No.1 LSU has turned distractions into team bonding
Les Miles contends adversity has a way of strengthening the resolve of teams like his.
The LSU coach's stance is looking increasingly accurate as the 2011 season wears on.
The top-ranked Tigers have overcome a slew of distractions to win their first five games comfortably, with three victories coming over ranked teams away from Tiger Stadium.
On Saturday against Kentucky, Miles took what could have been an uncomfortable situation and turned it into a source of inspiration.
Jordan Jefferson was in uniform for the first time since his suspension stemming from his arrest in an August bar fight. Although Miles was not about to give Jefferson his starting job back, he quickly made him feel like he belonged.
On LSU's second drive of the game, Jefferson took the field for a successful quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal from the 1, giving the Tigers their first lead in what turned out to be a 35-7 triumph.
Jefferson came to the sideline smiling and invigorated, exchanging high fives with every member of the offensive line and even celebrating with starting quarterback Jarrett Lee.
''I have played with Jordan for three years now. I am happy to have him back,'' Lee said. ''He brings another set of abilities to the team.''
LSU (5-0, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) emerged from spring practice with national title aspirations, but it had a rough time off the field before the season started.
When the Tigers opened fall camp in August, players learned Steve Kragthorpe, who had been hired last winter as the new offensive coordinator, had Parkinson's disease. Kragthorpe remained as quarterbacks coach, but relinquished coordinator duties, which Miles assigned to offensive line coach Greg Studrawa.
Then came the fight in a bar parking lot in the early morning hours of Aug. 19. The resulting investigation left Jefferson's status uncertain for a turbulent week that ended with his arrest on felony second-degree battery charges.
To make matters worse, the day before police obtained a warrant for Jefferson's arrest, starting receiver Russell Shepard was suspended indefinitely for telling a teammate about his interview in an ongoing NCAA probe of LSU's and other universities' relationship to scouting service provider and purported street agent Willie Lyles.
With two key starters missing, LSU rose to the occasion in its first three games, which included 13-point victories over Oregon and Mississippi State.
LSU's defense and kick coverage units helped with fast, hard-hitting and opportunistic play, which now has produced six interceptions and six fumble recoveries.
Shepard was reinstated for LSU's fourth game at West Virginia, which the Tigers won by 26. By then, it appeared struggling Kentucky would be no match for LSU whether Jefferson - whose charges were reduced to a misdemeanor last Wednesday - was back or not. But instead of limiting the newly reinstated Jefferson to mop-up duty, Miles chose to use him in a meaningful moment when the game was still scoreless.
''I enjoyed the fact that Jordan Jefferson added his skills to our team in a certain situation,'' Miles said.
Now Florida, already reeling from a lopsided loss to Alabama in which starting quarterback John Brantley hurt his right leg, must prepare for next Saturday's meeting with an LSU squad that can run a more conventional offense with Lee or insert Jefferson to run the option.
Although Miles has not allowed Jefferson to talk with reporters, teammates described him as upbeat and accepting of his new role as Lee's backup. When his legal status remained in doubt, Jefferson could have opted for a redshirt year and started his senior season over in 2012, but Miles said Jefferson preferred to help the 2011 squad in whatever role he could.
''We are excited about this season right now,'' Miles said, adding that he looks forward to ''the opportunity to give a lot of kids the ability to play in big games and help us win a championship.''
The Tigers, meanwhile, seem further galvanized by the way Miles has handled the returns of previously suspended teammates.
''We have Jordan back now and Russell, too,'' said freshman receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who has touchdown catches of 51 and 52 yards in the last two games. ''It just really feels like we are a full team now and we can go out and hopefully do some special things.''