Les Miles has been called, by his own admission, a Mad Hatter and a grass chewer.
In 2011, LSU’s football coach will try to take on another nickname:
With clocklike and geographic precision, there are expectations that LSU will make a long run at a short trip down Interstate 10 to New Orleans and the Jan. 9 BCS National Championship Game in the Superdome.
Just like the Tigers did when the game was played there after the 2003 season. Just as LSU did under Miles after the 2007 campaign.
Most coaches would bristle at such lofty expectations, such weighty distractions for their team. Especially for a team like this 2011 squad, which counts two dozen freshmen and sophomores on its two-deep roster.
But Miles isn’t like any other coach. Some call him eccentric, but he marches to the tick of his own clock - occasionally to the dismay of passionate Tigers fans everywhere.
Still, Miles wins. Last year his Tigers went 11-2, losing only to BCS champion Auburn and Sugar Bowl participant Arkansas, both on the road, with an anemic passing game and sputtering offense that prompted a change (or changes) at offensive coordinator.
It’s easy to imagine what the Tigers could accomplish a year later with just a few improvements in a few key areas.
It’s easy for their coach to imagine it, too.
“We’re young and developing and talented enough to get there if the pieces come together,” said Miles, 62-17 in six years in Tigertown. “If we have really good leadership, I think we’ll be a really good football team.”
Others think so as well. Despite having lost its leading rusher (Stevan Ridley), receiver (Terrence Toliver), tackler (linebacker Kelvin Sheppard) and talent (cornerback Patrick Peterson) from a year ago, there are still broad-based expectations that Miles will lead a great, perhaps championship season.
LSU enters the 2011 campaign ranked No. 4 in the USA Today coaches’ poll. The Sporting News made the Tigers their No. 1 team.
And yet, this isn’t a team that the stars fell upon. Aside from cornerback Morris Claiborne, few Tigers have drawn the kind of preseason adulation heaped on other teams or past LSU squads.
In a way, that’s how players like junior wide receiver Russell Shepard like it.
“That’s what makes us such a unique team,” Shepard said. “We don’t have megastars on this team. We have a lot of heralded recruits, players who have had success and will have it here and at the next level.”
Despite all the lofty aspirations, it’s been a disquieting offseason for LSU football.
The program was placed on a one-year NCAA probation stemming from recruiting violations of former player Akiem Hicks by ex-assistant coach D.J. McCarthy and thousands of impermissible recruiting phone calls by non-coaching members of LSU’s staff.
Steve Kragthorpe, hired in January to be LSU’s new offensive coordinator, had to relinquish his play-calling duties just as preseason camp began after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Miles made what he termed a “battlefield promotion” in naming fifth-year offensive line coach Greg Studrawa as offensive coordinator.
And, finally, Shepard spent part of his summer dealing with NCAA compliance issues stemming from his off-campus housing arrangements, throwing his eligibility at least for LSU’s Sept. 3 showdown with Oregon into question.
“Like my mom says, what does not kill you makes you stronger,” said sophomore quarterback Zach Mettenberger. He was alluding to the troubles that led to his dismissal at Georgia and his eventual transfer to LSU, but it was an apt metaphor for the Tigers as a team.
Despite all the offseason issues that cropped up, the most consistent question dogging LSU is the play of senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson.
He handily won the starting job in spring competition with Mettenberger and fellow senior Jarrett Lee and has won 20 of his 27 starts.
But after throwing just seven touchdowns with 10 interceptions last season - three of those TD passes coming in LSU’s Cotton Bowl win over Texas A&M - the buzz is that Jefferson will have to significantly elevate his game for the Tigers to have a title shot.
Indeed, his play may be the linchpin of LSU’s hopes.
His coach, for one, is a true believer, running a campaign of confidence on Jefferson’s behalf the entire offseason.
“Jordan Jefferson ? is doing what he is supposed to do,” Miles said. “He did very well at the back end of last season, and we expect him to continue that way.
“He’s enjoying the position that he has on this football team. He realized this is more his team. I saw him laugh and enjoy a play on the field differently than I have ever seen him before. I think he is confident in where he is at and more relaxed. Nothing will happen on Saturdays that he hasn’t experienced before.”
Jefferson will have the luxury of working behind a deep and experienced offensive line that returns four starters - plus some versatile players like senior T-Bob Hebert who can play center and guard. Sophomore Chris Faulk takes over at left tackle.
With Ridley and his 1,147 rushing yards gone, LSU appears poised to go to running back by committee. Chairing the committee could be sophomore Spencer Ware, who had a breakout 102-yard game in the Cotton Bowl, followed by classmates Michael Ford and Alfred Blue.
“We’re still living on that tradition that LSU has a lot of great running backs,” Ford said. “Each of us are fighting to be that guy. We’re pushing each other each and every day.”
On the defensive front, LSU lost All-American Drake Nevis and Pep Levingston at tackle but still boasts a deep and experienced group led by ends Kendrick Adams and Sam Montgomery. Montgomery earned freshman All-Southeastern Conference honors last season despite missing LSU’s last eight games with a knee injury.
At linebacker, Sheppard’s leadership and talent may be hard to replace. Converted safety Karnell Hatcher and sophomore Kevin Minter are vying to be the starter there, though for leadership all may come to rely on senior weakside linebacker Ryan Baker. He’s LSU’s top returning tackler with 87 stops.
“At the end of the season last year, I thought he was playing as well as any linebacker in the country,” defensive coordinator John Chavis said of Baker. “He’s got to pick up where he left off.”
Claiborne became celebrated for having better stats last season than the consensus All-American Peterson: five interceptions, 11 pass deflections. He’ll anchor a secondary that Chavis said may well be the best he’s ever coached.
The Tigers are so strong there they may well allow sophomore Tyrann Mathieu - a play-disrupting predator last season with 4-1/2 sacks, two interceptions, five forced fumbles and three recoveries - to stay at nickelback.
Senior Ron Brooks would then line up opposite Claiborne, though all three will play in a nickel package. Brandon Taylor, Eric Reid and Craig Loston man the safety spots.
LSU’s special teams will have a complete reboot in 2011: new coach (Thomas McGaughey), new kicker (Drew Alleman), new punter (Brad Wing or D.J. Howard) and new return specialists. Miles said he expects Mathieu to return punts, with Brooks and Claiborne on kickoff returns.
The schedule, as Miles described in sunny fashion, will be “fun.” His Tigers play just six home games - their fewest since 2005 - facing Oregon, West Virginia, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Alabama away from home. The home schedule features Florida and Arkansas.
Of course, those opponents have the chore of playing LSU as well.
“I like my team,” Miles said.
Soon, everyone will find out just how much there is to like.