Baton Rouge, La. - As Tiger fans worry about the unusually high number of juniors departing LSU for the NFL draft, they can breathe a little easier knowing the cupboard is not bare in Baton Rouge.
Let's start with the defense, specifically the line.
Gone are ends Sam Montgomery and KeKe Mingo, along with tackle Bennie Logan. That's a lot of talent to replace, but young players are waiting in the wings.
Defensive end Jermauria Rasco played in all 13 games last fall in limited action, but one of the standout signings of the class of 2011 is ready to finally make his impact felt. On the other end of the line, look for true sophomore Danielle Hunter to gain a starting role. The Katy, Texas native stands 6-feet-5 and 235 pounds and has the potential to become a solid speed rusher for the Tigers.
In the middle, New Orleans native Anthony Johnson is poised to be one of the team's most productive players. The former O.P. Walker standout is coming off a 30-tackle campaign with 10 going for a loss. Affectionately known as "Freak", Johnson should be able to double his sack tackle of three. Fellow junior-to-be Ego Ferguson looks to take over the other starting tackle position, having played in a reserve role in each game last fall.
Moving to the linebacking corps, Kevin Minter and his 130 tackles are gone to the NFL draft, but LSU's talented group of freshmen from last year grew exponentially over the past season. Kwon Alexander made his return from injury in the Chick-fil-A Bowl and combined with fellow freshman Debo Jones to make three tackles. That duo could battle for starting roles next season, along with seniors-to-be Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones, who should provide some veteran leadership for the unit.
And in the secondary, the Jalens will try to become LSU's latest edition of standout corners for DB-U. Jalen Mills was the fourth-leading tackler last fall in his true freshman season, while redshirt freshman Jalen Collins made 30 tackles and came down with 2 interceptions. Collins will place Tharold Simon and his team-leading 4 picks.
As for the open starting safety position opposite senior Craig Loston, rising junior Ronald Martin gained plenty of valuable experience last season, totaling 35 tackles and returning one of his two interceptions for a touchdown. Martin, a former prep quarterback, brings some intuition and headiness to the back line of defense and has the potential to produce like the departed All-American Eric Reid.
And these are just the current players on the LSU roster. There's no doubt the signing class of 2013 will also provide some key contributors. Kendell Beckwith, Greg Gilmore and the undecided Robert Nkemdiche would all be able to play early in their careers.
Now we shift gears to the offensive side of the ball, where the Tigers will return eight starters. Spencer Ware and Michael Ford may have left, but Jeremy Hill should be outstanding as the projected starter at running back, and Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue also return in the backfield.
The biggest needs are on the offensive line, where LSU needs a new left tackle and starting center. Guard La'el Collins may be asked to move to the outside, as former starter Josh Williford works back into a starting role. Junior-to-be Elliot Porter will likely replace the graduated P.J. Lonergan as the team's center, and Travis Dickson figures to be the Tigers' new tight end after hauling in six receptions for 73 yards last fall.
In 2013, LSU's offense will need to carry the team early as a young Tiger defense finds its way. That starts with quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who enters his third and final year in Baton Rouge looking to live up to his lofty expectations.
While there will be some bumps along the way, Tiger fans should be optimistic about the future, and the way this program continues to reload.
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