There are different ways to evaluate LSU’s spring game, but bottom line is Tigers should be improved
With apologies to Sir Isaac Newton, the actions in spring football “games” always feature equal and opposite reactions.
Interceptions are great defensive plays by the interceptor and boneheaded ones by the interceptee.
Sacks are made by pass rushers who are going to be “beasts” in the fall and given up by blockers who are a major concern.
Touchdowns and other big-gainers are simultaneously signs of a prolific offense and porous defense.
Such was the case in LSU’s spring game Saturday afternoon in Tiger Stadium.
The White Team’s 23-14 “victory” over the Purple Team featured a series of such mixed reactions.
First of all, even the final score was inconclusive in the sense that all four quarterbacks played for both teams as did others, including Jontre Kirklin, who caught 16 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns.
Head coach Ed Orgeron said the Tigers “struggled on offense” and played “great” on defense. He took the glass-was-half-full approach, saying on balance the performance was “a credit to the defense” because, he added, the offense had shown better throughout the work prior to Saturday.
But overall, Orgeron seemed content that Saturday’s performance reinforced what he had seen throughout spring practice – that the Tigers will be better in 2021 than they were in 2020 when they finished 5-5.
Still, there’s a lot of work to be done in the 20 weeks before LSU opens the season against UCLA in the Rose Bowl.
Some recruits from Orgeron’s No. 3-ranked class haven’t arrived on campus yet and the coach said this week that he keeps his eye on the transfer portal every day in search of additional pieces to add to this puzzle.
So drawing conclusions about fall games from spring practices is risky. Nonetheless the Tigers did demonstrate reasons for being hopeful that they will be much improved this season.
LSU has lots of depth at quarterback. Max Johnson, Myles Brennan, TJ Finley and freshman Garrett Nussmeier all have the talent to compete in the SEC.
But the biggest task for Orgeron and his offensive staff between now and September is to pick the player that is physically, mentally and emotionally best equipped to compete in the SEC.
The only quarterback stat that really mattered from Saturday was the interception totals – Johnson 0, Brennan 0, Finley 2 and Nussmeier 3.
Orgeron said after the scrimmage that at some point early in preseason camp, the Tigers will split the four quarterbacks into two groups of two so the top two can get more first-team work and clarify the competition to be the starter.
There is still plenty of time for players to move up or down, but right now it seems pretty likely that Johnson and Brennan will be in a very tight battle to start and Finley and Nussmeier ultimately will see their number of reps shrink.
LSU’s upcoming opponents already have figured out that their top priority next season will to contain wide receiver Kayshon Boutte. The Tigers plan to use plenty of four-receiver and five-receiver sets in new offensive coordinator Jake Peetz’s and passing game coordinator D.J. Mangas’ system.
Both were hired because they worked with Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator Joe Brady last season after Brady coordinated the Tigers historic passing game during the national championship season in 2019.
Even though Orgeron admitted that both Peetz and first-year defensive coordinator Daronte Jones showed only glimpses of what they have planned for the fall, he thought the offensive coaches on Saturday did a “great job of bringing back the Joe Brady offense and spreading the ball around.”
Kirklin, who caught two touchdown passes, and Koy Moore, who along with Boutte had one touchdown catch, showed that they intend on being primary complements to Boutte.
But the Tigers need “a lot of guys to show up” at the wide receiver position, according to Orgeron.
He singled out Deion Smith as a candidate to get more reps once he gets “in better football shape.” Orgeron also noted that what LSU asks of its wide receivers is “simple” enough that talented true freshmen can find their way on the field.
The Tigers have three highly rated freshmen in Chris Hilton Jr., Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas Jr., who should bolster the position in preseason camp.
The secondary stood out Saturday as defensive backs made three of the five interceptions – Derek Stingley Jr., Raydarious Jones and Jay Ward. (Linebackers Jared Small and Antoine Sampah had the other two). By the way, the defense didn’t blitz.
Dwight McGlothern started in place of injured cornerback Eli Ricks and led the way with four pass break-ups.
Orgeron said Stingley had a “tremendous” spring and Ward has benefited from a move to free safety. Overall he called the secondary “the most improved unit on the team.”
The coach continued to praise the improvement of the linebackers, an inexperienced group he said he was concerned about when spring practice started.
The best example of the equal and opposite reactions came in the play of both lines. The defensive line got the better of the offensive line, which is more experienced at least among the starters. Depth on the offensive line remains a concern.
The pass rush was missing Ali Gaye and Andre Anthony, but still managed eight sacks – three by Jaquelin Roy, two by BJ Ojulari and one each by Neil Farrell, Eric Taylor and Jacobian Guillory.
Orgeron said the two lines have taken turns getting the better of one another during the spring and Saturday’s performance continued a recent trend of the defensive line coming out on top.
The coach praised Daronte Jones as a “talented, talented football coach” who the players “respect and want to play hard for.”
He also cited the entire team’s “positive energy and culture.”
Ultimately there was one thing on which the reaction was unanimous: place-kicker Cade York, who made both of his field goals – from 50 and 47 yards – is still really good.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…