BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Beyond their unmistakably Cajun coach and trademark purple and gold uniforms, the defending national champion LSU Tigers will be nearly unrecognizable.
Graduation and last spring’s NFL draft took most starters off the roster. Then the coronavirus pandemic prodded some of the best players the Tigers had left to opt out.
“It is a lot of turnover,” coach Ed Orgeron conceded. “It’s a great challenge for our staff.”
It’s hard to replace a Heisman Trophy quarterback coming off the most prolific season in LSU history. But at least LSU had time to prepare for Joe Burrow's departure.
Heir apparent Myles Brennan was a highly regarded recruit who has waited three years for his chance.
“Myles is having an excellent camp,” Orgeron said. “He’s taken a step forward where clearly right now he looks like he’s the leader” of the offense.
It could be harder to adapt to the recent, sudden loss of All-America receiver Ja’Marr Chase, last year’s Biletnikoff Award winner as the top receiver in college football. He decided less than a month before the season opener — and a week after LSU received a No. 6 preseason ranking in the AP Top 25 Poll — to opt out and instead focus on the 2021 NFL draft. Chase was one of four projected LSU starters to opt out by the end of August, along with cornerback Kary Vincent Jr., defensive end Neil Farrell Jr. and defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin.
LSU lost yet another defensive lineman with starter potential when Justin Thomas left the team.
“There are some opportunities for new guys," Orgeron said. “We have a good roster that can handle that.”
LSU had a record 14 players taken in the 2020 NFL draft, including top rusher Clyde Edwards-Helaire, second-leading receiver Justin Jefferson, sack leader K’Lavon Chaisson and two-time All-America safety Grant Delpit.
The Tigers have one returning starter on the offensive line and one on the defensive line.
Despite so much uncertainty, Orgeron said he is determined to “enjoy myself coming to work.”
“The best thinking is, take it one day at a time, this is the team we have, let’s get them better, let’s see what’s going to happen,” Orgeron said.
Roster turnover is one thing. Orgeron also had to replace a couple key staff members.
Bo Pelini has returned to LSU for a second stint as defensive coordinator following Dave Aranda’s decision to become Baylor’s head coach. Pelini is switching LSU's defense back to a traditional four-defensive lineman front. The only starters returning to his unit are All-America cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., senior safety Jacoby Stevens and lineman Glen Logan.
Meanwhile, former NFL coach Scott Linehan arrived as passing game coordinator after Joe Brady, who helped LSU refine run-pass elements of its spread offense, left to become an offensive coordinator in the NFL with Carolina.
Orgeron said LSU continues to run a spread offense, but noted that Linehan has “brought in some different techniques to our receivers. He’s brought in some things that he did in the NFL," including some new concepts for red zone plays.
LSU remains confident in the depth of its receiver corps even after Chase's departure left Terrace Marshall Jr. as the lone returning receiver with more than 17 receptions last season. LSU has several freshman who were highly rated recruits, including Kayshawn Boutte, who was widely considered the top Louisiana prospect at the position. Orgeron also has noted that freshman tight end Arik Gilbert, one of the top-rated players in the nation at his position, has the skills to be a down-field threat.
“There’s 200 balls between Jefferson and Ja’Marr that’s got to be caught. These guys are eager to catch them, man," Orgeron said. "What you’re going to see is, guys are going to step up and there is going to be one new superstar that we don’t know about because it’s his time.”
While Edwards-Helaire is gone, his touches could go to three players who saw action in 10 games and had 38 or more carries last season. Tyrion Davis-Price rushed for 295 yards and six TDs in 2019. John Emory Jr., who scored four times last year, and Chris Curry are other experienced options.
LSU was among the first football programs in the nation to re-open its expansive and recently renovated practice and training center with testing and social distancing protocols and new air purifiers that use ultraviolet light to kill airborne virus. The biggest setback came when four projected offensive line starters were ordered to isolate simultaneously during August camp because of possible virus exposure. Orgeron said they have all since returned.
When the SEC decided it would not allow member schools to play non-league games this season, one of the scheduling casualties was LSU's early season match-up with Texas. But the Tigers also gained two new conference opponents in what is now a 10-game slate: Missouri and Vanderbilt.
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