by James Varney, The Times-Picayune
Wednesday August 19, 2009
BATON ROUGE – With LSU coaches sensing a brooding desire to smack people around among its charges, a physical scrimmage was slated for Wednesday morning and freshman phenom Russell Shepard seemed likely to be in the thick of it.
For the first time, Shepard was wearing a white jersey at practice, signaling he was eligible for full contact. Before Wednesday, Shepard always wore a green jersey shielding him from contact although he did play a variety of positions during practice.
Tigers Coach Les Miles said Tuesday he felt the team was increasingly looking to uncoil itself. Ideally, they would like to do so against players in something completely foreign from an LSU jersey but that won’t be possible until the season opener against Washington in Seattle on Sept. 5.
In the meantime, the coaches apparently decided the scrimmage would dominate practice time Wednesday morning because the portion of the morning open to reporters was sharply curtailed.
In that sliver of time, however, Shepard could be seen in white and the quarterbacks – including him – were airing it out, throwing long fly patterns down the sideline. Offensive coordinator Gary Crowton has already incorporated plays with Shepard at running back, wide receiver, and at quarterback.
Defensively, outside linebacker Perry Riley was dressed out in a purple jersey, which indicates he will participate fully in practice after going two days in a green jersey and being held out of last Saturday’s scrimmage. His colleague at linebacker, senior Jacob Cutrera, remains out of action.
Sophomore cornerback Patrick Peterson was also not seen at practice Wednesday morning. In his absence the Tigers would go with senior Chris Hawkins and junior Jai Eugene – the starting tandem when the 2008 season opened – at the corners.
James Varney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 504.717.1156
by Chris Warner on Aug 12, 2009 at 6:58 am
The kickoff countdown has entered the home stretch. Purple and gold tainted visions of road trips, tailgating and winning football are omnipresent in the subconscious and nightly dreams of the die-hard LSU fan. That most favored time of year-football season-is fast approaching, and with its impending arrival comes rekindled hopes for redemption of last season’s surprising transgressions. LSU disappointed a year ago, in what was questionably, repeatedly tagged a “down year” for the SEC by the national media. 2009 promises to be the exact opposite, with a third of the league’s membership representing among the nation’s preseason top ten squads. Given this, the SEC could be on the unlikely precipice of sending as many as ten teams to bowl games at year’s end.
In this exclusive column for TigerDroppings.com, the preferred Internet sports website for SEC fans abroad, produced by the superior intellect of LSU graduates, we’ll revisit LSU’s damn strong national championship team from 2007, and note the many players on that squad that still play for LSU. Moreover, we’ll assess the state of the state of the nation’s toughest football conference as K-Day–September 5th–rapidly approaches.
Raising the Crystal Ball for the SEC
They were the first modern-day two-loss national championship team. They won with a most unlikely, workman-like tailback, and a coach with a penchant for going for it on fourth down. They had abounding talent, great coaching, and superior senior leadership. They were the 2007 LSU Tiger Football Team, and they will forever be remembered for their accomplishment and the unlikely, almost uncanny manner that they attained college football’s highest accolade.
While anyone can look at LSU’s roster and count the many players that graced the 2007 championship roster, Florida fans can better that-they can count many more players with national championship experience, having won two of the last three big games. The SEC seems to have a virtual lock on the BCS National Championship Game, as Florida is the prohibitive favorite heading into the season, garnering near even money odds in Vegas to repeat as national champs.
Winning the national championship in college football is difficult, but it appears easier for the SEC schools, which happen to play in the nation’s toughest conference, lending great credence to the adage, that “To be the best you have to beat the best.” While some fans lament the smashed mouth, brutal nature of SEC competition-where attrition and injury can easily blemish a schedule with a loss to an unlikely underdog on any given weekend, it appears that it is nonetheless the perfect breeding ground for BCS success. The SEC is the avowed standard-bearer for American college football.
A Bevy of Championship Tigers Remain
LSU free safety Chad Jones represents an elite group of college athletes. The recipient and owner of two national championship rings-one in football and one in baseball-he is much the anomaly. Jones is one of more than a dozen Tigers who played or started on the 2007 championship team, and one of the many future NFL players currently on LSU’s roster. Although only a junior, Jones will be one of the avowed leaders on the 2009 LSU team, for he is experienced in performing in championship situations and certainly knows, along with his older blood brother, senior Rahim Alem, what it takes to be number one.
In 2007, LSU’s defense was coordinated by a proven coach–Bo Pelini. The Tigers’ 2009 defense will be managed by another talented, proven coach, John Chavis. LSU’s’ personnel on defense of course lacks the stoutness and leadership of All-American Glenn Dorsey, but it does return sixth-year interior lineman Charles Alexander, junior Drake Nevis and senior Al Woods-all members of the 2007 team that throttled Ohio State before a raucous, partisan, Superdome crowd. Moreover, starting linebacker, senior Jacob Cutrera was also active on that squad as an effective gunner on kickoff coverage and perhaps most importantly-senior linebacker Harry Coleman was as well, as he had a huge national championship game and was LSU’s leading tackler a year ago.
LSU’s 2009 offense also has several players that started or played in the 2007 BCS Championship. Importantly, the offensive line returns three starters-seniors Lyle Hitt and Ciron Black as well as junior Joseph Barksdale. In the backfield, seniors Charles Scott and Kieland Williams return, along with junior Richard Murphy. Senior Trindon Holliday, a.k.a. “Mr. Quicks,” the fastest man in pads, who moonlights on special teams as an explosive kick returner, is back to challenge the collective foot speed of LSU opponents. Moreover, tight end Richard Dickson is back for his senior season, as is wide receiver Brandon Lafell and bulked-up junior Terrance Tolliver.
Senior leadership was a key element in the Tigers’ latest championship run and it will undoubtedly be a factor in any subsequent title dash. Charles Scott, Brandon Lafell, Charles Alexander, Keiland Williams, Lyle Hitt, Ciron Black, Richard Dickson and the rest of the senior class will need to lead by example. Reassuring to Tiger fans is the fact that these champions all understand the type of effort and discipline required to win a coveted crystal ball; they’ve experienced it before. Just like in LSU Baseball, the preseason target is a national championship. However, LSU must first win the SEC Championship, which this season, could prove to be even more difficult, given the acute level of in-league competition.
The “Wizard” and the “Warlock”
Recently I acquired a copy of the 2007 National Championship Game against Ohio State. One salient point from the contest was the fact that Gary Crowton entirely lived up to his moniker of “The Wizard” for his play-calling expertise. Crowton was masterful in the contest, dialing up dizzying sets and formations that constantly took the number-one ranked Ohio State defense out of its normal playing alignment and rhythm. In that contest, LSU not only outplayed the Buckeyes-they also out-coached them. LSU spread the field, forcing the defense to play more man and got its superior athletes the ball in space.
In 2008, LSU’s quarterback situation prevented Crowton from using his entire playbook of diverse mass formations and sets. Instead, the Tigers’ appeared more vanilla on offense, and as a result were easier to stop. With LSU’s quarterback situation more settled heading into 2009 with Jordan Jefferson, and with the added experience of backup Lee and impressive athletic newcomer Russell Shepard, the Tigers, led by the Wizard, once again appear ready to create the offensive magic that helped them win a 2007 national championship.
Defensively LSU struggled mightily a year ago. Coaching changes were made. In comes John Chavis, a seasoned defensive coordinator we’ll tab the “Warlock.” The moniker is not intended to be derisive. Chavis’s no-nonsense look and countenance actually lend to the intimidating description. Tennessee’s defense finished among the nation’s top defenses a year ago with a struggling offense. The early word is he’s already had a huge impact toward creating a championship Tiger stop troop in Baton Rouge.
With the procured talents of the Wizard and the Warlock firmly in place, on the heels of a national recruiting title, Miles, the quintessential program manager, is poised for yet another spell-binding, championship run.
The Harbinger of Sorrow
One of the players that really stood out for the Tigers in the championship game against Ohio State was Harry Coleman. Coleman was seemingly ubiquitous in the contest, showing up at the most opportune times to deliver punishing hits, scoop up fumbles, and provide an always-intimidating presence on LSU’s defense. It was Coleman who pressured OSU quarterback Boeckman on a safety blitz that resulted in a Chevis Jackson interception, and who recovered an important fumble early in the game. Furthermore, Harry Coleman is a punishing football player. Many will recall Coleman’s debilitating hit on a poor, unsuspecting South Carolina player a year ago. Coleman broke down into a form-tackling stance out in the flat and met the Gamecock ball carrier helmet-to-helmet so hard that he knocked the poor kid out before he hit the ground, causing a game-changing fumble. Look for more of the same this season from Coleman, number 24, LSU’s avowed, merciless, “hit man.”
Scouting the Competition
In the West, LSU will have to deal primarily with Ole Miss and Alabama, while Arkansas by year’s end could prove to be just as dangerous as they’ve been the last two. Jevan Snead commands and deserves respect for the 2,800 passing yards he amassed during his first season as a starter in the SEC. The Rebels have a nice complement of skilled players on offense as well as solid line play. Only the secondary looms large as a championship impediment for second-year coach Houston Nutt.
Alabama’s Greg McElroy must try to accomplish what Jevan Snead did a year ago-demonstrate proficiency at the position while limiting mistakes. Few first-year quarterbacks in the SEC are able to perform as well as Snead did in 2008. Unfortunately for McElroy, the Tide’s offensive line lacks three starters from a year ago that all went pro. Filling this huge void is impossible for Alabama, as no one on the Tide’s roster can come close to replacing Andre Smith. Greenhorn McElroy, therefore, will be forced to do what J.P. Wilson did a year ago with less protection, which is a most unlikely prospect, as Alabama’s running game will be greatly impacted as a result of the line losses. Managing Alabama’s down and distance just became more difficult, as the Tide will surely see more third and long situations than it did a year ago, allowing defenses to hone in on their resulting play-calling tendencies, and McElroy’s inexperience. If Alabama wins in 2009, it will certainly be with defense.
Arkansas has defeated LSU in football two years in a row. Hog fans everywhere still brag that they beat the 2007 National Champions before they went on a two-game run for all the marbles. Adding insult, they won again a year ago, with a new coach and a losing record. Therefore, the Hogs won’t be sneaking up on the Tigers in Baton Rouge this season.
Although they finished with a losing record in 2008, the Hogs showed consistent progress as a program as Petrino’s first year progressed, winning games down the stretch that many thought it would lose. Petrino proved in year one that he is indeed a capable play caller. If he can muster better defensive play the Hogs could effectively play the spoiler role in the SEC West, knocking off some of its higher-ranked Western Division counterparts. In the least, Arkansas should go bowling at year’s end. Diminutive running back Michael Smith, a 1,000-plus-yard rusher a year ago, returns. Furthermore, the Hogs have acquired the quarterback services of Ryan Mallet, a 6-7 transfer from Michigan, whom Hog fans feel will be a great improvement over what they’ve had in the recent past. I recently talked to a Hog fan who told me he was super excited about the season because of Mallet’s presence. He said that Petrino was going to make him a “superstar.” Moreover, in reference to the former brotherly quarterback duo of Casey and Nathan, he said that he’d simply, “Had enough of that Dick,” and was just ready to move on.
The Greatest Ever?
When you talk about the prospect of LSU winning a national championship in 2009 you must mention its biggest obstacle, the Florida Gators. The defending national champions, and winners of two of the last three issued crystal balls, the Gators are led by a romantic hero, an Adonis in pads, a near-mythical gridiron phenomenon in bright orange and blue; his enormous talent as impressive as his disciplined approach to life.
Tim Tebow is the most remarkable college football player to emerge in many, many years. His physical talents are alone impressive, but when you consider his many off-the-field dedications to help others, you see how special Tebow is. He has effectively broken the mold of the football jock, hoping to rebuild it in his own Christian likeness-or at least that’s his goal. Tebow openly admits he wants to be a great role model for kids everywhere-to use his talent not to make millions-but to make more humans aware of a higher power, and the peace that inevitable comes from devout faith.
Before last season began I watched with great interest an ESPN segment featuring Tebow. Tim was in the exercise yard of a Florida State Prison. This wasn’t a prison for Seminole players, it was just part of the Florida Department of Corrections system of prisons. Tim stood in the open yard in the center of a circle of about a hundred or so inmates. Tim spoke to the men about how he knew that they had done some horrible things in their lives, but that it didn’t matter-that God still loved them, and that if they wanted to dedicate their life to Christ, they need only hold hands with him and pray. He invited everyone to crowd together and amazingly, these hardened criminals all crowded Tim, dropped to a knee, held hands and prayed with the young quarterback. It was at that moment that I knew Tim Tebow might occasionally be beaten, but that he would never be defeated. He’s a true winner, and he’s certainly deserving of all of the praise sent his way.
While Florida is fallable-after all they’re human aside from Tebow-they return 11 starters on defense, which is critical to their aim to repeat. LSU luckily has the Gators at home, where they were able to better Tebow with the help of heroics from “War Daddy” Jacob Hester two years ago. October 10, 2009 will certainly be a big game, one rife with SEC Championship ramifications and historical significance as Tebow vies for an unprecedented third national championship and second Heisman Trophy. With only a downgraded Georgia team on their schedule prior to the game with Florida, the Tigers and Gators could be undefeated when they meet, which would only increase the already certain hype avalanche leading to kickoff. If it happens, look for Lee Corso to need not only a debris net, but a bodyguard when he picks the Gators and ceremoniously dons the Gator head outside Tiger Stadium.
Like it did in August 2007, LSU possesses exceptional talent and coaching. However, what remains to be seen is how strong its leadership will be. Chemistry is one of the perplexing intangibles in sports. How well this Tiger team comes together to overcome the many obstacles and adversity that lay before it, will ultimately determine how strong they really are. The 2007 team quickly fell behind 10-0 to Ohio State. However, the team leaders never let the team worry. They kept their cool, their poise; and they persevered, played their game, and emerged as champions. The leaders of the 2009 LSU Tiger Football Team know this-because they were part of that “Damn Strong” football team that made history. On September 5th, they’ll embark on their own attempt to cheat time, twist fate, and once again bring home a crystal ball to Baton Rouge.
Chris Warner lives with his wife and two daughters in Fairhope, Alabama. He is the author of 13 books, including, “A Tailgater’s Guide to SEC Football.” Also, he and D.M. Waghelstein recently reprinted their popular terrorism novel “The Tiger Among Us,” set at LSU in 1990. To contact Chris Warner for a speaking engagement, a writing project, or just to talk smack, visit his updated website: www.sectraditions.com