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LSU linebacker Jacob Phillips (6) celebrates a tackle in the first quarter against Alabama, Saturday, November 3, 2018, at LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La.

It took more than 20 minutes for Joe Burrow's name to come up in LSU's first news conference of the 2019 regular season.

The state of the Tigers' starting quarterback has normally been the hot-button topic of every season opener for the past decade, and the prolonged absence of questions about Burrow showed the confidence people inside and outside LSU's football facility have in the man behind center.

Instead, the questions were directed elsewhere this year: Who will start on the offensive line? Who are the leaders in the position battles at tight end, nose tackle and inside linebacker? What's the depth like at cornerback?

These are the main concerns for No. 6 LSU as it establishes its identity in a season with College Football Playoff expectations.

Some questions went answered in the depth chart the school's athletic department released Monday morning, and it likely won't be until after the Georgia Southern game that there are clear answers for what a full LSU football team looks like.

LSU: Georgia Southern depth chart

LSU athletics

Sophomore Chasen Hines remains a possible starter on an offensive line that struggled last season, despite the left guard missing spring football and half of LSU's preseason practice while recovering from offseason knee surgery. The 6-foot-3, 336-pound Texas native was still practicing with a leg wrap on his right knee during Monday's shorts-and-jerseys practice.

Although senior Adrian Magee has been playing left guard with the first team since the spring, LSU coach Ed Orgeron has been reluctant to name him the full-time starter.

Orgeron continued to say Hines would push Magee for the starting job and said true freshman Kardell Thomas also could compete for starting time, until the Southern Lab graduate underwent surgery for a preseason ankle injury that may keep him out the majority of the season.

Hines took the most regular-season snaps (286) last season outside the starting offensive linemen. Against Mississippi State, he started as a true freshman in place of Magee (236 snaps) while Garrett Brumfield was out with a leg injury.

Reserve tackle Badara Traore is also considered "interchangeable," Orgeron said, at either tackle or at guard, and the former junior-college transfer could step in if necessary.

The offensive line, which ranked outside the top 100 nationally in both sacks allowed (35) and tackles for loss allowed (89) last season, has repeatedly been challenged by Orgeron in the offseason to improve. Its performance against Georgia Southern's 3-4 defense likely will influence what the rotation will be against potential top-10 opponent Texas on Sept. 7.

"We just come in and take it personal," starting right guard Damien Lewis said. "Just put it on us, and we're going to carry the team."


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The position battles at tight end, nose tackle and linebacker could be less consequential, but each represents the schematic changes LSU will field for the first time.

Junior Thaddeus Moss seems to be a more complete tight end than his counterpart, senior Stephen Sullivan, who will be used more often when the tight end is called upon to be a full-time receiver.

Moss, Orgeron said, "can block," is "big and physical" and "catches the ball well," while Sullivan is "not the big blocker like Thaddeus would be."

"We can flex him out, do a lot of things with him," Orgeron said of Sullivan, who caught 23 passes for 363 yards and two touchdowns in 2018. "Stephen has proven to us he can make big plays in big games."

How LSU uses its tight ends will indicate how much the offense's identity has changed from past seasons.

Orgeron said Monday the offense is mainly going to be out of '11' personnel: one tight end, three receivers and one running back. It's a grouping the Tigers used often last season, but former tight end Foster Moreau was more used as a blocker than a receiver.

Orgeron ensured Monday that LSU was committed to a more no-huddle, spread-out scheme this year, saying this is the "first time LSU has been strictly spread" and joking that he told the offense to get in a huddle the other day but "they don't know what that is anymore."

LSU's defense doesn't really know what a set depth chart is anymore, either. The team's official two-deep lists the Tigers in a traditional 3-4 defense, but defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has regularly transcended regular schemes in favor of hybrid arrangements based on an individual player's skills.

The fourth-year coordinator has a plethora of linebackers, and the position battle to start inside with Michael Divinity is between two players — juniors Jacob Phillips and Patrick Queen — who were both named to the Dick Butkus Award watch list for 2019.

Orgeron said naming the starter between Phillips, who started opposite Devin White last year, or Queen, who backed up White, will be a game-time decision.

There's a clearer picture at nose tackle.

Orgeron said sophomore Tyler Shelvin and true freshman Siaki "Apu" Ika "are both starters." Of course, one player will take the first snaps Saturday, but the defense's new backfield-shooting, aggressive scheme will require a steady rotation between the two.

And at cornerback, there is immense talent with preseason All-American Kristian Fulton and star freshman Derek Stingley, but the majority of the depth behind them is built with unproven true freshmen.

Fulton, who missed the spring while recovering from a season-ending foot injury, sat out most of the preseason's practices and scrimmages in his return to the field.

Former cornerbacks Kelvin Joseph and Mannie Netherly both have entered the NCAA transfer portal, and a move of junior Kary Vincent from nickel safety to cornerback would also require youth to fill in.

Orgeron said true freshman Cordale Flott, the No. 60-ranked cornerback of the 2019 class according to 247Sports, has impressed and Orgeron would "feel comfortable" playing Flott "if he had to start for us right now."

LSU signed four true freshman cornerbacks in 2019. Jay Ward has proven himself to be a strong tackler, Orgeron said, but Raydarious Jones "has had a couple injuries, so he's not ready to go right now."

All the questions pile together for a season opener that will be played at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Tiger Stadium.

"First game is going to tell you a lot about your football team," Orgeron said.

Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.