LSU down 11 after injuries, academic problems, suspensions
LSU has lost 11 players — the equivalent of a starting offense, defense or special team — since the summer as injuries, academics and unacceptable behavior have taken their toll.
Though the Tigers have an unusually high talent level among their backups that enables them to withstand personnel losses better than an average team could, 11 is a large number, especially with 10 games left in the regular season.
Certainly any additional losses would eat farther into LSU’s depth, but for now, it appears the third-ranked Tigers haven’t been significantly impaired by the losses; however the start of Southeastern Conference play next week will provide a better indicator.
LSU has lost three starters — cornerback/punt returner Tyrann Mathieu (dismissed), offensive tackle Chris Faulk (knee injury) and strongside linebacker Tahj Jones (academics). Three veteran reserves — linebacker D.J. Welter, tight end Tyler Edwards and offensive lineman Evan Washington — are academically ineligible. A fourth, defensive end Jordan Allen (knee), was lost to injury.
Freshman wide receiver Travin Dural was lost to a knee injury during preseason camp, and three other recruits — wide receiver Avery Johnson, quarterback Jeremy Liggins and offensive lineman Fehoko Fanaika (junior college) — never made it to campus because of academic shortcomings.
Johnson plans to enroll at LSU in January, but Liggins’ and Fanaika’s plans are unknown.
How many of these players make it back on the team remains to be seen. This much is known — Edwards, a fifth-year senior, is done, and the injured players — Faulk, Allen and Dural — presumably will rehab and be back.
The most difficult player to replace was Mathieu, an All-America cornerback, dynamic punt returner and Heisman Trophy finalist a year ago. Freshman Jalen Mills has earned praise from coach Les Miles as Mathieu’s replacement in the secondary, making an interception against Washington last week and earning Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors.
Sophomore wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. brings big-play ability to the punt return game, having brought a kick back 72 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against North Texas.
But there are intangible ways that Mathieu likely can’t be replaced. Teammates have talked about numerous occasions when the Tigers were in a tight game and Mathieu spoke up in the huddle or on the sideline and said he was going to take the ball away from the opponent by causing a fumble or intercepting a pass, or pledged to break a long punt return — and then did just as he promised.
Most teams don’t have a player who can do that, let a lone an understudy who can fill in and duplicate it. Mathieu has enrolled at LSU and has two years of eligibility remaining, but it’s unclear whether he’ll return to the team. Miles said Mathieu won’t return this season.
Faulk, a second-team all-SEC player as a sophomore last season, is the next most significant loss, but the offensive line played quite well in its first game without him last week. Senior Josh Dworaczyk, who has played primarily guard but also been a backup tackle during his six seasons, filled in ably and figures to stay where he is.
Washington, who redshirted two years ago and was sidelined by injury for all of last season, was not among the top five tackles on the depth chart, not counting Dworaczyk. Faulk and fellow starter Alex Hurst each have another year of eligibility as does Chris Davenport. With talented freshmen Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins already above Washington on the depth chart, it’s questionable whether he’ll ever have an impact on the line even if he does regain his eligibility.
The linebacker position took a double hit as Jones was a projected starter and Welter was one of just two veteran backups at the start of camp. He became the only veteran backup when junior Luke Muncie moved into the starting lineup just before the opener after Jones’ academic issue arose.
Even here, the Tigers seem well fortified. Jones would have been a first-year starter and Muncie has played well as his replacement. Muncie has six tackles, including one for loss, in two games.
Welter, a redshirt freshman, played primarily on special teams and his departure opens a door to more playing time for LSU’s six talented freshman linebackers. Deion Jones and Kwon Alexander have gotten the most snaps thus far; Jones made a tackle for a 7-yard loss on his first play as a Tiger and Alexander recovered a fumble in the opener.
The wide receiver position also took a double hit with Dural’s injury and Johnson’s failure to qualify, but both figured to be far down the depth chart. Five veterans — sophomores Beckham and Jarvis Landry, juniors James Wright and Kadron Boone and senior Russell Shepard — are the top receivers, and sophomore running back Terrence Magee has gotten reps at receiver to add more depth.
Allen is a promising player who was caught in a numbers game at defensive end. Juniors Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo form perhaps the most talented end tandem in the country, and both figure to be first-round draft picks whenever they head to the NFL. Dependable seniors Lavar Edwards and Chauncey Aghayere and talented sophomore Jermauria Rasco provide the primary depth.
Liggins would have had to bide his time behind junior Zach Mettenberger and compete with redshirt freshmen Stephen Rivers and Jerrard Randle. Liggins’ absence paved the way for junior Rob Bolden to transfer to LSU from Penn State and bolster the depth.
It’s unlikely Fanaika would have played much on the offensive line, possibly the deepest area of the team, and Edwards, who had one start and one pass reception in three seasons, was caught in a logjam with sophomores Nic Jacobs and Travis Dickson as backups to senior Chase Clement.
LSU’s depth chart has undergone a makeover in recent months, but the Tigers’ expectations remain just as high.