The NFL deadline for underclassmen to enter the 2016 NFL Draft has become a moment that mixes pride and fear for LSU fans. The pride comes from knowing the Tigers are the top NFL “producer” in the country. The fear comes from wondering how the team can reload and compete in the SEC after losing the cream of yet another year’s crop.
This year, the feelings are a little less mixed. Jerald Hawkins was the only Tiger to declare early. Star players Ethan Pocic, Kendell Beckwith, Lewis Neal and Tre’ White are all returning for their Senior season.
Tight end Dillon Gordon has also applied for an extra year of eligibility due to injury hardship after missing most of last season with a recurring Achilles Injury.
LSU hasn’t seen this many draft eligible players return for another year since 2010 and 2011 combined saw a total of three LSU underclassmen leave, in a two year stretch.
If you recall, that two year stretch was the last time LSU was dominant in the SEC; and the last time the Tigers played for a national championship as well.
If the LSU QB position can stabilize and become moderately productive, fans should be looking for exactly that kind of run out of the Leonard Fournette-led Tigers.
Pocic’s return will help an offensive line that has to replace both tackles. If Dillon is granted a waiver and can play at full speed he will boost the running game and Leonard Fournette’s Heisman hopes tremendously. The biggest benefit here is on the defensive side of the ball.
Lewis Neal was the Tigers top pass rusher last year; and Arden Key was recently listed as the top freshman pass rusher in the country by ProFootballFocus. Returning the pairing of Neal and Key should give LSU it’s best pass rush since Keke Mingo and Sam Montgomery played for the Tigers in 2011.
Oct 17, 2015; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers defensive end Lewis Neal (92) pressures Florida Gators quarterback Treon Harris (3) during the second quarter of a game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
The biggest help will probably be up the middle with Christian LaCouture returning at DT and Kendell Beckwith at middle linebacker.
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Depth on the D Line was a major issue in 2015 but with Davon Godchaux and LaCouture returning as starters and reserves Frank Herron and Greg Gilmore shaping up into very solid players the DT rotation will be one of the strengths of the team.
Linebacker was such a concern the coaching staff spent most of the year frantically recruiting pretty much every top high school linebacker in the country. Beckwith’s return makes a world of difference to that thin unit.
Deion Jones and Lamar Louis are graduating but former high school track stars Duke Riley and Donnie Alexander are ready to move up. 5 star recruit Michael Divinity enrolled early to compete for playing time as a freshman and there is a possibility that fellow early enrollee Devin White may get a tryout at Linebacker as well.
The influx of talent along with the returning vets should please new LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Turning linebackers into playmakers is a specialty of his.
Tre’ White isn’t returning to a position of need, but having a returning All-SEC and possible 2016 All-American CB is a good place to be when your new defensive coordinator is installing a system that relies on playing man-to-man in the secondary, and applying pressure up front.
White will pair with Kevin Toliver II as the top returning corners. Toliver also made that Pro Football Focus Freshman All American team.
Freshman speedster Donte Jackson and his 4.24 40 time is going to be in line for increased playing time this year. So is early enrollee Saivion Smith, and Kristian Fulton if he sings on with the Tigers.
The 2011 team featured the greatest defense in LSU history. It is too early to tell if the 2016 group will live up to those lofty standards, but the returning talent and incoming recruits have put knocking off Bama and taking the SEC crown back home to Baton Rouge within the Tigers’ grasp……