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SI FOR KIDS
In three years in Baton Rouge, Gerry DiNardo has restored the Tigers' dignity. That's nice, but not enough. What he really wants to do is win an SEC title
Make no mistake, football coaches love epigrams. In the name of motivation they preach, post, copy and mail almost anything that sounds vaguely profound. Some locker rooms look like the inside of the Lincoln Memorial. Think of it as chicken soup for the shoulder pads. With LSU, however, Greeley's message is worth conveying. Since arriving from Vanderbilt to replace Curley Hallman three years ago, DiNardo has restored dignity to Bayou football, and he's not done yet. "We'll continue to be good,'' DiNardo says. "What we would like is to be outstanding. To achieve that you need dominating talent, which we don't have, or great maturity and leadership, which we might have.''
The Tigers could also use some consistency. In one three-weekend stretch last season, LSU barely beat Vanderbilt 7-6, then shockedand exposeddefending national champion Florida 28-21 before losing to Mississippi 36-21. There's more. The Tigers beat Kentucky and Alabama on the road by a combined score of 90-28, then lost at home to struggling Notre Dame, 24-6. "We took some weeks off,'' says senior inside linebacker Joe Wesley. "We can't even take downs off if we want to achieve our goals.'' Says DiNardo, "Something has been missing.''
Working in LSU's favor is the fact that the program is now almost entirely DiNardo's: Only five of Hallman's recruits remain (starting defensive backs Chris Cummings and Raion Hill, starting linebacker Arnold Miller, reserve tailback Kendall Cleveland and reserve linebacker Aaron Adams). The rest of the squadincluding 16 returning startersowe their allegiance to DiNardo. "If the previous coach brought a kid in, that kid is saddled with a comparison,'' says DiNardo. "He can say, 'This isn't how the other guy did things.' It confuses the issue.''
To further promote team chemistry, DiNardo wrote his players inspirational letters each week and gathered his seniors in biweekly morning meetings during the off-season. The purpose of huddling the seniors was to remind the players that they are in this together. "We're a group that has been through a lot, and we know what disappointment feels like,'' says senior noseguard Anthony (Booger) McFarland.
Central to DiNardo's quest are quarterback Herb Tyler and tailback Kevin Faulk, both of whom have started for three years. Tyler took over the position late in his true freshman season and has started 25 consecutive games. He is an effective pass-run player, but in his career he has thrown nearly as many interceptions (17) as touchdowns (22), a ratio that must improve. "The whole team follows Herb's lead,'' says Faulk. "If he falls, we all fall.'' That's for sure. Tyler was 6 for 21 in a loss to Auburn last season; he was 10 for 17, with two touchdown runs, in the Florida upset. "He needs to be a senior quarterback, with everything that that means,'' says DiNardo.
Faulk needs to be a Heisman-worthy superstar, with everything that that means. He has had a quietly brilliant career and is just 773 yards short of becoming LSU's career rushing leader, a goal that became achievable when he decided to return for his senior season, despite assurances that he would have been a first-round pick had he chosen to enter the '98 NFL draft. "I only changed my mind about 150 times in the last week before the [draft] deadline,'' says Faulk. It's a good thing for the Tigers that he's back. Junior tailback Cecil Collins (596 yards rushing, three touchdowns last season) was kicked off the team in June after being arrested for unauthorized entry and sexual battery. Fellow junior Rondell Mealey went into fall practice with a sprained foot, leaving only Faulk and Cleveland healthy at a position that once seemed overstuffed with talent.
There is plenty of talent on defense. New coordinator Lou Tepper, head coach at Illinois from 1991 to '96, will use a simpler system than the multiple scheme employed by Carl Reese, who left to join Mack Brown's newly formed staff at Texas. Under Reese, LSU employed the wild press defenses that are the rage in the college game, and Reese often made dramatic personnel, alignment and strategy changes in the week leading up to a game. Tepper will be more conservative and more consistent. Says Wesley, "If Coach Tepper tells us to do something one way in September, I expect we'll still be doing it that way in November."
This fits in with the Tigers' theme. Win in September, win in November, with no slips in between. Win one for Horace Greeley.
1997 record: 9-3 (6-2, tied for 1st in SEC West)
Coach: Gerry DiNardo
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are from 1997 season.
Senior tailback Kevin Faulk missed two games and was slowed in several others last season by a hamstring injury yet still gained 1,144 yards. Herschel Walker's SEC career rushing record is 1,981 yards away and not out of reach. The Tigers are 15-2 when Faulk rushes for 100 yards.... New Orleans native and four-year starter Herb Tyler brings senior experience at quarterback. He passed for 1,581 yards and 10 touchdowns last season but is also a threat running the option. He rushed for 50 yards and two touchdowns in last year's upset of Florida.... SEC All-Freshman right tackle Trey Langley is one of three returning starters on the offensive line.... Anthony (Booger) McFarland, a 6'1", 290-pound senior noseguard, is the leader of a defense that should benefit from new coordinator Lou Tepper's streamlined scheme.... Senior linebacker Joe Wesley is the fourth Tiger in a decade to make more than 100 tackles in a season.
Schedule strength: 29th of 112
Sept. 19 at
Oct. 3 vs. Georgia
Nov. 21 at Notre Dame
The Tigers need to play every week like a team that belongs in the Top 10, not like one that's occasionally trying to upset teams in the Top 10. It's all in the attitude.
With a veteran team and games at Auburn and Florida, LSU has a chance to enhance its ranking with two quality wins and, in doing so, win its first SEC championship in the DiNardo era.
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