GULF SHORES, Ala. — Sandwiched between Auburn coach Gene Chizik and Alabama’s Nick Saban here Saturday at the Southeastern Conference’s inaugural SEC Beachfest, Les Miles packed some meat into his preseason message.
Miles shared some insights to key players for his team one Saturday away from its opener with North Texas (6 p.m., ESPNU), insights that start with expectations for his quarterback, junior first-time starter Zach Mettenberger.
“Zach had a lot of talent and ability,” Miles said, “but all he really needs to do is function in the offense. Make sure he does the things he can do. We’re not asking him to do the things he cannot do. Throw the ball efficiently and get us in the right play.”
And the right play, Miles stressed, will be throwing the ball more often.
“I think we’ll play him aggressively,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any time we have the leash on him. He’ll go play.”
Asked to compare Mettenberger to the controversial Jordan Jefferson-Jarrett Lee combination last year, Miles said there was no way to make a comparison — and that there will be no controversy over who plays.
“If you’ve watched me over the years, I seldom name a quarterback well in advance,” he said. “He’s our quarterback.”
With injuries having hampered both Spencer Ware and Michael Ford during preseason camp, Miles gave the indication that sophomore Kenny Hilliard and junior Alfred Blue will be the first running backs Mettenberger is handing off to in the season opener.
“Kenny Hilliard has had a great camp,” Miles said. “He looks to be a little bit leaner and quicker, but still one of the more physical backs I’ve been around. Alfred Blue has had a great camp. He’s running the ball with great vision, he makes you miss. He’s 220 pounds now having gained 10 and is 6-foot-2 with great ball skills out of the backfield.”
LSU is trying to fill a multi-faceted void since the dismissal earlier this month of Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu.
As Mathieu’s replacement at cornerback Miles spoke about true freshman Jalen Mills and sophomore Jalen Courtney but also mentioned true freshman Dwayne Thomas. Miles said Thomas has come on of late after being slowed by an injury earlier in camp.
Miles also touted the leadership ability of junior free safety Eric Reid.
“Eric Reid has the ability to stand in front of a team and say, ‘Play like me. Do the things I ask you to do and watch me do them,’ ” Miles said.
“He’s counting on the rest of us to live up to our end of the bargain.”
As for Mathieu’s role as punt returner, Miles mentioned wide receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, but also said Ware could be a factor there as well.
A number of retired SEC coaches and legendary players are also here this weekend, making appearances and signing autographs.
One of them is Tommy Casanova, LSU’s only three-time All-American.
From one great LSU cornerback to another, Casanova expressed his disappointment over the behavior that led the school to dismiss Mathieu earlier this month.
“It’s extremely unfortunate,” Casanova said “I played with a bunch of guys who did the same thing every day.
“Testosterone is a dangerous thing.”
Casanova said he believes the Tigers can rally without him and still have an excellent team.
“The kid is a real talented and instinctive player, but I don’t think they’re going to miss him,” he said.
Chizik’s issue has not been identifying a cornerback but a quarterback. He named Kiehl Frazier as his starter just Thursday, the sophomore beating out incumbent Clint Moseley.
“We played him enough last year that he’s ready for this moment,” Chizik said. “How he plays in front of 80,000 or 90,000 every week, that’s what he’ll have to deal with.”
For Saban, the issue is staying hungry after winning a second national championship in three years, something his 2010 team couldn’t do.
“This year’s team doesn’t have the talent and experience of that 2010 team, but they’ve worked hard,” he said. “This team has learned a lot of lessons.”
Segments with Miles, Saban and Chizik will be shown at 9 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU.