BATON ROUGE, La. -- Ed Orgeron addressed his quarterback competition immediately while previewing his LSU team’s upcoming spring practice, but even he admits that race has a clear favorite: fifth-year senior Danny Etling.
There are far more uncertain position battles to watch once the Tigers take the practice field for the first time on Saturday. Who steps up at safety in Jamal Adams’ absence? Who will supply the pass rush? Who will complement D.J. Chark at wide receiver? Are Donnie Alexander and Devin White ready to replace Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley at inside linebacker?
Those are just a few of the questions the Tigers must begin answering this spring. Here is a preview of five position battles to watch:
1. Outside linebacker: With Arden Key sitting out the spring while tending to a personal issue, this position is wide open. Andre Anthony, Ray Thornton and Sci Martin -- all 2016 signees -- are capable of developing into star pass rushers, but we have not seen anything yet from the first two and Martin appeared in just five games as a freshman. In addition, how do converted safety Corey Thompson, Michael Divinity and Isaiah Washington -- who missed last season with a torn ACL -- fit into defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s plans? This murky picture will become clearer over the next month.
2. Wide receiver: Ten catches for 154 yards and one touchdown. Those are the career receiving totals for all of LSU’s returning wideouts not named D.J. Chark. The senior burner is back after breaking through with 466 receiving yards and averaging 17.9 yards per catch last season, but Chark is going to need some help. The recruiting pedigrees of those around him indicate that he’ll get it, but who will step up to claim the available playing time? Most likely, LSU’s trio of 2016 wideout signees who would fit in on the basketball team -- 6-foot-6 Stephen Sullivan, 6-5 Dee Anderson and 6-3 Drake Davis -- will play bigger roles this year. Among the other options: senior Russell Gage, redshirt sophomore Derrick Dillon and early enrollee Mannie Netherly. Now we’ll see who new receivers coach Mickey Joseph chooses to fill the open spots.
3. Safety: Without Adams, Rickey Jefferson or Dwayne Thomas around, LSU’s safeties are an inexperienced bunch. It helps that senior John Battle started for the back half of last season after Jefferson broke his leg, but he’s the only experienced player here. Senior Ed Paris is shifting over from cornerback, and there are several gifted youngsters at defensive backs coach Corey Raymond’s disposal: Xavier Lewis, Cameron Lewis, Eric Monroe and early enrollees JaCoby Stevens and Grant Delpit, all of whom were ESPN 300 honorees. It would not at all be a surprise if this group went from question mark to strength by season’s end.
4. Interior offensive line: Assuming that All-SEC guard Will Clapp eventually replaces Ethan Pocic as LSU’s starting center, that doesn’t explain what the Tigers will do this spring in Clapp’s absence. Clapp will not practice while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and backup center Andy Dodd recently announced plans to transfer. Freshman Lloyd Cushenberry trailed Pocic and Dodd on the depth chart last season at center, but never appeared in a game. We’ll operate under the assumption that he will get the first crack there this spring, but the other contenders for playing time are unclear. Guard also is a question mark, especially until signees Edward Ingram and Saahdiq Charles arrive on campus this summer. Neither of last season’s starters -- Clapp and 2016 senior Josh Boutte -- are available, so line coach Jeff Grimes has some experience to replace. He does have a veteran, junior Maea Teuhema, who started at guard as a true freshman, but we’ll see whether he spends more time there or at tackle. Other names to watch: redshirt junior Garrett Brumfield and sophomore Donavaughn Campbell, whom Orgeron singled out when discussing the line earlier this week.
5. Inside linebacker: This might be a position group that will be more worthy of attention in August than it is now. Signees Jacob Phillips, Tyler Taylor and Patrick Queen -- at least some of whom should play immediately -- are not expected to arrive on campus until June. In the meantime, Alexander and White are among the few warm bodies that LSU has in the middle, along with Devin Voorhies. White and Alexander both stood out on special teams last season, and both linebackers saw increased playing time late in the fall. Alexander started the last two games after Beckwith suffered a season-ending knee injury in the November loss to Florida. That will help the senior, but he and White still have a lot to prove -- and they can begin to do so this spring before the talented freshmen arrive to challenge them for playing time.