LSU’s billing as a legitimate national championship contender doesn’t come from one singular Cam Newton-like star, or even a rare defensive gem like last year’s consensus All-American cornerback Patrick Peterson.
No, if the Tigers are to be a player on the national scene in 2011, it will be an ensemble performance.
In Broadway terms, think “A Chorus Line” instead of “An Evening with Mark Twain.”
The depth of LSU’s talent as a team, not an individual, is the Tigers’ potential strength going into this season. A gathering of puzzle pieces into one united, cohesive portrait of a team bound for greatness.
Here’s a look at some of the pieces that will have to play big for LSU this season:
Six key players
QB JORDAN JEFFERSON: It has almost become a cliché during this offseason: as Jefferson goes, so will the Tigers.
With anticipated threats from Zach Mettenberger and Jarrett Lee not having materialized, this is Jefferson’s team in 2011 as much as anyone’s.
The months since a stirring performance in the Cotton Bowl have been filled with reports that Jefferson has become a better student of the game, a better leader, and has thrived under the direction of former offensive coordinator now quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe.
A 20-7 record as a starter is nice, but Jefferson is aiming for greater glory in his final LSU season, a mountaintop reserved only for the Tigers’ national championship winning quarterbacks - Warren Rabb (1958), Matt Mauck (2003) and Matt Flynn (2007).
WR RUEBEN RANDLE: To say that LSU’s passing game was anemic in 2010 would be the biggest understatement regarding this Tigers team. The loss of senior Terrence Toliver and the bit of uncertainty surrounding Russell Shepard this summer means it’s Randle’s time to blossom.
Possessing the size (6-foot-4, 207 pounds) and hands of an All-Southeastern Conference caliber receiver, it’s time for Randle to deliver. He’ll most likely get his chance to do so returning kicks as well.
RB SPENCER WARE: While quality depth is no more prevalent in LSU’s running back corps than in any other department, there will eventually be someone who gets more carries than anybody else. At 5-11, 225 pounds, Ware is Les Miles’ kind of back - a rugged ball carrier who can gain the tough yards and is also a threat to catch passes out of the backfield.
CB MORRIS CLAIBORNE: If anyone has gotten the preseason star treatment it’s Claiborne, who didn’t wilt in Peterson’s shadow last season but thrived. Now he’ll be called upon to lead what is still an exceptionally talented secondary and be the shutdown corner that Peterson was a season ago.
LB RYAN BAKER: He doesn’t have the size or perhaps even the emotional leadership qualities of former LSU linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. All Baker has is a nose for the football. Playing out of his weakside linebacker spot, Baker is LSU’s top returning tackler with 87 stops from a year ago, including 11 for losses. The leadership of the Tigers’ front seven falls to him now.
CB TYRANN MATHIEU: For a guy who still may not even be a full-time starter in 2011, much is expected of the slightly sophomore (5-9, 180) who inherited Peterson’s No. 7. Mathieu likely will play mostly nickel back, a role that in some unexplained alchemy of player and position best lends itself to his talents as the most disruptive force on LSU’s defense.
Six to watch
WR RUSSELL SHEPARD: Shepard’s surprising offseason issues reportedly stemming from his off-campus housing arrangements have pasted a question mark on a position where the Tigers can ill-afford to have them. Even without the uncertainty, LSU sorely needs Shepard to significantly outpace his 2010 offensive output (33 catches, 249 yards, 1 TD; 32 carries, 226 yards, 2 TDs).
OT CHRIS FAULK: LSU’s offensive line has been much celebrated for its depth and four returning starters. But no position on the line is more critical to a right-handed quarterback’s health than left tackle, and that’s the spot where Faulk is slated to take over from Joseph Barksdale (now with the Oakland Raiders). If he falters, there are high expectations that former Redemptorist standout La’El Collins may get his chance.
DE SAM MONTGOMERY: Such a heaping helping of praise - Freshman All-SEC in 2010, preseason 2011 All-SEC honors - considering he played just five games before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee. Held back as a precaution in spring practice, LSU simply needs “Monty” to return to form.
DT ANTHONY JOHNSON: With a nickname like “Freak” anyone is sure to draw attention. Add to that the fact that Johnson goes 6-3, 310 pounds, took part in spring practice and was listed atop LSU’s depth chart in the media guide has Tigers fans everywhere hoping he can be the next Glenn Dorsey.
LB KEVIN MINTER: No one is expecting Minter to be Kelvin Sheppard, but a reasonable impression is required for him to hold onto the job. Otherwise, LSU may opt for Karnell Hatcher or possibly even move Baker to this spot.
PK DREW ALLEMAN: Colt David. Josh Jasper. Now Drew Alleman. LSU has enjoyed consistently exceptional play from its place-kickers the past several seasons. Now it’s up to Alleman to fill a role that is almost certain to decide at least one game for the Tigers this season.