While LSU football fans breathlessly await the outcome of a 3½-week battle to see who will be the Tigers’ starting quarterback for the season opener, another important competition is ongoing in the trenches.
With four of five starters returning, a group led by left tackle La’El Collins and left guard Vadal Alexander, the offensive line is generally considered to be the strength of this year’s team.
Center Elliott Porter and right tackle Jerald Hawkins also appear set, leaving seniors Hoko Fanaika and Evan Washington, who competed in the spring to replace Trai Turner at right guard, to fight for the final starting job.
That they’re the best of friends doesn’t make it any easier.
Both know it’s a very important piece to the puzzle, considering the Tigers will start a young and inexperienced quarterback in either sophomore Anthony Jennings, who has one career start, or freshman Brandon Harris.
No one has to tell Washington, a four-star recruit whose LSU career to this point has been disappointing to say the least with only one start in 13 games played — all last season.
“On the O-line, if four people do great and one person messes up, it looks like the whole line did bad,” Washington said. “All five of us have to be in accord and do the right thing.
“Whoever gets the job at right guard has some big shoes to fill,” he said. “Trai was a good player, but we can do it.”
That, however, is still a big question mark through the first two practices of the fall.
As they did throughout the spring, Fanaika and Washington are splitting first-team reps, working under the watchful eye of coach Les Miles and first-year offensive line coach Jeff Grimes.
During individual drills, Miles seems to be spending more time than usual working with Fanaika and Washington as well as center Ethan Pocic.
“(Miles) pretty much sharpens up my technique,” said Fanaika, a junior-college transfer who enrolled at LSU in 2013. “Whatever coach Grimes teaches me, (Miles) just adds on. So that just helps me better my craft.”
Fanaika said he appreciates the extra attention, knowing Miles and Grimes both played right guard in college.
“It’s still pretty much open, but I like it,” Fanaika said. “We’re both getting good work in the rotation. We’ve pretty much been getting equal reps.
“The competition is pretty much the same, but we really don’t focus on that. When he goes in, I’m not like, ‘I got to do better than him.’ It’s more like we just go in and do our job. If coach likes it, coach likes it.”
“It’s working out right now,” he said. “We’re both getting a good amount of reps, and we’re both giving it our all. At the end of camp, the coach will make a decision who gets to play that spot.
“The better man will win out, but it will be a fair competition. Whoever deserves to play will play this season.”
No matter who wins, the Tigers’ offensive line will be getting another big, powerful blocker — both stand 6-foot-6 and weigh 330 pounds — to protect the quarterback and create holes for the running game.
The eventual starter will get a spot that was surprisingly vacated by Turner, who gave up his final two years of eligibility to enter the NFL draft and was selected in the third round by the Carolina Panthers.
So neither could have envisioned having a chance to start at this time last year.
Washington never played in a game in his first three seasons at LSU. He was redshirted as a freshman in 2010, broke his foot a year later, and was sidelined by academic issues in 2012.
“I feel like it made me a better person,” Washington, who graduated last December, said of the tough times on and off the field. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Fanaika also had a rough time in his first season at LSU as he made the transition from the junior-college ranks, even though he was a standout at the College of San Mateo in California. For one, he had to shed about 35 pounds.
“Last year was hard,” he said. “It took me awhile. I feel like I’m transitioning now and really getting used to it actually — the speed, strength and everything.”
Now, it’s up to them to see who wins.
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.