Updated: 3 days ago
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Without trying to include obvious expected talents who held serve on their status or simply evolved, I'm geauxing for Tigers who exploded during Spring football and, on the flip side, Tigers who lost a step or may have given up their hope / hold on a starting spot:
Only 5 slots will make up the stock rising marks with two ties, and those 5 have been ruthlessly consistent throughout Spring ball, not just the Spring game:
1. JARED SMALL -LB
Producing 14 tackles (I feel it's actually 15), an interception, 1 pass broken up, 1.5 tackles for loss and a litany of hard-charging hits, Jared Small destroyed a number of skill position Tigers out there during the Spring game, completing an amalgamation of every great play I'd seen of his throughout Spring (minus the INT); on that Saturday afternoon within Death Valley, Small assembled the complete package at the perfect time.
Though he'd been mostly an assisted-tackle guy over the course of Spring, he saw increased action in LSU's last 3 practices and began delivering supersonic hits...where was this coming from???
Daronte Jones saying "do everything as violent as possible"???
Strength & Conditioning Coach Tommy Moffitt's intensive work alongside Small, building up his muscle mass, has paid valuable dividends...just look at the comparison: 2019 Jared Small and 2021 Jared Small...
Despite the fact LSU's Spring game isn't a contest our coaches would traditionally put much stock into analyzing, Small's performance was so breathtaking and awe-inspiring they'll remember his performance most. Of course, close friend and former high school / LSU teammate Clyde Edwards-Helaire tweeted his excitement and love for #58.
It goes without saying....the entire LSU family is rooting for Jared to succeed this season, as he has waited years for an opportunity, capitalizing on his chances over the past month.
On the periphery, Jared watched the 2019 team win the title, recording a single solo tackle over 5 games.
Appearing in two more outings across 2020, Small wasn't discussed by any major LSU media site until deep into Spring, usually as a guy listed on a list of linebackers.
This very site talked about Jared Small knocking people around during our Spring ball coverage, taking note of his intriguing development and overwhelming desire for success.....at the same time, we weren't professing that he'd grab 14 tackles in a single game for LSU, exhibition or not.
These weren't just numbers racked up, either...Jared was cancelling receivers at the point of the catch or preventing one altogether, allowing very few yards after any reception.
Not only is Jared's current rise becoming a major boost for the overall strength of Blake Baker's LB room, as well as his second & final senior shot at LSU, Small may have thought the door on an NFL chance was shutting on him fast:
Not anymore.... he just shoved a big foot in the way to prop the door wide open.
2. JAY WARD -FS
Grabbing his 4th interception of Spring ball, Jay continues his explosive renaissance at the safety spot, positioning himself as a true DBU King alongside Derek Stingley Jr and Eli Ricks.
Fast becoming one of the Tigers' most popular players among the fanbase, media or Tigers' coaching staff, Ward is zooming from one strength to another as he irons out his new role within Daronte Jones and Corey Raymond's secondary.
At this time, Ward has 7 INTs (2 returned for touchdowns) during live games & scrimmages, 3 when playing corner last year, and now 4 off-season picks from his new safety position, all impressively captured against a quadruple-headed monster of elite quarterbacking talent.
If & when Jay Ward assumes control by creating turnovers, influencing most of LSU's defensive play, as well as silencing some of his critics who've asserted he "isn't a good tackler", then he should turn out to be our most important player throughout this upcoming season....
Or has he already assumed complete control???
3. JAQUELIN ROY -DT
Posting a ridiculous 7 pressures and 3 sacks (4 if we're counting the touch on Max before Kirklin's first TD), Jaquelin Roy shocked many national analysts when the gap-plugging, run-stuffing DT put his name in the "best pass rusher" hat.
Stunting and twisting around, through or swimming under our embattled offensive line, Roy had himself a day of nonstop devastation, featuring a recurring duel vs QBs Garrett Nussmeier & Max Johnson, pulling off some unbelievably strong pressures, assisting a sack by buddy Jacobian Guillory & tag-teaming alongside Glen Logan, Joseph Evans or Maason Smith.
Sure, Coach Orgeron said it for everyone to hear: "Maason Smith may be our best pass rusher,".... then it became "Joe Evans is our best pass rusher"....although if Coach O felt that way at those times, we are in for a treat this season as yet another defensive tackle committed unceasing atrocities upon LSU's offense.
I kept thinking....how many times have LSU blitzed???
Our inside rush was so intense, thanks to Roy spearheading the attack, I feel it'll be fellow DTs such as Neil Farrell, Maason Smith, Joe Evans, Glen Logan who will benefit most from Roy's boundless athletic abilities....and here we are talking about defensive tackles' pass rushing abilities without even saying a word about our ultra-stacked defensive end group.
And that should tell anyone in the country exactly why LSU has the best defensive line in college football.
4. DARE ROSENTHAL -OT
Rosenthal was fantastic during the Spring Game, a culminating performance that took every little chunk of what he does right and blasted it out of a cannon all at once.
Up against B.J Ojulari for many of his reps, Rosenthal handled and caged Ojulari for the most part, staying hot on his feet and never making a false step. Dare refused to let himself get knocked off balance, staying alive and over the rusher, only rarely tilting back from the leverage...instead, he was the guy dealing the most physicality on the line of scrimmage.
Of course it was a tough day for the LSU offensive line, every outing against Andre Carter & Coach O's defensive line will be like watching The Butterfly Effect on repeat;
Regardless of the brutality & endless array of rushers, Super Bowl / National Championship / Joe Moore Award-winning O-Line Impresario James Cregg will be extremely hyped by what he's witnessed from Rosenthal...not just during the Spring game, but over the course of the 15 days of practice & scrimmaging.
4. MAX JOHNSON -QB
Studying many of his throws over the course of Spring ball, Max Johnson's arm has improved all around, hitting the deep ball more often, taking his time through his progressions, completing miraculous touchdowns on 3rd & 19 (like his bomb to Kirklin) or extending every rep to its fullest optimum....
Pushing the pedal down to the max...
He has an edge to him...a kind of sharp intensity which cuts opponents like a knife and influences his teammates to push themselves...the only quarterback on our current roster who can claim that feat.
As Max rose in the last part of 2020, so did WRs Kayshon Boutte, Jaray Jenkins, Koy Moore...hell, even Tre' Bradford came off the bench and made some huge plays for us, while Ty Davis-Price started erupting in the running game vs Florida (before an untimely injury).
No one can deny it, Johnson ignites the squad... the QB who can pull that off must start.
Max hasn't slacked in his big play ability on critical downs either, now scoring touchdowns on six 3rd or 4th down opportunities....and he's only geauxing to get better.
5. SONI FONUA -DE/DT
Adding the second most pressures with 5 from the defensive end position (sliding in for the banged-up Ali Gaye), my Utah brother Soni Fonua absolutely wreaked havoc throughout the Spring Game, maintaining a beastly impact on proceedings from his first rep to last.
Soni stamped his authority with a forced fumble (punching the ball out from offensive MVP Jontre Kirklin's hands) & grabbing 3 tackles & a tackle for loss to go alongside his collection of offensive line dismemberment.
The former East High graduate's ascendancy is even more impressive due to the bizarre positional transformation he's experienced:
Fonua has gone through a number of position changes, from linebacker to defensive tackle last year, and most recently finding a home at defensive end, competing alongside Ali Gaye for LSU's weak side rusher gig.
Nobody expected Fonua to push for the DE job, not over such a wide range of edge-rushing talent, yet here he is.
While freshmen DEs Saivion Jones & Bryce Langston arrive next month, as Landon Jackson looks to return to full practice, Soni's Spring ascendancy was exactly what #53 needed in order to keep his chances above water.
In fact, you get the sense Coach Orgeron values Fonua's aggression & work ethic, admiring the Polynesian ambassador's steady climb and rewarding his intense commitment by starting him at DE opposite B.J Ojulari.....in return, Fonua responded by performing at his highest ever level as a Tiger.
So....regardless of LSU's incoming 2021 defensive end talent, I don't expect Coach O to forget how Soni performed throughout Spring football.
5. JONTRE KIRKLIN -WR
Jontre just has to be included...whether you feel his 200+ yard outing was a fluke or happened because the haul came during a Spring game, I disagree completely with those assertions.
Against a secondary who already picked off 3 passes (2 more from LSU's linebackers), Choo Choo roasted highly ranked / recruited / lauded Dwight McGlothern and Derrick Davis Jr for big time touchdowns....but he didn't stop there.
Ripping 16 receptions out of the sky, over the middle of the field, even through tough traffic, Kirklin showed fight, grit, a newfound physicality at the line, or smashing off jamming corners & deceiving DBs thanks to his shifty hips...
Sometimes his own speed can trip him up:
Jontre is so slim and fast it can be hard to anticipate his next movement, a talent which affected his catching last year (often a step ahead before he had possession).....although once harnessed, his pace & aerial prowess will provide Kirklin a limitless bar.
Other than his lost fumble, pointing to some lingering loose grip issues, Jontre has been steely during Spring ball:
Choo Choo is hungry for LSU's #2 receiver role...but he's playing like a #1.
I'm about to be critical of some Tigers...
Don't take it personally.
I'm analyzing performances from my viewpoint...just as you could surely judge my work on this writing.
1. TJ FINLEY- QB
If TJ had gone through an inaccurate or ineffective March /April while still making some strides, I wouldn't rank Finley as the #1 plummeting Tiger....however the reason he is #1 cannot be denied, sugarcoated or shoved under the rug:
At precisely the worst moment for his LSU career, Finley reinforced his propensity to turn the football over, with one mistake creating another and snowballing......
TJ's absence for the entire 4th quarter of our Spring Game was the only reason our turnovers didn't seem further out of hand than they already were (our offense chucked 5 picks and coughed up another fumble).
His final throw was extremely telling:
Possessed by a cavalier "make something happen" vibe, TJ forced a long pass towards the sidelines in between double coverage....hanging a looper against the country's best cornerback; accordingly, Derek Stingley ate up another easy pick from Finley.
Why did TJ force that Lunesta-looking pass towards Derek Stingley Jr?
He's used to beating corners with any throw, but he continues to forget his own limitations at the collegiate level, trusting his arm to bail him out of every tough scenario....
I believe TJ can get overwhelmed from both a lack of protection or multitude of options equally, tending to blindly launch the ball at will.
Finishing at 2 interceptions, as well as being the only quarterback (out of four) not to throw a passing touchdown on the day (despite many opportunities), TJ had an awkward time and one which could shroud the rest of his LSU career in disappointment and "what ifs" he doesn't push hard over the next few months.
LSU Odyssey will be rooting for him as we do for all our Tigers!
After all, remember one thing:
Whether you want TJ to take the QB job or not, regardless if TJ starts at any point across 2021 or not, the fact is this squad is weaker without T.J Finley.
Which is exactly why I'm ranking him #1 as far as stock plummeting...because I expect more from such a great Louisiana talent.
Under Jake Peetz's guidance and playbook prowess, TJ could be special once again in purple and gold....we all saw it that night when the Tigers dropped a 50-Burger on Muschamp's South Carolina.
Truth is, what happened during the Spring Game solidified a trend:
Counting 2021's showcase exhibition, TJ Finley has now thrown 7 interceptions in his 6 Tiger appearances, chucking a hat trick of multi-interception outings....
Once again, this wasn't something that just happened on the big stage of a Spring game...this was a recurring element of his erratic passing over the course of the Tigers' scrimmages & cost us the biggest games of 2020: Auburn, Alabama & A&M.
Some days this past Spring, TJ was on fire....at other times, he began making uncharacteristically poor choices with the football, the same kind which drove Coach Orgeron over the edge last year and Jake Peetz this Spring.
In spite of all his talents, it will be TJ's decision-making which tells the tale for his future as a quarterback, a curse as old as time and one which some of the greatest arms or quarterback talents endured successfully.
Can TJ cross the turnover rubicon?
I expect the Prince of Ponchatoula to receive 3rd string snaps when LSU reconvenes for summer camp, however I feel TJ could also go one of two paths:
A) Either he recovers from tough endings to both 2020 and 2021's Spring practices enough to make the QB battle competitive....or
B) He gazes at the writing on the wall (Max or Myles), waits for the NCAA to make their transfer waiver eligibility decisions, and moves to take his starting QB caliber talents elsewhere.
2. CHASEN HINES -OG
At right guard, Hines was blown off the line on 5 or more occasions throughout the Spring game, suffering a lukewarm outing for all to see.
Although Chasen has enjoyed stronger performances than what he displayed on the field within Death Valley on SEC Network +, the right guard is finding himself firmly on the hot seat, as Anthony Bradford continues to catch public praise from Coach Orgeron (calling him "our best one on one blocker").
This motivational strategy from Orgeron is definitely putting the pressure on Hines to keep his spot and hold off Bradford, yet there's also another pair of right guards laying in wait to snatch the job, Mr. Pancake himself, Kardell Thomas or Charles Turner.
Say what you will about any of our right guards, the truth is all are in firm contention for the starting right guard spot.
Whether Chasen Hines received the starting nod or not, we all knew LSU's right guard battle wouldn't end in Spring...it will likely last until deep into fall camp, if not right before our opening date at the Rose Bowl.
Shoring up right guard will become one of the most integral tasks for O-Line Coach James Cregg, as anyone could see the night and day difference from Hines' inconsistent play at the line (absolutely wrecking down after down by allowing men into the backfield before the play had even begun), then on the flip side, Hines shielded our quarterbacks with a few stunning protection reps in the passing game.
Simply put, that's what this showdown all comes down to:
If James Cregg is forced to alternate between Hines & Bradford, leaving the long, tall Michigan man on the field for running plays, while retaining Chasen for the passing game (until opponents figure it out), then so be it....but the kind of profligate O-line play we witnessed during the majority of Spring's scrimmages cannot continue.
3. TODD HARRIS -FS
Suffering through another injury, Todd Harris is sitting yet again and watching a variety of different safeties gunning for his job.
During the first week of Spring practice, the word was out:
Todd Harris looked ripped, primed and ready to be Daronte Jones' go to guy, the defensive leadership role Harris always wanted.
Then during an appearance on Off the Bench, Coach Orgeron revealed Harris was out again with "some injuries"...not injury..."injuries" plural...
We don't know the nature of Todd's injuries just yet, nor would we savor reporting that information, but it's another blow to the LSU super senior's chances at starting for the 2021 Tigers, at least right now.
When he can return, I have no doubt Todd will play a key part in proceedings if LSU are to contend or win another National Championship in 2021...
Daronte Jones loves the young man, but on the field he also trusts the player.
4. LIAM SHANAHAN -C
Shanahan's presence on this list isn't because he was ghastly during Spring practices, in fact he wasn't even close to one of our worst O-linemen, and he seems to have the shotgun snapping down.
The reason we include him in this list? His position is simply so key that we expect more from him at this point of his progression.
We all saw Liam sprawled on the ground more than on his feet, constantly getting smashed up front by LSU's myriad of ravenous defensive tackles, quickly tangled in the undertow of Chasen Hines' protection errors, or snapping under D-Line duress almost every rep.
It'll never be easy sledding against LSU's defensive line, aka the best defensive line in the nation, in fact, the intense test vs our savage band of D-Linemen may actually be the perfect antidote for our offensive line's current woes.
But for Liam Shanahan, his issues don't seem to lie within LSU's passing game...he simply has to buy our running backs more momentum and gain more of a push up front....he has to become a leverage merchant and cash in on his bullish low center of gravity.
He'll be hard to topple over if he can master the balancing act required to play one of the toughest positions in the sport.