30 days, 30 topics inside the world of LSU football.
TSD is previewing and analyzing the 2014 edition of the Tigers from every angle, bringing you a daily dose of “Summer Session” each weekday through July 11, three days before the unofficial kickoff to football season at SEC Media Days.
For this final week I’m rolling out my top 25 players for the upcoming season, bringing you five players a day through Friday. When it comes to criteria, the list was assembled based on a combination of talent and expected impact. It should also be noted that I’m including Jalen Mills in the mix, if for no other reason than to show what his value to this team normally would be.
Enjoy, and be sure to let me know how you feel about the rankings via the link at the bottom of the story.
20. LB D.J. Welter
- Say what you want about LSU’s starting middle linebacker, but there was production from No. 31 in 2013. Welter (6-1, 235) finished second on the team with 80 tackles, four for loss, and chalked up two sacks and three QB hurries. Now, where there is room for improvement is in bringing down ball-carriers by himself. Consider that of Welter’s 80 tackles a year ago, 25 were solo while 55 were assisted. He wasn’t the only one. Lamin Barrow, the team’s leading tackler with 91 stops, had a split of 23 solo to 68 assisted. By comparison Kwon Alexander, who played less than both of them, had 30 solo tackles to 35 assisted. Entering his swan song season, that’s where Welter has to close the gap – tracking the ball from sideline to sideline and making definitive stops on his own. If he can do that, on top of the communication skills he brings to the field, this ranking is too low. But it needs to be seen.
19. FB Connor Neighbors
- If you think fullbacks aren’t important in this system, then you don’t know Bo . . . Schembechler, that is. The former Michigan coaching icon, and mentor to both Les Miles and Cam Cameron, constantly preached the virtues of a blocking fullback, and his disciples listened. In fact they even took it to the next level, handing off and throwing to fullbacks with regularity. Neighbors, granted another go-around in 2014 by the NCAA, played in all 13 games in 2013, starting seven times, and eventually began to overtake incumbent J.C. Copeland at the position. He was reliable as a blocker and extremely efficient as a pass-catcher. LSU fans may be surprised to learn Neighbors (5-11, 239) was sixth on the team in receptions last season, hauling in seven balls for 92 yards. He finished with more catches than any of the Tigers’ tight ends, Copeland or Terrence Magee. Look for Neighbors to be a diverse weapon in an LSU offense that’s expanding the playbook in different directions this fall.
18. RB Kenny Hilliard
- Some of these stats are repeats from my Splitting the RB Pie piece, but they’re too telling to sleep on. In three straight seasons Hilliard has had no less than 62 carries (2011), 310 yards (2013) or six rushing touchdowns (2012). That means even though Hilliard (6-0, 233) hasn’t recaptured his form from late in his freshman campaign, he also has never been a forgotten man in the eyes of Frank Wilson, who doles out the P.T. and touches. Anyone who thinks that’s changing in Hilliard’s senior season, with backfield depth arguably as low as it’s been in recent memory, is crazy. Yes, Terrence Magee and Leonard Fournette will be heavily involved, but Hilliard’s role as a short-yardage and goal-line back is pretty well defined. The only question remaining: Will that role expand in 2014 or stay the same?
17. TE Desean Smith
- As I’ve discussed already this summer, I feel there’s a strong chance 2014 is the year LSU goes back to its tight ends in the passing game. The reasons are many: young quarterbacks that need safety outlets, not as many proven receivers to go three- and four-wide as often, etc. But then there’s also the talented Smith, an athletic 6-foot-4, 241-pounder coming into his sophomore season. Smith was a pass-catching machine at Barbe, and he got a chance to learn the ropes at LSU a season ago as a true freshman, playing in all 13 games while reeling in one catch for 14 yards. He showed in the spring game that he’s capable of doing a lot more, making three catches for 45 yards and a touchdown in the first half alone. Whether in the slot or as an in-line tight end, Smith feels like a no-brainer in the passing game this season.
16. C Elliott Porter
- Already named to the Rimington Trophy Watch List, Porter, a senior, is back for his second tour of duty as LSU’s starting center this fall. A year ago he started 12 of 13 games, playing a total of 787 snaps and recording 61 knockdowns. Porter was at his best versus Texas A&M, totaling a season-high eight knockdowns on 74 snaps. The 6-foot-4, 300-pounder is in the middle of an experienced offensive line that returns four starters in 2014. His role is a vital one, too, considering Porter is relied upon to make the checks and calls at the line of scrimmage. To say the least Porter is a valuable asset to first-year offensive line coach Jeff Grimes.