Every spring presents new challenges for college football programs. The goal for every team is basically the same — a conference championship and potential invite to the College Football Playoff. The task at hand is daunting for all, but few Power 5 programs may have as much offseason work needed as the LSU Tigers to remain among the elite teams. The Tigers went 9-4 (6-2 in the SEC) in 2017, but it was anything but easy, and now the team must replace 12 players with significant starting experience.
Perhaps the safest game on the 2018 schedule comes on April 21 in Tiger Stadium when LSU plays its spring game at the conclusion of the NCAA-allotted 15 spring practices. Along with shoring up key positions lost to the NFL, the Tigers’ offense will make a third transition in as many years at offensive coordinator going from Matt Canada’s variation of an up-tempo attack to new coordinator Steve Ensminger’s no-huddle, run-pass system with three to four receivers on the field at any time.
Here are some other things to keep an eye on as spring practice unfolds in Baton Rouge.
5 Storylines to Watch During LSU’s Spring Practice
1. Developing receiving targets
LSU is set with a quality target at tight end in Foster Moreau, but must find the answer for passing game production that will be missed from wide receivers DJ Chark and Russell Gage, as well as running backs Darrel Williams and Derrius Guice. Derrick Dillon (above, right) and Stephen Sullivan were key contributors in 2017 combining for 24 receptions and a touchdown. If new coordinator Steve Ensminger’s offense is to run as expected, other reliable targets that can stretch the field and spread out opposing defenses are needed. Mannie Netherly, Drake Davis and true freshman Terrace Marshall will have a great opportunity to evolve into the next great LSU receiver this spring.
The addition of Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles looms large. When Giles was last on the field in 2016, he was fourth in the Big 12 in receiving yards (1,158) and receptions (69) while making 13 trips to the end zone.
2. Starting running back
Over the past decade, LSU has featured a rushing attack that could win games by grounding and pounding the opposition for four quarters. For the first time since the 2013 season, when Jeremy Hill ripped off 1,400 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns, the Tigers are without a proven tailback. Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams formed a deadly one-two punch in 2017, but both are now off to the NFL.
The key returning tailbacks are Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Nick Brossette. The duo combined for 134 yards on 28 carries without a score last season. Brossette has the build (6-0, 218) of a 20-carry SEC tailback. Competition in the backfield and added depth will come in August with the arrival of four-star true freshman Chris Curry.
3. Nose guard
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is one of the best in the country, but could be in trouble in 2018 if a replacement for Greg Gilmore is not found. Gilmore led the Tigers with 7.5 sacks last season while coming up with 53 tackles and 10 tackles for a loss. The expected pecking order on the depth chart for the spring is Ed Alexander and Tyler Shelvin. Alexander was productive in limited snaps tallying 17 tackles and a sack. Depth could be provided by defensive end Glen Logan if needed. Shelvin redshirted last season giving him the opportunity to go for broke this spring to forge a path onto the field in 2018.
Shelvin will be pushed come August by four-star true freshman Chasen Hines and three-star recruit Dominic Livingston.
4. Defensive end
Much of the focus along the defensive line has been the replacement of Arden Key, LSU’s edge rusher in the Buck role. Lost in the debate are both defensive end positions, which were manned last season by seniors Christian LaCouture and Frank Heron. LaCouture in particular will be missed after tallying 66 tackles and 8.5 tackles for a loss in 2017. Glen Logan and Rashard Lawrence will get their chance to shine, but watch out for Breiden Fehoko. Fehoko, a transfer from Texas Tech, received high praise from Aranda about being one of the best defenders on the team in 2017, even though he was sitting out due to mandated NCAA transfer rules.
5. Placekicking duties
With Cameron Gamble’s eligibility used up, the Tigers must now find someone who can handle kickoffs and also serve as a reliable field goal kicker. Gamble, the kickoff specialist, had the strongest leg on the team last year with Connor Culp getting 10 kickoff attempts but he averaged three fewer yards per try than Gamble. When it came down to field goals, it was anyone’s guess what may happen. Culp did the best, connecting on 11 of 16 attempts (69 percent), but he also missed on three tries inside of 40 yards. Jackson Gonsoulin was even more erratic, connecting on a little more than half of his attempts (6-of-11) with four misfires inside the 40-yard line. The only other kicker on the roster is Brandon McQuen and there is not one in the 2018 recruiting class.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.