LSU opens 2020 season against Mississippi State under new coach Leach

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Kylin Hill, Neil Farrell
(Photo: Terrill Weil)

It’s game week.

Finally.

Mississippi State is quite the suitable opponent for the season’s opener for defending national champion LSU to see just where the Tigers are with so many new starters. By suitable, I don’t mean easy. The Bulldogs also will have quite a new look starting with the man in charge.

Head coach Mike Leach’s teams have led the nation in passing offense 10 out of the previous 18 seasons. Mississippi State ranked 12th out of 14 programs in the SEC in passing in 2019, averaging 178.5 yards per contest. ‘The Pirate’ will air it out more than three-fourths of the time.

Leach’s Washington State squad paced the nation last year with 437 passing yards per game. The 59-year old is set to earn $5 million per season in Starkville, but he won’t be conservative with a big contract.

At Texas Tech, Leach handled quarterbacks Graham Harrell, Kliff Kingsbury and B.J. Symon. While at Washington State, he tutored Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon, both currently in NFL. All were average to above average slingers that he turned into passers who produced video game-type numbers.

The Air Raid attack hasn’t shown its face in the SEC since Hal Mumme employed it at Kentucky in the late 1990’s. Everyone wants to see how it looks in 2020.

Mississippi State starter K.J. Costello, a grad transfer from Stanford, has a big arm. The 6-5, 222 pounder attended the same high school as Carson Palmer (Santa Margarita) where Costello broke all the school records including 8,222 career passing yards, 62 touchdowns and a single-game record of 452 yards through the air.

Costello became the ninth player in Stanford history to eclipse 6,000 career passing, doing so in 29 starts with 49 touchdown passes. Injuries in 2019 limited him to only five games. He is a pro style passer with decent feet and an over-the-top delivery that is a little long-winding. He shows strong velocity, pulls off some tight window throws and amkes quick decisions. He is a tall slinger who can deal with punishment from the defense. He’ll have to do just that to adjust from Stanford coach David Shaw’s more balanced pro-style scheme.

With a big 2002, don’t be surprised if he sneaks into the second day of the ’21 NFL Draft. The scheme at State will afford him every chance to shine.

One player who could benefit from the wide open offense is Kylin Hill, who is already among the best running backs in the SEC. LSU held him to 34 yards on 15 carries last season but the 215 pounder is an exceptional athlete who has every down talent. He has started 24 contests.

The Columbus, Miss. native had 1,350 yards rushing last season with 10 scores. In his career with the Bulldogs, Hill has accumulated 2,477 yards rushing with a healthy 5.7 yard average, 16 touchdowns on the ground, 44 catches for 394 yards and five more scores. They will move him around to take advantage of mismatches.

Hill will not hesitate to lower his shoulder to challenge potential tacklers. He is not a break away threat but can get you 10-15 yards a pop. Very productive and dependable, he has only fumbled once in 481 career touches.

Hill can really be a major factor if he gets in rhythm but may see more chances to do damage as a receiver now.

Speaking of returning State players who will benefit from the new offense, wideout Osirus Mitchel will be a primary option in the passing attack. His numbers from ’19 were pedestrian (29 grabs, 430 yards, sic touchdowns) but he 6-4, 210 pounder with 4.6 speed is a deep threat with size the NFL covets. The Air Raid offense will help his productivity and utilize his skill set. He currently has a late round tag for the NFL draft.

Wide receiver Malik Heath is an intriguing option as a receiver.as well. A top JUCO receiver last season, the 6-3 Heath is another big, physical target. Throw in junior Tyrell Shavers, a 6-6 transfer from Alabama, and you have a mix of targets for Costello to throw the ball up to in favorable matchups.

The Bulldogs will have to replace three offensive line starters. There is much mystery and uncertainty up front. A familiar name will be LSU transfer Cole Smith, a redshirt freshman center who is a projected starter. A huge loss is Stewart Reese, a 34-game starter at both right guard and tackle who transferred to Florida.

Not having spring practice may have a bigger effect on State than LSU due to the coaching change, new additions and the re-shuffled offensive line. Will the timing and continuity be adequate in week one?

The defense comes under the direction of Zach Arnett. He is a disciple of Joe Lee Dunn. State will run the same 3-3-5 alignment the blitz-happy Dunn loved to employ in his many coaching stops. Arnett also was mentored by Rocky Long in six seasons at San Diego State, where the Aztecs were the No. 5 ranked defense in the country in 2019 and were the only unit in the nation to not allow 1,000 yards rushing for the year. SDSU surrendered 75.4 yards per game on the ground and 12.7 points each outing.

The ringleader of the Bulldogs defensively is three-year starter Erroll Thompson, a 250-pound thumper at linebacker who was a team captain last year. He tallied 84 stops, including 13 tackles against Tennessee and 11 vs. Ole Miss. Thompson has 217 career tackles with 18 for loss and 6.5 sacks. He is a violent, down hill tackler with good instincts and a pro football future.

The Bulldogs need defensive en Marquise Spencer to step up, as five of their top seven tacklers from ’19 are gone. The 6-4, 285-pound Spencer runs a 4.85 forty and is a good pass rusher. In 42 career contests, he has piled up 76 stops and four sacks, hardly eye opening. He is expected to take on a larger role.

The Bulldogs last beat LSU 37-7 in 2017, but those occurrences have been rare during this cross state rivalry. The team from the Magnolia state has only triumphed five times since 1990 but twice since 2014.

Some Louisiana talent to watch for the Bulldogs…

#3 Aaron Brule (6-1, 230) was a four-star prospect out of Archbishop Rummel in the 2018 class. A hybrid, he plays outside linebacker and safety. He has lined up in 13 games for State and enters 2020 as a starter.

#83 Quinton Torbor (6-1, 185), a redshirt freshman from Destrehan, had 44 grabs for 685 yards and four TD’s a prep senior.

#12 Shawn Preston (6-0, 210) a safety from St. James, played wide receiver in high school and made a one-handed beauty of a catch which was featured on ESPN’s You got Mossed. He had 26 tackles in 2019.

#29 C.J. Morgan (6-0, 200), a senior free safety out of Parkway in Bossier City, is a hard hitter who has made 32 game appearances with nine starts in 2019. He had nine stops against both Tennessee and Kentucky last year.

#11 Geor’quarius Spivey (6-6, 240), a sophomore from Richwood in Monroe, was rated the third best TE in ste from the 2018 class. He is a hybrid tight end/wide receiver who Leach might like as a red zone threat.

#2 Tyrus Wheat (6-2, 260), is State’s junior SAM linebacker. The Amite High product played at Copiah Lincoln and was the top rated JUCO linebacker in 2019.

#25 Somon Anderson is a walk-on safety from Brother Martin.

#30 Deamerion Richardson is a freshman walk-on cornerback from Bossier High.

#19 Justin Stolberg is a walk-on quarterback from Fontainebleau High.

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Rene Nadeau

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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, Rene Nadeau has been involved in sports ever since his earliest memories. Rene played basketball, wrestled, ran track, and was an All-District running back in football at John F. Kennedy High School. He went on to be a member of the LSU football program, developing a passion for the game in even…

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