When No. 8 LSU takes the field against Ole Miss on Saturday, it will be the last time the senior players walk onto the Death Valley field.
They will leave a legacy defined by a home winning streak of 22 games, an average of 11 wins per season, 42 total wins, a Southeastern Conference championship and an undefeated regular season.
But as their legacy ends, a new one begins.
Throughout the year, the Tigers have leaned on young players in key positions. The defensive secondary fields two freshman cornerbacks, and the offensive line features two freshmen and a first-year starter at left guard.
“The young guys on the offensive line have played great,” said senior center P.J. Lonergan. “With all the injuries, we needed them to step up, and they have in a big way.”
Since the South Carolina game — when freshman guard Trai Turner began playing alongside freshman tackle Vadal Alexander — the Tigers have only allowed seven sacks while playing nationally ranked teams each week.
Before the freshmen teamed up, the offensive line had surrendered 15 sacks while only playing one ranked opponent, Florida.
“I have to give credit to the older guys for our success,” said sophomore guard La’el Collins. “When we first arrived here we were ready physically, but we were lacking the mental part of the game. The older guys have really helped in that aspect.”
Collins has grown since playing next to the most experienced member of the team — sixth-year senior tackle Josh Dworaczyk — who he described as an extra coach on the field for him during the beginning of the season.
“[Dworaczyk] and I have just clicked since I first got up here,” Collins said. “He’s helped me a lot through this year and has always supported me.”
Through the example set by Dworaczyk and fellow seniors Lonergan and tackle Alex Hurst, Collins knows he has to help the younger guys develop, similar to the way Dworaczyk helped him.
“It’s definitely something that I have to continue,” Collins said. “I already catch myself doing it in practice, telling the younger guys where to be, and I know I picked that up from [the seniors].”
The leadership displayed by the offensive line has infected other areas of the team, most notably senior wide receiver Russell Shepard.
Shepard has taken on an increased leadership role this season and has played a large role in helping the young receiver corps progress throughout the year.
“I’ve put the team’s goals ahead of any individual accomplishments,” Shepard said. “The young guys are all great. LSU is in good hands with them.”
The young receivers have benefited from Shepard’s team-based approach this year and have even learned from things that went wrong in Shepard’s career.
“[Shepard] is just that wing that we needed and held on to when we first got here,” said sophomore receiver Jarvis Landry. “We all still hold on to it, he’s our vocal leader and one of the guys we count on day in and day out to have a high level of energy.”
The defensive line will be hardest hit by departing seniors. Those seniors — Joshua Downs, Lavar Edwards and Chancey Aghayere — all played games this season.
The line could also lose as many as three players to the NFL draft in May, as well.
Junior defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo and junior defensive tackle Bennie Logan are all projected to enter the NFL draft at the end of this year, leaving the line duties to a collection of sophomores and freshmen.
Sophomore defensive tackle Anthony Johnson is the most experienced lineman expected to return, after playing sparingly in his freshman year and earning three starts this year.
“Experience is the most important thing,” Johnson said. “The rotation that we’ve used this year has really helped a lot of guys improve. Players like [sophomore defensive tackle] Ego Ferguson and [sophomore defensive end] Jermauria Rasco will play a big role next year.”
Players who Tiger fans haven’t seen yet will be expected to take the next step after current players leave.
“Guys that haven’t really seen the field yet are coming along nicely,” Johnson said. “[Freshman defensive end] Danielle Hunter and [sophomore defensive end] Jordan Allen are names people are going to see a lot of next year.”
Montgomery knows that with so many people leaving, the transition could be difficult into next year, but he has confidence in the young crop of players coming through the ranks.
“It happens every year,” Montgomery said. “Drake Nevis was an incredible leader when I first came here. During my time here, I’ve tried to do the best job I could, and I’m sure the young guys will follow in my footsteps just fine.”