelini's coaching became last year and how fresh the former NFL assistant's approach is for our young Tigers.
Biggest Worry: OL, RB, #2-#4 WR battle, picking the right QB
Fear Factor: 4/10
Jake Peetz's rock and roll offense won't be attempting to one-up predecessors Joe Brady and Steve Ensminger's G.O.A.T offense, however he'll be pumping in an all-out aggressive attack, aiming to be just as balanced on the ground as they are through the air.
To help him achieve offensive orgasmatron, Peetz has an absolute carnival of surgically athletic weapons, big play threats and explosive phantom marvels just waiting to pounce....many of these offensive assets holding untapped potential, boundless ability, incalculable talents and at least one stone cold upperclassman (Kayshon Boutte) who's a proven SEC record-breaker.
But when we get realistic, looking at the roll of the dice, the frame of the overall picture, we know the following:
We have two strong quarterback candidates, the best receiver in college football, America's top cornerback tandem, one of the deepest and most talented defensive line units I've seen in years, a bottomless rabbit hole of potential for a receiving corps, an extremely hungry coaching staff, a unified locker room.... and....nothing else is definitive.