In his early years at LSU, coach Les Miles seemed to carry the stigma that he was too loyal to his seniors and that underclassmen had to bide their time before seeing the field.
Now in his eighth year in Baton Rouge, Miles has put that notion to rest. This season, freshmen made 31 starts, and 15 true freshmen have played — second-most in the country.
And with more than a month of time off and a bowl game around the corner, the Tigers are in one of the most crucial stages of development for younger players, working in lagniappe practices and workouts before the season ends.
“When you think of all the young guys that played and played significant roles in this season … you get to bowl practice and you get them reps and they just get better,” Miles said. “There are some guys who are being redshirted who will get reps in what will be a natural bowl practice. They just continue to improve. Reps are experience as you go forward.”
Miles called these extra reps “golden” and noted the biggest advantage comes on defense, namely the linebackers and cornerbacks.
The defense already has received its fair share of contributions from the young guns, with 21 underclassmen seeing action, five of whom made starts. But even with all that playing time, extra training never hurts.
“It helps us out a lot,” said sophomore safety Ronald Martin, who has played in every game this season and has one start. “It helps us get better and helps us to learn the defense even more. Even if we didn’t get in early in the season, the extra weeks are going to help.”
While the practices and repetition distribution haven’t changed, the upperclassmen have taken the younger guys under their collective wing in recent weeks, giving some final tips and pointers before passing the torch to the next era at LSU.
“I don’t want to be Eric Reid. I want to be better than him,” Martin said. “I’ve just got to keep working as hard as he does, watching film like he does, and I just study the things he does so I can just come in next year and do those things even better.”
Martin seems to be well on his way to more success, ranking No. 9 on the team with 33 tackles to go with two interceptions and a forced fumble.
Junior defensive end Sam Montgomery said he remembers when he was in Martin’s shoes two years ago, preparing for LSU’s trip to the Capital One Bowl as a true freshman. Montgomery noted that Jalen Mills, Deion Jones, Ego Ferguson, Anthony Johnson, Mickey Johnson and Jermauria Rasco were just a few of the players who could benefit from the extra practices and game.
“My whole first year, I just sat back and watched and learned,” Montgomery said. “Then the next year, I just came out on fire and refused to be denied.
“These extra practices definitely do help the young guys get their mind ready going into next spring.”
The learning curve is a little amplified for some players. Redshirt freshman Jalen Collins, who has played in every game and started at Texas A&M, was thrust into a significant role this season and likely will be a full-time starter next year. And depending on Tharold Simon’s NFL draft decision, Collins may be the longest-tenured corner at the start of 2013.
“I do feel like I’m ready for it,” he said. “I’m going to have to help the younger guys a lot more. I feel pretty good about it.”
It’s not just the defense that has an underclassman flavor. After mixing and matching all season, the offensive line found the right combination — which happened to include two freshmen, Trai Turner and Vadal Alexander, on the right side.
The offensive line will lose seniors Josh Dworaczyk and P.J. Lonergan but will return as many as six starters, not to mention freshman running back Jeremy Hill behind them.
“I believe it puts us at an advantage,” Turner said. “If somebody goes down, then somebody else will get in there and it’s not like fresh legs. They’ve been through that experience, and they know how it is and they know how to react to circumstances.”
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