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No. 14 LSU: Tigers' spring points to bounce-back seasons for the offense and defense

Scott Rabalais
Baton Rouge Advocate
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron hugs backup quarterback Myles Brennan during the 2019 game against Texas A&M in Baton Rouge, La. Brennan figures to have the inside track at this year's starting job, but Max Johnson is challenging him.

BATON ROUGE, La. — What conclusions there are to be drawn from a spring game or spring practice in general are highly subjective. And so much guesswork. What looks like a strength on one side of the ball may just be overpowering a weakness on the other. And what looks like a depth chart chiseled in stone may be just two lines of players drawn in the sand.

That said, there were key questions coming out of LSU spring practice that need to be addressed.

Who will be the quarterback?

We saw all four quarterbacks in the spring game: Myles Brennan, Max Johnson, TJ Finley and new freshman Garrett Nussmeier. There appeared to be a clear delineation between the two camps, Brennan and Johnson in Group A and Finley and Nussmeier in Group B, in terms of pocket presence and productivity.

Finley then transferred to Auburn. So, if, as it appears, the LSU quarterback tournament reached the finals, who between Brennan and Johnson will take the first snap Sept. 4 against UCLA?

First, and most importantly, it was simply good to see Brennan back on the field in game-like conditions. He looked 100% recovered from that freak, devastating abdominal muscle tear he suffered last season at Missouri.

His delight at being back on the field was obvious, and his passing numbers (11 of 15, 106 yards with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Kayshon Boutte in the spring game) were superb. If he reclaims the starting job, which seems a tip of the scale to the probable side, LSU can win with him at a level that can get the Tigers to a New Year's Six bowl.

LSU quarterback Max Johnson is sacked by Florida defensive lineman Zachary Carter during their game last December in Gainesville, Fla.

But I can't shake the fact that Johnson took the first snaps of spring practice, and the spring game. This feels like more than just a reward for a job well done as the starter of two redemptive victories last year at Florida and against Mississippi, games in which he threw for a combined 674 yards and six touchdowns with a .552 completion percentage.

You have to like Brennan for his experience and certainly for his toughness. Knowing what we know now about his injury at Mizzou, and how he managed to finish the game while throwing for 430 yards and four touchdowns, is utterly remarkable.

But I keep coming back to Johnson. To his escapability. To his work through his progressions. To his ability to remain cool under fire and to shake off a mistake.

If it was me, today, I'd start Johnson against UCLA. But there are many more trials to come in preseason camp, and whoever wins LSU will be the better team for it.

How did the new offense look?

It's hard to tell given the vanilla flavor of spring games. But we saw plenty of big runs and receivers, especially Boutte, getting into open space in a system crafted by LSU's new offensive coordinator, which could be referred to as Joe Brady 2.0.

Boutte, who set the SEC single-game receiving record with 308 yards against Ole Miss, looks like an All-SEC if not All-America talent. But he needs help. As ESPN analyst Tom Luginbill quite correctly said, the Tigers need more vertical threats than Boutte.

Jontre Kirklin showed out with more than 200 yards receiving combined for both teams. New offensive coordinator Jake Peetz will need him and a host of other receivers like Koy Moore, Jaray Jenkins, and freshmen like Brian Thomas, Chris Hilton and Deion Smith to make this offense sing.

LSU offensive tackle Dare Rosenthal, left, and wide receiver Kayshon Boutte pose for the camera during the Tigers' spring game in April at Tiger Stadium. Boutte caught a touchdown in the game.

How good did the defense look?

It certainly appeared improved from the 2020 version. Better organized, more aggressive, and this without injured Eli Ricks and Todd Harris roaming the secondary.

That said, a collection of those orange construction barrels on the interstate might be an improvement from last year's LSU defense. Still, there was a lot to like from new defensive coordinator Daronte Jones' scheme, especially from the pass rush

Again, this may prove to be a red flag for the offensive line, but defensive line pressure and disruption will be critical for LSU's pass coverage to improve.

Speaking of coverage, Derek Stingley looking like his old self (he had one of five interceptions) has to be a relief for Tigers fans everywhere. Having two past All-Americans at your cornerback spots in Stingley and Ricks has to be the cornerstone of improvement.

This defense just merely needs to be a complement to what has the makings of a potent offense.

Our preseason Top 25

For the last 12 years, the American-Statesman's sports staff has spent July breaking down our own preseason Top 25 rankings. Last year's eventual College Football Playoff semifinalists ranked first, second, third and ninth in our 2020 poll.

Our previous Top 25 team stories:

No. 25 Ole Miss: Rebels are hoping, banking on good returns from Lane Kiffin 3.0

No. 24 Washington: Huskies' Morris looks like the quarterback to run with — for now

No. 23 Louisiana: Billy Napier could be college football's next big thing (if he wants that)

No. 22 Penn State: Nittany Lions' safeties honed their craft at Lackawanna

No. 21 Oklahoma State: The next Gundy (Gunnar) begins his Cowboys career

No. 20 Iowa: Hawkeyes' Dane Belton knows path to NFL goes through team's success

No. 19 Coastal Carolina: Ready or not, the Chanticleers intend to stay awhile

No. 18 Texas: Bijan Robinson looks ready to carry the load for Longhorns

No. 17 Wisconsin: Spirited spring helped Badgers bond, players say

No. 16 Miami: Manny Diaz seems intent on building Hurricanes from local talent

No. 15 Oregon: Ducks' program is now  reaching recruiting, NFL draft high marks