LSU coach Ed Orgeron said people can expect a fairly vanilla spring game on Saturday. Considering it will be the first public scrimmage since the coronavirus pandemic outright canceled last year's game, the average fan will likely accept any flavor of football at all.
Yes, nothing signals the steady return of normalcy in college athletics like talking about just how boring a spring game will be. But Orgeron knows UCLA — LSU's first nonconference opponent since beating Clemson in the 2020 national championship game — will be watching, taking notes on the Tigers' new offensive and defensive schemes ahead of the 2021 season opener at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
Orgeron told reporters Tuesday evening, his last scheduled interview before the scrimmage, that he wants LSU's defense to keep a revamped Tigers offense from producing too many highlights. For anyone who watched the troubled LSU defense last season, a stout showing would be excitement enough.
The starters-vs.-starters, backups-vs.-backups scrimmage will indeed be conservative. Those who are looking forward to seeing new offensive coordinator Jake Peetz debut the spread offense that set records, produced a Heisman Trophy and helped win a national championship will have to wait until September for the full reveal.
Fine tuning LSU's run game will be a major focus on Saturday, Orgeron said. The Tigers will deploy their basic run plays. He doesn't want to broadcast all the team's pre-snap motions, shifts and complex personnel packages. But LSU needed to improve on the fundamentals in the run game after underperforming in 2020, the first season the Tigers didn't produce a 1,000-yard rusher since 2012.
Injuries have prevented LSU's running back room from having a complete spring to improve. Tyrion Davis-Price, LSU's leading rusher last season, missed an early scrimmage because of an injury, and John Emery, LSU's other top returning back, has mostly practiced without contact after undergoing surgery.
Orgeron said LSU is still "pretty thin" at running back. Emery won't scrimmage in live action. Tre Bradford, who had a minor hamstring injury this spring, will be available along with Josh Williams. The two running backs combined for 146 yards in 2020. LSU is still waiting on two top recruits, Armoni Goodwin and Corey Kiner, to arrive on campus in June.
"We should be completely healthy in (fall) camp," Orgeron said of the running back position.
The defensive side is somewhat battered, too. All-American cornerback Eli Ricks has missed the entire spring after offseason surgery, and Orgeron said Tuesday that starting defensive end Ali Gaye is questionable to scrimmage on Saturday.
Major switches and position battles will still play out.
Orgeron said LSU's four-man quarterback competition will split its first-team plays evenly between senior Myles Brennan, sophomores Max Johnson and TJ Finley, and early enrollee Garrett Nussmeier. Orgeron awarded Johnson the first snaps of the spring — a symbolic reward for winning LSU's final two games that Orgeron said "really didn't matter" and could've also been given to Brennan.
"There is no starting quarterback," said Orgeron, who has insisted the competition will continue through fall camp.
Jay Ward, a former cornerback and nickel safety, has been impressive behind the scenes since switching to free safety this spring. Orgeron has said the 6-foot-1, 176-pound junior "looked like an All-American" in the final stretch of last season and continued his improvements this spring.
Dwight McGlothern will likely scrimmage in place of Ricks on Saturday. The 6-foot-2, 182-pound sophomore saw marginal playing time in seven games last season, and Orgeron said McGlothern "has showed out a little this spring" and showcased the length and range that endeared him to coaches as a recruit.
Orgeron is looking for LSU's defense just to play "good, basic, fundamental football" in its public debut under new defensive coordinator Daronte Jones. Orgeron said LSU may run just one defensive front, one coverage in the secondary the whole time. The Tigers also won't blitz at all.
"It's going to be very basic," Orgeron said.
A basic scrimmage with no blitzes will highlight how an offensive line that's returning every starter will handle a talented defensive line that added five-star freshman defensive tackle Maason Smith. It appears that sophomore Anthony Bradford is pushing Chasen Hines for the starting right guard position. Orgeron told WNXX-FM, 104.5's "Off the Bench" Tuesday morning that the 6-foot-5, 365-pound Bradford is probably LSU's best one-on-one blocker at this point.
Defensive tackle Joseph Evans has also received repeated praise from Orgeron this spring. The 6-foot-1, 310-pound sophomore has flipped from the defensive line to the offensive line and back again in his two seasons in Baton Rouge, and Orgeron said he is now LSU's best interior lineman.
Orgeron said Devonta Lee, another player who has flipped positions a few times, "looked really good" practicing in the spring for the first time on Tuesday. The 6-foot-2, 224-pound Amite High graduate was recruited as a wide receiver, moved to linebacker, and has since returned to wide receiver.
The spring game won't likely solve all of LSU's depth chart questions.
Clemson transfer Mike Jones Jr. will arrive in June and enter a tussle with returning starter Damone Clark and junior college transfer Navonteque Strong for a starting job at linebacker. Orgeron also still has one scholarship spot available to spend. He said the coaching staff is still scouring the NCAA transfer portal to address a position of need — a need that Orgeron said has been changing daily.
Still, there'll be plenty questions answered in a noon scrimmage, in front of a 50%-capacity crowd that will be restricted to Tiger Stadium's lower bowl.
"Looking forward to having a great crowd," Orgeron said.