Dellenger: LSU grapples with offensive exodus

Tigers will find loss of key stars difficult to replace

Mass Exodus, meet Almost Mass Exodus.

Eleven, meet Seven.

Doom, meet Gloom.

Who would have thought this? A year after setting a national record with 11 underclassmen declaring early for the NFL draft, LSU rivals that number 12 months later.

Seven Tigers plan to forgo their junior or senior years and make the leap to the pros.

The seven: receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., running backs Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue (who played four years but is passing on a fifth year of eligibility), defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and right guard Trai Turner.

Aside from Blue and Turner, the seven are expected to immediately reap some pretty good benefits.

The remaining five are projected to be selected in the top three rounds of the draft in May. Beckham, Ferguson and Hill, some analysts say, could go in the first round or at least the high second.

That means mega bucks.

For some idea of those mega bucks: The final pick in the first round last year, safety Matt Elam, received a $3.3 million signing bonus and a four-year contract worth nearly $7 million.

Even the second and third-rounders found the cash last year.

Former LSU defensive tackle Bennie Logan was selected as the fifth pick in the third round. He received a $680,000 signing bonus and a contract paying him $3 million over four years.

Hard to blame some of them? Of course.

Hard to blame others? Maybe.

Hard to have faith in the 2014 offense? Yes.

While last year’s departures were defensive-heavy, this year’s goners are from the other side.

Five of the seven are offensive players, and three are stars that helped the 2013 LSU offense do things the program’s never done.

Including departed seniors Zach Mettenberger and J.C. Copeland, the unit will lose its top two receivers, starting running back, starting fullback, starting quarterback and starting right guard.

The Tigers will return just 19 percent of their total yards from 2013 and just 33 percent of their touchdowns.

“Here we go again,” one LSU fan wrote me on Twitter on Monday as Mass Exodus II unfolded.

Six of last year’s early departures were on defense. That group was responsible for 41 percent of LSU’s tackles, 47 percent of its tackles for loss, 52 percent of its sacks and a third of its interceptions. And that’s not counting Tyrann Mathieu, who was dismissed from the team before the season.

The loss of so many defenders created the fan-maddening unit we saw this season.

LSU was forced to start inexperience and youth (seven new starters).

The Tigers shuffled their secondary to the very last game (seven starting lineups were used).

They failed to create enough big game-changing plays (forced just 19 turnovers, ninth of 14 in the SEC).

They couldn’t stop the last-second game-winning drives (see Georgia and Ole Miss).

Let the debate begin: Which unit — the 2013 defense or the 2014 offense — will have a tougher time replacing the early departures?

My vote: the 2014 offense.

The unit must get acquainted with a new offensive line coach (Greg Studrawa “left” the program) and will have to overcome the woes of a young starting quarterback.

The saving grace, for some, is the knowledge that LSU has a commitment from the nation’s No. 1 prospect: St. Augustine running back Leonard Fournette.

But can a true freshman running back have success in the Southeastern Conference?

Cyril Crutchfield, Fournette’s high school coach, said Monday that if “anybody can do it, Leonard Fournette can do it.”

He’s not a regular recruit.

Scott Kennedy, Scout.com’s national director of scouting, called him “the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson.” Fournette is rated the nation’s top-ranked recruit by all of the major recruiting services.

“It’s definitely something he can walk in and play, knowing that he doesn’t have to touch the ball 40-50 times,” Crutchfield said. “He’s even keel. There’s not any higher demand than what he puts on himself. He has his own expectations intertwined with the team goal. It’ll be the same approach on the next level.

“He’s a mentally tough young man. He’s a student of the game.”

He can’t throw it, though. (Or maybe he can?)

A quarterback battle will unfold in the spring and likely carry over to fall camp.

Guys like Fournette and the new quarterback won’t have the option of leaning on a star running back, two wildly talented receivers and a solid offensive lineman.

They’re a part of the seven, members of Mass Exodus II.