LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger. (Associated Press)
Last Modified: Monday, August 26, 2013 10:36 AMAt least LSU head coach Les Miles didn’t spend a lot of time this summer dealing with the threat of lofty expectations.
Miles, who’s more used to poking his nose into the thick of the national title picture, in fact was asked at SEC Media Days in July if he thought maybe his team was “flying under the radar this season?”
LSU will open the season ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press’ preseason poll, well within striking distance.
But it’s a far cry from recent years when the only real question with the Tigers seemed to be if they could win the always-crucial Alabama game. This year, being No. 12 in the country means there are five Southeastern Conference teams ranked ahead of you.
That’s what happens when you lose 11 players to the NFL draft, 10 of them juniors, and return three starters on defense, which always seems to set the tone for the Tigers.
“It’s interesting,” Miles said. “The excitement, it’s not derived from where you’re ranked or how people perceive you. Each team has its own potential, its own high-side opportunities.
“It’s not something that has affected us. We have always felt we need to earn our position. So we like us. We like us in every game.
“At LSU, we want to play for championships. That’s very much alive.”
The Tigers are coming off a 9-3 season that included a loss in the final 90 seconds of the Alabama game and another on the final play of the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Clemson.
But the relative doom and gloom of the preseason is fueled by the loss of eight defensive starters, although eight do return on offense.
“The number of guys we lost isn’t usual,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said. “But we didn’t get caught off guard. We recruited well before this year and years before that.”
“The good news is we’ll be a talented football team,” Miles said. “Youthful, but good.”
The entire defensive front four had to be replaced, although tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson are no strangers to playing time. Depth, however, could be a problem.
Chavis can mix and match his deep linebacking corps, led by Lamin Barrow on the outside and a host of young players begging for playing time.
“I think our linebackers, generally, are much improved,” Miles said.
Sulphur’s Tahj Jones should be the other outside starter, with D.J. Welter in the middle. But five or six others could see considerable playing time.
Even with losing two starters in the secondary, the Tigers don’t lack for experience, led by preseason All-SEC safety Craig Loston. Jalen Mills also returns at cornerback.
Miles did not stand pat after the bowl loss, the second consecutive year the Tigers came away from the postseason empty.
Most notable was the addition of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who comes from the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens with a mandate to breathe some fire into an up-and-down attack that often stagnated for long stretches.
The Tigers were 10th in the 14-team SEC in total offense, 11th in passing offense.
The offense might have to carry more of the load with so much youth on defense.
LSU works almost exclusively behind closed doors, but the sketchy reports coming out of camp suggest a more up-tempo style, more flexibility from various formations and certainly an improved passing game to balance the attack.
“We’ve always wanted to be a balanced team,” Miles said. “I think that Cam certainly allows us to do that more. I think he throws the ball down the field extremely well. I think those are things you’ll see in this offense as we move forward.
“I like the direction we’re going. I think what Cam is doing is very, very good.”
“It’s definitely more comfortable,” quarterback Zach Mettenberger said of Cameron’s offense. “You know what to expect. Last year I had a lot of ups and downs. I feel a lot more comfortable with myself and my team.”
Mettenberger, who had his best game in the loss to Alabama, will be counted on heavily for a big senior year after showing progress late last season. Last year he threw for 2,609 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“There’s no throw he can’t make,” Cameron said.
He won’t lack for targets as the Tigers’ four leading receivers — Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Jr., Kadron Boone and James Wright — all return.
The speedy deep threat the Tigers may have lacked could come from the freshman class, such as Travin Dural or John Diarse.
The running back spot was in the news for all the wrong reasons this summer after returning leading rusher Jeremy Hill was suspended, then reinstated after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor simple battery charge.
Miles had downplayed Hill’s return, noting that Alfred Blue, who missed the second half of last season with a knee injury, came out of spring as the starter.
“He was on the way to having a monster season (before the injury),” Miles said. “Kenny Hilliard is also an experienced runner who has started in the past.”
“We have guys that can run, we have guys that can throw,” Cameron said. “We have guys that can catch. We’re still evolving to see what things we do best. I think we do a lot of things well.
“We have no excuses on offense for not playing well. Especially our quarterback.”
Posted By: Jim Henderson On: 8/25/2013
The Tigers were 10-3 last season, not 9-3.