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March 12, 2009

LSU has a lot of work to do this spring

LSU won the national title in 2007, and though the Tigers lost some key performers off that team, they went into the 2008 season as favorites to win the SEC West.

Instead, they were division also-rans, finishing 3-5 in the league and losing three league games at home.

Quarterback was a problem position last season, and the defense didn't live up to its usual lofty standard. That makes this spring important.

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

Les Miles has to get a lot done this spring.
Coach: Les Miles
Last season: 8-5, 3-5 SEC. Beat Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Spring dates: March 12-April 18
Offense (7): T Joseph Barksdale, T Ciron Black, TE Richard Dickson, G Lyle Hitt, WR Brandon LaFell, QB Jarrett Lee, TB Charles Scott.
Defense (5): T Charles Alexander, SS Harry Coleman, CB Jai Eugene, CB Chris Hawkins, LB Perry Riley.
Special teams: None.
Positions of strength

The offensive line returns three starters, including Ciron Black - a two-time second-team All-SEC selection - at left tackle. They will be opening up holes for Charles Scott, who rushed for 1,174 yards and 18 touchdowns a year ago. No returning player in the SEC rushed for more yards or touchdowns last season. In fact, Oklahoma's Chris Brown and Ball State's MiQuale Lewis are the only returning players in the nation who had more touchdown runs than Scott last season. Charles Alexander and Drake Nevis should give the Tigers plenty of talent at defensive tackle, though they would have been even more loaded at that position if Ricky Jean-Francois hadn't left for the NFL. It's too early to call the secondary a strength, but the return of three starters should assure that LSU's pass defense isn't as vulnerable as it was last season.

Help is needed

LSU's problems at quarterback last season were well-chronicled, as Lee threw eight interceptions that were returned for touchdowns. Jordan Jefferson took over as LSU's starting quarterback late in the season and gave the Tigers reason for hope with his stellar performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Still, this position has to remain a concern until Jefferson proves he can do the job for an extended period of time. The Tigers also need some youngsters to emerge at wide receiver and for someone to step up opposite Rahim Alem at defensive end.

Keep an eye on

QB Jordan Jefferson: After throwing four touchdown passes with only one interception in the final three games of the 2008 season, Jefferson enters his sophomore year as the front-runner to solidify a position that caused LSU fans nightmares last fall. Jefferson's brilliant performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl has raised hope that he can end those problems. First, he must hold off a challenge from true freshman Russell Shephard, an early enrollee and the No. 7 overall prospect in the 2009 recruiting class.

FS Chad Jones: This former five-star prospect is perhaps best known for sacking John Parker Wilson to cause the fumble that led to the winning touchdown against Alabama during LSU's 2007 national championship season. Jones has a chance to make many more of those types of plays this fall as he replaces the departed Curtis Taylor in the starting lineup.

WR Terrance Toliver: The return of Brandon LaFell gives LSU star power at one wide receiver spot, but somebody has to fill in for the departed Demetrius Byrd at the other starting spot. Toliver seems the most likely candidate to fill the void. Rated as the No. 2 wide receiver in the 2007 recruiting class, Toliver caught 22 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown in a backup role last season.

His time is now

At least one draft service projected defensive tackle Al Woods as a potential top-five overall pick before the 2008 season, but he couldn't live up to that acclaim last fall. Woods couldn't work his way up the depth chart and finished the season with just 11 tackles, none behind the line of scrimmage. Woods, a 6-foot-5, 324-pound senior, certainly has the potential to make an impact at LSU and play professionally, but he can't show that ability unless he gets on the field. LSU already has a couple of extremely talented defensive tackles in Alexander and Nevis, but the departure of Jean-Francois gives Woods a chance to work his way into the regular rotation.

The buzz

Quarterback problems received most of the blame when LSU went from a 2007 national championship to an 8-5 finish last season, but the Tigers' defense also let them down week after week. LSU ranked ninth in the SEC in total defense and scoring defense while struggling to adjust to life without former defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, now the coach at Nebraska. LSU tried to replace Pelini by installing Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto as co-coordinators. That didn't work out, so Miles landed one of the top available free-agent coordinators in John Chavis, who helped Tennessee tie for the SEC lead in scoring defense last season as part of Phillip Fulmer's staff. LSU seemed to solve its quarterback woes late last season, though the Jefferson-Shepard competition should garner plenty of attention this spring. The Tigers' chances of returning to Atlanta after a one-year absence depend on whether Chavis can help that defense regain its old championship-caliber form.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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