article This article is right on. The last 2 sentences say it all. ================================ LSU Tigers The following preview is provided by Blue Ribbon. For the most thorough preview available of the upcoming season, order the 2002 Blue Ribbon College Football Forecast, on sale now at 1-800-775-2518. COACH AND PROGRAM In 2001, LSU was the surprise of the Southeastern Conference, winning the league’s Western Division championship and then upsetting Tennessee -- which had its sights set on a national championship match-up against Miami in the Rose Bowl -- in the conference championship game. If the Tigers, who came full circle in the second year of coach Nick Saban’s rebuilding job, weren’t expected to rise that high in 2001, they carry the weight of their accomplishments in 2002 as the consensus favorites to win the SEC West. Saban realizes that expectations are a byproduct of success. And he’s already sounded a warning to his team that it has become a target. "I think the biggest thing for this football team right now is that the challenges that we’re going to have [in 2002], the mountain that we have to climb, is going to be much higher and much more treacherous than we’ve ever faced before," Saban said. "And it’s going to be much more difficult." It would have been less difficult had star receiver Josh Reed and linebacker Trev Faulk decided to hang around for their senior seasons instead of opting for the NFL draft. But Saban has guided his program to the point where it can begin to capably fill in holes as quality players leave. LSU had a great recruiting class in 2001 and followed that with a solid effort in 2002. Saban and his staff, as was their hope, have roped off their home state and begun to sign Louisiana players at an impressive rate. Those players will form the backbone of the program. QUARTERBACKS Any quarterback controversy LSU might have had going into the fall ended in the Tigers’ spring game, when sophomore Marcus Randall, who figured to compete with SEC championship game hero Matt Mauck for the starting job, tore his ACL. Randall has already been granted a red-shirt, but Saban wasn’t ready to declare him gone for the season. "It was kind of a freak injury," Saban said. "He was just dropping back to pass like he’s done a thousand times before. His knee buckled when he planted his right leg on his fifth step. He was having an outstanding spring and was making some positive progress." When Randall went down, Saban and his staff went into scramble mode, looking for another quarterback to back up Mauck. Red-shirt freshman Rick Clausen (6-2, 180), the brother of Tennessee star quarterback Casey Clausen, has his sibling’s surname but not his game, at least not yet. Hoping to find a junior-college quarterback in the spring, Saban would have settled for a walk-on. But LSU got lucky in early June when it signed junior Michael Harrison (6-2, 210) from Cerritos (Calif.) College. If Harrison doesn’t have to play a down, that means Mauck (6-2, 216), a sophomore, will have taken over the job, played as well as he did in directing an upset of Tennessee last December, and stayed healthy. Despite not having played in seven weeks, Mauck came on in relief of an injured Rohan Davey in the second quarter of the SEC Championship game and played like a veteran. "I was a little nervous at first," Mauck said. "But I just tried to remain as calm as possible and not lose the game for us. I just didn’t want to commit the mistake that would hurt us." Mauck was more than just a caretaker of LSU’s offense. He scored two touchdowns and directed a 31-20 upset, dashing the Vols’ hopes of a national championship match-up against Miami in the Rose Bowl. Mauck was chosen the game’s MVP. Mauck’s performance was surprising, but then again it wasn’t. He came to LSU more mature and a lot tougher than the typical freshman. In 1997 Mauck signed with Saban at Michigan State when he was a high school senior in Jasper, Ind. But after he was chosen in the sixth round of the Major League Baseball draft, he decided to give that sport a shot. A catcher, Mauck kicked around the Chicago Cubs’ minor league organization for three years before finally realizing he wanted to give college football a try. In 2001, Mauck played in three games, completing 18-of-41 passes for 224 yards. In the SEC Championship game, Mauck completed just 5-of-15 passes for 67 yards, but he ran for 43 yards and those two huge touchdowns as LSU scrapped its game plan and took advantage of Mauck’s strengths. He’s strong and isn’t afraid to run but needs to become a more consistent passer. In the spring game, Mauck completed 20-of-42 passes for 241 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown pass to Guy Harper with 2:39 left that proved to be the game winning points. That effort was encouraging, but it was offset by the fact Mauck was intercepted five times. Harrison, who played quarterback for one season at the University of Hawaii, started for Cerritos in 2001 and set three school records for attempts (293), completions (145) and total plays (340). He threw for 1,847 yards and 17 touchdowns as Cerritos finished 7-4. Harrison earned First Team All-Mission Conference North Division and was chosen his team’s offensive MVP. RUNNING BACKS The good news here is that junior LaBrandon Toefield (6-0, 225) is mending nicely after tearing the ACL in his left knee in the second quarter of the SEC championship game against Tennessee. That Toefield has made several preseason All-SEC teams, including Blue Ribbon’s, is a testament to his work ethic and talent. The preseason prognosticators not only believe Toefield can come back from a serious knee injury in less than a year, they think he can produce an all-league season. Toefield was a first-team All-SEC pick by the Associated Press and the league’s coaches a year ago after rushing for 992 yards and an SEC-record trying 19 touchdowns in 12 games. Toefield also caught 13 passes for 148 yards. Toefield has that rare combination of size, strength and speed that enables him to run inside or outside, which he did seemingly at will last season. Toefield led the SEC in touchdowns and total points (114) and was second in rushing (992 yards). He rushed for 100 or more yards in four games, all of which LSU won. How valuable was Toefield to LSU’s attack? The Tigers were 8-0 in games Toefield played from start to finish. Toefield obviously missed spring practice. His absence gave red-shirt freshman Joseph Addai (6-0, 199) a chance to shine. Addai led the Tigers in rushing in all three scrimmages. In the spring game, Addai came up with 65 yards on 11 carries. Addai played two games as a freshman in 2001 but eventually red-shirted. In his brief time on the field, Addai carried eight times for 28 yards. Addai’s springtime performance gave LSU coaches faith that the Tigers will be fine at tailback even if Toefield can’t make it back. With senior Domanick Davis (5-10, 211), perhaps the SEC’s most versatile player, also available, LSU can more than get by. Davis has been busy in his three seasons at LSU. A year ago, he carried 75 times for 406 yards and five touchdowns, and caught three passes for 49 more yards. He also returned 22 punts for 418 yards and 19 punts for 263 yards and a touchdown. Davis led the SEC and was 11th in the nation with his punt return average of 13.8. There’s more. Davis also played defensive back, earning a start against Kentucky. He finished the season with six tackles and a quarterback pressure. Senior Ryan O’Neal (6-0, 225) was listed as the starter at fullback after the spring. O’Neal has made his reputation on special teams. WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS LSU will miss All-America receiver Josh Reed, who won the Biletnikoff Award last season after producing some monster numbers: a school-record 94 catches, 1,740 receiving yards, seven touchdowns and an average of 18.5 yards per catch. Reed led the SEC and was third in the nation in receptions per game (7.83). Reed also set Sugar Bowl records for receptions (14) and receiving yards (239). Reed gave up his final season of eligibility to declare for the NFL draft and was chosen by the Buffalo Bills in the second round, the 36th pick overall. Even without Reed, LSU is loaded with talent at receiver. Sophomore Michael Clayton (6-4, 185) is an emerging star, having turned in one of the most productive freshman seasons in school history in 2001. Clayton caught 47 passes for 754 yards and made at least one catch in all 13 games. He ranked ninth in the SEC in receptions per game (3.92). Clayton had three games of 100 or more yards receiving. He caught eight balls for 120 yards in the Sugar Bowl and seven passes for a career-best 126 yards against Alabama. Clayton was an obvious choice for the Freshman All-SEC team, and was also chosen a third-team freshman All-American by The Sporting News. The other receiver spot will be manned by senior Jerel Myers (5-11, 180) who caught 39 passes for 461 yards in 2001, ranking third on the team in both departments. Myers is nothing if not consistent -- he has caught at least one pass in 34 of the 35 games in which he has played, including all 13 in 2001. LSU’s newest weapon could turn out to be sophomore Shyrone Carey (5-7, 180). Carey originally signed with Tennessee, but when he couldn’t get academically eligible there, he transferred to his home-state school. Carey sat out last season while gaining eligibility and should make a huge impact in his first season. He showed signs of becoming a dangerous kick return man during spring practice. In the spring, LSU moved junior running back Devery Henderson (6-0, 190) to wide receiver. Henderson, a speedster who also competes for LSU’s track team, has run the second-fastest 60-meter time in school history (6.72). In 2001, Henderson carried 47 times for 273 yards and a touchdown. Junior Eric Edwards (6-5, 260) will take over at tight end after playing behind Robert Royal and Joe Domingeaux. LSU has gotten maximum use out of Edwards in his limited playing time. Of his seven career catches, four have gone for touchdowns. Both his 2001 catches resulted in scores -- a 3-yarder against Tulane and another for 29 yards against Mississippi State. OFFENSIVE LINE The left side of the Tigers line is in excellent shape with junior tackle Rodney Reed (6-4, 288) and junior guard Stephen Peterman (6-4, 300). Reed has made 20 straight starts, including 13 in 2001. Reed is just as solid mentally as physically. He carries a 3.9 grade point average in accounting and last season was chosen second team Academic All-American and to the SEC’s Academic Honor Roll. Peterman is a tough competitor who started 12-of-13 games a year ago. Even a high ankle sprain couldn’t keep him out of the lineup. He didn’t start against Ole Miss after suffering the painful injury the week before, but still played. Peterman, a defensive lineman in 2000, switched sides last fall and excelled, sharing LSU’s offensive-player-of-the-week honors against Florida and Arkansas. Center Bill Wilkerson (6-4, 275) was slowed by a sprained knee in the spring, but the sophomore figures to build on his freshman season, when he started the final nine games. LSU was 8-1 with Wilkerson as the starting center. He was chosen a second-team Freshman All-American by The Sporting News and also made the Freshman All-SEC team. LSU has to find some starters on the right side. Senior Rob Sale (6-2, 310), sophomore Kade Comeaux (6-6, 310), red-shirt freshman Rudy Niswanger (6-5, 275) and freshman Nate Livings (6-5, 300) are the likely candidates. Sale is a versatile veteran who has played center and guard in his career. In 2001, he started the first four games at center, then moved to right guard to replace an injured Dwayne Pierce in games against Kentucky and Mississippi State. Comeaux played in 10 games last year, but logged a lot of duty on LSU’s PAT and field goal units. KICKERS Senior John Corbello (5-11, 220) was one of the Tigers’ heroes in the SEC Championship game, kicking field goals of 45, 47 and 45 yards as LSU upset Tennessee. In doing so, he became the first Tiger kicker since David Browndyke in 1989 to kick three field goals of 45 yards or longer in a game. Corbello was 14-of-23 on field goals in 2001, making 6-of-11 from 40-49 yards. DEFENSIVE LINE LSU’s line is young, with two sophomores who saw action as freshman a year ago set to start. Only one starter from 2001 returns, but he’s a good one, junior tackle Chuck Lavalais (6-3, 270). Lavalais has started 14 games the last two seasons, including 11 a year ago when he made 53 tackles, five tackles behind the line and a sack. Lavalais was also credited with 16 quarterback hurries. Lavalais can defend against the run, but he uses his great quickness to harass the quarterback. He had a pair of quarterback hurries and batted down a pass in the Sugar Bowl. Senior Kendrick Allen (6-6, 300) is Lavalais’ backup, provided he makes it back from an injury he suffered in the Tigers’ off-season strength and conditioning program. Allen injured the patella tendon in his left knee and underwent surgery. He faced two months of rehab and the knee will be re-evaluated in the fall. Allen saw action in 12 games last season and came up with 17 tackles. He has three career sacks. Byron Dawson (6-2, 291) will start at the other tackle position. The senior has played in 28 games in his LSU career and made 11 starts. Behind Dawson is junior Torran Williams (6-4, 285), who played in two games in 2001. LSU’s defensive ends have loads of promise. Sophomore Marcus Spears (6-5, 280) was busy as a true freshman last fall, seeing action at tight end, fullback and defensive end. Though he made the Freshman All-SEC team as a tight end (after catching two passes for 20 yards), Spears’ future will involve targeting quarterbacks, not the other way around. The other starting end is Marquise Hill (6-7, 285) a sophomore who played in 12 games as a freshman in 2001. He made 10 tackles, two for losses. LINEBACKERS Unlike fellow linebacker Trev Faulk, senior Bradie James (6-3, 238) opted to keep his name out of the NFL draft and return to LSU for another season. Consequently, James, a preseason All-American and All-SEC first-teamer, becomes the mainstay of the Tigers’ defense. James, who has been nominated for the Bronko Nagurski and Lombardi awards, was tried out at middle linebacker in the spring. Sophomore Lionel Turner (6-2, 242) and former safety Adrian Mayes (6-1, 205) filled in at James’ old outside linebacker spot. James will have a lot more responsibility in the middle, but he’s up to the task. A year ago, James was a first-team All-SEC pick after finishing second on the team with 113 tackles. That total included eight tackles for loss and three sacks. James suffered a bruised kidney making a tackle in a spring scrimmage and was hospitalized for two days. He missed the final two weeks of practice but is expected back at full strength in the fall. Mayes, a junior, has been a special teams star his first three seasons and is known as a hard hitter. In 2001, all of his 11 tackles were made on the special teams. He also picked up two fumbles, against Tulane and Auburn. Turner played in 11 games last season and made seven tackles, three of them coming against Florida. Senior Jeremy Lawrence (6-3, 236) returns as LSU’s other outside linebacker. Last fall, Lawrence started nine times and finished with 39 tackles and one interception. He also recorded four quarterback pressures. DEFENSIVE BACKS LSU’s secondary went through some tough times last season as it surrendered numerous big plays, but the outlook is a lot brighter in 2002. If the spring game -- where they came up with five interceptions -- is any indication, the Tigers DBs are in an aggressive frame of mind. Strong safety Norman LeJeune started the last five games of 2001, a stretch in which the Tigers were 5-0. After he entered the lineup, LeJeune had three double-figure tackle games. He finished with 59 tackles, three for losses. LeJeune’s backup is junior Chad White (5-11, 204), who played in all 13 games in 2001 as a member of the special teams. Damien James (5-11, 191), a senior free safety, has also played cornerback. James led the SEC with five interceptions in 2001 and also came up with 49 tackles, four for losses and a sack. Junior Jack Hunt (6-1, 189), a converted wide receiver, was listed No. 2 at free safety after the spring. Hunt played in 11 games last year and caught three passes for 67 yards. Senior Demetrius Hookfin (5-11, 174) will start at one cornerback spot. Last season he started all 13 games and made 55 tackles. He came up with four tackles and a forced fumble against Tennessee in the SEC title game. Junior Corey Webster (6-0, 188) switched to cornerback from wide receiver in the spring, and he proved to be a quick study, as his 72-yard interception return for a touchdown in the spring game would attest. He was listed No. 2 behind Hookfin after spring drills. The other corner will be Randall Gay (5-11, 177), a junior who played in 13 games last fall and made one start. He finished with 25 tackles, including one for a loss and one sack. He was busy in the Sugar Bowl. In 35 plays against Illinois, Gay forced a fumble, returned another 19 yards to set up an LSU touchdown and intercepted a pass. PUNTERS Junior Donnie Jones (6-3, 217) started for the second straight year in 2001, significantly improving his statistics from the previous season. Jones, who kicks left-footed, punted 47 times for an average of 43.7 yards, which was fourth in the SEC and 19th in the nation. In 2000, his average was 38.1. SPECIAL TEAMS Davis is the SEC’s best punt returner. Last fall, he returned 19 punts for 263 yards and a conference-best average of 13.8. Davis also returned 22 kickoffs for 418 yards. He was second-team All-SEC as a return specialist in 2001. He’ll have help in that department this season from Carey, the speedy Tennessee transfer who becomes eligible this season for the first time. LSU could stand to improve in kickoff returns; a year ago, the Tigers were 10th in the SEC (19.9). On the flip side, LSU tied for the league lead in kickoff coverage, limiting its opponents to an average return of 15.2 yards RECRUITING CLASS The experts said it wasn’t a great year for high school talent in Louisiana in 2001. That didn’t deter LSU from going after in-state players and signing its fair share. Gone are the days when other SEC schools can consistently raid the state. LSU signed the state’s No. 1 prospect in running back Justin Vincent (5-11, 205). A Parade All-American, Vincent rushed for 2,050 yards and 30 touchdowns at Barbe High School in Lake Charles. Other top Louisiana prep stars who signed with the Tigers include Garrett Wibel (6-3, 300) of Rummel High School in Metairie, the state’s top offensive lineman; linebacker Cameron Vaughn (6-3, 225) of Shaw High School in Terrytown; and quarterback Lester Ricard (6-4, 195) of Amite High School in Denham Springs. Ricard was rated the nation’s No. 5 quarterback by Rivals.com. LSU also raided Florida for linebacker Willie Demps (6-1, 225) of Pensacola, offensive lineman Brian Johnson (6-4, 300) of Tallahassee, offensive lineman Terrell McGill (6-4, 320) of Miami and defensive back Keron Gordon (6-1, 180) of Tampa. BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS Nick Saban has done such a great job rebuilding LSU’s program that the preseason prognosticators -- Blue Ribbon included -- think the Tigers will win the SEC’s Western Division despite an unsettled situation at quarterback and the fact that running back LaBrandon Toefield is returning from a serious knee injury. Toefield’s health is a key to the continued success of the Tigers, who upset Tennessee and won the SEC Championship game last December, then followed that with a win over Big Ten champ Illinois in the Sugar Bowl. The Tigers won both those games without Toefield, who went down with a torn ACL in the second quarter against the Vols, but there’s no question LSU is a better team with the talented running back in the lineup. If Toefield isn’t ready, LSU has a stable of good running backs to offset his loss. And even without Reed, who turned pro after his junior season, the Tigers have several quality pass catchers. Beside’s Toefield’s health, LSU’s other big question mark is quarterback. Can Matt Mauck, the hero of the SEC championship game victory, continue to evolve as the starter? Mauck, a former minor league baseball player, has the maturity to handle the job. He’s an efficient runner and has good size, so he’s not afraid to do damage with his legs. He has to improve his passing game, however. Mauck threw for a lot of yards in the spring game, but was intercepted five times. On defense, linebacker Bradie James is the man, and the preseason All-American is capable of handling an even bigger workload than he did a year ago. LSU has come all the way back under Saban. A surprise SEC champion a year ago, the Tigers would shock no one if they did the deed again in 2002.