Vadal Alexander needs new clothes. Even when tightening his belt, the LSU senior offensive lineman can’t fit into his jeans. He’s even rummaged through the closet for clothes he wore in high school — some of them fit him again.
Alexander has gone from a 46-inch waist to a 40. His body fat percentage has dropped from 27 percent to 20. And his weight has fallen from 335 pounds down to about 325.
He hasn’t been to McDonald’s in months, hasn’t eaten fried food in weeks and only occasionally eats bread. He’s lighter on his feet, quicker with his hands and poised to hold down what he calls his “island” on the outside.
“Me and Vadal always talk about our islands,” fellow offensive lineman Jerald Hawkins said. “Got to hold it down, make sure nobody comes off the edge.”
Alexander has trimmed down for his new role. He moves from left guard to right tackle to form, with left tackle Hawkins, LSU’s most critical tandem on the team.
No, it’s not defensive tackles Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux or receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. It’s not running backs Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams or safeties Jamal Adams and Jalen Mills.
It’s Alexander and Hawkins, two experienced offensive linemen at new, demanding positions with more weight on their shoulders than rests on their 6-foot-6 frames.
They’re the glue to LSU’s offense — two big pieces of tape on either end of the offensive line holding the Tigers in place.
The duo is key to the passing game, the running game and, in a sense, the defense. The more time LSU’s offense can remain on the field, the more time the defense — full of depth issues — can rest on the sideline.
The Tigers head into the 2015 season hoping to lean on their two new tackles and a veteran offensive line that has spent most of the offseason cutting fat and replacing it with muscle.
“Our entire offensive line is thinner and in better shape than it’s been,” coach Les Miles said.
“Big, strong and capable” is how Miles, a former lineman, describes a group that is expected to include a senior (Alexander), three juniors (left guard Ethan Pocic, Hawkins and right guard Josh Boutte) and a redshirt freshman (center Will Clapp).
“I think the O-line is the best we’ve had since I got here,” Alexander said. “Type of guys we have is Andrew Whitworth-type guys. Those type of leaders and men. Leadership of me, Pocic and Hawk — guys who have played a lot of football, know how to work and lead by example — we can lead this team.”
They don’t have much of a choice. LSU’s shaky and uncertain quarterback play makes Fournette and the O-line paramount to the season — again. The Tigers ran the ball last year more than they ever have in Miles’ decade-long tenure at the school: 69 percent to 31 percent passes.
Fournette, a Heisman Trophy contender as a sophomore, tempers talk of his major role this season.
“It’s not Leonard Fournette’s team,” he said. “It’s LSU’s team.”
Fournette’s success may hinge on the island boys. Hawkins has the island to the left and Alexander the one on the right. Much of the time, they’ll be all alone on the outside against some of the best defensive linemen that college football has to offer.
It’s a reason Alexander has spent the past several months eating fish, chicken and “lots of veggies,” he said.
Guard and tackle have plenty of similarities. They have differences, too. Hawkins said guard is like being in a phone booth. Guards have help from the center and the tackle. They’re bunched in tight quarters, a sizable advantage for a lineman.
Tackle? Not so.
“You’re on your own more as a tackle,” offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said. “Just the angles and the space and the type of player you’re playing against. It’s just a different game out there on the edge in pass protection. It takes some time to really get proficient at that.”
Alexander’s weight loss has helped him get there. He’s faster, quicker, lighter now to face the speedy, athletic defensive ends of the Southeastern Conference. He compares playing tackle to “a dancing bear” — all alone with his paws outstretched and his feet constantly tapping the turf.
“Outside is more of an island,” Alexander said. “Got to have great feet, great awareness to block guys with a lot of speed.”
“You’ve got to be more balanced and patient,” Hawkins said.
Alexander isn’t new to right tackle. He started nine games there as a freshman in 2012 after injuries shuffled the starting group. He’s had his sights on returning to tackle since moving to left guard for his sophomore and junior seasons.
He nearly left the program after last season to enter the NFL draft. It was “50-50 for a minute,” Alexander admitted.
What drew him back? A shot to play tackle, of course. The same could be said for Hawkins, who as a redshirt sophomore was draft-eligible last year.
He stayed to make the switch from right to left tackle, the most critical position on the line.
His position move isn’t as intricate as Alexander’s switch. The biggest difference, Hawkins said, is his stance and steps. Instead of moving toward the right as a right tackle, he’ll be moving more left on the left side.
He’s still on an island. They both are.
“We talk about it all day at practice,” Hawkins said. “Got to hold down the island.”