It is an unusually anonymous spring for LSU football.
Alabama still has the SEC West target on its back, even after a disappointing finish to the season. Auburn under Gus Malzahn is the league's shiny new toy. Texas A&M is loaded with potential while trying to replace the biggest star in school history. Meanwhile, LSU, coming off back-to-back unspectacular 10-3 seasons, finds itself fighting to stay afloat -- by 21st-century LSU standards -- amid a flurry of departures for the NFL that started last season.
So as spring practices begin and end across the country, nowhere are we getting a more incomplete picture of what's to come than at LSU. Not only is the Tigers' quarterback puzzle unlikely to be solved until late summer, but the most famous member of the team is not actually a member of the team yet, because Leonard Fournette won't arrive until summer either.
Yes, much appears to be riding on the shoulders of 19-year-old Fournette, a freshman-to-be still in the process of graduating from St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. With the age of high-profile recruiting at its zenith, the running back prospect -- ranked No. 1 overall by ESPN, Scout and 247Sports in the class of 2014 -- is possibly the most recognizable name on an uncommonly unknown LSU team.
This has become a situation ripe for hype, or overhype, depending on how you see things. And the stakes are only raised when Fournette, who chose LSU in January, vocalized his goals of winning a Heisman and a national title as a freshman -- something that hardly bothers his new coach.
"I would not see him as cocky," LSU coach Les Miles told reporters at his signing day press conference in February. "I would a see him as humble. I would see him as working hard. His answers for improvement are apply himself, which all of those things are characteristics of guys that can win national awards. I certainly understand it. And we've seen freshmen win it. Johnny Manziel was [redshirt freshman]. And this guy from Florida State was a first-year quarterback starter and wins the Heisman. So it would be nice to have some national awards being considered as a freshman with the Tigers."
But for LSU, if not a freshman, then who?
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You have to invest a lot in the new when the old move on so quickly.
No college football program has been ravaged more than LSU by the yearly increase in NFL draft early entrants. Last year, 73 underclassmen declared for the draft; 11 of them played for LSU (including Tyrann Mathieu, who was suspended for the season). This year, of the record 98, seven played for LSU.
In two seasons, that's a staggering 18 players lost, the latest of which include two of the nation's best receivers (Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham); the SEC's second-leading rusher (Jeremy Hill) and a solid backup (Alfred Blue); an All-SEC guard (Trai Turner); and two inconsistent but occasionally dominant defensive tackles (Ego Ferguson, Anthony Johnson). No matter how strong a team's recruiting classes are -- seven of Miles' 10 classes have ranked in Rivals' top seven nationally -- this sort of attrition is difficult to weather. In fact, this much attrition is unprecedented.
Everyone is losing underclassmen, of course, but it's hitting LSU the hardest, and it's doing it at perhaps the worst time. The SEC has provided the toughest competition in the sport since Les Miles arrived in Baton Rouge in 2005, but until recently, LSU mostly had to worry about not falling too far behind Alabama. Now, while Alabama is still there, that top tier of the SEC West has expanded to include Auburn, which is poised to be a more consistent heavyweight under Gus Malzahn. There's a good chance it will include Texas A&M under Kevin Sumlin too.
That's a lot of strong, diverse competition, with the modernized, up-tempo spread systems of Auburn and Texas A&M fighting the more traditional power stylings of Alabama and LSU. And there's a lot at stake here. Alabama and LSU are digging in and trying to hold their ground; the defining coaches of an era in the SEC, now in their 60s, are trying to hold off rising coaches reaching their late-40s primes. For all we know, we could be in the process of a changing of the guard. LSU has to do everything it can to fend off the rising powers and maintain its position.
Miles has made his share of missteps, but he probably doesn't get enough credit for sustaining success for so long. Last year, his hiring of Cam Cameron as his offensive coordinator paid off, as he tutored the combination of quarterback Zach Mettenberger and receivers Beckham and Landry into one of the most prolific passing combinations in the nation. Now, so far at least, putting all of LSU's eggs in the Fournette basket in recruiting by not signing a single running back prospect in 2013 may work out too.
Sure, it still could be a mistake if Fournette doesn't pan out, but missing one of the most acclaimed prospects in Louisiana history would have, more than anything, given the appearance of a fracturing program, given the context -- even if that's a bit melodramatic when talking about one high school player. Now it's Cameron's job to figure out his role and turn him loose, because a team spending its spring in transition may be in need of a spark come fall.
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It's dangerous to get sucked into high school highlight videos, because the disparity between the best and the worst players only gets narrower as a great player progresses from high school to college to pro football. Still, Fournette undeniably flashes a complete skill set, with the size of a great college back already (6-feet, 227 pounds) and the speed to match it, turning his highlights -- like many prospect highlights, but his even more so -- into a game of "how on earth could he possibly score a touchdown on this play?"
So it's no surprise that landing Fournette was such a big deal to LSU -- not only to bolster its roster with arguably the best high school player in the country, at a position of immediate need, but also to win a crucial battle in defending its home recruiting turf against Nick Saban. Saban got the ball rolling on the SEC West tug-of-war in the first place by building LSU up, then leaving and eventually landing at Alabama as the Tigers' current most-hated rival and primary antagonist.
Fournette is expected to be the new key cog in LSU's continued pursuit of making power football work in a division that now features four teams running variations of modern spread offenses (Auburn, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Mississippi State) and three who would prefer to run defenses over (LSU, Alabama, Arkansas). Despite all of LSU's attrition, Fournette has every reason to succeed right away: Hill's 1,400 yards are gone, leaving a pair of good backs in Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard but room for a star. Just as importantly, four of the five starters along a good offensive line return, anchored by all-conference left tackle La'el Collins.
The lack of any proven players in the passing game is a concern that could negatively impact the run game, but either sophomore Anthony Jennings -- who started the bowl win over Iowa, with mixed results -- or true freshman early enrollee Brandon Harris appears to be the favorite to win the starting quarterback job, at least giving Cameron the flexibility of having a mobile QB to keep defenses more honest if the passing game goes through expected growing pains. No matter what, LSU will need to lean heavily on its running game, and in an ideal world, that involves leaning heavily on the prospect whose running style has been compared to Adrian Peterson's.
While the number of early departures obviously hurts, we've also reached a point in the sport where more and more freshmen are prepared to contribute early and often. The game is skewing younger, which puts an increased emphasis on people like Fournette. Fortunately for LSU, it continues to sign acclaimed class after acclaimed class, and it may have found the right player at the right time, even if it has to wait until summer.
Don't mistake current anonymity for future irrelevance.
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