The depth of talent on this year’s LSU football team was clearly one of its biggest strengths.
But that depth is a finite resource, a resource that has been heavily taxed by injuries and attrition.
The list of Tigers players who have been sidelined or ruled out since this summer is long, and seemingly grows longer by the week.
In all, 15 players have been injured, suspended, dismissed, ruled academically ineligible or transferred.
Four of those players are starters: cornerback/punt returner Tyrann Mathieu (suspended, reportedly for violating school drug policy), strongside linebacker Tahj Jones (academically ineligible), left tackle Chris Faulk (knee) and tailback Alfred Blue (knee, though he has not definitely been ruled for the season).
A fifth starter, fullback J.C. Copeland, suffered a knee injury Saturday against Towson. He is at least questionable for Saturday’s game at No. 10-ranked Florida (2:30 p.m. CDT on CBS) but was seen Monday walking without a limp as he left the LSU football practice facility.
The rest of the players are out for a variety of reasons.
Sophomore defensive end Jordan Allen and incoming freshman wide receiver Travin Dural are out with season-ending knee injuries, Dural never having made it to the start of the season.
Tight end Tyler Edwards, offensive lineman Evan Washington and linebacker D.J. Welter were ruled academically ineligible last month.
Junior college transfer Fehoko Faniaka, an offensive lineman, wide receiver Avery Johnson and quarterback Jeremy Liggins, all prominent members of LSU’s 2012 recruiting class, failed to initially qualify for academic reasons.
Johnson subsequently enrolled at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia and plans to enroll at LSU in January.
Liggins was enrolled at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College but left there before the fall semester began. His future plans are unclear, as is the case for Faniaka, a transfer from the College of San Mateo in California.
Three other players have transferred: defensive back Ronnie Vinson to Southeastern Louisiana, cornerback David Jenkins to TCU, and safety Sam Gibson reportedly to Arkansas State.
Some players’ roles have been easier to fill than others.
Blue’s injury was a blow, but running back remains a deep position for the Tigers, even with a possible shoulder injury to Spencer Ware that does not appear to threaten his season.
“The other 35 running backs we have besides Blue have done a great job,” quarterback Zach Mettenberger said facetiously.
Other blows have been critical. Faulk’s injury has impacted the LSU line’s ability to protect Mettenberger’s blind side, to the point that against Towson, the Tigers switched starter Alex Hurst from right tackle to left and started true freshman Vadal Alexander in Hurst’s place. LSU coach Les Miles indicated that Josh Dworaczyk, who started at left tackle against Washington, Idaho and Auburn, will be back there again at Florida.
“It’s part of football,” Mettenberger said. “People get hurt. Really it’s all about the guys behind them stepping up and making plays.”
Whether that ability to make plays is just as good is the critical question.
“The fundamental answer is: when you step into a starting role, you play to the expectations of the position,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “It’s just that simple. Yet when you lose starters, there are guys that step in there that probably aren’t as good as the starter.”
As with any situation, there is no set answer. While the loss of Faulk appears to be acute, Luke Muncie has filled in capably for Jones at the strongside linebacker spot, though he didn’t start against Towson because of an ongoing stomach ailment.
The most talked about replacement, true freshman cornerback Jalen Mills, has performed solidly as Mathieu’s understudy. Through five games, Mills is fourth on the team with 25 tackles and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions.
“We are pretty banged up,” junior free safety Eric Reid said. “But we have a lot of young guys who are very capable. We’re looking for them to step up. We want them to be ready. It’s a big game (this week). We’re going to need them.”
Partly because of all the personnel losses, LSU has played 15 true freshmen and 13 other first-timers this season. While that’s not unusual for LSU under Miles, the necessity of those inexperienced Tigers to play and play well is critical now.
“Give them some time, give them some coaching, and I think there’s an opportunity for us to be very, very comparable to any team,” Miles said. “I think there’s some honesty when a starter goes out that the guy who takes his spot is young and not necessarily ready that day. Beyond the Towson game, hopefully we’ll see that they are.”
Against Florida, they had better be.
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