Deep LSU has high goals, despite loss of Mathieu
The ''Honey Badger'' won't be exhibiting his game-changing skills for LSU this season, and the Tigers do indeed care.
Still, they remain confident they will overcome the recent dismissal of All-America cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. There is too much talent across the roster for LSU to sell itself short against anyone.
''There's a limitation to what loses we can sustain, but I think there's a strength and foundation in this program,'' LSU coach Les Miles said. ''That allows us to have depth, play a quality player and step the next guy on the field that really is expected to play big.''
The loss of Mathieu notwithstanding, the most important change for the Tigers this season might be the emergence of new starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
His exceptional ability to throw down field has been obvious to coaches since his arrival on campus as a junior college transfer last year, but he had to sit behind seniors Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee in 2011 while learning the offense.
Now Mettenberger is the clear number one, giving a greater passing threat to an offense that has all key players returning to a running game that put up 203 yards a game last season, when the Tigers won their first 13 contests before falling to Alabama in the national title game.
''He has that arm strength and knows that he can make those throws,'' receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. ''He is a risk taker. He will throw those balls and trust us to make plays.''
When offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa talks about the difference in LSU's offense this year, he lists examples from recent practices in which Mettenberger made bold throws into tight coverage, hitting receivers deep down the middle for huge gains. When such a route appeared to be covered last year, Studrawa said, the instructions to the quarterbacks would be, ''Get off it, check the ball down.''
''We wouldn't have even thrown those balls before. That's been a struggle,'' Studrawa said. ''When (Mettenberger) sits back there, and that play's called, he's going to make that throw. He's going to zip that thing in there. He's got the confidence to do it.''
The effect has been noticeable on receivers Russell Shepard, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, Studrawa said, because they've learned not to give up on deep routes when they appear to be covered.
''When you run it, keep going, because he's going to put that ball on you,'' Studrawa said. ''That's what got those young kids (at receiver) so excited, and me.''
Mettenberger senses he has the confidence of the coaches now, and what he needs to do is not take so many risks that he losses that.
''They're going to give me a lot of opportunities to check at the line of scrimmage, to throw the ball,'' Mettenberger said. ''But I've got to be smart with the ball.''
Miles still wants the offense to be balanced, and does not want to venture too far from the physical, grind-'em-down, ball control offense that served LSU so well last season. LSU's top five running backs from last season - Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee - are all back. And they'll be joined by another talented young running back in Jeremy Hill.
''We tied a school record with 35 rushing touchdowns (last season) and all the guys that were leaders at that position have returned,'' Miles said. ''We'll be talented there.''
LSU's offensive line is big and experienced, and will benefit from the return of former starter Josh Dworaczyk, whose medical redshirt last season allowed him to return to LSU for a sixth year.
The big question on defense is who will replace Mathieu at cornerback. The two leading candidates, redshirt freshman Jalen Collins and true freshman Jalen Mills, have no experience, but both were highly rated recruits. The schedule also helps. LSU will open against heavy underdog North Texas at home on Sept. 1, and most of its toughest contests, highlighted by a Nov. 3 visit from Alabama, occur during the latter half of the season.
That should give any new starters a relatively low-pressure adjustment period. The rest of LSU's defensive backfield is by no means devoid of leadership. The unit still boasts safety Eric Reid and cornerback Tharold Simon, who was considered LSU's best one-on-one cover man even before Mathieu's dismissal.
LSU may not be able to replace Mathieu's instinctive ability to cause mayhem as a blitzer and turnover-causing machine, but opposing quarterbacks will still be staring down a fearsome four-man defensive line led by ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, a pair that combined for 17 sacks last season.
''I don't think I would trade them for any two defensive ends in the country,'' defensive coordinator John Chavis said. ''These are guys that are very talented. They fit our style of play and have been very productive for us.''
The interior line also has size and depth, led by Anthony ''Freak'' Johnson (6-foot-3, 294 pounds) and Bennie Logan (6-3, 287).
LSU expects to replace Mathieu on punt returns with Beckham, a sophomore who had one of the most spectacular sideline-to-sideline touchdown runs of last season after a short reception. The Tigers hope his explosiveness and ability to set up blocks will serve him well in that role.