LSU mailbag: Justin Watkins’ position, Arden Key’s replacement, freshmen expectations

Welcome to SEC Country’s weekly mailbag, a question-and-answer forum between readers and LSU team and recruiting reporter Sam Spiegelman.

In this edition, we touch on LSU’s pursuit of top-50 2018 athlete Justin Watkins, who will start in place of Arden Key in the season opener and the realistic expectations for the 2017 freshman class.

To submit a question for Spiegelman, send a message to @SamSpiegs on Twitter or email it to  sam.spiegelman@coxinc.com.

Remember a few years back when 4-star athlete  Justin Watkins was committed to LSU? At the time, that commitment was at defensive back to play in the secondary for  Corey Raymond.

Watkins, a top-50 prospect in the Class of 2018, is again down to LSU, as well as Alabama and Florida. The one-time Tigers verbal is being courted by Raymond. However, if he were to return to LSU’s recruiting class it would likely be at a different position this time around.

“Honestly, either,” said Watkins, when asked what position he would like to play in Baton Rouge. “It doesn’t matter just as long as I’m on the field playing. Slot receiver is probably my best position, so I might have to go with that.”

During Watkins’ most recent visit to LSU — his first — he spent time with offensive coordinator  Matt Canada and learned about the different roles there are for him in the new-look offense. Wide receiver is a much bigger need for the team in 2018, particularly with  D.J. Chark and  Russell Gage being seniors.

Of course, if LSU is able to land  Terrace Marshall Jr.Lawrence Keys III and even flip  Ja’Marr Chase, it’s unlikely it would turn away an athlete like Watkins if he wanted it. Like Watkins, Keys is being courted by the Tigers to play a role in the slot and is an LSU lean. Watkins’ versatility could warrant consideration as a defensive back. After the loss of 4-star  Nadab Joseph, Raymond could insert Watkins into the Tigers’ secondary plans at cornerback.

Both scenarios are plausible.

I don’t believe it was a ploy, Jacob. The competition behind center is similar to that of every other position group on the field. The freshmen and the veterans alike have been granted the opportunity to compete for jobs in Year 1 of the  Ed Orgeron era.  Myles Brennan and  Lowell Narcisse were competing with  Danny Etling for the starting quarterback job, just as Orgeron promised they would when they were recruits coming out of high school.

The same can be said along the offensive line.  Saahdiq CharlesEd Ingram and  Austin Deculus are getting reps with the first-team offense to try and earn roles in their freshman seasons. The same goes for the secondary, where safety Grant Delpit and cornerback  Kary Vincent Jr. have seen a ton of action. Delpit is in the mix for a starting job next to  John Battle and Vincent is toe-to-toe with Xavier Lewis for the nickel job — if not a smidge ahead.

Whether that comes to fruition or they settle for spots as backups in the two-deep remains to be seen, but the chance to compete and have a say in the competition is what’s critical.

I was skeptical about Brennan’s chances to start for LSU at first. Now, I’ve come to terms that Orgeron and his philosophy about competition are true and should have been taken more seriously.

While Brennan was never the overwhelming favorite to land the starting gig, he was a part of the competition. The fact he had a chance to compete for the job and is in a position to back Etling up and see the field as a freshman should serve as evidence.

Deric, if you look at my blurb on the Tigers’ offensive line, defensive backs and quarterbacks, then you can guess where I’m going with this response. Ingram is pushing Lloyd Cushenberry for the starting right guard job. Orgeron indicated Delpit and Vincent are currently viewed at as starters at safety and nickel, respectively.

With the competition at so many different position groups ongoing, I am confident the aforementioned trio and an even larger chunk of the Class of 2017 signees will have roles as early as this fall.

Some of it is due to injury and thinning depth charts. Take the buck linebacker and quarterback groups for example.  Arden Key won’t play in the season opener against BYU in Houston, which thrusts freshman  K’Lavon Chaisson into the picture along with redshirt freshmen  Andre Anthony and  Ray Thornton for playing time. That trio is  competing for the starting job and more likely than not, all will warrant playing time in Week 1.

lsu-football-qb-battle-myles brennan-lowell narcisse
Freshmen quarterbacks Myles Brennan (15) and Lowell Narcisse (2) during LSU’s first open practice of the fall (Sam Spiegelman/SEC Country)

The same can be said at quarterback.  Lindsey Scott Jr. elected to transfer earlier this month, which leaves Brennan, Narcisse and  Justin McMillan to compete for playing time behind Etling. Only McMillan has accounted for a pass attempt, so in no way is this an unfair competition. If an injury were to occur, Brennan is the next man up behind Etling. Nonetheless, Orgeron stated he’d like to see both of his freshman quarterbacks see the field this fall. If said opportunities present themselves, I don’t see why we shouldn’t get a glimpse of both Brennan and Narcisse.

On the line, I believe Deculus and either Charles or Ingram will earn spots on the two-deep. Deculus should take one of the backup tackle jobs and it’s looking like Ingram could back up  Cushenberry  at right guard. The bill is out on  Donavaughn Campbell, who’s a big X-factor in this competition but has missed time due to multiple injuries this month.

At receiver, I anticipate that both  JaCoby Stevens and  Racey McMath will carve out roles. When Canada met with the media Monday, he mentioned he would like to see an eight-man rotation at receiver in his offense. So behind Chark, Gage and  Derrick Dillon, there are opportunities for the freshmen to take advantage. Sophomores such as  Drake Davis and  Stephen Sullivan are going to be involved, but McMath is probably the most physically ready of the freshmen, and Stevens adds unique athleticism to the position.

In the front seven, we know Tyler Shelvin will take a redshirt in 2017. Both  Neil Farrell and  Justin Thomas are vying for spots in the defensive end rotation, and defensive coordinator  Dave Aranda said it’s not out of the question both see time on the field this fall. Of the three freshman linebackers,  Jacob Phillips showed up ready to roll from a physical standpoint. He could push senior  Donnie Alexander for playing time and would warrant it if an injury were to occur.

Again, Orgeron indicated both Delpit and Vincent are being viewed as starters already. That’s not to say that  Ed Paris and  Xavier Lewis aren’t going to challenge for playing time. Whether Delpit and Vincent get the nod against BYU or they split time with the veterans, both are expected to play roles in the Tigers secondary.

I’m not sure it matters who is listed as the starter for the opener against BYU. Why? Orgeron anticipated all of the bucks — Thornton, Anthony and Chaisson — will see the field in place of Key.

Key, LSU’s marquee pass rusher, should miss the first game of the season and there is no timetable for his return. So, the performance of the others could be an indication who will be getting most of the playing time in place of Key — until he is able to give it a go.

To answer the question, I believe either Thornton or Chaisson will wind up getting listed as the starter Sept. 2. If it’s Thornton, it’s because he has the most experience. If it’s Chassion, it’s a result of a stellar camp and taking advantage of significant reps with Key in and out of practice over the past month. That, plus Anthony has been battling injuries, although we saw the redshirt sophomore on the field Monday and Tuesday when practices were open to the media.

Look at it like this: Aranda described his defensive philosophy in two ways when it comes to Key. There’s a strategy for when No. 49 is available and there’s a different strategy for when he’s on the shelf. When Key is a go, the pass rush centers around him. When he can’t play, it’s more of a team-wide approach.

Because Key won’t suit up against BYU, I don’t see any reason why Aranda wouldn’t elect to utilize Thornton, Anthony and Chaisson to try and fill the void. Thornton is the choice for running downs. Anthony and Chaisson fit on pass-rushing downs. It seems like it’ll be a three-way effort.

That doesn’t sound likely.

Etling has been anointed as LSU’s starting quarterback. Brennan will likely back him up after coming up close in the competition. The same goes for Narcisse, and Orgeron refused to discount McMillan as someone who could push for playing time down the line.

We viewed Etling as the favorite to start since the spring. Orgeron made a huge deal out of letting him and the quarterback room know Sunday it would be Etling in order to bolster his confidence two weeks before the season opener against BYU. To me, it seems contradictory to name a starting quarterback, but then remove him from the game in favor of Brennan or Narcisse to operate specific packages on offense.

The two freshman quarterbacks will see the field for one of two reasons: either Etling was to suffer an injury and need relief or the game will be out of reach and there will be an opportunity for Brennan or Narcisse to get plays in mop-up time.

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