With a good deal of help from Year2.
I have to admit that I was not aware of the massive overturn in this year's LSU roster until I sat down and took a look at it. Suffice it to say that some of the key cogs in last year's somewhat disappointing season are gone. Whether you see that as a good thing or a bad thing, I supposed, depends on what you think about losing starters from a subpar year.
THE DEFENSE WEARS NAME TAGS
To get a handle on the huge difference between last year's defense and this year's, consider this: Nine of the top 14 tacklers are gone. That's 522 stops, or 51.6 percent of the Bengals' total from last year. Not that tackles are necessarily the best measure of defensive success -- after all, unless the opposing player scores, someone is going to stop him and it counts the same if you stop him after two yards or after 40. But it is a barometer of the experience that will be lost -- if you're losing half your tackles, that's a lot of your defensive starters and back-ups that are moving on.
Notable losses include Chad Jones, the hero of the Mississippi State game who also picked off three passes and broke up six more; Rahim Alem, who had a team-leading 4.5 sacks among his 8.5 tackles for loss; and Perry Riley, who had 97 tackles, second-best on the team. But Kelvin Sheppard, he of the team-leading 110 total tackles; Drake Nevis, who led the way with 11 tackles for loss; and Patrick Peterson and his 15 passes defensed all return.
There are four- and five-star recruits who can step into some of these roles, including the always-promising Jai Eugene. But there are a lot of holes, and John Chavis best choose wisely; only a few wrong choices could make it a long year for the LSU defense.
THE RETURNING QUARTERBACK
Ah, Jordan Jefferson.
Jefferson might very well be the Rorshach test of SEC quarterbacks. Solid completion percentage, not bad TD-to-INT ratio. But average passer rating and an average of 7.3 yards per pass attempt. I have to admit that I was one of those who saw Jefferson's outings near the end of the 2008 season and thought that he was LSU's quarterback of the future; now I'm not sure.
The issue here, when you look at the yards per attempt, seems to fit in with one of the main theories I've seen about Jefferson (I'm sorry that I can't remember exactly where): The LSU coaching staff has to let him go. Sink or swim, Jefferson has to be given the opportunity to make all the throws in the playbook and open up the Bengals' offense.
THE REST OF THE OFFENSE
And part of that is because of how few skill players return. Terrence Toliver does come back after a solid 2009 campaign: 53 catches, 735 yards and 3 TDs; he'll have to take over for the very good Brandon LaFell, who moves to the NFL after 57 catches for 792 yards and 11 scores last year. No other returning receiver on LSU's roster had more than 173 yards or 2 TDs last year.
The loss of Charles Scott is not as bad as might be expected; his 550 yards last year amounted to a bit more than a quarter of LSU's rushing last year. But Stevan Ridley is an open question as a replacement, rushing for 180 yards and 3 TDs on 45 carries while starting two games last year; if he can keep up that 4.0 ypc average, it should be good enough to give Jefferson and Toliver and Co. the room they need -- but if not ...
Three-fifths of the offensive line does return, which might be some of the best roster news for LSU. When you're rebuilding the offense, you would at least like to keep as much of the foundation in place as you can. The Bengals' major challenge is what they build on that foundation.