It wasn’t too long ago that the perceived strength of the LSU offense heading into the 2014 season was anything but that.
Mainly because of a lack of experience, there were certainly more questions at quarterback, running back and wide receiver.
On the other hand, there was ample experience, as well as depth and talent along the offensive line — including a likely first-round NFL draft pick next spring in left tackle La’el Collins — to pick up the slack.
Because of key injuries and a suspension, which caused some shuffling of the unit, the Tigers weren’t overly impressive early — especially in a Sept. 20 loss against an active and aggressive Mississippi State front seven, and two weeks later in a 34-point blowout defeat at Auburn.
LSU coach Les Miles, a former Michigan offensive lineman, was quick to defend his group and spread the blame equally around the offense after the Tigers dropped to 4-2 and 0-2 in Southeastern Conference play with the Auburn loss.
His vote of confidence for the offensive line has resulted in back-to-back wins against Florida and Kentucky.
In those games, the Tigers have totaled 498 rushing yards and six touchdowns and averaged 4.9 yards a carry — much of it over Collins and left guard Vadal Alexander, who was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week after the Florida game.
“I think the offensive line is absolutely improving,” Miles said Monday during his weekly news conference. “I think they’re one of the best fivesomes certainly in our league, if not (all of) college football.”
Things finally began to settle after that Mississippi State game, when Collins and Alexander, who had some nagging injuries early, teamed up with center Elliott Porter, right guard Ethan Pocic and right tackle Jerald Hawkins.
Porter sat out the first two games because of summer job pay issues and was replaced by Pocic, who sprained his ankle in the second game. After missing one game, Pocic moved in at right guard, which finally solidified the group for Miles and first-year offensive line coach Jeff Grimes.
The results of the past two weeks have certainly been encouraging.
While the passing game is still a work in progress with sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris at quarterback, the Tigers got back to doing what they do best under Miles.
In a 30-27 win at Florida, LSU rushed for 195 yards against the league’s fourth-ranked run defense and piled up 303 rushing yards in Saturday night’s 41-3 thrashing of Kentucky. The Tigers now rank sixth in the league with 220.9 yards per game.
Porter and Alexander agreed the Florida game was a big confidence builder for the offensive line, which worked harder to improve its communication since the Mississippi State setback.
“We just came together after that (State) game,” Porter said. “We had the mindset of us just getting better. We knew it would happen, we just had to let it click. We knew if we worked hard and talked to each other, we would figure things out. That was the key.”
The Mississippi State game, when LSU had a season-low 89 rushing yards on 36 carries, was certainly a shock to the system of the offensive linemen.
“We have to carry the burden … we have to,” Porter said Monday. “The game starts up front. You can’t look any other way; you can’t look through that. … This team goes as we go on the offensive and defensive line, so we had to keep working and improve.”
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said after Saturday night’s game that having Porter on the field and getting him back in a groove was an important piece to the puzzle, along with inserting Pocic at guard.
“We’re just getting better,” Cameron said. “Elliott’s getting more comfortable, and we’ve been banged up a little bit. Vadal’s probably as healthy as he’s been, and Pocic is getting solid there at guard.
“Some things (that were) overlooked was all of the movement we had early in the year,” Cameron added. “It was significant, not only with Elliott not starting the season but with some injuries.”
Alexander said a few miscommunications and breakdowns held the Tigers back, but they’re hitting their stride at the right time with their next two games against the SEC’s top two defenses: No. 3 Ole Miss on Saturday night, and fourth-ranked Alabama on Nov. 8.
“We were inflicting more harm on ourselves as an offense than what the other teams were doing,” he said. “As an offensive line, all five of us took it upon ourselves to get better.
“Talking to each other inside the group, we knew we needed to play better, and we needed to shoulder the burden. That’s what we expect to do this week and the rest of the season. If the O-line keeps improving, this offense can do anything it wants to do.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.