BATON ROUGE, La. – When LSU releases its first depth chart of the season on Monday, the vast majority of names will be familiar to Tigers fans. That’s one of the benefits of returning as many starters as nearly team in the country.
As Saturday’s opener against Wisconsin approaches, the Tigers face personnel questions, just like all teams do before their first game. For instance:
Is quarterback Brandon Harris ready to take the next step in his development?
Which true freshmen will contribute?
However, one position group stands above all the rest as LSU’s biggest question mark for Kickoff Week. An offensive line that lost both starting tackles might feature three new starters against Wisconsin, with the competition sure to carry over into the season.
“Honestly, for the offensive line, it’s still competition going on,” senior right guard Josh Boutte said after practice last Thursday. “I know it’s surprising a lot of people because the season is like a week and a half away, but we love it. It’s pushing us to get better and just be more focused on what we need to do.”
Boutte – whose only career start came in the 2015 season opener against Mississippi State – will line up next to another new starter at right tackle, Toby Weathersby. As a true freshman last season, Weathersby started at left tackle against Ole Miss in place of injured starter Jerald Hawkins. Now he’s taking over for departed senior Vadal Alexander on the right side, and the reality is setting in that he will open his sophomore season as a starter.
“From spring, I was just like, ‘Man, it’s far down the road. I can’t see that far right now because I’m still working on day-by-day,’” Weathersby said. “But now it’s here and I’m just ready to rock and roll.”
Sophomore Maea Teuhema, who started 11 games last season at guard, was slotted at left tackle when spring practice concluded, but he was wearing a walking boot when August camp started because of an ankle sprain. Junior K.J. Malone took over the first-team spot, and might just hold him off to earn his first career start.
“K.J.’s doing great at left tackle. It’s one of the hardest spots on the field and he’s really taken the position on,” said left guard Will Clapp, who along with center Ethan Pocic earned a preseason All-SEC nod from the league’s coaches last week. “He has great feet, great length in his arms and it’s a natural spot for him, and he’s really taken it over as his own.”
Teuhema continues to work at both tackle spots in practice, but has not repped at guard, according to Weathersby. Among offensive line coach Jeff Grimes’ options on the interior are Garrett Brumfield and true freshman Donavaughn Campbell, who impressed coaches and teammates in his first preseason camp.
“I’m pretty sure Coach Grimes told him he had the opportunity to prove something when he came in and he just capitalized on it. He really did,” Boutte said. “He learned the playbook really well, he’s physical. He has all the tools and everything. It’s just about getting everything down pat.”
Continuity was also a concern for Grimes in August. Not only did Teuhema miss the start of camp with the injured ankle, but Clapp and Pocic were both returning from offseason hip surgeries. As August progressed, however, Clapp insisted that the top linemen had plenty of time to work together leading up to the opener.
“Definitely we’ve had enough reps with every group that we feel comfortable with each other,” Clapp said. “Coach Grimes does a great job of making sure each group feels comfortable and is really interchangeable throughout the season.”
That starts with the No. 1 unit – and it sounds like that group’s play to date has helped him settle on a starting lineup for the opener. The five starters will have to play well against Wisconsin and beyond to hold onto those spots, but they’re understandably optimistic at this point.
Even if most of the group lacks starting experience, they believe this could develop into one of the SEC’s better offensive lines as the season progresses.
“Practice is really fun,” Boutte said. “It’s probably one of the best [preseasons] I’ve had in the four years I’ve been here going into camp. Just the environment and the feel you get when you’re out there, it’s a lot different.
“Hopefully that’s a good thing. It feels like it, it really does.”