LSU’s staff watched as 104 players reported to campus Wednesday before the Tigers took to the practice field Thursday morning.
The first practice is all about acclimating the youngsters, and LSU has quite a few to work with, as more than half of the team is comprised of freshmen and sophomores.
“We are going to make sure that the young players get an introduction to our style of football and give them a chance to get up to speed before we put on the pads in a few days,” coach Les Miles said Wednesday. “The first two days are going to involve a lot of teaching and we will go very slow with them. We’ll pick up the pace once we get to our shells.”
But don’t mistake youth for a lack of talent because the Tigers have a bunch of that as well.
Senior linebacker Ryan Baker saw it this spring and he’s seen it during summer workouts. As the new leader of the defense, Baker took it upon himself to make sure the young ones got used to some of the riggers associated with the high school-to-college transition.
So far, he’s been impressed.
“The young guys are coming on,” Baker said.
And they’ll need to. There are still some holes that need to be filled on LSU’s defense. Gone are destruction artists Drake Nevis at defensive tackle, Patrick Peterson at cornerback and Kelvin Sheppard at middle linebacker.
Sophomore Tyrann Mathieu has stepped in at corner opposite Morris Claibore, and LSU’s line should get a lot of work out of the talented redshirt freshman Ego Ferguson and early enrollee Anthony Johnson in the middle.
Johnson, in particular, has drawn a lot of attention.
“To see a young guy that advanced is crazy,” Baker said. “When I first got here I knew my body wasn’t ready and I didn’t understand the game. He’s ready to be a college football player.”
But questions still remain at the middle linebacker spot. As Baker puts it, the man in the middle is basically the director of the defense and it will be tough to replace someone like Sheppard. The first-team All-SEC performer was third in the league with 116 tackles last season and had double-digit tackle numbers six times.
Karnell Hatcher moved down from safety and got some work in at middle linebacker along with Kevin Minter this spring.
Baker said each impressed him this spring when they were both on the field, but finding that one player to hold down the middle is priority number one.
“It’s crucial. He’s the field general of the defense,” Baker said. “The whole defense goes through the middle linebacker, so as long as we have consistent linebacker play, we’ll be OK.”
With the talent and athleticism LSU possesses, the Tigers should be OK. And the players aren’t looking at 2011 as a rebuilding year. No, the Tigers expect big things -- championship things.
To Baker, last season was merely a stepping-stone for LSU. The Tigers are looking to build off of that and make a serious run for a January trip to New Orleans.
“We feel like we have expectations now,” he said. “Last year, we had a down year. We were 11-2, but it didn’t feel like we were 11-2. We want national championships here and we want to build on that.”