The players and coaches gathered in a huge circle Monday morning on one of LSU’s practice fields.
It was Big Cat time.
The drill goes like this: coach Les Miles calls out two players. They slam into each other in something like a helmeted duel. The last man standing wins.
It’s typically the kind of drill reserved for spring practice, something to get the blood stirring for days of seemingly endless workouts that at the time exist to serve a purpose which is a long way off.
It’s August now, and the challenge is quite real - and quite close at hand.
Four weeks from Saturday, LSU leaps into another duel, this one in Arlington, Texas, with the Oregon Ducks at Cowboys Stadium.
Many times, the Tigers open with an outmatched opponent intended to ease LSU into the season. Unlike the NFL with its preseason games and high schools with their jamborees, when college teams face the first kickoff everything counts.
This year you can count on both hands the combined ranking of LSU and Oregon and still have fingers left over. The Ducks are No. 3 in the preseason coaches’ poll, the Tigers No. 4.
The winner remains on a lofty perch as a national title contender. The loser isn’t knocked out - college football, of course, being a sport sans a playoff system - but there will be much work to do and no margin for error.
The stakes are high, and so correspondingly are the intensity levels of LSU’s practices. Hence the Big Cat drill. Hence the urgency with which the Tigers are pushed through their other practice routines.
“No doubt,” senior offensive guard Will Blackwell said. “We realize we’re taking on a big game to begin the season. We’re focused on our opponent and there’s more intensity going into the full camp.”
The Tigers took their preparations up another notch Monday, donning full pads for the first time in preseason drills.
The preparations for taking on Oregon and its fast break offense have long been in place, though.
The Ducks run a no huddle-type offense that typically renders the play clock obsolete. To simulate that, the LSU defense has been working against an offense that rotates in not one but three units to familiarize the Tigers with the speed of Oregon’s attack.
“We’re rotating fast, fast, fast,” senior strong safety Brandon Taylor said. “It’s nerve-wracking, but you’ve got to do it.”
Taylor said he remembers similar preparations for Auburn a couple of years ago.
“Two years ago, we played Auburn when they had a fast-paced offense,” he said, “but it (Oregon’s offense) is nothing like Auburn.”
There may also be little if any time for substitutions during Oregon offensive possessions. To that end, LSU’s safeties are cross training at each other’s positions.
“We’ve got four safeties rotating, each one learning both positions,” Taylor said. “Once one gets tired, the next one comes in. It’s just a right and a left. We’re not going to switch up because they play at such a fast tempo.”
“Fast tempo” could well be the catchphrase for all of LSU’s August operations.
No time for half measures or slow progressions. With what’s at stake in this season opener, they would serve little purpose.