Les Miles was a subdued creature bopping around ESPN’s sprawling campus Monday selling LSU.
Oh, sure, the ninth-year Tigers coach plucked a blade of grass for a taste — a tradition Miles says makes him a part of the field — near the end of his daylong trek in Connecticut.
Aside from the small snack, the message deviated little from the script Miles worked from last week at the Southeastern Conference’s football media days: expectations after being picked third in the Western Division, the progress of quarterback Zach Mettenberger, SEC scheduling and the rise of hurry-up offenses.
But the trip’s broader goal was implicit: Expand exposure for a $68.8 million brand — one entering the season with tempered expectations and outside of the national spotlight.
Not that the lack of chatter surrounding LSU occupies much of Miles’ time.
“I don’t think it makes a difference,” Miles said. “We’ve always been motivated by what we can play ourselves into, and we control our own outcome. Our guys understand that there are other teams on the horizons, and we look forward to the challenge.”
There are a few of those awaiting LSU when players report to camp Aug. 4 and get to work a day later at the Charles McClendon Practice Facility.
Namely, replacing 11 underclassmen who declared for the NFL draft, which was an exodus that stripped the defense of six starters and leaves defensive coordinator John Chavis patching holes. Yet Miles took a familiar tack with ESPN’s Chris Fowler in an eight-minute interview on “SportsCenter” in that LSU recruits and develops talent on a three-year cycle.
“We kind of expected some of these 11 guys might leave us, so we recruited to (fill) that void,” Miles said. “We feel like we’re in a position to grow some youth.”
Then there’s the passing game, which ranked No. 11 in the SEC last season but seemed to find consistency over the final four games of Zach Mettenberger’s first season operating the offense. The arrival of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, a long-time friend of Miles and former overseer of the Baltimore Ravens’ attack, should provide the signal-caller comfort with tweaked mechanics and an experienced play-caller.
“We’re going to do the things we need to do to win the game — period,” Miles said. “The more that Zach is comfortable, the more we’re going to want to throw the football. We’ve got a great receiving crew. I think we’ll have a dominant offensive line and be able to protect him. I think you’ll look forward to us throwing the football.”
As for the fate of suspended running back Jeremy Hill, Miles’ stance hasn’t changed since he spoke to a room filled with reporters last week. The program is waiting for the legal process to play out, which includes Hill’s hearing Aug. 16 to review his probation status for an earlier incident in the wake of pleading guilty to misdemeanor simple battery July 12.
“I’m going to be fully informed before we do anything,” Miles said. “I’m not saying that we’re not counting on him to be on the roster.”
In Hill’s absence, LSU will lean on juniors Alfred Blue, coming back from a knee injury, Kenny Hilliard and converted wide receiver Terrence McGee at running back.
“We’re moving on,” Miles said. “Anyone that gets involved in an issue that separates himself from the team, we plan without (them), and we hope that kind of planning is not necessarily needed. But that’s what we’re going to do. It’s a difficult position to be in, certainly for Hill, but our football team must move ahead.”
The cool and collected persona displayed by Miles ran counter to his remarks to assembled media in Hoover, Ala., where he blended a critique of SEC scheduling with anecdotes about rappeling down a building. The polished display played well when ‘First Take’ co-host Skip Bayless asked Miles to define his coaching style in contrast to his famous nickname — “The Mad Hatter” — and risky play-calling.
“I try to be prepared,” Miles said. “Game plans are looked at meticulously — every facet. If you look at my teams, I’m looking to steal possessions. I want our defense to be strip-and-rip, and scoop-and-score. I want our offense to be ball-secure. The calls we make as coaches have to reflect the abilities you have with your team. When you know you can execute and you feel confident that’s the call, you have to make that call.”
On ESPN radio, Miles parsed the subject of setting up a practice schedule that balances conditioning, getting enough reps, and still developing a physical brand of football he wants to be a mark of the program.
“As coaches, we’re more wary of freshness and making sure our guys aren’t taxed,” Miles said. “We don’t want to risk injury, and there’s a wisdom that is prevailing across football, not only in college football but in the NFL and high school football.”
Still, Miles thinks there’s a way to instill mental toughness even if the structure of workouts is altered to alleviate overworking players. Namely, those moments unfold when players are fresh and making plays in scrimmages.
“We still go very hard,” Miles said. “No one said that we’re going to come off the throttle of physicality. No one said we’re going to come off the throttle of tackling and developing your team. But to do so when they’re fresh, when their legs have energy and they’re ready to go in there and play.”
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