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Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- LSU senior linebacker Duke Riley (40) participates in a drill during practice, Thursday, April 7, 2016, at LSU's practice facility in Baton Rouge, La.

They told Duke Riley to leave, to transfer, to move. They told him to never sign with LSU, to choose a different school, to not waste his time.

He won’t say who “they” is, but they told him.

“A lot of people were saying that,” said Riley, a senior linebacker at LSU this season. “I knew what I had coming in, and I came in from high school, and I had six guys in front of me. Everybody was like, ‘He’s never going to play.’”

Two days before LSU begins preseason camp, Riley is poised to, finally, play. He replaced departed senior Deion Jones at linebacker during spring practice and, though he’ll have stiff competition during camp, the Buras native is expected to see significant time on the field – something missing during his Years 1-3 in Baton Rouge.

Riley is set to be one of a smaller-than-normal group this year: a new starter.

LSU returns more starters (18 of a possible 22) than all but three of the 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, according to figures compiled by Phil Steele’s College Football Preview magazine. When it comes to returning starters, the Tigers are tied for the most in college football. Wyoming, Louisville and Kent State also return 18 starters.

What’s this all mean? Quarterback Brandon Harris has the answer.

“We understand the team we can be if we just stay the course,” Harris said earlier this summer. “I really do feel like I’ve got the best team in college football.”

Defensively, LSU returns nearly 80 percent of its tackles and 82 percent of its sacks. On offense, the Tigers return 100 percent of their passing yards, passing touchdowns and receiving touchdowns. They get back 99.5 percent of their rushing yards and 89.4 percent of their receiving yards.

But, oh, what about those new guys, right? Who replaces the four spots vacated by Jerald Hawkins (left tackle), Jones (linebacker), Vadal Alexander (right tackle) and Jalen Mills (safety)?

It’s no easy answer. Camp battles will be waged.

Riley has the edge at the inside linebacker position in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense that’s referred to as the “Rover,” similar to a weakside linebacker, the spot Jones played last season. He’ll have stiff competition from a player coaches are high on – Devin White, a 6-1, 255-pound true freshman from Springhill – and a guy who started in place of Jones against Syracuse last season, Donnie Alexander.

No lead is safe, they say, and neither is Riley’s.

Right tackle Toby Weathersby has, arguably, the biggest lead of any player at the four open spots. Coach Les Miles dubbed him a starter just a few days into spring practice. Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes raved this spring about the 6-5, 290-pound Houston product, a talent who developed late last season into the Tigers’ sixth man on the line.

“He’s a guy, even though he didn’t start last year like Maea (Teuhema) and Will (Clapp) did, he got a lot of experience,” Grimes said in March. “He was with us whereas those other guys were down on scout team. He played a lot the latter half of the season. He’s much better than he was last year, and I think is showing he’s going to be a really good player for us this year.”

Rickey Jefferson replaced Jalen Mills at safety, at least during spring practice. Jefferson, a seven-game starter last season, lost his job late in the year as LSU’s safety in five and six-man defensive back sets. He struggled in coverage at times, and he’ll have a handful of players competing against him in camp for the safety spot opposite Jamal Adams.

Finally, there’s left tackle, a spot that Teuhema appears to have secured. That leaves open a guard position. Teuhema started all but one game last year at left guard. Clapp, right guard last season, played left guard with the starters during spring practice, and Josh Boutte played right guard. K.J. Malone played some guard, and Garrett Brumfield worked behind Boutte on the right side during the spring.

Boutte, like Riley, has waited three years for his shot to play. He lost his starting job midway through the season opener at Mississippi State last season.

Riley’s waited a while, too, spending the first three seasons primarily playing on kickoff and punt units. Last year, he was behind Jones. The year before, it was Kwon Alexander. The year before that, it was Lamin Barrow.

“I just stayed humble and doing what I can to get on the field,” he said. “Special teams (came) my way. That’s what I did. I’m going to do special teams this year because I love it so much, and I know in the long run it’s going to help me.”

THE FOUR

LSU returns 18 of 22 starters from a 2016 squad that went 9-3. That means the Tigers should have only four new starters.

Who will they be? Let’s take a look.

Offensive guard

  • Starter lost: Jerald Hawkins (he played left tackle)
  • Candidates: Josh Boutte, K.J. Malone, Garrett Brumfield
  • The Scoop: Maea Teuhema, a starter at left guard last season, is poised to replace Hawkins at left tackle. That leaves an empty spot at guard. Will Clapp is expected to play one guard spot, and Boutte, a 340-pound senior, worked with the starters at right guard during spring. Don’t sleep on Malone, though, and Brumfield could backup both guards.

Right tackle

  • Starter lost: Vadal Alexander
  • Candidates: Toby Weathersby, K.J. Malone, George Brown Jr.
  • The Scoop: A four-year starter, Alexander leaves a gaping hole on the right side, but Weathersby, a 6-5 sophomore from Texas, seems to have a heavy edge over anyone else. He served as the right tackle throughout spring practice, and as a true freshman, he played in a reserve role, getting a start against Ole Miss for an injured Alexander.

Safety

  • Starter lost: Jalen Mills
  • Candidates: Rickey Jefferson, Dwayne Thomas, John Battle
  • The Scoop: Jefferson participated with the first string throughout spring, playing along side starter Jamal Adams. The senior and brother to Jordan Jefferson started the first seven games of last season, mostly in nickel and dime sets, before struggling in coverage and moving out of the rotation. Thomas and Battle will find the field in multi-DB sets.

Linebacker

  • Starter lost: Deion Jones
  • Candidates: Duke Riley, Donnie Alexander, Devin White
  • The Scoop: This position is actually referred to as an “inside” linebacker in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s new 3-4 scheme. The exact name is “Rover.” Riley served in the role during the spring, but he’s got stiff competition from a burly freshman in White, who’s playing both Mack (middle linebacker) and Rover. Alexander is a speedy junior.

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.