BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU is about to hit the toughest part of its schedule now with a handful of key players either unable to suit up or hobbled with injuries.
Turns out the dismissal of the honey badger, Tyrann Mathieu, is only one of several episodes of misfortune for the fourth-ranked Tigers.
At least four players who were projected starters back in early August won't be on the field for LSU (5-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) at No. 10 Florida (4-0, 3-0) on Saturday.
Losing Mathieu, a Heisman Trophy finalist as a cornerback and punt returner, was a big blow on its own. But it was just the beginning.
— Linebacker Tahj Jones has not played because of academic problems.
— Left tackle Chris Faulk, arguably the top pro prospect on the offensive line, is out for the season with a knee injury that he suffered during practice before the Tigers' second game against Washington.
— Top running back Alfred Blue is sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury from LSU's third game against Idaho.
— Then last Saturday, J.C. Copeland, a 270-pound fullback with three touchdowns this season, injured his knee against Towson.
Copeland returned to practice on Wednesday and still could play. If not, that would further test LSU's depth against the Gators, who had last week off and are getting healthier.
"It is a challenge. There's no doubt about it," said offensive lineman Josh Dworaczyk, who has started for Faulk at left tackle but could move to right tackle this week. "For a team to have the depth chart challenged the way that we're at, at this point in our season is certainly something that we have to hit head on."
Meanwhile, there is mostly encouraging news on the injury front for Florida, which looks to be gaining momentum with each victory.
"We were able to get some guys back that I don't know if we had played last week would have been able to play in the game," Gators coach Will Muschamp said.
Defensive end Dominique Easley (sprained left knee), linebacker Jelani Jenkins (broken right thumb) and versatile fullback Trey Burton (back spasms) all are expected to return against LSU.
Easley and Burton missed the Gators' 38-0 romp over Kentucky two weeks ago.
Jenkins sat out the last two games after breaking his thumb in the first series of a 20-17 win at Texas A&M. He'll take protective measures, such as wearing a soft cast, against LSU.
"Certainly, his experience, maturity, play-making ability, being able to make some defensive calls and calm some guys down in situations in a game like this," Muschamp said of Jenkins. "There is no question it will be an added boost."
The knee Easley hurt is the same one in which tore his anterior cruciate ligament last November against Florida State, so whether he bounces back quickly remains to be seen.
Florida also was happy to have an extra week to rest leading running back Mike Gillislee, who is averaging 100 yards a game but has been slowed by a groin injury, gaining only 56 yards at Kentucky. His practice snaps were reduced during the bye week to get him back to full speed.
"We've got to do what we've got to do," offensive coordinator Brent Pease said in reference to Gillislee's workload. "If he needs to carry it 30 times this time, he'll carry it 30. ... Mike can handle that."
LSU has built up quality depth. Since taking over in 2005, Les Miles helped LSU to continue to be an annual contender for a national title.
Without Blue, some of LSU's other talented running backs will get an opportunity. Kenny Hilliard, Spencer Ware and Michael Ford have all had spectacular moments during their careers and freshman Jeremy Hill is showing promise. Hilliard and Ware are also big and tough enough to fill in at fullback.
Dworazcyk is a sixth-year senior and a former starter at guard. He said he feels comfortable moving to either tackle spot, and added that many LSU players are adept at multiple positions, giving the coaching staff a lot of flexibility.
Mathieu's departure un August forced LSU to start freshman Jalen Mills at cornerback, with Mills moving to nickel back and redshirt freshman Jalen Collins coming in at cornerback in passing situations. Mills has a pair of interceptions and Collins has broken up a pair of passes that wound up being intercepted by a teammate on the deflection.
"We don't recruit these guys for no reason. They're great football players," said receiver Russell Shepard, who works against Mills and Collins in practice. "Those guys are ready because the coaches do a great job preparing them and our leaders on the team do a great job of showing them how we play our style of football."
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