Just about every season, teams face questions heading into training camp. How will a particular draft pick of free agent impact the team, how will a new coach work out, etc.
The same holds true for the Saints, just about four weeks away from training camp. With the return of their head coach and new man heading up a defense that made history in the worst way, you bet there’s a ton of questions for the Black and Gold. The good news is, there isn't much in the way of distractions facing the team.
Question #1: Was the 7 and 9 finish a year ago a mirage or a true indication of the talent on the team? The Saints were without their head coach, assistant head coach and so on for most or all of the 2012 campaign. Though the players didn't use the inconsistency at the top as an excuse for their sub-par season, the Who Dat Nation will forever wonder: Would Payton have made a huge difference last season?
It's hard to tell. Was Payton the missing piece or was (is) there a talent deprivation on the roster? The Saints will be anxious to prove to the league they'll be back in the mix in 2013 now that Payton is back on the sideline. As I’ve said before, Payton alone is worth two wins per season.
Question #2: How much, if at all, has Payton changed as a coach after a year off? Upon reinstatement by the league in January, Coach Payton said he had a lot of time to reflect and analyze the game from afar. Payton probably has a new perspective on a lot of things/trends in the NFL. It will be interesting to see how Payton's time away helped him as a coach. Did he see something differently with his team? Did he solve the "Zone Read Option Offense?" What did Payton learn in his time away that will become of some value to the Saints?
Question #3: What will Rob Ryan's impact be on the defense? After finishing as perhaps the worst defense in NFL history, the Saints had to make a change in defensive coordinators. Sean Payton didn't just change coaches, he changed the scheme when he hired Rob Ryan to run his defense. Aside from a few players Ryan Inherits largely the same group of players that were woeful last season.
With that said, Ryan designs schemes that fit the players he has on the roster, not to mention the personnel on the Saints defense were drafted with a pressure scheme in mind. Rob Ryan doesn't have to put a top 5 defense on the field week and week out. If Ryan can just turn the defense into a middle-of-the-road, opportunistic performer, that will be plenty good enough for the Saints to make a run at another Lombardi Trophy.
Question #4: Who will be the left tackle? When Jermon Bushrod cashed in with the Chicago Bears in free agency, it left a huge void on the left side of the offensive line. The Saints appear willing to let three players battle it out for the right to protect Drew Brees' blind side: An unproven (but often injured) Charles Brown, rookie Terron Armstead, and journeymen Jason Smith. Brown looks like the early favorite, but don't be surprised if Armstead is the long term answer at the position. You could argue this might be the chief concern for the Saints considering the amount of cash the team handed Drew Brees last summer.
Question #5: Can the Saints generate a pass rush? Too often last season, opposing quarterbacks were able to eat a sandwich in the pocket while surveying the secondary on passing plays. In large part that was due to the scheme and the inability to get after the passer and speed up the delivery. Switching to the 3-4 scheme should allow the Saints to generate a better rush.
OLB Martez Wilson might just be the wild card in this entire defense. When he was drafted out of Illinois in the third round in 2011, experts projected him as an outside backer in a scheme similar to the one Ryan will run this season. With the pressure style of defense and better personnel in some spots, I think you will see the pressure and sack numbers go up for New Orleans.
Well, Who Dats…Those are my five questions. What are yours? Sound off below!
Since Sean Payton was reinstated after a season-long suspension in 2012, the raging debate has been what kind of impact he will have on a 7 and 9 team that sorely missed his guidance and steady leadership last season.
The ‘Voice of the Saints’ says Payton’s return will help return the squad to as close to normal as you can get in the NFL. “I think anything that provides normalcy is welcomed by this football team, a steady factor of direction is what he should provide,” Jim Henderson explained. Payton’s return won’t automatically equal wins for the team, but it will equal a steady routine, relatively few distractions, and a well-prepared work week leading up to games.
Players laud Payton’s ability to prepare them for the week ahead. “He’s a great communicator, and he tells us each week what will win or lose the game. He knows exactly what wins games at this level,” said offensive lineman Zach Strief.
Payton has a rare ability to pinpoint and almost predict how a particular game will play out. That ability gives the players extreme confidence that they are prepared to play well and win. Before last season I said Payton alone was worth 2 wins a season. I can think of two games the Saints would have won if Payton were on the sidelines: The opening week loss to the Redskins, and the week three loss to the Chiefs. In that loss to K.C the Saints squandered an 18-point 4th quarter lead. That simply would not have happened with Payton on the sidelines.
While I’m not putting the Saints back in the post-season just because Payton returns to the field, I am willing to bet they’ll be in the thick of things in the NFC playoff picture. The defense won’t be a dreadful mess that it was a year ago. The offense will be its usual efficient self. You’ll see a team that is clearly more focused on the details of winning and losing, and well prepared team week in and week out.
The Payton Factor has already been felt in the team’s training facility, and likely will be felt through the NFL when the regular season begins.
LSU fans proudly donned shirts that read “Geauxmaha" at the College World Series. Perhaps they should trade them in for shirts that read “Geaux-home-aha." That’s exactly what LSU is doing after just two games in Omaha, and until they change a championship is not in their future. What happened? Where do I start?
How about the fact that LSU’s three, five, and six hole hitters went “0 for Omaha” in the two losses. LSU scored just three runs in two games. The Tigers stranded over a dozen runners on base in the loss to North Carolina. I think LSU lost this game back on Sunday night. LSU never got over the stunning loss to UCLA and it carried over to game two.
I can’t understand the team’s reluctance to bunt and play small ball. Why? LSU is built to play in small parks, and play for the big inning. The Tigers are not built to play and win in Omaha. They rely way too much on the big inning instead of stringing together a couple of runs here and a couple of runs there and sacrificing runners around the bases. The Big Bat era is gone. Today’s collegiate game is built around teams that can advance runners, get solid pitching, and play good defense. The Tigers didn’t have one, not one sacrifice bunt in the CWS.
In the 8th inning against UNC the Tar Heels were in “No doubles” defense. In other words the 1st and 3rd basemen were guarding the lines to prevent a double. North Carolina was begging LSU to bunt with runners at 1st and 2nd base. Instead LSU chooses to swing away and promptly ends the inning with zero runs to speak of.
The game of collegiate baseball has changed with the change in the bat rules. It’s no longer a game of long balls and 11 to 9 wins. It’s now about stringing together a few runs and winning it with pitching. LSU has a bunch of players who can smash it, and no players who can place it (as in a well-timed bunt). The Tigers spend time in practice working on bunts, but don’t call it in the game. Why practice something you don’t use in the game? It’s a waste of time to work on it and never call for it in a game.
If LSU doesn’t adapt to the style of baseball that is staring them in the face, there are likely more “two and out” trips to Omaha in their future. Warren Morris, Blake Dean, Todd Walker and other power hitters are not putting on an LSU uniform again. The days of digging into the box and seeing how far you can hit it are over. It’s a small ball game, and either you adapt to that or you will have a small collection of national championship trophies to speak of.
All is not lost for LSU. The experience that freshman short stop Alex Bregman, and sophomore right hander Aaron Nola gained in Omaha this year will be invaluable next year. The big question is not if LSU will return to the CWS, but if they’ll change their approach a bit to get to the CWS and WIN.
It’s hard to believe two of the top baseball programs in the country are looking at a “two and done” scenario at the CWS this afternoon. The Tigers and Tarheels have gone back and forth in the national polls as the number 1 team in country, with LSU as the current No. 1. The Tarheels are the No. 1 seed in the tournament and No. 2 in the country. UNC is 57 and 11 this season. The Tigers are 57 and 10.
So, what gives?
“I really expect a great ball game," LSU coach Paul Mainieri told us on Monday afternoon. "I really believe we’ll play a lot better.”
The Tarheels found themselves in the loser’s bracket after falling to N.C State in the opening round 8 to 1.
Mainieri says the Tigers will regroup quickly after the first-round loss to UCLA.
“We know what the rules are now,” Mainieri said. “We've got to win four in a row to get through the bracket. It's very doable, you’ve just got to go out and play. We've got to play better than we did Sunday night. If we can do that ‑‑ we can't look beyond Tuesday. And we've got a really tough team to face on Tuesday.”
LSU will send sophomore left hander Cody Glenn to the mound in the elimination match against UNC. Glenn is 7 and 2 on the season, but rust may be a factor. Glenn hasn’t pitched since the SEC tournament over three weeks ago. The sophomore southpaw was suspended for the regional round of the NCAA tournament, and did not see action in the Super Regional win over Oklahoma. “I gotta have a good start that’s the key. I’m gonna catch my groove and I am gonna try to catch my groove as soon as possible in the game” Glenn said. Coach Paul Mainieri admitted he is a little concerned about rust being a factor in starting Glenn.
North Carolina will counter with freshman right hander Trent Thornton (11-1. Thornton spent most of the season as the Tarheels' closer. He’s a tremendously hard thrower with a fastball that touches the mid-nineties. Thornton mixes speeds really well in addition to his electric fast ball.
UNC and LSU are almost mirror images of one another, with nearly identical records. The Tarheels are 57 and 11, the Tigers are 57 and 10. Along with being the top 2 teams in the national polls. LSU is hitting .306 as a team, UNC is hitting .305. The all-time series between the two schools is even at 2-2. The Tarheels eliminated LSU from the CWS back in 2008.
LSU coach Paul Maineiri’s decision to start Cody Glenn on the mound is a logical one. UNC has struggled against southpaws this season with more than half of their 11 losses coming against lefties. The Tarheels also have a handful of left handed hitters in their line-up. Mainieri clearly wants the match up advantage in his favor.
One of the top two teams in the country will be headed home tomorrow night. For either team it would be an extremely disappointing cap to an otherwise stellar season. Both squads entered the CWS with aspirations and legitimate expectations of winning a championship. This is the match up that many would want to see in the championship series, but instead we’ll watch one eliminate the other Tuesday afternoon at 2.
Sure, Alex Bregman’s error in the 8th inning led to the go-ahead score for UCLA in a 2-1 win over LSU. Catcher Ty Ross also committed an error as well in the 6th inning that lead to a run. However, those are physical mistakes. The mental mistake of not sacrificing Mason Katz to second base with Raph Rhymes by Coach Paul Mainieri in the bottom of the 9th inning was the real back-breaker.
Rhymes grounded into a double play and crippled a chance at a last at-bat rally for the Tigers.
"I took a gamble and we came up snake eyes," Mainieri said after the game.
That gamble now has LSU facing elimination tomorrow afternoon against North Carolina.
Mainieri said the sacrifice bunt was “on,” and when Rhymes got ahead in the count 2 balls and 0 strikes he decided to employ the hit and run. Mainieri was hoping for a big final inning to win the game instead of playing for the tie. That is the ideal count for a hit and run (2-0 count.) However, at that point against UCLA’s best pitcher (David Berg,) the right choice would have been to sacrifice Katz over to second base.
Looking ahead: LSU will start sophomore left hander Cody Glenn on the mound against North Carolina. Glenn hasn’t pitched since the SEC tournament after being suspended in the Regional round, and did not pitch in the Super Regional. So, Glenn is certainly well rested, but there is a concern about “rust.” No word on who will start for UNC.
The Tigers have 57 wins this season, and many felt this might just be the best team LSU has brought to Omaha. However, that simply won't matter if they go two and out in the CWS. First pitch tomorrow is at 2 o’clock from TD Ameritrade Park here in Omaha.
The LSU Baseball team took in a practice at Bellvue East High School just south of Omaha on Saturday. The team, and their coach, seemed very relaxed.
The day started with overcast skies and a few drops of rain, with much stronger weather passing souuth of Omaha. But by the time Jay Vise and I started broadcasting from the high school facility at 3:00 p.m., it was all blue skies. The team will practice again at the high school facility, assuming they win at least one of the first two games on Sunday and Tuesday.
LSU Head Coach Paul Maineiri told us that the big-time crowds all year at Alex Box have a lot to do with that.
"When you come to play at LSU, you're under a lot of scrutiny," Maineiri said. "You play in a lot of big games, you play in front of a large contingent of fans, you talk to to the media, you sign a lot of autographs, a lot is expected of you, and you play great competition in the SEC...as far as I'm concerned, it mirros what happens here in Omaha."
Tiger fans were wondering about the condition of junior 2nd-baseman Jacoby Jones, who had a stomach aillment when he arrived in Omaha. Well, from what we saw today, he looks like he's just fine. He stroked the ball well in batting practice, kocking six balls out of the park.
There was a nice showing by LSU fans at the high school, folks from across the Purple and Gold nation. One thing that will tell you how much this game, and media, has changed: Just below the press box, one somewhat older gentleman (who appeared to be about 70) was watching live streaming video of the Mississippi State game on his smart phone as he watched LSU practice.
Join me and Jay Vise for a live broadcast from WWL Tiger Central in Omaha Sunday morning from 9 to noon on WWL Tiger Radio. Geaux!
I caught up with LSU Head Coach Paul Maineiri here in Omaha as he signed autographs for Tiger fans at TD Ameritrade Park. The LSU faithful were out in force two full days before their first game, with a line for autographs that stretched halfway around the stadium.
You could consider Omaha as "LSU West" because the Tiger Baseball team and their fans feel right at home here making their 16th CWS appearance.
"Omah is great, this is our second home. This is how we feel about Omaha," Maineiri told me after their short Friday afternoon practice.
The Fans feel right at home, too. The large contingent of fans wearing purple and gold certainly walks around with a sense of pride and honor. Just about every turn you see "LSU Baseball" T-shirts and Tiger Flags flapping in the stiff Nebraska wind.
Maineiri said practice went well for his team. "We had a big day today. We had a nice practice and signed some autographs."
LSU is ready to get down to business. "They (the players) know what the goal is," the Coach said.
The Tigers are gunning for their 7th baseball national title, but Maineiri is taking it one game at a time. "Just getting to Omaha is a tremendous achievement," he explained.
Impressive, indeed. Five of eight national seeds lost in the Super Regional round.
"Once you get rid of all the hoopla, it's just baseball," said Maineiri. "These kids have a chance to be remembered forever. They can be the team to bring home the 7th national title in LSU history."
LSU takes on UCLA on Sunday night at 7:00 p.m. here on WWL. I'll be broadcasting Saturday afternoon from 3 to 6 from a local high school where we'll get to watch the LSU Baseball team practice.
In a spirited workout this morning in Organized Team Activities, Saints linebacker Victor Butler went down in team drills after colliding with Mark Ingram on a passing play.
After practice, though, Coach Sean Payton said Butler "banged Knees with Ingram and should be OK." It was a bit of a hold-your-breath moment out at camp.
What stood out: The 1st team defense held the 1st team offense from a 3rd and medium conversion attempt in four tries during the team portion of practice. Cornerback Jabari Greer came up with a leaping interception of a Drew Brees pass intended for Marques Colston. Greer came back 2 plays later and deflected a deep ball from Brees to Morgan. And, the defense continues to make strides in Organized Team Activities. Rookie defensive back Rod Sweeting also making a few plays on some the ball today.
Players that did not partake in today’s OTA's included: TE Benjamin Watson, OT Terron Armstead, CB Ryan Steed, S Roman Harper and CB Patrick Robinson.
Harper has been limited throughout the OTA’s and minicamp. Armstead suffered a stomach injury last week, and Robinson aggravated a knee last week as well.
The Saints are back on the field tomorrow and Thursday for the final 2 OTA sessions before training camp. The offseason workouts have been intense. “I think coming off a disappointing year, we have enough veteran leadership on this team and players recognized we can be a lot better and we’re going to need to be better,” Coach Payton explained.
For a complete breakdown of today’s OTA from our pro’s Bobby Hebert and Hokie Gajan be sure and tune in to sports talk at 4PM today on the Flagship Station of the New Orleans Saints WWL 870AM/FM 105.3, and online at wwl.com.
LSU Baseball Coach Paul Mainieri took a few minutes to stop by Sports Talk to chat with me and Bobby Hebert about the Tigers' preparations for Omaha.
"We had a nice simulated game today with Cody Glenn throwing about six innings," Mainieri told us. "I thought he threw the ball, actually, much better than last week. Last week he looked a little bit rusty, after having the weekend off. This week he looked a lot better...I was very pleased."
Mainieri said today's workout was designed to let the guys ease back into their routine following the emotional blowout win over OU on Saturday.
"It really was kind of a low-key practice, except for the little simulated game we played, kind of letting the guys get their bodies back to feeling good, and tomorrow we'll have a good longer workout, and Wednesday, then off to Omaha on Thursday."
Coach Mainieri agreed with Bobby's take on Jacoby Jones' ability to be a game-changer.
"He's just one of those guys that has that ability, when he puts it all together, he can be the best player on the field, easily," the Coach told us. "Throughout the year, he's played great defense. When he wasn't hitting, he was contributing to the team that way. But when he gets his hits, and he gets on base, his legs become so valuable, and he can hit the ball so hard. SO, he just put it all together this weekend...He was just a difference-maker, and really carried our team, offensively. It was fantastic the whole week, and was probably our most valuable player, outside of our pitching staff."
Looking ahead to UCLA, Mainieri agreed that their pitching could rival some of the best LSU has seen this year.
"Their head coach John Savage has a pitching background, he was the pitching coach at Southern Cal...And that's been what his emphasis has been on in recruiting for UCLA, and he's continued to have some magnificent rotations. A couple of years ago, they had the first and the third pick in the draft in the same rotation."
Despite LSU's very talented and deep bullpen, Coach Mainieri told us it’s not as much of a factor in the first round of matchups at the CWS.
"You could wind up winning your bracket with only using two starting pitchers, if you have two really good starters and a closer," Mainieri told us. "Once you get in the Championship round, you have to have three starting pitchers, because you play three consecutive days, and of course your bullpen becomes more important in the three-game series...it's more like a traditional weekend series, or a Super Regional."
And, the fact that Omaha's huge, loud crowds resemble many a home game at Alex Box isn't lost on Mainieri.
"That's what I talked about all day with (the team.) It's different, there's no question about it, with the enormity of it all, and all the pageantry...but like I told our players, let me tell you what the characteristics of the College World Series is: You play in front of big crowds, you play in a brand new, beautiful ball park...there's enormous media coverage, there's an enormous amount of fans, and you play great competition on national television...I don't care that we aren't experienced...I think if there's a team in the country that can handle being in that environment without having been there in the last couple of years, I've got to think it's us, because that's what we're dealing with just about every day.”
As if there was any doubt, the LSU Tigers put an exclamation point on their Super Regional Championship with 6 runs in the top of the 9th inning and went on to an 11-1 victory over Oklahoma. LSU is headed to the college world series after pounding out 16 hits in the win. Second Baseman Jacoby Jones went 4 for 4 with 2 RBI including a solo home run, and LSU allowed just one run in two games vs. the Sooners.
The Tigers wanted to be playing their best baseball headed into the CWS and it looks like they are doing just that. LSU is not perfect, but show me another team in the country that has the bullpen that rivals LSU. The Tigers notched their 16th college world series appearance with the win over the Sooners. The Tigers also tallied their 57th win, a school record.
Speaking of records….What more can we say about the Purple and Gold faithful. Yet another record crowd at the Box: 11,401 souls in attendance to send the Tigers off to Omaha in style. And, as much as Tiger fans are looking forward to making the trip to the CWS, Omaha is looking forward to their extended stay as well. Restaurants, bars, and other businesses in that city have told us many times that LSU fans come early, party hard, and stay late.
LSU is primed to make a deep run in Omaha, and here is why. If the Tigers can stay in the winner's bracket the way the CWS is set up, they'll be able to throw Aaron Nola 2 or 3 times. In baseball it's often about great pitching, and LSU has it. Nola is outstanding, and the bullpen is superb. If you are going to Omaha, you might be there a while. The Tigers don't look like a team that will be "just visiting".
The atmosphere was second to none in college baseball, with a record standing-room-only crowd at Alex Box. And, the pitching was exactly what we expected from Oklahoma junior right hander Jonathan Gray and LSU Sophomore right hander Aaron Nola. The two aces were just that, baffling opposing hitters with breaking balls and untouchable fastballs. Much of the talk leading up to this weekend's Super Rregional series was about Gray, but it was Nola who took home top-dog honors, pitching his 5th complete game victory of the season in shutting out the Sooners on 2 hits.
LSU hitters had their moments against Gray…Moments of complete failure, that is. Then, in the bottom of the 8th, Jacoby Jones started the only rally the Tigers would need with a triple. Ty Moore came through with a pinch hit double to give LSU a 1-0 lead. Ouffielder Mark Laird provided some insurance with single to drive in Moore, and that's all Nola and the Tigers would need. With the win, LSU takes a commanding 1-0 series lead. Nola is still unbeaten on the season at 12 and 0.
Game 2 of the Super Regional is Saturday at 6 o'clock. Coach Paul Maineiri and the Tigers will send Junior Right hander Ryan Eades to the mound for what could be the series clincher. Eades was selected in 2nd round of the MLB draft back on Thursday night. After a rough outing against Jackson State in the regional, Eades will be looking for redemption. LSU is one win away from yet another trip to Omaha for the College World Series.
My takeaway: As I wrote about yesterday, the defense is clearly more aggressive under Rob Ryan. Jobs won’t shake out until August but I can see they plan on getting after the quarterback this season. In 7-on-7 drills today, the Saints defense kept the 1st team offense out of the end zone. Safety Kenny Vaccaro had a great break on a pass but couldn’t reel in the interception. Vaccaro had the ball go right through his hands.
Small school standout: It’s early, very early, but if you watch rookie linebacker Rufus Johnson, you walk away impressed. He’s getting a ton of pressure on the quarterback in the team portions of practice. Johnson is changing positions with the Saints. At Tarelton State, Johnson played in a 4-3 alignment as a defensive end. The Saints have Johnson working at outside linebacker.
Play of the day: Drew Brees dropped a 40 yard bomb on a perfectly placed pass over the shoulder of a defender. Surprised? I’m not. It’s just what he does. Brees makes two or three throws like this every day in practice. Tight End Jimmy Graham and Drew Brees are obviously a formidable tandem, but this year it looks like the duo are looking increase their chemistry even further. Brees and Graham hook up frequently during practice.
Injury news: Saints defensive Keenan Lewis returned to the practice field today after missing practice on Tuesday. CB Patrick Robinson sustained an unspecified knee injury in practice that caused him to sit on the sidelines the remainder of the morning practice with ice on the injury. Rookie offensive tackle Terron Armstead also missed practice with a stomach issue. Tight End Benjamin Watson was held out of practice for the second consecutive day.