Team preview: LSU

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college football season, exclusively on Insider.

Originally Published: July 28, 2004
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COACH AND PROGRAM

Four months after LSU won the Southeastern Conference and then a national championship, ESPN.com ranked the Tigers as the preseason favorite to win the 2004 national title.

Big-time results translate into high expectations. LSU coach Nick Saban, however, doesn't get hung up on outside pressures. Perhaps that's why and how Saban had turned LSU into a perennial national power in such a short period of time.

Days after beating Oklahoma to win a share of the national championship-LSU won the Bowl Championship Series title while Southern California won the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll championship-Saban listened to a multi-year, mega-million-dollar offer from the NFL's Chicago Bears.

Much to the dismay of the rest of the SEC, Saban turned down the Bears and instead agreed to a new seven-year deal at LSU, one that will pay him $2.3 million this season. The reigning national coach of the year has indicated that he plans to stay in the college game for quite a bit longer, bad news for a league that was shell-shocked by LSU's meteoric ascension last year.

Saban has to find a new quarterback this season after the early loss of steady Matt Mauck to the NFL and/or dental school. He still has to locate a consistent place-kicker and the schedule includes road trips to Auburn, Florida and Georgia. However, there is no reason to believe LSU won't win the SEC West, claim the overall league title and be in the mix to play for another national championship come January.

"We were pleased with the progress our team was able to make during the spring," said Saban, who was chosen the 2004 coach of the year by Playboy magazine. "Offensively, I felt we had some young players develop at the receiver position. Everybody knows about our young quarterbacks and Marcus Randall and we were pleased with the progress that they made. Defensively, even though we lack depth, we seemed to have a pretty good spring developing young players and some of the good players that we have back had a good spring. We were inconsistent in the kicking game but that's something we want to work at in the fall.

"The biggest thing we're trying to do is keep our players from competing against themselves. We don't really, necessarily, want to compete against last year's team or accomplish what that team did but create an identity of our own for this year's team and see how good we can be relative to what we have and what we need to do to be the best we can be. That's what I'd like to keep the players focused on."

That was Saban's focus during the spring-getting his team to forget last season and look ahead to new things. During his pre-game speech before the Tigers' annual spring game, the national championship never came up. Neither did Michael Clayton, Mauck or Chad Lavalais, three now-departed leaders from that group. Saban didn't talk about last season. He didn't talk about the future. He talked about one day, that day. He talked about the spring game as if it were the Tigers' season opener.

"This is the first chance this team-this team right here, our team-has, in front of anybody, to establish an identity," Saban said.

Saban knows that there are no guarantees in the SEC. He knows injuries can quickly take a toll, that the breaks the Tigers got last season (look no further than LSU's 17-14 win at Ole Miss last November, one in which the Rebels were oh-so-close on several occasions to making what would have been a game-winning play) and that his team will wear a bulls-eye all season. The team that wanted so badly to win last year is now the team every opponent wants so badly to beat.

Saban pointed out all spring that last year's LSU team will not be around to defend itself. Instead, this is a new LSU team, loaded with talent and a healthy share of experience, yet also wearing championship rings that bring with them the temptation of complacency.

"You get out there and you have fun and you compete as hard as you can," Saban said. "There is nothing to fear about competing. There is dishonor only in not trying as hard as you can."

The first hurdle for the LSU coaching staff is to try to get a bunch of young men who will spend the entire off-season being congratulated to somehow comprehend what Saturdays are like when you're the champs. Offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, a 2004 Playboy All-American who played on three state championship teams in high school at West Monroe (La.) High School, has an idea of what to expect.

"I've been there and I think it's something that's going to help me," Whitworth told The Shreveport (La.) Times. "We're going to be everybody's national championship game. But it's also going to be fun. When you expect it, and you prepare for it, and you know you're going to get their best, it's a great experience when you win."

"It feels like we just ended the season," wide receiver Skyler Green said during spring drills. "Now we're about to get right back at it again."

The talent level on this team is still extremely high. Seven starters, including All-SEC standouts Marcus Spears and Corey Webster, both 2004 Blue Ribbon and Playboy All-Americans, return. The offensive line returns three starters blocking for a bevy of running backs, including SEC Championship game star Justin Vincent.

The championship also served as motivation for players eager to get another ring, to participate in another parade like the one that rolled through Baton Rouge on Jan. 24.

"That day, I saw one of the greatest things of my life," Spears said. "I saw Southern [University] and LSU fans coming together and applauding one another. I went to Southern Lab and have a lot of Southern ties. Some people there really helped me. To see them all come together was touching to me. I realized what sports could do to a community."

"It would be amazing if we do it again," Green said. "If we do that again, there's no telling what might happen in Baton Rouge. They might let Mike the Tiger walk around town."

Saban bolstered his already-strong coaching staff in January when he hired former Michigan State coach Bobby Williams. Williams, who was fired by the Spartans after the 2002 season, succeeded Saban at Michigan State before spending his first season out of the college game as an assistant with the Detroit Lions last year.

"Bobby's an outstanding person and as fine an assistant as we had at Michigan State," Saban told ESPN.com. "To be able to hire someone of his caliber, who also has knowledge and experience of your system, it's almost like you didn't lose a coach because there's so much continuity."

Williams, 45, will work with LSU's wide receivers. He was in Mobile, Ala., for the Senior Bowl in January, hoping to latch on with an NFL team, when he ran into Saban. Williams walked over to his former boss to congratulate him on the national championship when Saban inquired about Williams' interest in coming to Baton Rouge.

"It hadn't really crossed my mind about going back to college," Williams said. "If I was going to go back, why not with Nick? Our relationship has always been very solid."

If there's a knock on Saban, it is inability to keep assistants. It is a reputation that was cultivated by the fact that none of his Michigan State assistants followed him to LSU and his first defensive coordinator-current East Carolina coach John Thompson-left after just one month on the job. Four assistants from last season's title team left for new jobs, though three of those were clearly career promotions.

Saban said he doesn't expect to keep Williams around for a long time, either. Instead, Saban expects Williams to be back among the head coaching ranks sooner rather than later.

"I've never really talked to him about [the Michigan State situation], but he doesn't seem any different to me," Saban said. "Unfortunately, what we learn as assistant coaches doesn't always prepare us to be head coaches. I think if he ever gets the opportunity to do it again, he'll be able to do it just fine."

QUARTERBACKS

Talented red-shirt freshman quarterbacks JaMarcus Russell (6-5, 236) and Matt Flynn (6-2, 224) showed flashes of brilliance in the spring, but neither was consistently dazzling enough to unseat senior Randall (6-2, 223).

"I don't think that anybody did anything really significant [during spring practices] to change where we are in the decision-making of who should start, who should be second, who should be third," Saban said. "How they develop over the summer and fall will determine how we manage that come game time. But I'm not ready to make that decision right now.

"It's the same as it was before. Marcus Randall needs to get beat out. We're not disappointed in anybody's progress. But I can't sit here and tell you that someone has beat him out, either. And he's done fairly well himself."

Fans are eager to see Russell, a highly recruited player who has a cannon for a right arm and fairly fleet feet for a man his size. Randall, meanwhile, is still remembered for shaky appearances in 2002, when he played the second half of the season after Mauck went down with a foot injury.

"A whole lot of things have changed," Randall told the Baton Rouge Advocate. "I'm learning things I didn't know then, like game management things. It's basically learning the game. I was young then. I didn't really know what to expect. Now I know what to expect. I know the game speed. I know what the defense is playing.

"So I know if we've got this play called, I read here, here, here. Or I read backside if they rotate down. It's just like the game is looking a whole lot brighter to me."

Randall went 2-4 as a starter in 2002 and the two games he won-Ole Miss and Kentucky-were fluky at best, downright lucky if you just want to be truthful. As a sophomore, Randall threw for seven touchdowns, ran for two touchdowns and threw five interceptions. In limited action last season, Randall threw two touchdowns and one interception.

"I think he improved tremendously while he was playing his sophomore year," Saban told the Baton Rouge paper. "I think the best he played was the first half of the Cotton Bowl [a 35-20 loss to Texas]. And I think when he played last year, he showed a little more poise, command and all those things in terms of being in control of what he was doing. He seems really comfortable in what he's doing and has not shown a lot of anxiety in how he's performed."

If it's close, look for Saban to go with Randall because of the experience. But know this: Saban pays no attention to hype. If Flynn is better than Russell, Flynn will play. That said, Russell is ahead of Flynn and could be on course to be leading LSU's offense by late September.

Russell certainly has the pedigree. In 2002, he was a consensus top-five national pro-style quarterback pick by every major recruiting publication and a Parade All-American. Russell, who played for Williamson High School in Mobile, Ala., finished his career as the all-time leading passer in state history, throwing for 10,744 yards and eclipsing the mark set by current Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle. He also set a state record with 84 touchdown passes. As a senior, he connected on 219-of-372 passes for 3,332 yards and 22 TDs. Russell is mobile for such a big man; he ran for 400 yards and five TDs in 2002.

Flynn also brings sterling credentials from high school. As a senior at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas, he was a consensus Top 100 player and rated the No. 16 pro-style quarterback by Rivals.com.

In 2002, Flynn completed 124-of-206 passes for 1,679 yards and nine touchdowns and also ran for 305 yards and 12 touchdowns.

RUNNING BACKS

Last season, the hype machine that is college football preseason publications waxed poetic about Auburn's quartet of running backs-Ronnie Brown, Carnell Williams, Tre Smith and Brandon Jacobs.

This year, that hype goes to LSU's group that consists of sophomore Alley Broussard (6-0, 235), junior Joseph Addai (6-0, 205), sophomore Vincent (5-10, 208), senior Shyrone Carey (5-6, 198), junior Jason Spadoni (6-0, 207) and sophomore Barrington Edwards (6-0, 213).

Vincent rushed for 1,001 yards last season and is the star of the group after breaking Dalton Hilliard's school rushing record for freshmen (901 yards) despite having started just eight games.

Vincent made his first start against South Carolina after Carey and Addai suffered knee injuries. That was the week after LSU's only loss, to Florida. Vincent responded with 77 yards and two touchdowns, and a force was unleashed on the SEC. Vincent kept getting better every week, and he ended the season in unbelievable fashion. Vincent closed with four straight 100-yards-plus games, including an SEC Championship game-record 201 yards and two TDs in a 34-13 win over Georgia and 117 yards and a score against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Vincent was voted MVP of the SEC title game and the Sugar Bowl.

Vincent, who led the Tigers with 10 rushing touchdowns, was chosen a first-team Freshman All-America by the Football Writer's Association and also made the All-SEC Freshman team.

Not bad for a rookie running back who was well down the pecking order when the season began.

"Actually I was at No. 5 coming into the season," Vincent said after the Sugar Bowl. "I already had my mindset out there that I was going to be the best special teams player that LSU ever had. Every time I got a chance to go out, whatever it was, I was going to try to hurt somebody. & It's kind of sad how I got the starting job because the guys ahead of me went down. They were helping me. They weren't the type of people that would look down upon me because of what I'm doing and they're hurt. They were all supportive. I practiced each day. They would pull me aside and say you didn't do this right or that right or take this step. It was basically a team effort what I did."

The other running backs in LSU's stable are wonderful complementary parts. Addai opened the year as LSU's starter before an injury against Florida sidelined him for two games. He still wound up with 520 yards and two touchdowns on 114 carries. He also caught 14 passes for 86 yards.

Broussard is a bruiser who excels in must-have, short-yardage situations. He's hard to bring down. Broussard twice rushed for more than 100 yards a year ago, coming up with 108 on 19 carries against South Carolina and 106 on 16 carries against Louisiana Tech. He finished with 389 yards on 85 carries and scored five times.

Like his cohorts in the LSU backfield, Carey had his moments last year, too. Swift and elusive, Carey came up a career-best 124 yards and a TD in win over Western Illinois and led the Tigers to a huge win over Georgia with 73 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. Carey finished the season with 338 yards on 78 carries.

Edwards provides an every-down sort of back should Vincent get banged up. Last season he showed signs of his ability with a 66-yard effort (on 11 carries) against Louisiana Tech.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

Clayton caught 78 passes last season. Devery Henderson, a second-round selection of the New Orleans Saints, caught 53. While there is talent returning, it's not game-day proven. Addai and All-SEC defensive back Corey Webster (6-0, 201) could get some time catching passes, but the Tigers' youngsters should step in and become the newest group of stars in the SEC.

Red-shirt freshman Amp Hill (6-0, 203) injured a knee last season and was still gimpy in the spring. Sophomore Craig Davis (6-2, 190), junior Green (5-9, 190) and junior Bennie Brazell (6-1, 166) all have talent and will get long looks. Green, it should be noted, caught 14 passes last season, including a dramatic game-winner against Georgia last September in Baton Rouge.

Miami native Dwayne Bowe (6-3, 202) made some superb catches during spring scrimmages and could be ready to become a prime-time performer. Bowe displayed great concentration and is willing to go over the middle to make a big catch, a trait that turned Clayton into a first-round draft pick. Bowe and others will be asked to learn to block downfield the way Clayton did.

The expectations are also high for incoming freshmen Early Doucet, Xavier Carter and Lavelle Hawkins (more on them later).

Flexible junior David Jones (6-4, 259) splits his time between tight end and fullback, but when Jones goes into the backfield, sophomore Keith Zinger (6-4, 255) is more than capable of taking over. Expect to see a lot of two tight sets from this duo.

OFFENSIVE LINE

LSU lost two great starters (All-American Stephen Peterman and steady tackle Rodney Reed) but may be better and deeper up front than a year ago.

"We have more guys who could be on the front five than we ever have," junior left tackle Whitworth (6-7, 325) said. "We have nine guys who have a chance to play."

Whitworth and senior center Ben Wilkerson (6-4, 296) are two of the nation's best, while junior Nate Livings (6-5, 313) goes from left guard to right tackle and junior Rudy Niswanger (6-5, 294) takes over at left guard. Junior Terrell McGill (6-4, 325) and sophomore Brian Johnson (6-4, 307) will carry the fight for right guard into August.

McGill was arrested the night after spring drills ended and charged with simple battery for allegedly punching a man at the West Campus Apartments in Baton Rouge, La.

David Kency claims McGill punched him in the mouth after he arrived at the apartment complex to meet a girl. Kency told WBRZ TV that he was cornered on a balcony by several people, including McGill.

"All I remember after that is Terrell hit me," Kency told the Shreveport (La.) Times. "I fell. All I remember was falling to the ground, and I seen nothing but blood."

McGill, a Miami native, played in 11 games last season as a backup at guard and tackle. He is a prospective starter at right guard but was running with the second team on the final day of spring practice.

Incidents have been few since Saban became LSU's coach after the 1999 season. There was a police investigation of a fight involving several players at a nightclub near the campus in 2001, and a player during the 2000 season was charged with battery.

"I don't know all the details but I think our players were trying to be good guys and were breaking up a fight," Saban said of McGill's situation. "Somebody hit one of our players and he hit him back. &Otherwise, what he did, the way I understand it, is no more than a traffic ticket, from a misdemeanor standpoint.

"We try to create a culture here where our players do the right things and are held to a pretty high standard in terms of the way they represent themselves, the family and the program. We try to create a culture but we can't be responsible for everybody's individual action. It's worked for us very well for the most part."

KICKERS

Sophomores Ryan Gaudet (5-6, 155) and Chris Jackson (5-11, 159) might be able to take their juggling act on the road, as they've become so good at trading the kicking duties. First it was Gaudet, then Jackson, then Gaudet again in the SEC Championship game and in the Sugar Bowl. Through the spring, the job remained up for grabs. On a team with few concerns, kicking is probably one of them.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Sure, several stars departed but there is plenty of ability left, just not a lot of able bodies. LSU ended the spring with just three dependable ends and tackles.

"If we're not fortunate to keep our players healthy," Saban said, "it could show on the field."

The left side of the line returns intact with senior Spears (6-4, 297) at left end and junior Kyle Williams (6-3, 288) at left tackle.

Spears is strong, long-armed and athletic, which enables him to make plays that normal defensive ends couldn't. Proof of that came in the Sugar Bowl, when Spears scored what proved to be the game-winning points on a 20-yard interception return in the third quarter. That touchdown gave LSU a 21-7 lead.

Last season, Spears a first-team All-SEC pick, recorded 49 tackles, 13 of which went for 72 yards in losses. He also had six quarterback sacks and 19 quarterback pressures. Spears played a key role in LSU's run to the national championship, making at least one tackle for loss in eight of LSU's last nine games.

Junior college transfer Claude Wroten (6-3, 315) takes over at right tackle and junior Melvin Oliver (6-3, 269) slides in at right end.

Wroten comes with solid credentials, having been rated by Collegefootballnews.com as the No. 7 junior college prospect a year ago. Playing for Mississippi Delta Community College, Wroten recorded 53 tackles, 15 sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in 2003. Wroten bench presses 370 pounds and squats 550 pounds, yet can still run a 4.9 40-yard dash.

On passing third downs, Oliver will annex one of the tackle spots while junior Kirston Pittman (6-3, 248) comes in at end to throw an extra gear of speed into the pass rush.

"We didn't lose a lot of starters on defense," Saban said. "But we lost a lot of our backups. We lost a lot of those next-group guys. We don't have enough depth on defense. We have voids at linebacker and safety. We could use a more few defensive linemen."

Oliver will be counted on to be a star. He had four tackles and one sack in the Sugar Bowl, giving him four sacks and 31 tackles last season.

"It's going to be a little more demanding, learning everything to do, making sure everything's perfect," said Oliver, who grew up in Opelika, Ala., in the shadows of Auburn University. "We don't have much depth. More of the starters will have a bigger role this year."

Oliver told the Baton Rouge Advocate that he is focusing on technique and fundamentals, learning how to handle 330-pound offensive tackles. He's also taking on a leadership role, helping teammates with less experience learn the ropes of the SEC.

One of those guys could be sophomore defensive end Brian West (6-3, 244), who is experienced, just not in the ways of SEC football.

Go back to fall 1998. LSU football coach Gerry DiNardo thought he had just the right ingredients for the recipe that new defensive coordinator Lou Tepper was concocting. DiNardo was recruiting three star defensive players from perennial state champion West Monroe High to possibly all start as freshmen in the same linebacker corps-outside linebacker Bradie James at drop linebacker, middle linebacker Jason LeDoux at that spot and defensive end West at rush linebacker.

The Tigers dropped to 4-7 in 1998, though, and fielded one of the worst defenses in the Southeastern Conference under Tepper. Nationally recruited LSU freshman linebacker Adam McConathy of West Monroe might have seen what was coming. He left the LSU team before the 1998 season for Texas and eventually ended up at Louisiana Tech. Not long after that 1998 season, LeDoux, who was the prep defensive player of the year that season, de-committed to LSU and ended up at Texas A&M in 1999. West also signed with Texas A&M that same season.

That summer, however, West signed for more than $1 million to pitch for the Chicago White Sox organization. The White Sox drafted him in the first round of the supplemental draft (35th overall).

Four years later, last June, West came to LSU as a defensive end after four years and a few months of minor league baseball. West, 23, still has three seasons of eligibility. West made 10 tackles in eight games last season as a backup for Spears. He made 4.5 stops for losses, including two quarterback sacks, against Louisiana Tech.

"He's been playing very well," Saban said. "Last year, he had to get back to a football mentality. But I see him as definitely being one of the guys in the rotation at end."

The White Sox had seen West as a future member of their rotation with a fastball that averaged in the 90s.

"He wasn't off the charts like a Mark Prior flying through the minors, but he certainly had a chance to make it to the big leagues," Birmingham Barons' announcer Curt Bloom told the Baton Rouge Advocate. "He's a very tough kid. [Then-Barons manager] Wally [Backman] always wanted him out there in the big games, especially the playoffs. I know Wally thought highly of him."

West had his best year on the mound in 2001 for Backman at Winston-Salem in Class A ball when he went 7-12 with a 3.68 ERA on a bad team, striking out 130 in 169 innings. West got a ring when Birmingham won the 2002 Southern League championship. The next year, he would earn a national championship ring for football.

"I was shocked when he decided to play football," Bloom said. "I didn't see a sign. He never brought a football to the stadium. I really didn't see it coming."

West made it to Triple-A Charlotte in May 2003 and won his only appearance, allowing four hits and three runs in five innings. He spent most of last spring and summer in Birmingham, though, going 3-5 with a 5.80 ERA.

"Occasionally you'd see flashes of first-round stuff, but a lot of the time he was not pitching healthy," Bloom said.

West developed elbow problems and was staring surgery in the face.

"I kinda always had the itch to get back into football, especially after coming here in 2001 and watching them beat Auburn to go to the SEC championship game," West said. "This is just a great place to be."

LINEBACKERS

Eric Alexander was lost to graduation. Everyone else is back, including senior middle linebacker Lionel Turner (6-2, 257) and junior weak-side linebacker Cameron Vaughn (6-4, 220). Throw in star-of-the-spring freshman Ali Highsmith (6-1, 225) in the strong-side linebacker slot and LSU might have its best linebacker corps in years.

Turner was quietly dominant last season despite having the unenviable task of replacing former All-America Bradie James (now with the Dallas Cowboys). How did Turner perform? Just say that the Tigers didn't miss James as much as they thought they would. Turner earned honorable mention All-SEC honors from the Associated Press after ranking second on the team with 78 tackles, five of which went for losses. He added three sacks and two interceptions, including one he returned 18 yards for a score against Georgia in the SEC championship game.

Turner also stepped up in the Sugar Bowl with nine tackles and two sacks.

Vaughn earned six starts last year and wound up with 55 tackles and two sacks. He also came up with three tackles for losses, six quarterback pressures and three pass break ups. His season high of eight tackles came in the loss to Florida.

Highsmith, who signed with Miami but failed to qualify academically, enrolled at LSU last January. His size, speed and ability to pick up defenses has earned him a spot in Muschamp's defense.

Red-shirt freshman Darius Ingram (6-2, 232) will see significant playing time as well.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Bad news for SEC quarterbacks: LSU's defensive backfield is back and better than ever. Webster (6-0, 201) and senior Travis Daniels (6-1, 187) make up perhaps the best cornerback combination in the league and/or country.

Webster, in just his second year on the defensive side of the football, was highly decorated last season after making 46 tackles and ranking second in the SEC in interceptions (seven) and pass breakups (25).

Webster was a semifinalist for the Thorpe Award and a first-team All-American as chosen by the American Football Coaches Association. He was chosen second-team All-American by the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated and Collegefootballnews.com and was also a first-team All-SEC pick.

Daniels started the season at safety, but after six games moved back to his natural position of cornerback. Like Webster, he's a big-time cover corner and is extremely tough to shake in one-on-one coverage. With Webster and Daniels watching their backs, LSU's linemen can afford to be aggressive in their pursuit of the quarterback. Last season Daniels recorded 58 tackles, including 6.5 for losses, and led the Tigers with 26 pass breakups. He intercepted a pair of passes, returning one 48 yards for a touchdown just before halftime in the win over Mississippi State.

Sophomore free safety LaRon Landry (6-2, 180) is back after a brilliant freshman campaign and sophomore Jessie Daniels (5-11, 195), a physical player with a knack for finding the football, is slated to start at strong safety.

Throw in junior college transfer Mario Stevenson and versatile senior Ronnie Prude (5-11, 176) and LSU's secondary will be the league's best.

PUNTERS

Red-shirt freshman Patrick Fisher (6-5, 224) was line-driving punts all through spring practice and hit one backward in the Tigers' spring game, possibly opening up the job to Jackson. Suffice to say, neither kicking situation is satisfactory.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Green led the nation last season in punt returns with an 18.5-yard average and a pair of touchdowns. There are numerous candidates, including Green and Carey, to return kicks. This won't be an area of weakness.

RECRUITING

One month after winning the Associated Press national title, LSU claimed a recruiting national championship. There isn't a trophy for the accomplishment, but if there were, Saban would need to start clearing some space.

Saban's work ethic and straight-forward approach, as well as LSU's penchant for sending players to the NFL, has the nation's top recruits flocking to Baton Rouge. Saban has also all but closed the door on Louisiana while cherry picking out of surrounding states. Simply put, Saban is recruiting his way to a dynasty.

The crown jewel of the Class of 2004 was likely St. Martinville, La., wide receiver Doucet (6-2, 210). Doucet, the No. 1 rated prospect on the Mobile Register's Super Southeast 120, could play very early. The same holds true for Melbourne, Fla., wide receiver Carter (6-3, 195), another Top-10 member of the Mobile Register's Super Southeast 120, and Stockton, Calif., standout Hawkins (5-11, 175).

West Monroe, La., native Luke Sanders (6-3, 220) is considered one of the top linebacker prospects in the country, as is Pulaski, Ark., product Matt Stoltz (6-3, 240). Northeast Mississippi Community College defensive back Mario Stevenson (6-2, 195) reported in January and could be starting by mid-season. Denton, Texas, offensive tackle Herman Johnson (6-7, 395) is one of a handful of premiere offensive line prospects. Mississippi Delta Community College defensive lineman Claude Wroten could start in the Tigers' season opener and Gonzales, La., defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey (6-2, 295) is widely considered a future star.

As if he needed more, Saban got some more good news in the off-season when LSU's case in front of the NCAA Committee on Infractions was ruled on without major sanctions.

The NCAA announced that it will not punish LSU further for cheating and academic misconduct, agreeing with the school's report that violations were secondary and not systemic. The NCAA's ruling came after the organization reviewed a 1,300-page report which followed allegations that LSU athletes in 2002 cheated on tests, plagiarized papers and benefited from pressure on faculty to change grades. The NCAA will take no further action beyond penalties that LSU already imposed: the loss of two football scholarships for 2005; the loss of four official visits by recruits; and discipline against those involved.

"I don't think this hurts coach Saban or the football program in any way," LSU athletic director Skip Bertman said. "But he was penalized for actions for which he was not responsible."

LSU will sign only 23 players rather than the 25 it is entitled to. The school could have had 52 official visits from athletes this year rather than the 55 allowed by the NCAA. Instead it had only 46, below the 52 it had imposed as a sanction.

The school said there was no plagiarism, cheating or serious misconduct at the academic center. The NCAA agreed by ruling that the violations were secondary instead of major. Secondary is an isolated or inadvertent breaking of an NCAA rule, said Chris Howard, who is in charge of overseeing compliance at LSU. LSU also made changes concerning athletes and the academic center that took effect last fall and were aimed at preventing future problems.

QUESTIONS

Target on their backs? The Tigers will be the hunted now. How will they handle the pressure?

Quarterback? Russell is supremely gifted, but replacing Mauck, who made few mistakes, will be a chore.

Kicking game? Last season, Georgia's Billy Bennett and Ole Miss' Jonathan Nichols missed key kicks. LSU's kicking corps is nowhere near as talented. Will that finally catch up to the Tigers?

ANSWERS

Depth at running back! Wow, what a stable of ball carriers.

Coaching! Saban is the best in the game and coordinators Fisher and Muschamp are rising stars.

Secondary! Teams just can't throw on the Tigers.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

OFFENSE: B+; SPECIAL TEAMS: B; DEFENSE: A; INTANGIBLES: A-

Saban is building a dynasty. The Tigers are fairly youthful this season and also face a tough schedule, but there is no reason to believe this team can't win another national championship. Saban is the perfect coach for Baton Rouge.

The town can be a distracting circus, but Saban has shown the ability to get his team to focus on the game at hand and not get caught up in the lofty expectations. LSU has won two of the last three SEC titles. Only Georgia has a legitimate shot to stop it from becoming three out of four.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 117 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college football, Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.


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