September 1, 2012; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers wide receiver Odell Beckham (3) returns a punt for a touchdown against the North Texas Mean Green during the first quarter of a game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE
Place Kicking: Drew Alleman, a second-year starter and senior, is once again handling field goal and PAT responsibilities for the Tigers. Alleman hit an impressive 16 of 18 field goals last season, missing on 50- and 30-yard attempts early in the season before connecting on 10 consecutive shots in the year's final nine games. Likewise, he showed an ability to shake off his early-season jitters on PATs, and after missing two of his first 14 attempts, nailed his final 48 extra points of the season. He was serviceable but not fantastic in Saturday's game against North Texas, going 2 for 3 on field goals (hitting 44- and 30-yard attempts, while missing another from 34 yards out) and hitting all five of his PATs. Alleman was named to this year's watch list for the Lou Groza Award, which honors the nation's best kicker.
Kickoffs: Returning starter and true sophomore James Hairston is again responsible for LSU's kickoff duties, and looks to improve on his impressive freshman campaign. The highly-regarded recruit, ranked as the sixth-best kicking prospect in the 2011 recruiting class, averaged 65.7 yards on 70 kickoffs last year, with opponents settling for touchbacks on 16 of those kicks. He seems to be an early beneficiary of the NCAA's reformatted kicking and touchback rules, as four of his eight kicks against North Texas last week went for touchbacks --- a substantial improvement over his 22.8 percent touchback rate in 2011.
Punts: Redshirt sophomore Brad Wing is listed atop LSU's depth chart at punter, though he didn't handle punting duties for the Tigers in last week's game against North Texas due to concerns about a bothersome hamstring injury. Instead, Saturday's punting responsibilities fell to true freshman Jamie Keehn, who averaged 41 yards per kick on three boots to the Mean Green. Wing was named to this preseason's watch list for the Ray Guy award, honoring the nation's best punter, after he averaged 44.4 yards per punt last year, good for 11th best in the nation.
Kickoff Returns: Receivers Jarvis Landry, a sophomore, and Russell Shepard, a senior, occupy the top spots of LSU's kickoff return depth chart. They hope to replace the big-play ability of last year's primary kickoff returner, Morris Claiborne, who in 2011 handled 22 of the Tigers' 39 total kickoff returns. In those opportunities, Claiborne averaged 25.8 yards per return and took one kickoff back for a score. It's difficult to extrapolate any meaningful conclusions about this unit's performance last week, as only one North Texas kickoff didn't go for a touchback --- Odell Beckham Jr. returned that one for a 26 yard gain, for the record.
Punt Returns: Perhaps more so than any other on LSU's squad, this unit will miss the playmaking ability of its departed star from 2011. Tyrann Mathieu had an uncanny ability to turn his 5-9, 175-pound frame into something bordering on uncatchable, and watching him return a punt for a touchdown just minutes before halftime to spark an LSU onslaught in the SEC title game reminded me a bit of the opening scene to the film X2: X-Men United, when the Secret Service agents at the White House try to take down Nightcrawler: In both cases, as soon as the show began, you just instinctively knew that the defenders really never stood a chance.
Unfortunately for LSU, the Honey Badger and his dynamic playmaking abilities will not see the field in 2012, which means that sophomore receivers Beckham Jr. and Landry will attempt to pick up where Mathieu left off. Both players shared in the Tigers' punt return load last year, though Beckham and Landry only accounted for nine and one returns, respectively, as compared to Mathieu's 27. Beckham got 2012 off to a good start in this role, though, as he returned one punt in last week's game for a touchdown (pictured above).
That's it for this week's position previews! Hopefully I can get one of these done for Portland State next week, but I make no promises, as there isn't a lot of information readily available about their players. For all the Dawg fans traveling to Baton Rouge for this weekend's game, have fun and have a safe trip! As always, a reminder that this column is very much a work in progress, and I welcome any and all constructive criticism.
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