A football roster-sized media contingent from around the state descended on the LSU Football Operations Center to hear coach Les Miles give his seventh annual state of the Tigers address at Media Day on Tuesday.
For more than half an hour Miles fielded questions just 25 days before the start of one of the most eagerly anticipated seasons in school history.
Miles, who a year ago delivered his address amid far less optimism after 9-4 and 8-5 seasons, has since been bolstered by an 11-2 finish that yielded the security of a new seven-year contract, as well as a No. 4 preseason ranking. He began by saying, “How wonderful it is to have a job that everyone considers so important.”
Perhaps the most challenging season opener in school history - against No. 3 Oregon - is looming Sept. 3. Miles said he doesn’t see “a risk-reward” in the opener, even though a loss would thrust the Tigers into an uphill climb toward national championship contention before they even embark on the rigors of a Southeastern Conference schedule.
“If you just took that game off the schedule, and you won your league championship,” Miles said, “I think you are playing in the national championship game anyway.
“Frankly, all of our goals are intact if we had not taken that game or if we had taken that game. What it does for us is the most important piece. It gives us a reason to prepare with a real urgency, knowing we are playing a quality opponent.”
The Tigers, who finished last season ranked No. 8, are one spot below the Ducks in the coaches preseason poll.
“I don’t care where we’re standing right now, we’re going to have to earn our way,” Miles said. “I think there are a lot of quality teams in this country. I have no issue with people taking an early position in front of us. This is so premature to concern myself with where we’re ranked or others at this point.
“I think those rankings are a compliment to programs and are either warranted or the ranking may be too much of a compliment, so I don’t take it too seriously. I just want to make sure that we’re close enough to get there should we achieve like we’re capable.”
Miles called the 12-game schedule “a very fun one” even though it features just six home games.
“Six home games are about three too few for me,” he admitted. “I like nine or 11, but I don’t know if I get that.”
Miles referred to the necessity of changing offensive coordinators from Steve Kragthorpe to Greg Studrawa last week because Kragthorpe has Parkinson’s disease “the opportunity to switch responsibilities.”
Miles gave an overview of a team that he said has “a great blend of leadership and veterans.” He admitted, though, after five days of practice, “We’re sloppy as can be.
“We’re not yet at the speed we need to get to,” Miles said. “We’re working to offset those beginning-of-camp issues to get to operating much faster, more efficiently and cleaner.”
Though Miles has spoken repeatedly about offseason improvement from starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson, the first question he faced was about sophomore Zach Mettenberger, who’s third on the depth chart.
Miles said Mettenberger will be fine once he’s given time to mature. As for Jefferson, “I think that he is relaxing,” Miles said. “I saw him laugh and enjoy a play on the field differently than I have ever seen him before. That speaks to a guy who is comfortable in his skin and knows what the team expects of him. He is now enjoying being who he is in that role. I think he is confident in where he is at.”
Sophomore Spencer Ware is first in line to replace Stevan Ridley as the starting running back, but, “It is a bit premature.” Miles said sophomores Michael Ford and Alfred Blue, as well as freshmen Terrence Magee? and Kenny Hilliard will compete for playing time.
The offensive line is the most experienced position on the team, and Miles called top receivers Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard “as good a receiver tandem as there is.” Sophomores James Wright and Kadron Boone, and freshmen Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry (who’s sidelined by a foot injury) could be in the mix as well.
The defense will be quick on the line and miss Kelvin Sheppard at linebacker, but Miles said (senior) Ryan Baker “is that guy.”
“It is his time to be a leader,” Miles said. “There is a responsibility for the veteran ? to lead that group. I think that he has taken that upon his shoulders.”
Miles praised the depth of the secondary, and expressed confidence that Drew Alleman will be an adequate replacement for All-America place-kicker Josh Jasper, saying, “It would be a little premature to say that he is going to be as good as Jasper, but I think he is going to have a very good year.”
Miles said he likes Tyrann Mathieu as his punt returner and expects Ron Brooks and Mo Claiborne to handle kickoff returns.
Asked about his long-term prospects at LSU, Miles - who has the longest tenure of any coach since Charlie McClendion retired in 1979, reflected briefly.
“I’m very fortunate to represent a wonderful school, (to have) an experience on Saturday night that’s unlike any other,” he said. “I think I’ve learned a lot and I think I keep learning, and I learn from my environment, who we play against. I learn from our assistant coaches, I learn from my players - what’s best, how to handle it best.
“I don’t know that I’ve arrived in any way, but I can tell you that I sure have enjoyed the experience that I’ve had here. Certainly I’m more capable than I was when I came here.”