The LSU Tigers football team completed spring and fall camps like many other squads across the nation, but everything changed following a fight outside an off-campus bar that has shifted the focus from talk of a possible run to another BCS National Championship to more question marks for a team ranked No. 4 in the preseason USA Today and AP polls.
With game week here and the focus now turning to how will LSU fare in one of the most highly anticipated opening games in Tigers history with BCS implications, what follows are the five biggest questions facing the Tigers as they set their sights on ending their season in New Orleans for the BCS title tilt.
HOW WILL JARRETT LEE PERFORM AS THE NO. 1 QUARTERBACK?
Lee was thrust into the starting role three years ago following the departure of Ryan Perrilloux and every LSU fan remembers his struggles and his penchant for throwing the ball to the wrong team and having those balls returned for touchdowns. Since that time, he has taken on a backup role to Jefferson and has fared well coming off the bench last season leading LSU to wins over Tennessee and Florida and helping to defeat Alabama.
But Lee has never started and completed an entire season as the signal caller for the Tigers so there is an unknown there. Lee has said he is ready for the challenge and understands better how to read defenses and make the throws necessary in this offense. He also lost weight in the offseason coming into fall camp in the best shape of his career at LSU.
2. WHAT AFFECT WILL THE CHANGE AT OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR HAVE ON THE ENTIRE OFFENSE?
The change at quarterback notwithstanding, Steve Kragthorpe was brought in during the spring as offensive coordinator and worked closely with Jefferson to improve his film-study skills and to implement an offensive play-calling system that was a bit more simplified from an in-game perspective. He also was brought in to improve LSU’s passing game that was ranked in the bottom third of all Bowl Division teams.
Kragthorpe’s announcement that he has Parkinson’s and the promotion of offensive line coach Greg Studrawa to offensive coordinator and main play caller will give the LSU offensive staff a working-by- committee approach as Kragthorpe will remain in the press box during the games to provide input.
Studrawa was offensive coordinator at Bowling Green prior to coming to LSU and has said that play-calling during scrimmages have gone smoothly, but how will Kragthorpe’s prior work with Jefferson and the quarterbacks pay dividends for the offense under different leadership in such a short time frame?
3. CAN THE DEFENSE REPLACE DEPARTED PLAYERS AND CARRY LSU AS IT DID LAST SEASON IF THE OFFENSE IS SLOW TO ADAPT TO LATEST CHANGES?
LSU lost four players in the middle of their defense and must replace them with younger, faster players who will be challenged from the very beginning against a quick and talented Oregon team. The Tigers lost Drake Nevis and Lazarius Levingston at defensive tackle, Kelvin Sheppard at middle linebacker and Patrick Peterson at safety.
Sophomore Michael Brockers and Junior Josh Downs are slated as starters at defensive tackle, but defensive coordinator John Chavis has said LSU will play five or six tackles in every game, which means two freshmen (Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson), sophomore Bennie Logan and senior Dennis Johnson could see action up front for the Tigers.
The linebackers will have converted safety Karnell Hatcher battling for time in the middle linebacker spot with Sophomore Kevin Minter. Hatcher, a senior who started 10 games at safety last season, would be the lightest linebacker in the starting lineup at 212 pounds, but has the speed to go from sideline to sideline and a nose to find the ball carrier.
Senior safety Brandon Taylor will wear No. 18 as a tradition given to the player with the highest character and leadership qualities, with sophomore Eric Reid occupying the other safety spot. Reid stepped in as a true freshman following a season-ending injury to Taylor last year and had 32 tackles and two interceptions while starting just three games.
4. WHO WILL STEP UP TO REPLACE DEPARTED STARS ON THE SPECIAL TEAMS?
Kicker Josh Jasper and punter Derek Helton were a special combination the past few years for the Tigers and LSU will look to a junior and a freshman to replace the multi-talented duo. Jasper and Helton combined in punting duties and were called upon to convert a few fake field goals and fake punts which added a tremendous lift to LSU’s offense when it would sputter.
Junior Drew Alleman is set at kicker and freshman punter Brad Wing, a native Australian who played just one year of high school football before coming to LSU, is still learning the American game of football. Wing will be counted on to pin opponents deep in their own territory, while Alleman has to replace one of the most consistent kickers in LSU history in Jasper.
The Tigers will miss Peterson’s electrifying kick and punt returns in addition to how he affected the other team’s strategy to kick away from him. Junior Morris Claiborne and Senior Ron Brooks are slated at kick returners while speedy sophomore Tyrann Mathieu is set to return punts.
5. WILL THE WIDE RECEIVERS PROVIDE CONSISTENT PLAY FOR WHOMEVER IS AT QUARTERBACK?
LSU brought in Billy Gonzales from the University of Florida two years ago as the passing-game coordinator, and he will need to coach up his wide receivers as they will have to deal with the suspension of Shepard, who was slotted as the No. 2 receiver.
Junior Rueben Randle is the de-facto leader to a group of young receivers that count five freshmen and two sophomores in their mix. If that wasn’t enough for Gonzales to deal with, freshman Jarvis Landry, who is coming off an injured foot and was expected to be a contributor this season, was one of the players implicated in the fight outside the bar that led to Jefferson and Johns’ suspension.
While LSU’s running game appears to be set and with all that has transpired in the offseason on the offensive side of the ball, the receiving corps will have to provide Lee – or whomever is at quarterback – more consistent play every time the ball is thrown their way.