LSU hopes to move to head of the class
Tigers must supply correct answers to five key questions
Sunday, August 05, 2007
By Jim Kleinpeter
BATON ROUGE -- The LSU brand is hot now that the college football practice season is under way.
The 2007 Tigers snagged a No. 2 ranking in the USA Today coaches poll. But whether the Tigers can live up to that standard and make a Jan. 7 appearance in the BCS championship game at the Superdome remains to be seen.
Here are five key questions that will help determine LSU's fate:
1. Can Matt Flynn step in for JaMarcus Russell and make the offense go?
Flynn, a fifth-year senior, won't be the No. 1 choice in the NFL draft next season like Russell was, nor will he match Russell's amazing arm strength.
But he won't have to for the Tigers to be successful.
A strong returning defense, solid offensive line and a host of good running backs make Flynn's job easier. Russell won some games by sheer will and the strength of his right arm.
Teammates of both say Flynn's best assets are managing the team and the knowledge he has gained while watching from the wings.
"He has the perfect mental makeup for a quarterback," said one teammate. But don't sell him short on ability. He was one of the most recruited quarterbacks in the country and unlucky to play in Russell's shadow. He's a better runner than Russell, a facet that will be worked into the Tigers' offense.
Still, Flynn is unproven. His 2005 Peach Bowl MVP performance came against a Miami team that all but quit in the second half, and he threw a couple of ugly interceptions against Georgia in the SEC title game that year and one last season against Mississippi State.
Fans will get an idea early with games at Mississippi State and at Tiger Stadium against Virginia Tech in the first two weeks.
2. Is the offensive line really solid, or is trouble bubbling just beneath the surface?
On paper, it looks good with four starters returning.
But one of those is senior guard Will Arnold, who has yet to get through a season without a significant injury (23 games played in three seasons).
With season-ending surgery last year, his work will be limited in camp, and there's no guarantee he'll play full time once the season kicks off. There is even talk of him playing some at tackle. Arnold was working with the second unit in Saturday's opening practice.
Right tackle Carnell Stewart is transitioning from defense and has laid claim to the job. He's in his second year on offense and still is learning.
Brett Helms is an underrated center; sophomore Ciron Black had a steady year at left tackle; and guard Herman Johnson is just a big ol' guy who's hard to handle.
The depth is questionable, so an injury to a starter could have a huge impact. Lyle Hitt worked ahead of Arnold on Saturday, and there is a knot of inexperienced players vying for other backup roles.
Massive incoming freshman defensive tackle Joseph Barksdale has been moved to offense to beef up the reserves.
3. Can the defense absorb the loss of All-American LaRon Landry and Jessie Daniels at safety?
This appears to be the easiest question to answer.
Although LSU loses two safeties who started three (Daniels) and four (Landry) years, eight other starters on defense return.
Every good defense starts with a dominant defensive line, and LSU's could be better than last season's, led by All-America tackle Glenn Dorsey.
Tyson Jackson could be in for a big year, and the depth across the front is good.
Three linebackers, led by Ali Highsmith, return, as do both corners, who are seniors. The new safeties, Craig Steltz and Curtis Taylor, have seen plenty of action.
Safety Danny McCray was one of the few freshmen to see significant action last season and performed well.
Landry's high-spirited play will be missed. He was a sure tackler and the last person opposing quarterbacks wanted to see coming on a blitz. Daniels, however, had a habit of blowing coverages.
4. Who will punt, and will the kickoff rule changes hurt with Chris Jackson gone?
Patrick Fisher is the Matt Flynn of special teams.
He has been stuck behind Jackson for four years, and the job is his to lose. He's big for a punter (6 feet 5, 253 pounds) and has shown the ability to send the ball a long way. He just has to show consistency, having kicked only six times in his career, none last season.
Again, it's nice having a fifth-year senior stepping in.
The loss of Jackson may hurt more on kickoffs, where rule changes will have the ball teed up at the 30-yard line. And it looks like either of two incoming freshmen, Josh Jasper or Andrew Crutchfield, will have to handle the job. Both have strong legs, but the coverage team won't be able to rely on many touchbacks.
One of these freshmen will have to learn how to place the ball where the coaches want it.
5. Will the Tigers be able to handle the expectations of their high ranking?
The good news is that LSU has been in the top 10 each of the past four seasons, meaning high expectations come with the territory.
Still, many experts are saying LSU should be in the BCS championship game, and that's different from just being in the hunt.
The pressure will come to bear as each week passes if the Tigers continue to win.
Though the toughest games are at home, there are many potential stumbling blocks. The Virginia Tech game in Week 2 will be the early litmus test, and SEC road games at Kentucky and Alabama won't be rollovers.
LSU appears to have the necessary leadership to understand the situation and adapt as the season goes. This will be quite a test for third-year coach Les Miles, whose tenure with the Tigers will probably hinge on this season's outcome.
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