High expectations placed on Tigers for 1998 season

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 19, 1998

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / August 19, 1998

BATON ROUGE – Four years ago, promising to bring back the magic to Tiger Stadium, Gerry DiNardo went out and recruited a stellar class.

Four years later, that class is now seniors and it is those players that DiNardo and Tiger fans everywhere are looking to fulfill the high expectations that has been placed on the team this season.

LSU is ranked in the top 10 in virtually every preseason poll that has been released. The Tigers are ranked ninth in The Associated Press pollreleased last week, marking the first time LSU has been ranked in the top 10 in the writers’ poll since 1989.

While many coaches would try to talk down the importance of the polls, DiNardo said he would be the last one to squash the high expectations placed on the team.

“I don’t think expectations can ever be too high,” DiNardo said at LSU’s Media Day Thursday afternoon. “High expectations are good. How can youtake away someone’s goals and dreams before the season starts? “To base expectations on talent is not always the way to approach it. Ibase expectations on what is in the heart and in the mind. Ourexpectations are high. We will evaluate at the end of the season to see ifwe have met them.”Coming off a 9-3 season in DiNardo said this year’s team has the most talent of any of his four squads at LSU. The Tigers return eight starters onoffense and six on defense, including first team All-SEC performers Kevin Faulk at tailback and Todd McClure at center.

Faulk surprised many by foregoing the NFL draft where he was expected to be a high draft pick to return for his senior season at LSU. Faulk, theleading rusher in the Southeastern Conference with an average of 127.1yards per game, needs 773 yards to surpass Dalton Hilliard as the Tigers’ all-time leading rusher.

Faulk is one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy this season but DiNardo said he did not think that would be a distraction for the team.

DiNardo said that Faulk coming to LSU was a boost for the program, especially for one that was coming off six consecutive losing seasons. Hesaid Faulk’s coming back was another boost and another one will come when he graduates in December.

DiNardo stressed academics during the press conference, saying that there is a difference between being a top 10 team and a top 10 program. LSU hasin the past had low graduation rates for its football players and DiNardo said he wanted that to change when the statistics are released in 2001 for his first recruiting class.

“If our graduation rates do not increase from historical figures, I don’t think we have a top 10 program,” DiNardo said. “We may have a bottom 10program.”Joining Faulk from that Class of 1995 is quarterback Herb Tyler, a two and a half year starter at the position. Offensive coordinator Morris Wattssaid that experience at quarterback is one of the strengths of the offense this year. Watts said Tyler worked hard both on and off the field duringthe summer and that will allow the Tigers to open up the offense a bit, especially with teams preparing for the run.

“Herb is the most prepared to play the position since he has been here,” Watts said. “We would like to throw the ball better deep and I think wecan do that. He had his best offseason on and off the field.”There is still a battle for the backup role behind Tyler between Rohan Davey and Craig Nall. DiNardo said the competition is still neck and neckgoing into Fall practice and that he hopes to make a decision soon.

If the offense can effectively pass the ball this season, it will create even more opportunities for a stable of running backs considered one of the best in the country even with the loss in the offseason of Cecil Collins.

Joining Faulk in the backfield is junior Rondell Mealey, a Destrehan High School alum. Mealey was ninth in the SEC in rushing in 1997, rushing for664 yards and seven touchdowns during the season. Mealey capped off theseason by blitzing Notre Dame for 222 yards and two touchdowns in the Tigers’ Independence win over Notre Dame, winning the game’s MVP honors.

The backfield also includes senior Kendall Cleveland, who could start for many teams, and LaVar Johnson, a promising red-shirt freshman. TommyBanks returns at fullback after rushing for 70 yards and two touchdowns in 1997. His backup is still undecided after Robert Tyler was recentlyruled ineligible for the 1998 season.

Watts said even without Collins the Tigers will go ahead with some things they had planned for their abundance of running backs.

“We don’t have to change our way of thinking,” Watts said. “We still havethree tailbacks with Cleveland. It is still full speed ahead with putting aback in the slot.”Watts said the wide receiver corps is the best the team has had in the last three years. Abram Booty is the starter at split end after catching 35passes for 550 yards and a touchdown as a freshman. Junior Larry Fosterled the team with 43 catches for 579 yards and four scores and will start at flanker. Watts has also been impressed with the play of redshirtfreshman Ed Dangerfield during the spring. The concern is at tight endwhere the Tigers have no established starter after losing Joe Domingeaux to an injury in the spring.

The offensive line returns three starters. DiNardo said the strength of theline is the leadership of McClure and senior guard Ryan Thomassie and that all five starters have real quality. The downside is depth and DiNardo saidthat he hopes to settle that depth during Fall drills.

The defense, which led the SEC in scoring defense and was second in pass efficiency defense, will be under the guidance of Lou Tepper, starting his first full season at LSU after taking over for Carl Reese prior to the Independence Bowl.

The Tigers will be playing a 3-4 defense this season. Senior AnthonyMcFarland will play nose guard in the new alignment after placing second on the team with six sacks as a defensive tackle in 1997. Johnny Mitchellmoves into the starting role at tackle after backing up McFarland last season. Redshirt freshman Jarvis Green could start at defensive end.Senior Arnold Miller, a defensive end last year, moves to linebacker in the new alignment. Miller was the Independence Bowl defensive MVP afterrecording seven tackles and two sacks in the game. Senior Joe Wesley ledthe Tigers in tackles last year, becoming only the 15th LSU player to record 100 tackles in a season. There will be battle in Fall practice forthe other two linebacker positions.

Three starters return in the defensive backfield – seniors Chris Cummins and Raion Hill and junior Mark Roman. Juniors Damien Woods and MichaelStamps and sophomore Fred Booker will compete at the left cornerback spot.

Placekicking duties will come down to junior Danny Boyd and redshirt freshman Christian Chauvin. The punting will be handled by either juniorJeremy Whitten, who was the team’s pooch punter last season, or junior Corey Gibbs. Faulk and Mealey will return kicks.DiNardo said the key for the season is the ability to get ready for every game and consistency. The Tigers are coming off an inconsistent 9-3season, one that saw LSU upset then No. 1-Florida and shut out Alabama onthe road but lose to Auburn, Mississippi and Notre Dame at home. A bigfactor will be the senior class which DiNardo said has the potential to be the best group of seniors yet.

“We have the most talented team in four years,” DiNardo said. “Whether itis the best team we have to play the season out.

“We have gotten ourselves into the mix. We are going to have talent. Canwe graduate and motivate them? That is the issue.”

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