Miles, Tigers plan to build on LSU's successful run
BATON ROUGE, La. -- What does Les Miles do for an encore?
For one, don't look for another round of barbs directed at Alabama in any public settings. Don't look for him to play it safe on fourth-and-short. Don't look for him to wear his trademark cap any differently. You know the look, high and smack dab on the top of his head.
But most of all, don't look for much reflection on what LSU did last year.
Miles grimaces at the mere mention of complacency and admits that he never completely gets away from football. In fact, the only semblance of a break this offseason was a brief vacation to Cabo San Lucas with his wife, Kathy.
"We've been in a position in this program to do some special things, and we don't believe this team will be any different," Miles said last week after the Tigers' first practice of the spring.
It wasn't even two months ago that LSU strutted off the Louisiana Superdome turf as the BCS national champion, completing one of the most pulsating and chaotic rides to a national title in college football history.
And while Miles, entering his fourth season at LSU, has enjoyed every bit of the euphoric feeling that has followed, he has been careful not to get caught up in it.
He understands that it's never really the same after you win a national championship. Expectations change. The definition of what constitutes a good season and what constitutes a so-so season changes. The way other teams look at you and prepare for you changes.
What doesn't change, though, is the goal -- to win a championship.
From the very different QB stories at LSU and Georgia to the running story line at Auburn and Florida, take a look at the latest news from SEC spring practices. Chris Low
But with or without that shadow, Miles and this group of players, a group LSU receiver Demetrius Byrd refers to as the "new generation," are eager to add to their own résumé.
"So many people are doubting us coming into the season because we lost so many guys. But they haven't seen a lot of the other guys who've been waiting their turn. I have, and they're going to step up and make big-time plays for us, just like last year," said Byrd. The wideout knows what it's like to make a big-time play: His 22-yard touchdown catch to beat Auburn with one second remaining was probably the play of the year for LSU in a season filled with plays of the year.
Byrd added, "I feel like we're the new Miami. We've got players for days who are going to come and do what they've got to do. They want it. They're ready to work. I'm telling them every day, 'It's time to get serious. This is our time.'"
History isn't on LSU's side.
There hasn't been a repeat champion in the SEC since Tennessee in 1997 and 1998.
What's more, the past three SEC teams to win national championships (Florida in 2006, LSU in 2003 and Tennessee in 1998) didn't even make it to the SEC championship game the following year.
This is also the dreaded even year for the Tigers, in which the conference schedule takes a more treacherous turn. They have to go on the road in 2008 to face both Florida and Auburn -- and will do so without many of the key figures from last season's national championship team.
Gone are Glenn Dorsey, Jacob Hester, Matt Flynn, Early Doucet, Ali Highsmith, Chevis Jackson and Craig Steltz, most of whom will play in the NFL. Now it's on the "new generation" to keep it going after the Tigers won 34 games during Miles' first three seasons in Baton Rouge. For perspective, USC is the only other Division I-A team to have matched that total over the past three seasons. LSU won all three of its bowl games during that stretch, though, and USC did not.
"We lost a lot of good players, but we have a chip on our shoulder and have a lot to prove to everyone," said sophomore Jai Eugene, who's vying for one of the starting cornerback spots. "This is when, if you're really a player, that you step up.
"We want to show we can do everything they did here the last few years and maybe even more."
The identity of the 2008 Tigers ought to be familiar to LSU fans. Their strength will again be up front in both the offensive and defensive lines. All but one offensive line starter returns. Dorsey's loss will no doubt be felt on the defensive line, but the Tigers will have Ricky Jean-Francois for a whole season in 2008. He missed all but the last two games a year ago because of an academic suspension.
Anyone who watched Jean-Francois' dominant performance against Ohio State in the BCS National Championship Game knows what the defensive lineman is capable of. Miles said he plans to play Jean-Francois at both tackle and end.
"That's where it starts, up front. That's where the ball is snapped, and that's where you want to be strong, especially in this league," senior center Brett Helms said. "We've got almost everybody back but Glenn Dorsey on defense and Carnell Stewart [at right tackle] on offense. We've got to be leaders up front and lead by example. It's going to be a lot of hard work, leading by example, and hopefully, we can get everybody to come along with us."
The obvious question is at quarterback, where Ryan Perrilloux was all set to be the starter before he was suspended just before the start of spring practice. It's the third time Perrilloux has been suspended in the past year. Miles isn't promising when -- or if -- Perrilloux will be back.
"I want them to compete and get better," Miles said. "We'll see from there what happens."
For the first time, the majority of contributors on this team will be players whom Miles recruited and signed. The hot (and often polarizing) topic a year ago was that many of the players who led LSU to the national title were actually Saban signees.
Of the 22 starters, 19 were signed by Saban. The only defensive starter who wasn't signed by Saban was middle linebacker Darry Beckwith.
There's no debating that Saban left Miles a roster stocked full with NFL-caliber players. But the LSU players bristle at the notion that Miles was a glorified caretaker and merely living off Saban's talent.
"Really, who recruited who doesn't mean anything to me," said Byrd, who was signed out of junior college by Miles. "I didn't really know Coach Saban. If you want to play football, you're going to play whether you're one of his guys or not.
"The last time I looked, Coach Miles was the one who coached us to the national championship He's the one who got us to where we wanted to go."
Junior safety Harry Coleman, who stepped in for the injured Steltz and played well in the BCS National Championship Game, is one of those Miles signees who has been anxiously awaiting his turn.
"There ain't going to be no drop-off," Coleman said. "We've got some great players, some athletic guys who are going to be fine at any spot. Just give them an opportunity and a chance to play, and they're going to prove it to a lot of people."
The ironic thing is that Miles has followed a blueprint similar to Saban's on the recruiting trail. For the most part, Miles has locked down the state of Louisiana while cashing in along the Interstate-10 corridor over into Texas and east into Mississippi and Florida.
And judging by his confident smile, you get the feeling that he's eager to unleash some of the younger talent on this team.
Of course, the fact that he recruited most of those players is irrelevant. At least, so says Miles.
"The issue becomes: Are the relationships you have when you come to a school ... are they honest and sincere, and do they count? The answer is yes," said Miles, who signed his new contract in January and will earn approximately $3.5 million per year. "That's all you need to know. It doesn't make any difference who recruited them or who recruited whom. You get to coach them. You get to enjoy them. You get to develop them. It's your team, and I've never looked at it any differently.
"I've only looked at it one way, and that is that the guys you coach are yours and you coach them hard. You expect the most out of them and try to help them get what they want. In my opinion, that is a degree and a championship. That's the only way I've ever looked at it.
"I understand that much has been made about who's recruited certain players. I don't make much of it personally. I didn't when I came here, and I don't now. They're all mine."
Here's something else that belongs to Miles: The most successful three-year run in LSU's rich football history.
But this is a new day -- and a new generation -- on the Bayou.
Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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