Amid storm, lineup changes, LSU gets ready
BATON ROUGE, La. -- 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.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.