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March 10, 2011

LSU has pieces to build a special season

Last season's 11-2 mark likely quieted most of LSU coach Les Miles' remaining critics. Is his decision-making sometimes dubious? Yes. But Miles can coach, and last season proved it in what may have been his best coaching job yet.

The 11 victories marked the fourth time in six seasons in Baton Rouge that the "Mad Hatter" notched double-digit victories. And he did it all despite a horrid offense that ranked 11th in the SEC (341.3 ypg). The passing attack was even worse, finishing last in the conference (155.6 ypg) and 107th in the nation.

LSU AT-A-GLANCE
Jordan Jefferson will have to hold off challengers for the starting quarterback job.
THE BASICS
Coach: Les Miles
Last season: 11-2 overall, 6-2 in SEC West. Beat Texas A&M 41-24 in Cotton Bowl.
Spring dates: March 11-April 9.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (8): TE Chase Clement, G Josh Dworaczyk, G T-Bob Hebert, T Alex Hurst, QB Jordan Jefferson, C P.J. Lonergan, WR Rueben Randle, WR Russell Shepard.
Defense (7): E Kendrick Adams, LB Ryan Baker, CB Morris Claiborne, E Lavar Edwards, LB Stefoin Francois, FS Karnell Hatcher, SS Brandon Taylor.
Special teams (0): None.
With a roster full of talent, LSU is thinking national title. But for the program to win its third BCS title since 2003 and second under Miles (2007), the offense must evolve. That is why Miles hired former Louisville and Tulsa coach Steve Kragthorpe, who came aboard after Gary Crowton left to coordinate Maryland's offense.

Kragthorpe's top job this spring is to begin to sort out the quarterback situation.

Here's a look at the Tigers as they get ready for spring practice.

Positions of strength

LSU should have one of the top offensive lines in the nation, as six of last season's top seven linemen are back. The leaders will be LG Josh Dworaczyk and C P.J. Lonergan, both of whom started every game last season. G Will Blackwell returns after missing most of the season with an injury. T Chris Faulk will replace Joe Barksdale at the one vacant starting spot. Even with Thorpe Award winner Patrick Paterson gone at one corner, the secondary remains a strength. Three freshmen who were not starters -- Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon -- intercepted passes in the Cotton Bowl. SS Brandon Taylor returns, and Reid may beat out returning starter Karnell Hatcher at free safety. LB Ryan Baker has All-SEC potential at linebacker. Depth at defensive end looks good.

Help is needed

Quarterback bears watching. Senior Jordan Jefferson can affect games with his scrambling ability, as he did in the Cotton Bowl. But he must become a 60-plus percent passer. Jefferson will be pushed this spring by touted JC transfer Zach Mettenberger, who began his career at Georgia and enrolled at LSU in January. Jarrett Lee remains in the mix, too. Help is needed at receiver, as LSU loses Terrence Toliver. That means it's time for Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard to live up to expectations. Both have been dogged by inconsistency, and there are no other experienced wide receivers. Both starting defensive tackles must be replaced, including star Drake Nevis. LSU also has to replace its best linebacker (Kelvin Sheppard) and the best cornerback in the nation (Peterson). Keep an eye on the kicking situation, as LSU must replace standout Josh Jasper. He led the nation by hitting 28-of-34 field-goal attempts (2.2 per game).

3 guys to watch

LB Kevin Minter: Minter, a sophomore, has huge shoes to fill at middle linebacker, as Sheppard -- the Tigers' leading tackler in 2010 -- has graduated. Minter is a heady player who is ready to be a defensive leader.

CB Tharold Simon: He played sparingly last season as a freshman, but he made big plays when he was on the field. Simon had a key pass breakup against Julio Jones in the win over Alabama game and had an interception in the Cotton Bowl. He has great size (6-3/190) for a corner and is extremely athletic.

RB Spencer Ware: Ware, another sophomore who played sparingly last season, is the top candidate to be LSU's primary ballcarrier with the early departure of 1,000-yard rusher Stevan Ridley to the NFL. Ware did end the 2010 season with a bang, running 10 times for 102 yards in the Cotton Bowl. He's a speedy back with the strength to run between the tackles.

The pressure is on

WR Rueben Randle: He arrived on campus in 2009 as the No. 2 recruit nationally, but he hasn't lived up to the hype -- at least not yet. He has 44 catches, with five TDs, in his two seasons. He caught 33 passes as a sophomore (16.5 yards per catch) last season and will have to make the adjustment to being the go-to receiver this season. Can he handle it? He needs to prove he can this spring.

The buzz

The pieces are in place for this to be a special season in Baton Rouge. When the preseason polls come out in a few months, expect to see LSU ranked among the top five teams in the nation. But for 2011 to be a truly special campaign, Kragthorpe must fix a dysfunctional offense that must get better throwing the ball. Will Jefferson, who tossed seven touchdown passes with 10 picks last season, remain the starter? Will Mettenberger beat him out? It will be high drama -- and could be the difference between being an also-ran in the SEC West and winning it all again.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.


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