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February 23, 2010

LSU looks to turn the tide in SEC West

For LSU, it's all about keeping up with Alabama. And that has been tough to do the past two seasons for the Tigers.

A weak offense was LSU's biggest problem last season, as the Tigers had the No. 9 passing offense (181.8 ypg) and the No. 11 rushing attack (122.8) in the SEC. There were some rumblings that a change would be made at offensive coordinator, but Gary Crowton is back. But LSU did hire Florida wide receiver coach Billy Gonzales, and he was named LSU's passing game coordinator. Gonzales is expected to add some more spread-option schemes into the mix.

Most of the blame last season fell on an offensive line that struggled to get a consistent push. That unit, along with the front seven on defense, will be a point of emphasis this spring as LSU needs to show it still has the stuff to compete with the Crimson Tide.

Here's a look at the Tigers as they prepare to open spring drills.

Starting QB Jordan Jefferson as well as two of the top three receivers return for LSU.
Coach: Les Miles
Last season: 9-4 overall, 5-3 in the SEC. Lost to Penn State in the Capital One Bowl.
Spring dates: March 1-March 27.
Offense (5): T Joe Barksdale, G Josh Dworaczyk, C T-Bob Hebert, QB Jordan Jefferson, WR Terrance Toliver.
Defense (4): E Lazarius "Pep" Levingston, CB Patrick Peterson, LB Kelvin Sheppard, SS Brandon Taylor.
Special teams (2): P Derek Helton, K Josh Jasper.
Positions of strength

There are offensive skill players galore in Baton Rouge. Back are junior QB Jordan Jefferson and two of the Tigers' top three receivers, along with sophomore Russell Shepard -- whom coaches are hoping is LSU's answer to former Florida star Percy Harvin. LSU coaches are thinking Shepard could be dangerous in the slot, but he also could get a look at running back. RBs Charles Scott and Keiland Williams are gone, but LSU still looks set with senior Richard Murphy (coming off an ACL injury), junior Stevan Ridley and redshirt freshman Michael Ford.

Help is needed

There is considerable work to do on the offensive and defensive lines. LSU lost three of four starters on the defensive front and two starters on the offensive line. The o-line will be under the most scrutiny because it struggled mightily in 2009. Still, coaches expect the front to be improved even though it's young and lacks experience. A key player who needs to step up is OT Alex Hurst. It would help the defensive front if a consistent pass rusher emerges. LSU had just 21 sacks in '09, and the leader was E Rahim Alem -- who was a senior -- with just 4.5.

Three guys to watch

S Craig Loston: With Chad Jones off early to the NFL, Loston needs to step up for the Tigers. Loston played in two games last season as a true freshman but ended up redshirting. He will be expected to play a big role after arriving on campus as Rivals' No. 1 prep safety in the nation. There is a thought that Loston could bulk up and play linebacker, so this spring will be important as to what position he plays.

DE Sam Montgomery: A highly touted recruit who redshirted last season, Montgomery needed to add weight before being able to compete. Mission accomplished. Now, Montgomery needs to become a pass-rushing force off the edge.

ATH Russell Shepard: He will move to either receiver or running back this spring after trying to play quarterback last season as a true freshman. Shepard never found a rhythm under center, but he is too talented not to get on the field.

The pressure is on

QB Jordan Jefferson: LSU's offense ranked No. 112 in the nation last season. That has to improve, which puts the onus on Jefferson -- a junior -- to get better and assume command of the squad. Jefferson may not be in serious peril of losing his starting job, but he'll likely get pushed hard by junior Jarrett Lee and redshirt freshman Chris Garrett.

The buzz

Since debuting with three consecutive double-digit victory seasons, Les Miles and LSU have won eight and nine games, respectively, the past two seasons. LSU may find its footing in the SEC West even more difficult to maintain, as Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Arkansas and even Mississippi State appear to be getting better. Is LSU in decline? That's a fair question. That makes this perhaps the most important spring in Miles' Baton Rouge tenure.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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