As part of LSU week here at Team Speed Kills, we asked Richard Pittman of SB Nation's And The Valley Shook -- which has the best tagline of any blog and great content to boot -- to answer a few questions about the Bayou Bengals. Our questions and his answers follow.
After Les Miles' relative success and last year's disappointing season, what are LSU fans looking for this year?
This is a hard question for me to answer. The easy way to answer this is to say that LSU fans are looking to win the West. I think it's a reachable goal. Neither Bama nor Ole Miss nor Arkansas are unbeatable (though all should be good), and we have as much talent as anyone. That said, there are some uncertainties on this team. Primarily, we have so few returning players in the defensive line rotation. Rahim Alem was actually a backup, but was such a good pass rushing specialist he made All-SEC anyway (and should have been starting, because Cousin Kirston Pittman was unproductive). Charles Alexander is the forgotten man in the defensive line rotation, but he was a starter last year, though his career has been hampered by one injury after another and he will not be counted on for starting-level playing time this year. We expect Drake Nevis, Al Woods, and Pep Levingston to be playmakers on the line, but if they aren't as good as we hope, we have to recalibrate our expectations for the season.
Les Miles is an interesting guy, and most LSU fans like him. One of his greatest strengths as a coach is, in my opinion, an apparent lack of a big ego. I think Miles is a guy who will try something new and bold, but if it doesn't work out he doesn't get all huffy and insist on sticking with a failed strategy. In other words, he doesn't insist that he is smarter than the facts. The facts said that the defensive coaching situation was not working out, and he did something about it, even though the coaching situation was his idea in the first place. Would we have preferred him to get it right the first time? Of course, but didn't insist on riding out a failed experiment to his own ruin.
Really, we just expect improvement. The quarterback situation has to get better. The defensive situation has to get better. If not for the interceptions last year, we probably would have beaten Alabama and maybe Georgia. If not for the defensive breakdowns, we would have beaten Georgia, Ole Miss, and Arkansas. I doubt we could have done much to beat Florida last year other than catch them in a bad week, which we didn't. But just with those two adjustments, we would have been 11-1 and in the SECCG. We still have an inexperienced QB and we have to be realistic about how that will limit us, but there isn't a team in the West that I think is better than we are on paper right now. We have the disadvantage of getting Bama, Georgia, and Ole Miss on the road, but we need to be competitive in those games.
LSU in one of three programs that most of the "experts" give a chance of winning the SEC West. Fill in the blanks: LSU will win because _____ or will lose because _____.
LSU will win because its defense is outstanding or will lose because a) its offensive line play is not up to snuff, b) Jordan Jefferson made a key mistake through inexperience at a very bad time, or c) the defense blew.
Where will Jordan Jefferson fall on a continuum with "Heisman contender" on one side and "Jarrett Lee" on the other?
Alright, let me defend Jarrett Lee for a second. Lee was 5th in the SEC in yards per game, even though he split time early in the year. His completion percentage was within 3.1 percentage points of Jevan Snead's. His passing efficiency was 6th in the conference, and wasn't significantly worse than the 4th rated QB's. He made positive things happen on the field, unlike some QBs in the conference who were more or less empty uniforms (I'm looking at you, Mike Hartline). Yes, he had a very tough time with the interceptions, but he was a heck of a lot better of a quarterback than Jonathan Crompton, Kodi Burns, Mike Hartline, Chris Smelley or Chris Nickson. Things really got bad for him after Andrew Hatch got hurt. Hatch took a lot of pressure off of Lee, and when Hatch got hurt, all of that pressure fell on Lee. At first, he was able to bounce back from mistakes, but eventually the mistakes just mounted and mounted and mounted and it weighed down on his psyche. I think Jarrett Lee could end up being a fine quarterback. He just has to get past the horrors of last year and get his swagger back.
OK, to answer the question: On a scale of Tebow-to-Crompton, I don't really think Jefferson has Heisman potential, though I think he could end up being very good. I think he could end up being better than Matt Flynn was, and possibly even very soon. On a scale of 1 to 10, I would say his arm strength is a 7, his mobility is a 7, his accuracy is TBD, his moxie is an 8, and his head for the game is a 6 and climbing. Still, he's inexperienced and we have to be prepared for mistakes.
Last year's defense was subpar by LSU's standards (most overall and passing yards given up since 2001, most rushing yards given up since 2002). Why are they going to be better this year?
Subpar is a kind adjective. The defense was terrible last year, and the shame of it is that we had good personnel. It just was not close to a championship calibre defense. And what's worse was that there were coaching problems that would have been obvious to any casual observer who knew nothing about the team. When you see, 4 or 5 times a game, players in the secondary scrambling to get into pre-snap position or scrambling to get onto the field or off of it before the ball is snapped or yelling at the sideline about getting their assignments in a timely manner, you don't have to know about the co-coordinator situation to know that SOMETHING is wrong and it's a coaching issue.
Getting a little deeper into the defensive problems, we also had problems with players being used inappropriately, such as Danny McCray (a strong safety-type player) being the nickel back and regularly covering slot receivers (Percy Harvin, AJ Green, etc.) one on one.
All of that crap should be coming to an end, and that will greatly improve the play of the defense. Now, if the personnel on the line is as good as it was last year, we should be very very good.
Any disagreements with anything we've written this week?
I disagree with your assessment of our receivers. You said of our receivers, "the returning WR corps isn't that impressive beyond WR Brandon LaFell (63 receptions, 929 yards, 8 TDs)". First, that's like saying, "Except for Michael Jordan, the late '90s Bulls were really pretty ordinary." OK, Brandon Lafell is not the Michael Jordan of football, but he is really an outstanding wide receiver. I would maintain he was the best wideout in the SEC last year. Having him back is HUGE. Second, Terrance Tolliver is a playmaker waiting to happen. He's a 6'5" receiver who can run like the wind. His freshman year he averaged 25 yards per catch. More was expected of him his sophomore year, but he was used a little differently and his average per catch decreased. Don't be fooled by his modest 22 catch total. He caught 14 passes in the last 4 games of the season. He needs to be a little tougher and he needs to be able to go up and get those high balls (heehee!). This kid is going to be a junior this year and the sky is the limit on his potential. He was the #4 receiver at the start of last year, the #3 receiver at the end, and he starts the season as the #2. He's going to get a lot of ball thrown his way (heehee!). His production will increase quite a bit. Third, don't forget true freshmen Rueben Randle and QB/WR Russell Shepard. Both of these guys will see plenty of time this year. Shepard's a game breaker. Randle may be this year's Julio Jones or AJ Green (though I doubt we'll see that level of production as neither Jones nor Green had to break into a receiver rotation quite as deep or as good as LSU's is, and Randle is probably about half-a-notch below those two guys). He should see instant production, though. It wouldn't surprise me if both of those guys catch, oh ... 20 passes this year.
Richard gets bonus points for actually defending Jarrett Lee -- we would wager many Tiger fans would just as soon yell "Roll Tide Roll!" We thank him for answering our questions and direct you again to And The Valley Shook for all your LSU news.