When coach Bill Arnsparger came to Baton Rouge last year, one of the first things he did was de-emphasize the use of dummies on the practice field—and not just the 22-pound bags that blockers push around. One has to be a student as well as an athlete to play for Arnsparger, who believes that in football, reading is fundamental. "Teach them to see what is happening," Arnsparger says. "Just have the defender read the man in front of him, and as he gains experience he begins to see people in the area. During practice we like to stand in front of the players so we can see the eyes."
Whether the Tigers improve upon their 8-3-1 finish of last season will depend a great deal on their reading skills. Nowhere will those skills be as important as in the offensive backfield, one of the nation's most talented. All three members—quarterback Jeff Wickersham, running back Dalton Hilliard and tailback Garry James—are seniors who'll be subjected to the vagaries of playing behind an inexperienced line. This means that Wickersham, who holds eight Tiger passing records, will have less time to read defenses, a skill he began to master late last season. "He's more comfortable because this will be the first year he has had the same quarterback coach [Ed Zaunbrecher] as the year before," says Arnsparger.
The young line may not be much of a problem, because Hilliard and James have proved they can read defenses well enough to find holes where none seem to exist. Hilliard can run and catch (1,354 yards rushing, 26 receptions and 15 TDs last season), as well as turn on a dime and leave 9¢ change. "I think he's the best back in America because of all the things he can do," says receiver coach Jerry Sullivan. That explains all those HE is THE MAN posters LSU put out to hype him. Arnsparger will continue to play Hilliard and James, who accumulated 924 all-purpose yards and nine TDs in '84, in the same backfield. He'll also use Hilliard alone with four receivers.
Because of a rash of injuries on the defensive line last fall, several young players got a lot of unexpected playing time. The main stoppers on defense are linebackers Michael Brooks and Shawn Burks. Brooks didn't do enough off-field reading last semester; he had to raise his grades in summer school in order to maintain his eligibility. "But football-wise, he's as smart as a whip," says defensive coordinator Mike Archer. "He's a dominant force."
Burks, last year's leading tackler and this year's All-America javelin thrower, is a Jekyll and Hyde-type character. "Shawn is a very quiet, religious guy," says Archer, "but if you see him on Saturday night [in Tiger Stadium], all he does is scream." LSU lost both safeties, but filling one of those spots will be junior Steve Rehage, the former special-teams demon who hits so hard he has had four concussions. He'll wear a specially designed helmet this season and hope for better luck.
With 10 new starters and only eight seniors, LSU is young. "We have less experience than last year," Arnsparger says, "but better athletes." And smarter ones, too.