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LSU quarterback Myles Brennan (15) keeps the ball as he runs for yardage under the protection of LSU offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry (79) before the stop by Texas A&M linebacker Anthony Hines III (19) in the second half of LSU's 45-21 win over Texas A&M, Saturday, November 25, 2017, at LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK

When LSU walked off the field after the Citrus Bowl, Lloyd Cushenberry did not think he would be LSU’s No. 1 center at the start of spring practice.

He, like many around the program, thought Will Clapp would likely return to Baton Rouge for his senior season to reclaim his rightful spot in the starting lineup.

A lot changed over the last few months.

The second Cushenberry received the call from his now-former teammate letting him know his intention to declare for the upcoming NFL draft his career was expedited to the front of the line.

He instantly knew he would have a new set of responsibilities. He could no longer be content observing from the back of the room or relegate himself to simply learning under the veterans ahead of him.

This is the chance he’s been waiting for.

“I just knew it was my time,” Cushenberry said. “I waited two years behind both (Clapp) and (Ethan) Pocic. Now, it’s my turn to show up.”

With only two centers on the team when LSU opened spring practice Sunday, the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Cushenberry is the favorite to start when the Tigers open the season in six months. 

During Tuesday’s media viewing of practice, the redshirt sophomore was taking snaps with the first-team rotation.

But he knows better than anyone that being the favorite in March is a long way from being the starter in September.

Cushenberry was projected to be the starting right guard early on during preseason camp last summer after the departure of Maea Teuhema.

Cushenberry’s teammates and coach Ed Orgeron praised him on a regular basis at the time, but when the season opener finally came around, Saahdiq Charles was at right guard and Cushenberry was on the bench behind Clapp at center. Coaches moved Clapp from guard to center.

Cushenberry never started a single game while appearing in 11, most of the time at center.

Orgeron said at the time that Clapp held the edge due to experience and leadership, which were the two most important qualities he looks for in a center.

All Cushenberry could do was learn.

“The main thing was just being calm under pressure,” Cushenberry said. “When things were kind of going not as planned during the game, both of them (Clapp and Pocic) would stay calm and still be the leader, the great leaders that they are. They never folded and never let anything get to them.”

Cushenberry’s main competition at center is midyear enrollee Cole Smith.

Cushenberry compared the 6-foot-4, 275-pound true freshman to himself two years ago, when he was eager to learn from the more established players. Senior guard Garrett Brumfield is also taking some snaps at center as a potential third option, Cushenberry said. He filled the same role last season.

"Lloyd (Cushenberry) played first team," Orgeron said after Sunday's first practice. "Did a good job. Cole Smith was on second team. Cole showed exactly what we saw on film: extremely quick, great hips, great feet coming off the football. He’s a real good center. He’s tough."

He's Cushenberry's biggest challenger. During a radio interview last week, Orgeron said Smith was "right behind" Cushenberry.

And new offensive line coach James Cregg isn't afraid to start a rookie at center, he said earlier this spring.

"A true freshman playing center in college at a major top five institution, it could happen, but it could take a lot of reps," he said on ESPN 104.5 FM. "I like to see those two guys compete.”

Follow Mike Gegenheimer on Twitter, @Mike_Gegs.