Let the countdown begin

Kyle Riviere
kriviere@weeklycitizen.com
The Tiger defensive unit will be faced with the daunting task of replacing eight starters.
Photo courtesy of HuffingtonPost.com.

At this time last year, many LSU fans were thinking national championship. Well, you'd be hard-pressed to find many people with those kinds of aspirations heading into this season.

The excitement is there as always but with 10 Tigers bolting early for the NFL draft last fall, it's the unknowns that have fans weary.

Nothing came easy for LSU last year. Before the season even began, all-everything defensive maven Tyrann Mathieu was kicked off of the team for failing multiple drug tests--immediately putting the squad in a hole.

The string of bad luck continued during the year as the offensive line was repeatedly ravished by injuries--including a season-ending knee injury to their top offensive lineman Chris Faulk.

Running back Alfred Blue got the season off to a great start, but he too fell victim to a blown-out knee that sidelined him for the rest of the year.

And midway through the season, just as freshman linebacker Kwon Alexander began to emerge, his year ended with a broken ankle.

However, even with the off-the-field drama and the vicious injury bug, the Tigers still managed to finish second in the SEC West and 10-3 overall.

It didn't come easy though. They barely escaped Auburn, Arkansas and Ole Miss by a combined 15 points. They had to hang on to outlast South Carolina 23-21, and they had to come back from 12 down to beat Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M 24-19 in College Station.

When it came to their three losses, they were by a combined 15 points.

LSU is hoping they won't have to taste such bitter defeat this season. One area of excitement for the Tigers will be their offense.

Last year, the offensive unit only ranked No. 59 in scoring, No. 51 in rushing and a mediocre No. 94 through the air.

However, last year's offense was young. Many linemen were forced to be tried by fire due to injuries to starters, the receiving core was very inexperienced and quarterback Zach Mettenberger had never started at the Division I level.

Now, with a year under their belts and with new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, big things are expected.

Mettenberger showed tremendous improvement as last season progressed. He only averaged 177 yards passing prior to the Alabama game but from then on, he put up 268 yards a game.

Receiver Jarvis Landry stepped his game up as well and became a go-to guy. From the Alabama game until the end of the regular season, he averaged 80 yards receiving per contest.

Landry will be joined by Odell Beckham Jr.--who has been a pivotal component of the offense since his freshman year. Not only did he improve last season as a receiver, but he excelled in special teams--returning two punts for touchdowns.

Like always, the running game will be where LSU should excel. Jeremy Hill came out of nowhere last year as a freshman to rush for 755 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Though, his status for the season is still uncertain. After violating his probation during the offseason and pleading guilty to misdemeanor simple battery, he remains indefinitely suspended from the team.

But even if Hill is gone, Blue will make his return to the lineup as well as the talented Kenny Hilliard--who should have a big chip on his shoulders after a disappointing sophomore campaign.

Defense is where all of the question marks really come in. The Tigers will only be returning three starters from last season.

They lost their entire starting defensive line--including their two book-ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. In fact, their top four defensive ends have left Baton Rouge.

Things aren't as grave at defensive tackle. Even though they lose Bennie Logan and Josh Downs, they still return two very talented and experienced guys in Anthony Johnson and Ego Furguson.

It was a big blow to lose their leading tackler in Kevin Minter at linebacker, but they should still have one of the better linebacking cores in the SEC.

Lamin Barrow returns as a starter along with Tahj Jones--who missed almost all of last year for academic reasons. Alexander will return from injury as well as two other promising sophomores in Deion Jones and Lamar Louis.

Unfortunately, LSU takes a big hit in the secondary. They lost their best cover corner in Tharold Simon. However, both Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins will be back after seeing a lot of snaps last year as freshmen.

Maybe the biggest loss for that Tiger defense will be free safety Eric Reid. He covered a lot of ground each snap and was one of LSU's greatest leaders.

Junior Ronald Martin will be looked on to fill his shoes at the position. Martin will be a first-year starter, but he did see plenty of action last season when Reid was nicked up.

One position that the Tigers won't have to worry about is strong safety. Craig Loston will be returning for his senior year and looks to instantly take over as the unit's captain.

In his first season as a starter, Loston had 55 tackles and three interceptions. He returned one of those interceptions 100 yards for a touchdown against Mississippi State--which tied a school record.

Loston and the rest of the young defensive unit will try to duplicate what they did last year when the Tigers only gave up 18 points a game.

It won't be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Once again, the schedule is brutal.

Right from the start, they'll have to play a ranked TCU team in Cowboys Stadium for the Cowboy Kickoff Classic on Aug. 31.

From there, they have tough road games against Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama. And at home, they'll clash with Florida and Texas A&M.