BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - If the 2012 season plays out as Les Miles envisions, the Tigers will look much like the team that fell one victory short of a national title last season.
Even as Miles looks forward to a more potent passing game with new starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, he still expects LSU to be defined largely by its dominant defense and deep, powerful running game.
"I hope things don't change too much," said Miles, a guest speaker at a Rotary Club lunch on Tuesday, noting that LSU's 13 victories in 2011 set a single-season school record.
Miles also promised that LSU fans would see some unfamiliar wrinkles in the passing game, largely because of Mettenberger's skill throwing down field.
"We'll throw it more efficiently and we'll throw it down the field a bit better," Miles said. "I believe that Zach does those things maybe incrementally better than any other quarterbacks we've had maybe since the national championship year with Matt Flynn."
Mettenberger's impending debut has generated the most buzz around an LSU program that has struggled to find consistency in the passing game for the past four years since winning its last national title in the 2007 season.
Yet Miles noted that the only proven strength of the offense, at least for now, is a running game that averaged almost 203 yards last season, with Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard leading the way. The production of those four backs, who are all back this season, often negated the need for LSU to throw at all while protecting leads in the fourth quarter.
"That will always be a part of us," Miles said of the running attack. "But with a little bit more competitive game and the need to throw, I think there's a lot of things that really you haven't seen.
"When you run the football as well as we do, it's going to challenge the defense to put a guy down (near the line of scrimmage) rather than deep. And if they make a mistake ... we'll have opportunities to throw balls and give our receivers opportunities to make really big plays."
Miles said Mettenberger is in much better shape than when he arrived a little over a year ago weighing around 245 pounds and looking a little "pudgy." He is down to 225 now and also is abundantly confident, which Miles said could be a good thing as long as it is accompanied by hard work.
"Confidence, alone, stands without the ability to compete effectively," Miles cautioned.
Mettenberger has said he has spent much of this summer strength training three days a week, doing conditioning work two days a week, and has been throwing with receivers after conditioning sessions as well as on weekends.
While serving as a Manning Passing Academy counselor earlier this month, Mettenberger said he loves to throw but won't quibble with any play calling that wins.
"It doesn't matter what offense we run, if we hand it off 60 times a game or throw it 60," Mettenberger said. "We're going to do what we've got to do to win and hopefully the coaches have enough trust in me to put the ball in my hands and let me throw it around."
LSU has some promising young receivers in Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, but Miles also mentioned senior Russell Shepard, who has yet to live up to the billing he received as a recruit, as a player whose maturity and work ethic may have finally caught up to his talent.
He described Shepard as "more humble, more understanding of what it's going to take."
"So many times a guy comes in heralded and he figures this will come easy," Miles said. "I believe that more than he's been in the past, he's a ready-for-work, not-to-take-things-for-granted performer. I think he'll have a great year."
Shepard and the rest of LSU's returning players may never completely get over their 21-0 loss to Alabama in last season's national title game in New Orleans. Yet Miles sounds increasingly comfortable talking about that setback and hopes his players will as well.
During this offseason, Miles took the unusual step of planning social outings such as picnics with the Tigers, which gave Miles a chance to stay in better personal contact with his players during the period between the end of spring practice and the beginning of fall camp, which this year begins Aug. 1. The events included guest speakers, one of which was a Navy Seal who offered poignant perspective on the bitter end to last season, Miles said.
The soldier told the Tigers that when a Navy Seal makes a mistake, he hopes it only costs him his own life and not the lives of others. He also talked about how soldiers are not bashful about showing their scars from battle.
"I think we're still healing from that last wound we suffered," Miles said. "And I think our team will understand that we will eventually be stronger and will eventually want to show our scars."
Notes: Miles joked about his lack of acting ability while rehashing his appearance in a TV commercial for a college football video game. In the spot, Miles finds LSU's Mike the Tiger mascot using star players from other teams in LSU uniforms as he plays the game, and the coach expresses his disappointment by ripping an LSU shirt off of the mascot. Miles recalled his confusion when the commercial's director asked him to act fatherly while ripping off the shirt. "I'm not going to rip a shirt off my son, ever, and so I have conflict," Miles began, drawing laughter. "How do I rip the shirt off and act like a father, seriously? And (the director) looks at me like, 'Oh no, I've got the wrong guy.'" ... Miles said LSU is hanging banners commemorating its 2011 Southeastern Conference Western Division and overall league titles in its indoor practice field. "There's a banner we didn't hang and we recognize that," Miles said. "It's something that is an experience and memory this team will carry."