Amid storm, lineup changes, No. 3 LSU gets ready

Les Miles had hoped LSU could have a drama-free August this

season.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way, but the No. 3 Tigers

expressed confidence on Monday that a season full of promise would

not be derailed by the loss of their biggest star, the looming

possibility of a couple other key players being sidelined by

academic issues, or even the potential disruptions that could

result from a major storm.

”The good news is we’ve been through this before,” Miles said

when asked about how Tropical Storm Isaac might affect preparations

for Saturday night’s season opener against North Texas in Tiger

Stadium. ”We know how to do this. We’ll figure it out.”

Miles was referring to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which

coincidentally postponed a game with North Texas, and Hurricane

Gustav in 2008, which also resulted in a postponement.

Still, Miles could just as easily have been talking about roster

upheaval.

The coach confirmed Monday that 2011 leading rusher Michael Ford

and projected starting linebacker Tahj Jones might miss the game

against the Mean Green because of unspecified academic issues.

”There is some appeal process that’s being undertaken for those

guys,” Miles said. ”We’ll kind of have to wait and see how that

all turns out as we get closer to the game.”

If Ford, who rushed for 756 yards and seven touchdowns last

season, and Jones are unable to play, they would not be the first

personnel losses for the Tigers, who will play the whole season

without dismissed former Heisman Trophy candidate Tyrann

Mathieu.

Yet, LSU has already proved, as recently as last season, that

its robust football program has the depth to overcome the losses of

several regulars.

Last season, LSU won its first four games against Oregon,

Northwestern State, Mississippi State and West Virginia, all by

double digits, without starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson, who

had been suspended in connection with a preseason bar fight near

campus. Starting receiver Russell Shepard missed the first three of

those games because of a separate violation of NCAA rules.

In midseason, Mathieu, defensive back Tharold Simon and running

back Spencer Ware all were suspended one game for team drug policy

violations, and LSU responded with 45-10 victory over Auburn that

represented the most lopsided result in the 46-game history of the

series.

”Through crisis or through any adversity, we’re going to get

closer,” said offensive lineman Josh Dworaczyk, a senior on the

leadership council. ”You have to take those things and spin into a

way that you turn it into a positive for this team to grow

together. If you lose a guy or there’s a void that has to be

filled, guess what? You have to tighten things down a little

bit.

”We get better from that. We use it to our advantage. That’s

something we’ve done in the past and something we’ll continue to

do.”

Of course, it helps to have talent. Miles said Monday that the

top two running backs on the depth chart against North Texas will

be Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard. Miles said linebacker Luke

Muncie has had a good enough camp to step in as a starter ”whether

Jones is there or not.” He added that his staff believes true

freshmen linebackers Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones are ready for

playing time as well.

Since Mathieu was dismissed nearly three weeks ago, true

freshman Jalen Mills has taken over as first-team cornerback. In

passing situations, Mills is expected to move to nickel back, with

redshirt freshman Jalen Collins stepping into cornerback spot.

”Mills and Collins both will play a lot of football,” Miles

said. ”What I expect from them is to play just like we’ve always

played. Our corners play a very, very aggressive style of

defense.”

Miles expects the running game to be in good shape with Blue, a

junior, and the Hilliard, a sophomore, leading the way. Blue rushed

for 6.9 yards per carry (539 yards total) and seven TDs last

season. Hilliard, a 6-foot, 231-pound battering ram, emerged as the

go-to guy in short yardage situations last season, rushing for 5.4

yards per carry and eight TDs.

Then there’s new starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who

coaches say is an exceptional passer that will spread opposing

defenses out more than last season.

”We’ll throw the football more efficiently, and maybe with some

bigger plays,” Miles said.

Mettenberger joked that this week would probably feel like the

longest week of his life because of the anticipation that has been

building in him since he transferred to LSU from junior college

before last season.

Mettenberger, a former Georgia recruit who left the Bulldogs as

a redshirt freshman because of legal trouble stemming from an

incident with a woman at a bar, is now entering his fourth season

of college football. As much as any Tigers player, he can identify

with the idea that the onset of the regular season brings with it a

chance to start a new chapter defined by success.

”Everyone’s really excited to get the season started and kind

of put the past behind us,” he said.

As of Monday night, the North Texas game was still on for

Saturday night, though Athletic Director Joe Alleva said that could

change after the storm has passed.