Tigers have promise; but questions remain

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU head football coach Les Miles, center, enters to make his annual appearance before the Rotary Club Wednesday at Boudreaux's Restaurant in Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU head football coach Les Miles, center, enters to make his annual appearance before the Rotary Club Wednesday at Boudreaux's Restaurant in Baton Rouge.

By scott rabalais

Advocate sportswriter

As invocations go, it was a predictable prayer that Chris Ciesielski gave just before LSU coach Les Miles stepped to the podium Wednesday to make his annual summer address to the Baton Rouge Rotary Club, right up to and including the final line:

“A BCS berth wouldn’t hurt,” Ciesielski implored, cracking up Boudreaux’s jam-packed dining room. If God has a sense of humor and is indeed an LSU fan, the Almighty had to be amused.

Approaching his ninth season as LSU’s football coach, Miles really needs no reminders that football is Southern fried religion here in South Louisiana.

Even as he prepares to bid farewell to the grip-and-grin circuit for another year — the Rotary Club is typically Miles’ last preseason stop — the LSU coach didn’t do anything to tamp down the fires of excitement that envelop every football season.

“We have to have a great two-a-days,” Miles said. “We have to avoid injury. We have to start fast. If we do that, I like us.”

Like a candidate on the campaign trail — which, in a sense, he is — Miles again hammered away on the plank of Southeastern Conference football scheduling inequities. He brought up again how this will be the seventh year since 2003 (if you count 2005 and 2011 when LSU played Georgia in the SEC Championship Game) that the Tigers have played the Bulldogs and Florida in the same season.

At Alabama, again the preseason favorite to win the SEC, that’s only happened once, in 2008, when the Crimson Tide played Georgia in the regular season and Florida in the SEC title game. Miles said that’s never happened, and in the regular season he’s right, but that fact isn’t that critical in LSU’s campaign to stamp out permanent SEC opponents.

Stamping out Alabama will be another matter.

Does LSU have the chops to take down the Tide this season, or the other tough teams on its bristling schedule?

“Every team goes through a time in the fall camp calendar where it develops,” he said. “They finalize commitment and technique, and you get ready to take the field in the first game. That has to take place in all three phases. If we do that, we’ll be fine.”

It’s a standard Miles-ism to mention “offense, defense and special teams,” his gridiron Holy Trinity, but in LSU’s case, there are disturbing questions in each area.

On offense, the concern overriding even quarterback Zach Mettenberger’s development into a senior leader is the ongoing legal exile of running back Jeremy Hill.

“He really hangs in the wind,” said Miles as he and everyone else who follows LSU wait for Hill’s Aug. 16 court date. “I met with him recently and said I will get every piece of information before I make a decision.”

Translation: He’s off the team for now, but not necessarily forever.

Even without Hill, LSU has other running backs, and Mettenberger, and a promising receiving corps. Behind Mett, Miles didn’t deny a battle is brewing between freshman Anthony Jennings and sophomore Stephen Rivers to be the lead backup. For what it’s worth, Jennings and his dual-threat skills continue to get mentioned first.

Defensively, the worry is about the loss of seven starters to the NFL. But Miles pledged his faith in fifth-year defensive guru John Chavis and the ability of LSU’s youthful defenders to rise to a weighty challenge.

“I like the defense,” Miles said, mentioning his team’s considerable linebacker depth and talented newcomers like Lewis Neal, Tashawn Bower, Tre’Davious White and Rickey Jefferson (seemingly clear enough of his legal entanglements to play a role), who could all play a part in LSU’s defensive plans.

Amid all the talk of Hill and the defense and new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, a key but largely unspoken side story is about LSU’s kickers. James Hairston looked like the heir apparent to departed senior Drew Alleman. But more and more, Miles is talking up redshirt freshman Colby Delahoussaye. “I kind of like our place-kicker. I like Colby,” Miles said. “I think he’ll be a very, very good one.”

One last thing Miles was asked is who will be calling the plays on offense now that his close friend Cameron is coordinator.

“The offensive coordinator. He calls the plays every year,” Miles said. “But I promise you there’s a guy (um, Miles) on the headphones who says, ‘Don’t do that one,’ or, ‘OK, that’s good.’

“But I don’t call a play,” Miles said before breaking into that Miles grin.

As expected, when it comes to the offense, Miles still reigns supreme.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter.com at @RabalaisAdv.