Depth of talent has been touted as one of the best attributes of this year’s LSU football team.
Saturday afternoon against Auburn in Tiger Stadium, that depth will be put to perhaps its greatest test after the suspensions of starting tailback Spencer Ware, starting cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and top reserve cornerback Tharold Simon.
A source familiar with the situation said the three sophomores have been suspended for the Auburn game (2:30 p.m., CBS) for violating team rules. There is no official word on the suspensions, including whether they will extend past the Auburn game.
LSU coach Les Miles refused to confirm the player discipline when he met with a bumper crop of reporters after Wednesday’s practice. When asked the obviously leading question of whether he expected all of his players to be available this weekend, Miles refused to take the bait.
“I expect that my team will take the field ably manned and ready to play at all positions,” Miles replied.
“If we miss guys we’ll promote from behind. I don’t think speculation serves our team at this point.”
That said, the players LSU will be missing Saturday possess singular talents that will be hard to simply replace with the next man in line.
This LSU team faced a similar situation to start the season. The Tigers opened against Oregon — ranked No. 3 in the preseason — missing three offensive starters: quarterback Jordan Jefferson and wide receiver Russell Shepard because of suspensions and starting left guard Josh Dworaczyk after a season-ending knee injury.
Despite being without those players, the Tigers posted an impressive 40-27 victory over the Ducks in Arlington, Texas, a victory punctuated by a forced-fumble-turned-touchdown-recovery by the highly opportunistic Mathieu on a punt return by Oregon’s Kenyon Barner.
While LSU has other quality players which it can turn to in the secondary, the Tigers have no one who can match Mathieu’s disruptive intensity.
He’s forced or recovered seven fumbles this season — returning two of them for touchdowns — grabbed a pair of interceptions and ranks second on the team with 42 tackles. Simon, Mathieu’s usual backup, is fourth on the team with 29 tackles and first with eight pass deflections.
Senior Ron Brooks, typically the backup to Morris Claiborne at left corner, is the obvious choice to replace Mathieu as the starter at right. Brooks has only had 10 tackles in seven games, but has the experience to calm a suddenly lonely position.
Redshirt freshman Ronnie Vinson could play a backup role at corner (he has no tackles this season) while safeties Craig Loston or Sam Gibson could be called upon to fill in Mathieu’s role when LSU goes to a nickel back formation.
Similar to Mathieu, no other LSU tailback can match Ware’s bruising between-the-tackles style pound for punishing pound.
Sophomores Michael Ford (67 carries, 359 yards, six touchdowns) and Alfred Blue (52 carries, 238 yards, four TDs) will likely lead a running back by committee that will also include true freshman Terrence Magee (15 carries, 47 yards, TD).
Ford and Blue are generally smoother, more gliding runners than Ware, and as such more likely to bounce a run to the outside than grind out yards straight up the middle.
For those tough yards, LSU could well resort to true freshman Kenny Hilliard (5-foot-11, 240 pounds). Hilliard, who has five carries for 20 yards, showed what a load he can be to bring down when he dragged tacklers along with him for 13 yards on his only carry against Tennessee.
While not a running back, Ware’s absence could definitely open up more running and passing opportunities for senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson coming off the bench.
Jefferson has been back just three games after serving a four-game suspension to start the season, but he is already LSU’s fourth-leading rusher with 22 carries for 109 yards and two touchdowns. He had 14 carries for 73 yards and a score against Tennessee.
Jefferson’s straight ahead keepers out of the shotgun formation could be a more than decent option for LSU’s running attack sans Ware. At 6-5, 223 pounds, Jefferson is no easy load to stop either once he gets moving forward, and certainly he seems an even more likely choice for the Tigers when they need to gain that one yard to keep the chains moving or get into the end zone.