Headed into his sixth season with the program, Miles’ numbers will need to tilt back towards the winning side if he hopes to make Baton Rouge an extended stay. The work begins with the offense, which ranked 112th nationally in production last fall. The man running the show is junior Jordan Jefferson, who compiled a 9-4 record as a starter over the past two seasons.
While 20 touchdown passes to only seven interceptions looked fine on paper, Jefferson’s hesitancy in the pocket often yielded sacks and missed opportunities downfield. Heading into his third season under center, Jefferson left fans hopeful of marked improvement unsatisfied by his spring game performance: 7-of-20 for 80 yards, two sacks and no touchdowns.
First-year assistant Billy Gonzales, formerly a member of Urban Meyer’s staff at Florida, is tasked with cleaning up the confusion. He will pull double-duties as the team’s passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach, a clear counter-balance to the play calling of offensive coordinator Gary Crowton.
Though the numbers might be slim at receiver until the incoming crop of freshmen arrives in June, the trio of Terrance Toliver, Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard are tough to match.
In the trenches, LSU returns three starting linemen and a pair of experienced newcomers to the rotation. Joe Barksdale highlights the group, a two-year starter who makes the move from right to left tackle to fill the void left by Ciron Black.
The offensive line play will need to be better if LSU hopes to improve on last year’s average of 122.8 rushing yards per game, which ranked 90th in the nation. Positive signs were shown this spring, with junior Stevan Ridley and redshirt freshman Mike Ford posting big numbers during each weekend scrimmage.
At the spring game, Ford went for 140 yards on 19 carries while Ridley rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries. Ford also led the Purple Team with three catches for 35 yards, proving his value as a multi-purpose back.
On the defensive side, SEC veteran John Chavis enters his second season with the Tigers. After a dismal 2008 performance under co-defensive coordinators, Chavis helped give new life to the LSU side, finishing 2009 with a top-30 defense (327.6 yards allowed per game).
Experienced players like Drake Nevis and Pep Levingston return to the middle of the line, while newcomers such as redshirt freshmen Sam Montgomery and KeKe Mingo have helped spark the new-look pass rush, which appears to have been built on the speed-first mentality.
Kelvin Sheppard, who decided to forgo the NFL Draft and return to Baton Rouge for his senior season, leads the linebacker corps as one of the only experienced bodies. Stefoin Francois and Ryan Baker, neither of which have recorded a career start, will occupy the outside spots.
Patrick Peterson, one of the top underclassman in college football, and Morris Claiborne worked through the spring as the top two cornerbacks, forcing senior Jai Eugene to occupy a safety spot if he intended to stay on the field during his final season at LSU.
While Peterson’s abilities are known by many, the 2010 season will bring the first extended look at Claiborne, a quick-riser who flew under the recruiting radar as a high school quarterback in Shreveport.
Joining Eugene at safety will be Brandon Taylor, another converted cornerback. Craig Loston, the nation’s No. 1 ranked safety prospect coming out of high school in 2009, is the third name the coaching staff has mixed into the workload.
For a program that has gone a combined 0-6 against Florida, Alabama and Ole Miss the past two seasons, the time is now for Miles and the Tigers. If the Bayou Bengals find themselves on the losing end once more, and a double-digit win season falls out of the frame, the hot seat will begin to get uncomfortable for Miles and his staff.