Set to open camp, Tigers put fresh spin on age-old problem of inexperience

Gerry DiNardo gathered his assistant coaches in a room, stood up and delivered his message.

“I want everybody on the staff to meet with their freshmen this week to make sure they are adjusting,” DiNardo would say.

The message came each fall during the first week of classes. It was an annual reminder to DiNardo’s assistants that true freshmen — submerged in college classes while training at the major college level, all for the first time — need help this time of year.

“You have a freshman who’s starting, and all of the sudden school starts. You’re turning the kid’s life upside-down,” said DiNardo, LSU’s head coach from 1995-99.

“If you have a bunch of them starting …” DiNardo added, trailing off.

LSU could have a host of true freshmen playing substantial roles this season.

That means grooming and readying a group of all-star players for the big game amid distractions and school work.

It also involves hope.

Will they meet expectations?

Who really knows?

It’s why the Tigers enter fall camp Monday as one of the wild cards in the Southeastern Conference and on college football’s national stage.

LSU players report Sunday. All but one guy in the Tigers’ No. 2-ranked signing class is expected to be there; Florida defensive tackle Travonte Valentine is waiting on the NCAA Clearinghouse to rule on his eligibility.

Many of those highly touted rookies reporting will be thrust into major roles by the time the first game week arrives Aug. 25 — also the first day of school.

The Tigers lost 10 major contributors to last year’s team, six of whom made the early leap to the NFL. LSU’s starting quarterback, running back and top two receivers and defensive tackles are gone.

Through his many public appearances in the past month, coach Les Miles hasn’t eased expectations on a star-studded class that includes seven players ranked in the top five at their positions.

“Everybody recognizes that we will play freshmen,” Miles said at one stop. “We’ll train them, prepare them, and those guys that are talented, we’ll put them in position to go on that field as a true freshman.”

Still, they are freshmen. That’s what makes LSU’s 2014 season such a crapshoot.

The USA Today coaches poll, released Thursday, pegged the Tigers at No. 13.

Media members voted them to finish third in the SEC West, easily eclipsing fourth-place Ole Miss.

But then there are predictions like ESPN analyst Jesse Palmer’s. He made waves during SEC media days by picking LSU to finish fifth in the West — behind both of the Alabama and Mississippi schools.

Why?

“Young, talented, but unproven,” Palmer said of the Tigers.

The talented part has expectations high. The young and unproven parts have anxiety high.

DiNardo has been there. The coach-turned-TV analyst doesn’t hide the fact that he was nervous before a season in which rookie players were needed. He said coaches must “manage” freshmen differently than other players, especially those first-year guys who might play big roles.

Distractions are everywhere. The first week of school was always the worst.

All but a couple of LSU’s freshmen arrived in June, took summer classes and worked out with the team. That helps, DiNardo said, but being a full-time student preparing for a game is different.

“You really expect them to go to practice and have a good practice?” DiNardo said. “They just had five classes, woke up at 7 a.m. and got a syllabus bigger than any of their high school textbooks.”

LSU coaches have dealt with this plenty. LSU played more than a dozen freshmen last year — after 10 players left early for the draft — but just one (cornerback Tre’Davious White) started more than two games.

Things could be different this season. Three true freshmen — quarterback Brandon Harris, running back Leonard Fournette and receiver Malachi Dupre — could end up with starring roles on offense. And then there are safeties Jamal Adams and John Battle and cornerback Ed Paris — all guys who could see starts in the secondary.

How does a coach know who’s ready for the big stage?

“You can see it,” Miles said recently. “It’s not about what’s up in the stands. It’s always about cadence, snap, read, ball security, finish the run.

“Those guys that look like this,” Miles said, emulating a shocked teenager, “hopefully they’re on the sidelines.”

Making these decisions is easier for Miles than it was for DiNardo. High school players train year-round and most enroll in the summer — some even in January, like Harris.

The two primary things for freshmen to play early, DiNardo said, is learning the playbook and being in shape.

The coach played running back Kevin Faulk during his true freshman season of 1995. Fournette has been compared to Faulk and is likely the most celebrated Tigers signee since.

“Kevin was mature, in shape and he could learn,” DiNardo said.

DiNardo still had his share of anxious moments during preseason camp, knowing a first-year player would have such a big role.

Is Miles nervous? He only admits to having “concerns” for his roster depth after 16 juniors left early the past two seasons.

Said DiNardo: “I don’t think Les has a nervous bone in his body.”

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv. For more coverage of LSU football, visit our Tiger Tracks blog at blogs.theadvocate.com/tigertracks