Kirk Herbstreit said the LSU football team left a lasting impression on him during spring practice.
The college football analyst — who will be part of ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcast from Athens, Ga., where the No. 6 Tigers and No. 9 Georgia play at 2:30 p.m. Saturday — recalled his spring visit.
He said he went in wondering how LSU could replace 11 early entrants into the NFL draft and left thinking the Tigers might still be really good.
“When I got around the team and hung out with (coach Les Miles) and watched practice, I realized LSU was in the rare position of being an underdog and could be a dangerous team,” Herbstreit said Wednesday.
At that time, and right on into September, most of the talk around the SEC was about Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M playing Alabama in the third week of the season — a game the Crimson Tide wound up winning 49-42.
“LSU was a forgotten team,” Herbstreit said. “I made a point to remember that this was going to be a team playing with a chip on its shoulder. I talked them up in August, and so far I’ve been proven right.
“I’m anxious to see how they do on this big stage. This is a big opportunity to not only get a big (Southeastern Conference) win but show the nation they’re a serous contender for a BCS bowl and maybe even the national championship.”
Herbstreit — who will leave Athens as soon as the game ends to fly to Columbus, Ohio, and call the Wisconsin-Ohio State game — said he sees a lot of difference in quarterback Zach Mettenberger and the LSU offense compared to last season.
“I see confidence. I see patience in the pocket. I see a guy that just looks like he believes in the system and the way they are attacking,” Herbstreit said. “I see a play-caller (coordinator Cam Cameron) that still believes in pounding the running game with Jeremy Hill and that offensive line.
“But we’ve heard so much talk in recent years about, ‘When is Les Miles going to stretch the defense and attack more?’ And they never really seemed to do that.”
Herbstreit said he now sees that. He credited Cameron for not ditching the old playbook in favor of his own, but salvaging the running aspects and elements that Mettenberger was comfortable with and adding “a more sophisticated” passing element.
“The most important thing is that a new coordinator doesn’t come in and say, ‘This is who I am and this how we’re going to change things to do it my way starting today; now go,’ ” Herbstreit said. “LSU has a unique combination on offense and I’m looking forward to seeing how far Zach and that team has come in their first real test in a tough road environment.”
Defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson each played 77 of 85 snaps against Auburn last week. With primary backup Quentin Thomas sidelined by a foot injury, LSU shortened the rotation.
Miles said he’s looking for one or more tackle among sophomore Mickey Johnson and freshmen Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore to join freshman Christian LaCouture in the rotation.
“They’re still guys we’re looking at that can step in, play, give us real quality snaps,” Miles said.
Johnson said defensive line coach Brick Haley began the week by encouraging those same three to step forward.
“Hopefully those guys will take it to heart and get everthing situated,” Johnson said.
Miles said Thomas did individual drills Wednesday. They should practice Thursday and play Saturday.
Miles said he has taken note of the higher scoring SEC games this season, but he’s not convinved the league’s identity is changing.
“Maybe there is a little more balance between offense and defense than there’s been in this league,” Miles said. “This has been traditionally a great defensive league. I can’t imagine that it won’t be.”
LSU has the third-best third-down conversion rate in the SEC (56.5).
“I think the ability to run it and throw it on third down, Zach’s arm strength and understanding of what we expect from him in a pass progression are all advantages,” Miles said.
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