It's finally here. The pads are popping over on the Ponderosa and, alliteration aside, the team is getting ready for the 2012 season. So we're going to get you ready for the season too. After six days of fall camp, Les Miles has closed practice to the media indefinitely, so any tidbits that can be gathered from watching 20 minutes of drills will no longer be available.
Rather than go through a traditional position by position breakdown of the team or opponent by opponent breakdown of the season, we decided to do something a little different this year. Jordan and I got together with some friends for a roundtable discussion about various topics concerning this team. We figured that four opinions and viewpoints are better than one or two. Here are the participants in this roundtable discussion:
Kris Brauner (@snslant) - That's me, I run this site
Jordan Grove (@LASportsDude) - Contributor here at SNS
Chandler Rome (@Rome_TDR) - Sports Writer at The Daily Reveille
Justin Goar (@tigertangents)- Contributor at Tigalaya.com and former contributor at CollegeFootballNews.com, SIOnCampus.com, and FoxSports.com
So here we geaux: The first installment of our roundtable series, discussing LSU's offense for 2012:
Kris: The four year ping-pong match between Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson has come to an end. Does that mean we'll finally see some consistency schematically? Common sense tells us that with a clear #1 guy at quarterback in Zach Mettenberger, a pro-style pocket passing type, the 2012 offense will resemble that of the first half of 2011 when Jarrett Lee was at the helm. In my opinion, that stretch was the best that LSU's offense has looked since 2007. Things were simple, and the offense had an identity. LSU trotted out a physical running game with some play action sprinkled in, and they wore teams down with their depth. They also absolutely refused to turn the ball over. So we're going to see something awfully similar in 2012....True or False?
In his years as head coach at LSU Les Miles has never lost his affinity for a power running game which is attributing to the time he spent as a player and graduate assistant under Bo Schembechler. This yearthe running game should be just as, if not more, potent than last season's given the experience that Kenny Hilliard earned last season. Hilliard, along with Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Michael Ford, Terrance Magee, and freshman Jeremy Hill give LSU a deeper stable of backs than they had last year with each one bringing something different to the table.
The major question mark for LSU's offense is how Zach Mettenberger will handle being a starting quarterback in the SEC. Setting foot on the field for LSU is world's apart from the only extensive collegiate action he's seen so far in his career which came at Butler Community College. How will he fare against SEC defenses, especially that of Alabama? Will his nerves hold up on the road in tough environments like Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M, and Arkansas?
The good news for the "Mett-siah" is that the first three games should be cakewalks (cupcake-walks?). North Texas, Washington, and Idaho should allow Mettenberger to develop an in-game rhythm with his receivers and running backs and get a feel for conducting the offense in game situations. The only quiz, not even a test, for Mett would be against Washington in the second game of the season.
Chandler: The key for the LSU offense in 2012 is simple-- run the football. This bevy of running backs that Les Miles and Greg Studrawa have at their disposal have proven to be hard-nosed, physical backs that can wear down almost any defensive line in the country. With a veteran offensive line returning and a comfortable quarterback in the pocket, I can imagine we will see the same "ground and pound" game from the LSU running backs – spearheaded by Spencer Ware and Kenny Hilliard (who is my pick to lead the Tigers in rushing this season.)
Now that Miles does have the luxury of a precision pocket passer in Zach Mettenberger, it's fairly obvious the passing game will be more versatile than in year's past. But I caution all Tiger fans, remember, Mettenberger has thrown a grand total of 11 passes as an LSU Tiger – against the Northwestern St. fighting Bradley Dale Peveto's and Ole Miss, no less.
Before you hail Mett as the "Mettsaih," let's see how he responds to the likes of Jadeveon Clowney, Corey Lemonier and Jesse Williams coming off the edge.
It won't need to be a Herculean effort from the 6-foot-5 Watkinsville, Ga. native– in fact it can be rather pedestrian. As long as Mettenberger is a respectable game-manager and can complete a few play-action deep throws as the situation neccesitates, the Tigers will soar.
My most intriguing offensive player this season has to be Russell Shepard. Perhaps the biggest five-star bust in recent memory, Shepard toyed with the idea of jumping ship to the NFL after the January 9 debacle, ultimately deciding to stay for his senior season and repair what most Tiger fans consider to be a less than mediocre career. Shepard is flat-out dangerous in the slot with breakaway speed and could be a dynamic threat returning kicks alongside the Honey Badger. Look for Shepard to step into a more defined role in an offense that has inexperience at the wide reciever position and challenge Odell Beckham, Jr. for the team lead in receiving. Don't forget-- this guy started out as a quarterback at Cypress Ridge in Texas, so the Mad Hatter may have a few tricks up his sleeve for Shepard to show off the arm that made him so sought after in high school.
Justin: In 2011, LSU had two mediocre QB's that ran an offense that struggled only against Alabama twice and UGA for a half. The Tigers bombarded, wore down, and outlasted every other opponent. Given the lineup of opposition last season it was more than impressive.
The formula was a combination of efficiency, a stable of backs, play action, and an army of athletic machines built by strength and conditioning czar Tommy Moffitt proved to be overwhelming for all teams outside of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
And perhaps for all opponents not named Alabama in 2012, this formula should remain unchanged.
The backfield and offensive line are set to perform better than last year. The QB position improves with addition by subtraction. The only question mark will be how the receiving corps stacks up this year with the loss of Rueben Randle and no real prototype wideout.
They say if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Tigers excelled so much last season that you won't see much change. It's just that 1/9 wiped some of that memory out for fans.
One thing LSU can improve on with QB Zach Mettenberger is to be better on 3rd down especially against tougher defenses like Alabama.
Having a monstrous defense and a Brad Wing means LSU will almost always have a field position advantage. But being better on 3rd down means having a QB that can get you out of tough spots and extend drives and not have to rely on Wing and the D. Miles played down and distance frequently in 2012 and relied on percentages. That won't totally go away in 2012 but the offensive coaches have a little more freedom with Mett.
The Tigers of yore (people say that, right?) with QB's like Mauck, Flynn, and even Russell were good on 3rd down. Last year, the Tigers were good on 3rd because the coaches put them in position to be good (3rd and shorts etc).
If Zachenberger (people say that, right?) can be consistent (which is a bigger "if" than people think) then this team and its fans can start believing the preseason hype.
Kris: We all seem to be in agreement as far as what to expect this year. But just how good can the offense be? A year ago, LSU ranked sixth in the SEC and 86th nationally in total offense, averaging 355 yards per game. However, they averaged a robust 35.7 points per game, good for second in the SEC and 17th in the nation. The discrepancy between those two categories has a little bit to do with the offense being efficient and maximizing scoring opportunities. But it mostly has to do with outstanding defense and special teams putting the offense in great situations, or in many cases, just scoring touchdowns on their own.
Considering LSU will likely be leading most games and will be leaning on the running game in the second half, it's tough to see LSU ever being one of these offenses that puts up gobs and gobs of yards and stats. But I do expect to see a marked improvement, both in terms of total yards and big plays. A year ago, LSU ran for just over 200 yards per game and passed for 152. In 2012, I'm expecting those averages to each be at least 200 per game which would put LSU's total offensive output over 400 yards per game....something they have not achieved since 2007 when they averaged 439 (214 rushing, 225 passing).
Perhaps the most important factor will be turnovers. I believe Les Miles wants to open things up a bit this year but he absolutely won't do it if it results in more turnovers. Before anything else, Zach Mettenberger will have to be smart with the football or else Les will resort back to the "ground and pound" and take his chances with a safe approach. Efficiency is preferred over explosiveness, and I can't say I blame Miles considering his defense and special teams. I believe Mett will be careful and make good decisions and that LSU's offense will still take a giant leap forward.
Most reasonable people expect an improvement offensively, but just how significant can it be? Am I perhaps selling this group a little short by setting the expectations at 400 yards per game?
Chandler: I wouldn't say you're selling the offense short with those numbers – bearing in mind the cupcake schedule that the Tigers get to open the season. The Tigers will surpass 450-500 yards against North Texas, Idaho and Towson. Moreover, Washington's defense looked more like a JV team against the fighting RGIII's last season, so there is a good chance the Tigers will run wild over them as well. Add in the poor souls from Oxford, and there's no reason LSU shouldn't average 400 yds/game just based on the gaudy numbers they'll put up in those five contests.
With fresh legs abound in the running game and capable recievers, the Tigers shouldn't have a problem moving the ball against conference defenses that aren't housed in Tuscaloosa. A veteran offensive line is primed to wear down opponent's defensive lines, making the running attack that much more caustic. Look for the Tigers to have two runners to surpass 800 yards.
It's no secret Coach Miles will throw the ball deep, now that he has a capable quarterback to execute it. But as I've stated before, this is a run-first team and Mettenberger will only take to the air in 3rd down situations and in play-action situations to keep defenses on their toes. Sure, the receivers are capable, but there are no Reuben Randle's or Demetrius Byrd's walking through the door, and I don't think Miles completely trusts a true sophomore to carry the load. So for all the fans looking for Matt Barkley-esque numbers from Zachenberger (yes, I stole that from Justin), don't hold your breath. The Mettsiah will be an effective game manager and will make the clutch throws, but his numbers will not indicate the underlying help he gives to the team.
Jordan: This group should achieve close to if not surpass 400 yards of offensive production per game. Last season, the LSU offense racked up more than 400 yards in five of their twelve regular season games: Northwestern St., Florida, Western Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Arkansas and averaged 386.8 yards of total offense in the regular season games.
This season, the Bayou Bengals return all of their battering rams in the running game plus add a talented back in freshman Jeremy Hill to add to their supremely talented stable. The problem will lie in the passing game where a weapon the defense respects has yet to step up. That could be Odell Beckham Jr (ODB) or Russell Shepard (please, hold the laughter) or even Jarvis Landry, but none are recognizable, household names.... yet. Last season, the two quarterback's - Jarrett Jefferson/Jordan Lee (or was it the other way around?) combined to throw the football an average of 18 times per game. I'd expect that much this year with a few more shots down field.
LSU won't see a Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, Dana Holgorsen style of offense at any time while the Mad Hatter is prowling the sideline. What you will see running backs eating chunks of yardage on the ground like a fat kid at an all-you-can-eat-twinkie buffet. That should happen again this year against any team not based in T-Town. With Idaho, Towson, and North Texas on the schedule, 400 yards of offense should be expected. Washington, who lost the Tecmo Super Bowl vs. Baylor last season, shouldn't be able to stop LSU from getting 400 yards either. Gaining that amount of yardage against an SEC school not named Ole Miss is just lagniappe.
Justin: Well like Kris stated, 2011 saw this offense with plenty of short fields due to the defense and Brad Wing. So the 400 yard per game mark may have much more to do with them instead of the offense.
LSU could have 6 TD's in a game and if their average starting field position is their own 40, breaking 400 may not happen. That's just speculation of course, but you could see how hard it could be to hit that mark.
On top of that, Miles isn't one to run up a score no matter what Bobby Petrino thinks. By the way, let's all take a moment of true inner happiness and childlike contentment as we remember the fate of Bobby Petrino...
Well now I'm just giddy like the time I went to that all you can eat Twinkie buffet.
Anyway, Miles calls off the dogs most of the time when he can and the only way he wouldn't was if he goes on some season long post 1/9 revenge bender. I'm holding out hope for that by the way.
So I'll go out on a limb and say LSU will fall just short of the 400 yard per game mark but it will have much more to do with field position, the defense, and Miles taking the high road and not because the offense isn't potent enough.
And lastly, I'm much more of a points per game guy (offense and defense) than yards per game. My goals this year are to take 4 knees on the Rebels' goal line, jump pass Florida again, and have Michael Ford not step out of bounds against Alabama.
Kris: Chandler, earlier you mentioned Russell Shepard as a guy that might finally put it together at wide receiver. With a viable passer and a couple of years learning the receiver position under his belt, perhaps it's finally Shep's turn to shine. For his sake, it needs to be. He's a senior.
Anyone else see any breakout performers on the horizon? For me, I think Jarvis Landry is ready for prime time. I absolutely loved his skill set coming out of high school, but then he got slowed down with an injury in fall camp last year and never really caught up. He still made his presence felt on special teams though. But now....he's ready. He was a star in the spring game and all of those who observe practice seem to be in agreement that on a field full of future NFLers, Landry is standing out as one of the best. I don't think 50 catches is out of the question for him this year.
I also think La'El Collins may be considered one of the top offensive linemen in the SEC by the time December rolls around.
Chandler: More importantly, if Russell Shepard doesn't put it together this season, he could be considered one of the largest recruiting busts in LSU history. Do I have to remind everyone how coveted he was out of high school? Or how jacked up the entire Baton Rouge community got when the Tigers landed him?
Jarvis Landry does seem to be the trendy sleeper name emerging as one of the breakout stars of the considerably weak LSU receiving corps. Don't be surprised to see him emerge as a close second to Odell Beckham, Jr. as the team's leading receiver through conference play.
But my big sleeper has to be Chase Clement. The E.D. White product has been mostly an afterthought in the Tiger passing game, garnering only nine catches in two full seasons at tight end. That's not a typo. Nine catches. N-I-N-E. Greg Studrawa raved about him at LSU media day, claiming he was excited to get him the football next season. Look for Clement to possibly double his career numbers and provide more than just a blocking presence for the Tigers from the tight end position.
Justin: Miles has a habit of auditioning some of his backs at fullback before they play tailback. On this current team, he's done it with Ware, Blue, and Hilliard and previously with Stevan Ridley. No one back fits the profile better than Jeremy Hill who's listed at 6'2" 235.
If players can handle themselves there (most likely on figuring out protections) Miles usually wastes no time giving the young 'uns a shot. Hill will take his and have the Tiger faithful talking about him in '12 like they talked about Hilliard in '11.
Jordan: While I was thinking over this question a few names popped into my head: Landry, Clement, Collins, even Jeremy Hill...and while I think there are several players that I think will be breakout performers for LSU just one on offense stands out.
That is Odell Beckham Jr. As a freshman last year he flashed his play-making ability early and turned heads with his spectacular catch and touchdown run against Kentucky. He comes from impressive bloodlines and should only get better now that he has what is hopefully better quarterback play in Zach Mettenberger. He's not built like former LSU wide receiver greats but he has excellent ball skills, can find the seam in the defense, and has the breakaway speed coaches salivate over. I'm of the opinion that this will be ODB's breakout year and this season will be his coming out party to being one of the next LSU great receivers. Maybe I'm going out on a limb on this but I'm fine with that.