Les Miles stood before a packed Rotary Club meeting Wednesday at Boudreaux’s and told stories about his family, about being labeled the Mad Hatter and a grass chewer, and about asking Hall of Famer Jim Brown at the Cotton Bowl if he remembered a young Les reaching out to touch him on the field decades ago after a Cleveland Browns game.
“He said yes,” Miles said, drawing big laughs from the estimated crowd of 400 in attendance.
Being entertained by a loose and relaxed Miles no doubt gave a lot of people stories to tell when they went back to work Wednesday afternoon. But what they all came to find out was whether Miles considers his team a national championship contender in 2011.
The coach didn’t back away from that challenge.
“Last year, we were right in position, in my opinion, to vie for a national championship,” Miles said. “Our goals are 100 percent graduation and the national championship. It’s one of those things that we’re going to keep in front of our team. I call it framework thinking.
“I think we’re very close. I want our guys to understand that’s what we’re playing to. As a young guy if you step into a position, it’s your responsibility to play how that position plays. When Patrick Peterson leaves, those cornerbacks who step into that spot see how he’s played and practiced. It’s the responsibility of those young men to play big - and play like Tigers.”
Miles said his team’s foundation starts with a good blend of experience and young talent.
“This team has 16 seniors and 24 freshmen and sophomores in the two deep,” he said. “The future is very good for our program. I think it’s the exact right mix.”
The part of the depth chart everyone wants to hear about is at quarterback, where oft-criticized Jordan Jefferson returns for his senior campaign.
Miles praised the work Jefferson and new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe have done and predicts big things for Jefferson in 2011.
“I think our quarterback will play his best year,” Miles said. “Steve Kragthorpe has had a tremendous impact on Jefferson at this point. Jefferson is in his senior year, he wants to lead, he feels like it’s his team.”
Miles said there is still competition between Jefferson and fellow senior Jarrett Lee - who Miles said is “in the best shape of his life” - and between Lee and sophomore newcomer Zach Mettenberger at backup.
“I think Zach Mettenberger is the most talented passer we have on our team, but right now Jarrett Lee is keeping him at bay,” Miles said. “Who knows (where) that will finish.”
Miles shrugged off the key defensive losses of All-Americans Drake Nevis and Peterson and All-Southeastern Conference linebacker Kelvin Sheppard.
“The defense will be faster at linebacker, defensive end and all spots in the secondary,” Miles said. “At the (line)backer spot when you lose a Kelvin Sheppard I think Ryan Baker and a number of guys will feel a need and a want to fill that void.”
Miles said he expects Drew Alleman to capably replace All-American Josh Jasper at place-kicker but that there is still a battle at punter between Brad Wing and senior D.J. Howard.
In the return game, spots also dominated by Peterson, Miles tabs cornerback Tyrann Mathieu to return punts and cornerbacks Mo Claiborne and Ron Brooks to return kickoffs.
Before he left the dais, Miles spoke indirectly about the persistent questions regarding his program and its $6,000 payment in December to Houston-based recruiting service owner Willie Lyles. Lyles has come under scrutiny for potentially acting as a street agent to use his influence to direct prospects to certain schools.
LSU’s payment to Lyles has come into question along with a $25,000 payment to him by Oregon, the team the Tigers open against Sept. 3 in Arlington, Texas.
“I’m not allowed to comment on some investigations being done by the NCAA,” Miles said. “But I want you to know that recruiting services are for getting film - and that’s what we’ve done. I’m for compliance. It’s a piece of my business that I take very seriously.”
Miles spoke briefly to reporters on a variety of topics, starting with the foot Jarvis Landry broke during summer workouts.
“We think about three weeks into camp he should be ready to roll, which is wonderful news,” Miles said.
Miles continued to downplay the issue facing wide receiver Russell Shepard. ESPN.com has reported that Shepard is dealing with a compliance problem related to rent payment arrangements with a woman he lived with who is a student worker in the LSU football office.
“There’s been communication that would (make) it appear it’s not very serious,” said Miles, who added Shepard can practice with the team even if the matter is unresolved.
Miles said backups James Wright and Kadron Boone are poised to fill any void at receiver, and that the Tigers may even use tight end Deangelo Peterson at a spot.
Asked if he’d spoken to Athletic Director Joe Alleva since Alleva decided to spurn interest from Tennessee and remain at LSU, Miles said he had not.
Miles was also asked if he knew whether the one-year NCAA probation that LSU was placed on last week voided the clause in his contract that says the school owes him a buyout if he is one day terminated.
Miles said he wasn’t sure and that it isn’t a concern of his. Miles new contract with LSU remains unsigned.
Rotary Club president Ken Best said the estimated 400 attendees Wednesday was the largest turnout ever for Miles, who typically makes the luncheon his last public speaking engagement before preseason practice begins.