BATON ROUGE, La. – At the risk of dabbling in hyperbole, this just might be the most important spring for LSU football in more than a decade.
There was intrigue a year ago with Ed Orgeron’s first season as coach, which also featured new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. But after a 9-4 debut season that saw embarrassing losses to Troy and Mississippi State and turmoil within the coaching staff that led to Canada’s dismissal, Orgeron’s honeymoon is over. He must produce at the level expected when LSU paid Les Miles eight figures to go away.
To his credit, Orgeron understands the expectations and has made notable changes on his coaching staff he hopes will address the team’s shortcomings of a season ago.
He and his staff must replace 15 players who were starters or key rotational pieces. That process begins with the start of spring practice Sunday.
The good: The offensive line. With new coordinator Steve Ensminger trying to find replacements for the starting quarterback, the top two running backs and the top two receivers, spring is critical. The search will be made easier with a rock-solid line. Ed Ingram and Saahdiq Charles were thrown into the fire as true freshmen last season and performed admirably. Those two and fifth-year senior Garrett Brumfield will anchor the line. Two junior college transfers, tackle Badara Traore and guard/center Damien Lewis, and true freshman center Cole Smith enrolled early and will go through spring practice. After facing a numbers crunch in 2017, this unit will pace the offense in 2018.
The bad: There are no proven playmakers. Danny Etling: Gone. Derrius Guice: Gone. Darrell Williams: Gone. D.J. Chark: Gone. Russell Gage: Gone. LSU always has recruited skill guys who run fast and jump high, but the 2018 Tigers are void of proven offensive weapons. Whoever emerges this season will be someone who has yet to perform at the college level. Ensminger needs to spend these 15 practices determining who he can count on as he installs LSU’s new offense.
The newcomer to watch: WR Jonathan Giles. Orgeron made waves earlier this month when he awarded the coveted No. 7 jersey to Giles, a transfer from Texas Tech. If the spotlight wasn’t on Giles before, it is now. Ensminger has said the receiver group is the strength of the offense right now. If so, Giles is going to be expected to carry the load. Orgeron has said his defense couldn’t cover Giles in practice last season. This will be the first opportunity for Giles – who had 84 receptions for 1,301 yards and 16 TDs in his two seasons with the Red Raiders – to live up to the hype.
The veteran on the spot: With center Will Clapp’s early departure to the NFL, third-year sophomore Lloyd Cushenberry has the inside track on filling that void. Smith and Lewis are nipping at his heels, though. Cushenberry filled in for Clapp last spring and impressed coaches to the point that they considered leaving Clapp at guard in 2017. Ultimately, the progress Cushenberry made in spring did not carry over to the fall. If Cushenberry can’t hold off his challengers this spring, his chance to earn a starting spot might have sailed.
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