BATON ROUGE, La. – When LSU’s players took the field Thursday morning for their first preseason practice, there was a different feel about this collection of talent.
The Tigers are splitting their first four practice days like normal -- veterans in the morning, freshmen and reserves in the afternoon -- but there were more familiar faces for this initial practice than normal.
“It’s a veteran squad this year,” left guard Will Clapp said. “We have a lot of guys back. We return 18 out of 22, so it’s a squad that we really like. We are going to have to have a lot of those freshmen step up, but for the most part, all the starters are back and that recruiting class that was phenomenal is going to help us out.”
This is a significant change from LSU teams in the last half-decade. The Tigers typically have several freshmen participating in early veteran workouts because of depth-chart holes created by NFL early entries and other roster attrition. This year, LSU lost just one underclassman (left tackle Jerald Hawkins) to the draft -- its fewest since 2009 -- so Les Miles’ team is able to operate at a different rate of speed on Day 1.
“Today, for instance, in the huddle there was just a lot more sense of urgency than in the past,” fullback J.D. Moore said. “With young guys, it’s a lot of sort of coach-motivated [talk]. The coach [saying], ‘Hey, let’s go guys. Let’s pick it up.’ Out there in the huddle today, we had guys without coach-prompting saying, ‘Let’s pick it up. Let’s finish this drive. Let’s finish this period.’ Just things like that, that guys, they get it. They get the big picture. It’s kind of fun to see that. A team-led team is a lot more effective than a coach trying to kick you and make you [work].”
Of course it helps when two of the players doing the prodding are the team’s star player and quarterback. Right guard Josh Boutte said running back Leonard Fournette and quarterback Brandon Harris brought that element to the huddle on Thursday morning.
“They’ve both stepped up to the plate this past summer and this coming camp,” Boutte said. “They just really became vocal so the coaches can worry about other things. They don’t have to worry about us. We know what we’re supposed to do, so it’s just about getting it done, getting in condition, really.”
The morning practice was not composed exclusively of veteran players. Two freshmen from LSU’s No. 3-ranked recruiting class – linebackers Devin White and Michael Divinity, both of whom enrolled early and participated in spring practice – worked with the vets. Other star signees such as cornerback Saivion Smith, defensive linemen Edwin Alexander and Rashard Lawrence and receivers Dee Anderson and Stephen Sullivan will practice with the rookies in the afternoon.
Several of those freshmen will play this fall, but there aren’t as many holes as normal thanks to seniors such as center Ethan Pocic, cornerback Tre’Davious White, linebacker Kendell Beckwith and wide receiver Travin Dural all opting to return for another go-round.
That should make a difference, not just in helping the freshmen get up to speed in the next several weeks, but also over the course of a season in which the Tigers expect to contend for the SEC title and a possible spot in the College Football Playoff.
“I think it’ll serve to sort of soften the [blow],” Moore said. “Sometimes for freshmen, camp can be sort of a shock or wake-up call, so with a lot of vets that have been through it, you know how to set the tempo at practice, how to lead in the huddle -- those sorts of things -- I think it’ll just serve when we all come together as a group on Monday. I think just having all these veterans around will really set the tempo for this team.”
It also helps that several injured players who missed time last season or during the spring were back on the practice field Thursday.
Check out this list of names: Pocic, Clapp, Dural, Moore, cornerbacks Kevin Toliver and Donte Jackson, safeties Rickey Jefferson and John Battle, expected starting right tackle Toby Weathersby, linebacker Donnie Alexander and tight end DeSean Smith.
All are returning players who should start or play key roles for the Tigers in 2016. All were unavailable for LSU’s spring game in April because of health or disciplinary reasons, but back for Thursday morning's practice.
Getting that much experience back on the field helps – and it’s a big reason why LSU should have championship aspirations this fall.
“I think there’s a lot of confidence on both sides of the ball, just guys that have been in the starting roles that they’ve had and been there for years, quite frankly,” Moore said. “This is the most veteran team that I’ve been a part of since coming here in 2013, so it’s going to be a lot of fun.”