‘It’s time to prepare’

Off-the-field issues not bogging down LSU coach

LSU coach Les Miles talks with reporters during Southeastern Conference Football Media Days, Friday, July 22, 2011, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
LSU coach Les Miles talks with reporters during Southeastern Conference Football Media Days, Friday, July 22, 2011, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

HOOVER, Ala. - Toward the end of a long, wild week for LSU’s football program, the coach strolled into a large hotel ballroom Friday afternoon, more than ready to address a field of reporters.

Les Miles wore a sharp suit, a purple necktie and an easy grin. He looked dapper and relaxed.

Or, at least, as relaxed as a Southeastern Conference coach can ever be.

If Miles felt any more troubled than usual, he did a fine job hiding it.

His seventh season at LSU is almost at hand, and Miles, along with everyone else, seems to know expectations are high.

Perhaps higher than ever.

“Summer’s over,” said Miles, the 12th and final coach to speak at SEC Media Days. “The youth baseball and swimming and basketball, walks on the beach with my wife, that’s past. It’s time to prepare. Frankly, I’m looking forward to it.”

Of course, Miles has more than a few reasons to look forward, not backward.

Amid a host of issues surrounding the program - the NCAA’s mandated one-year probation for improper phone calls and improper recruiting benefits to one player; wide receiver Russell Shepard’s absence from Media Days; and LSU’s dealings with recruiting service owner Willie Lyles - the Tigers all seem to know that when this season actually begins, it could be very memorable.

In a good way.

Preseason magazines are predicting at least a top-10 finish for LSU, if not a national championship.

With that in mind, it was at least a little odd to see only one player - cornerback Morris Claiborne - on the preseason All-SEC first team, which was released Friday.

Right tackle Alex Hurst and linebacker Ryan Baker made the second team, and three defenders - linemen Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery and defensive back Tyrann Mathieu, none of whom were technically full-time starters last season - all made the third team.

Then, of course, there’s the quarterback. Jordan Jefferson - now a senior, well-known across the region for his peaks-and-valleys career, made the All-SEC third team.

As for the team, LSU was picked to finish second in the West Division, behind Alabama (which, incidentally, put eight players on the All-SEC first team).

What, exactly, do all these preseason honors mean?

Leave the explanation to center T-Bob Hebert.

“It’s one of those things,” he said with a shrug. “Preseason rankings and teams and all that - it’s nice and it’s flattering if you make it high on the list. But in reality, it has no effect on the game whatsoever. In reality, you’ve got to do what you can control. And all we can control is our level of play. That doesn’t change, whether we’re first or 25th.”

Of course, the team, and its fans, would prefer first, not 25th.

As LSU inches closer to Arlington, Texas, and its blockbuster Sept. 3 season opener against Oregon, it appears poised for a run toward the top of the polls.

Its defense was certainly stout last season, and it could be stout once more.

Miles, for his part, said Friday that although LSU lost superstar cornerback Patrick Peterson, he doesn’t foresee a big drop-off in the quality of his secondary. The linebackers might have lost their leader, Kelvin Sheppard, but his absence might be softened by the likes of Baker, not to mention a burly front seven.

On offense, the backfield is well-stocked, the receiving corps holds talent and promise and the offensive line is heavy on veterans.

That, then, leaves one major position as a question mark.

The quarterback. Jefferson.

LSU fans can practically cite Jefferson’s inconsistent play last season, if not his raw statistics (among them, seven touchdowns to 10 interceptions, seven straight games without a touchdown pass).

“I had to have broad shoulders to able to handle all the criticism I received,” he said. “But I deserved it, because I didn’t play the way that I was expected to play.”

And why will this season be different?

Steve Kragthorpe, for one.

Hired in January to replace Gary Crowton as offensive coordinator, Kragthorpe is asked to not only revitalize the offense, but to develop Jefferson, Jarrett Lee and Zach Mettenberger into confident, accurate quarterbacks.

Miles said he believes it’s so far, so good. Especially with Jefferson.

“(He) really is at the best position that he has been in, in listening and taking coaching,” Miles said. “So he’s been well-coached. ... He also has a want to make this his team, to show leadership. I think, again, it’s making a difference.”

Added Jefferson: “It’s a lot of small things that a quarterback needs to master to become successful, and I think that coach Kragthorpe is doing a great job on teaching me those small aspects.”

Jefferson said he believes those small aspects can lead to big things - and if they do, who’s to say they can’t contend for championships?

The Tigers all certainly hope that’s the case.

Friday afternoon, their wild week had almost ended. Miles and his traveling party finished a late lunch, then headed back toward Baton Rouge.

Summer’s over. The work is about to begin.