BATON ROUGE, La. — The position battles didn’t end Tuesday with LSU announcing its starting quarterback.
Despite incumbent Danny Etling being named the starter for the Tigers against BYU on Sept. 2, there are more position question marks than answers.
Coach Ed Orgeron mentioned five positions where no one has won a job yet, and that’s not including the fights at kicker or for the kick return job. Nor does it count the ongoing battle for supremacy on LSU’s three-deep depth chart at wide receiver.
None of this means LSU doesn’t have options. The options are there. But with 10 days left before the season opener, LSU’s depth chart looks more like a halfway-finished puzzle than it does a complete thought.
Here’s a look at the Tigers’ most pressing position battles, a few of which might come as a surprise.
The fight for free safety comes down to a battle between youth and experience. On one side, there’s senior Ed Paris, a converted cornerback who won the job in the spring thanks to the traits he honed over his first three years. Going against him is freshman Grant Delpit, an early-enrollee who wowed in the spring and hasn’t stopped throughout fall camp.
Orgeron said he considers both Delpit and Paris to be starters, since both will see the field a lot. But only one of them can actually open a game on the field alongside returning starter John Battle.
Whoever wins the job will be replacing top-10 draft pick Jamal Adams. Expect Paris to have a slight lead because of his experience, but Delpit’s talent should carry him toward taking the majority of snaps this season.
Though the fight at nickel could also be described as a clash between youth and experience, it’s more a philosophical quandary based around what type of defense LSU wants to run.
The two leading competitors for the job are freshman Kary Vincent Jr. and sophomore Xavier Lewis, two different types of defensive back. Vincent is a traditional corner, a 5-foot-10 speed demon comfortable dropping back in coverage and hawking balls out of the air. Lewis is more of an in-the-box type, a willing hitter and skilled blitzer who fits as well on the line of scrimmage as he does at safety.
It’s fitting that, while these two are competing for the same position, Vincent often lines up with the cornerbacks during individual drills and Lewis with the safeties.
Against teams that run the ball more often and in game plans that require off-the-line blitzes, Lewis will likely be the guy for LSU. But against spread teams where LSU needs more than two cornerbacks on the field at a time, Vincent profiles as the guy, capable of matching up 1-on-1 against speedier slot receivers.
Speaking of blitzing, the Tigers are probably going to have to blitz a lot more while its buck linebacker position is being sorted out. With preseason All-American linebacker Arden Key recovering from his offseason shoulder surgery, LSU doesn’t have one buck linebacker on roster who has played a college down.
Don’t read that to mean the Tigers are lacking talent. Between redshirt freshman Andre Anthony and Ray Thornton and freshman K’Lavon Chaisson, LSU has enough raw ability at buck to be comfortable. But the battle will come down to whether LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda wants to rely on the raw pass rushing skills of Chaisson, the run-stopping ability of Thornton or the synthesized skill set of Anthony.
To Orgeron, relying on the three would be nice.
“They all three bring three different things to the table,” Orgeron said. “Andre is still a little gimpy. We’re going to play all three of those guys more than likely. It doesn’t matter who’s going to start. They’ll all be in the rotation.”
Since Maea Teuhema elected to transfer after academic and team rules issues kept him out of the beginning of fall camp, LSU has had a hole at right guard. For most of camp, the battle was between redshirt freshman Lloyd Cushenberry and freshman Ed Ingram.
But Orgeron added a third name to the mix Tuesday, freshman Saahdiq Charles.
“[Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes] and I talked about that,” Orgeron said of the right guard battle. “There’s not a lot of separation right now. Some guys do some things better. Big Ed is a great player. I got no problem if he starts. I got no problem if Saahdiq starts. I got no problem if Lloyd starts. All three would do a good job. We’re going to go throughout the week to find out who’s going to start.”
Like at buck linebacker, none of the three have college experience. Cushenberry started for LSU at center in the spring when regular starter Will Clapp was injured, giving him the most tangible playing history. But all have impressed Orgeron this camp, leading to a tight battle.
For most of fall camp, it was assumed the two inside linebacker spots were locked up. Devin White would take over for Duke Riley at rover and Donnie Alexander would step in for Devin White as the mack.
But Orgeron listed inside linebacker as a position battle Tuesday night. In all likelihood, he was talking about the battle to be Alexander’s backup, since he singled out freshman Tyler Taylor and Jacob Phillips, the two known backups at the mack. But given Alexander’s checkered injury history – one that kept him out of the spring game and forced a surgery in the spring – this could be the most important backup position for LSU.
Since Alexander is a senior and a respected leader, he’ll get the nod for the opener if he’s healthy. But if he isn’t, Taylor and Phillips have a competition ahead of them. Aranda describes Phillips as the more physical option and Taylor as the more cerebral type, different qualities that are more good than bad.
Again, this is Alexander’s job until something unexpected happens. But LSU could have worse options behind him.