The 2020 LSU football season gets closer every day. The team will begin to buckle down and focus on their season opener at home against Mississippi State on Sept. 26.
Here is a rundown of some strengths this year’s team will have in its favor and weaknesses it must work to overcome.
Going into the spring, if you had asked analysts what LSU’s biggest weakness would be this season, many would have said that the losses of Patrick Queen, Jacob Phillips, Michael Divinity Jr. and Marcel Brooks would be too great to overcome. But the addition of a key transfer, along with the development of the depth behind him, has turned this position group into a strength.
Jabril Cox, a graduate transfer from FCS powerhouse North Dakota State, has been spectacular for the Tigers throughout preseason practice. Orgeron has even gone as far as calling him “the best player on the field” after several fall practices.
“He came highly recommended,” Orgeron said, “Now, the thing I saw on film is a big linebacker that can run and hit and key and diagnose. I didn’t know he was going to be that good. I think this guy is going to have an excellent year at LSU. He definitely is an SEC linebacker.”
Alongside Cox will be veteran junior Damone Clark, who finished sixth on the team in tackles last year with 50. Expect the duo to be one of the strongest in the conference as they roam the entire field, leading the defense.
Orgeron has also been very complimentary of the returning players and newcomers behind them, including Micah Baskerville, who holds the third linebacker spot on the depth chart. LSU will be running a lot of nickel sets, so he may not play every down in new defensive coordinator Bo Pelini’s 4-3 base, but he should see quite a bit of playing time. Ray Thornton, Antoine Sampah and Josh White have also impressed.
Weakness: Defensive Line
In complete opposite fashion, analysts would have told you LSU’s strongest position group going into the fall would be the defensive line. Tyler Shelvin, Neil Farrell Jr., Glen Logan and Justin Thomas all announced they would be coming back for another season, with highly ranked recruits trailing behind closely. While the talent remains, the experience has now dissipated. Shelvin, Farrell Jr. and Thomas have all left the program, leaving LSU with a very raw defensive line.
Orgeron has praised the work put in by freshmen Jacobian Guillory and Jaquelin Roy, and both should be expected to play inside along with Logan and Apu Ika, but a once deep defensive line now finds itself much shorter than where it was just a month ago.
It says a lot about how well LSU has been recruiting receiving playmakers when the team loses its top two producers in Justin Jefferson and Ja’Marr Chase, and the players Myles Brennan will have at his disposal will still be some of the best in the conference. The headliners are junior Terrace Marshall Jr., who is the clear number one wide receiver, and freshman tight end phenom, Arik Gilbert.
Tiger fans are already very familiar with Marshall’s abilities, who finished last year with 43 receptions, 625 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns. Gilbert, a 6’5”, 249 pound Gatorade National Player of the Year, has been electric in camp in splitting the defense down the middle with his control of the field.
“Arik is the type of tight end we’ve been looking for to stretch the field,” Orgeron stated. “We ran a vertical route right up the field, he beat the Mike linebacker, touchdown. That’s a dagger in the heart of the defense.”
Behind them comes a great deal of depth, such as seniors Racey McMath and Jontre Kirklin, sophomores Trey Palmer and Jaray Jenkins and freshmen Kayshon Boutte and Koy Moore. Fans can expect all of them to be involved in LSU’s high-powered spread attack.
Weakness: Offensive Line
There is only one returning starter from LSU’s championship offensive line, right tackle Austin Deculus. While Ed Ingram, Dare Rosenthal and Chasen Hines have experience playing, it is extremely difficult for any team to replace that kind of production in a year. The pickup of Harvard graduate transfer Liam Shanahan will help, but this group has a lot of growing to do.
The depth is where the real problem lies. Guard Joseph Evans was having a nice camp and was expected to be the Tigers go-to guy if a starter was injured, but he was asked to move to defensive line after the opt outs of Farrell Jr. and Shelvin, as well as the transfer of TK McLendon. Anthony Bradford and Kardell Thomas, two highly ranked prospects from last year’s class, have been behind in their progression this fall.
“Those guys are a little behind right now,” Orgeron said. “Kardell has lost some weight. He’s faced some injuries. They’re a little behind. Anthony’s still battling weight problems. Those guys right now are not in it too deep.”
The opportunity for growth is there, but their success could be the deciding factor on if LSU has a winning season or not.
The biggest strength of the Tiger defense will be its leaders. Derek Stingley Jr. has transitioned from freshman star to sophomore captain of the cornerback room. Cox has come into the program and infused a maturity necessary for a team with a lot of young players. Anthony has impressed with his play and leadership, both on and off the field, as Orgeron noted that he was at the front of the player’s recent march for social justice.
But they will all fall in line behind LSU’s most important player this season: JaCoby Stevens. Stevens has been the epitome of what LSU looks for in its players, with his strong, intelligent play on the field and his commanding voice guiding his teammates through sets and tough but necessary conversations with his peers such as systematic racism and its effects on people of color.
Stevens brings a championship pedigree, coming off last year’s season totals of 85 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, five sacks and three interceptions, including a memorable one-handed snag against Mississippi State. With a new scheme from Pelini, Stevens will find himself in a two-high safety look more often, but amidst a year of change and turnover, Stevens has been a steady constant.
“There was no question of not playing,” Stevens said confidently. “Like Coach O says, his saying is ‘We Don’t Blink.’”
“I’m willing to do anything to help the defense be a great defense and help the team win.”
And on the other side of the ball standing above the rest is Myles Brennan. The junior quarterback will take the reigns from Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow and has fit perfectly into the hole Burrow has left.
According to Orgeron, Brennan has been graded every day and has finished with a winning grade on every occasion.
“Myles has waited his turn,” Orgeron said of his quarterback. “He’s matured.”
“Everybody believes in Myles. He’s very vocal out there. He’s a totally different kid.”
Brennan has faced hurdles every year, from coaching changes such as the departures of head coach Les Miles, offensive coordinators Cam Cameron and Matt Canada and passing game coordinator Joe Brady to the COVID-19 pandemic that has rocked college athletics to the core. Even through all of it, Brennan remains focused on the opportunities that lie ahead.
“It’s been crazy,” Brennan said. “But all of that is just going to prepare me to be a better person in the end and to be stronger. Without adversity, I wouldn’t be as strong as I am today.”
Weakness: Loss of Home Field Advantage
Although we are not sure of exactly how many fans LSU will host at its home games this season, we do know capacity will be limited at the least. The 20-30% capacity crowd that is expected will not be enough to give LSU its normal home field advantage it uses to limit communication for opposing offenses and put pressure on their decision-making.
“Man, it’s going to take away from the experience on Saturday,” Stevens said. “I wish all the fans can be in there and pack the house, and Tiger Walk is just filled with people and filled with fans going crazy. It’s really going to take away from the experience, but it’s the world that we’re living in right now.”
The energy will have to be replicated by the team and the limited fans that will be allowed, but chalk this up as an obstacle the team will have to deal with.