NEW ORLEANS -- A couple of injuries this season changed the face of the LSU offensive line in ways that surprised even their coach.

Start with 6-foot-4, 305-pound center P.J. Lonergan, who sat out most of LSU’s regular-season 9-6 victory against Alabama, hobbled by a sprained ankle. Lonergan, who is from New Orleans, is 100-percent healthy and ready for a breakout game, according to LSU offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa, who is also the Tigers’ offensive line coach.

“Having him back is going to make a humongous difference in this game,” Studrawa said. “You talk about things people don’t see, that’s one of them, him not playing in that first game. Having P.J. back will be a huge plus for us in this game.”

It feels good to be healthy and it feels good to be playing in the national championship gameAny time you get a chance to play in one of these games it’s almost like a dream come true.
-- LSU center P.J. Lonergan

And not just because he’s healthy for the 13-0, top-ranked Tigers, Studrawa said.

“He started off slower than I would have liked him to start off this season,” Studrawa said. “He started out as an average player and I don’t think he is an average player and I told him that. After his injury, he re-focused what he was doing and his last few games -- Ole Miss, Arkansas, Georgia -- he has been coming on and being the dominant guy that I thought he should have been earlier in the year.

“He wasn’t. I think that injury and missing games, I think that re-focused that kid a little bit.”

Stud, as everyone calls him, knows how to needle a player. He reminded Lonergan he started the season on the Rimington Trophy watch list for the best center in the country and told him “and people watched your first six games and said that’s not a Rimington guy. Since then, his practice habits and his performance in the games has been unbelievable.”

That hasn’t been lost on his teammates.

“He’s going to play his heart out and I expect him to have a great game,” LSU guard Josh Willford said. “I’ve never seen P.J. practice this well. He’s doing great.”

Lonergan sprained his ankle just before halftime of LSU’s victory against Florida in the sixth game of the season. Against Alabama, three games later, he played briefly in the second quarter, part of the third, and then most of the fourth quarter.

“It feels good to be healthy and it feels good to be playing in the national championship game,” Lonergan said. “Any time you get a chance to play in one of these games it’s almost like a dream come true.”

Having Lonergan at full strength means 6-3, 304-pound T-Bob Hebert will be in a backup role. He has filled in more than capably at center, but seemingly ever other offensive line position the past four years.

“I don’t necessarily know what’s going to be asked from me this game, so I’m just trying to prepare to the best of my ability,” Hebert said. “Every practice I’m going at right guard, center, left guard and just trying to work as hard as I can so whenever I’m called I can be ready.”

That makes LSU coach Les Miles breathe easier.

“Having P.J. back healthy back and ready to roll is a great advantage for us,” Miles said. “And we’re fortunate to have T-Bob Hebert ready to help us as a guard and a center, but P.J. is that guy who gives us a fulltime center view and the quickness and capability to handle some really tough one-on-one blocking assignments, as will be evident on Monday.”

One reason why Hebert is so valuable is because back in August, LSU lost 6-6, 300-pound guard Josh Dworaczyk to a season-ending, devastating right knee injury during two-a-days. The Tigers lost a player, but gained a coach at a time when they really needed one.

“It’s a great story,” Studrawa said.

Dworaczyk’s injury coincided with LSU offensive coordinator Steve Kragthrope learning that he had Parkinson’s Disease. Suddenly he became just the quarterbacks coach and Studrawa was promoted to offensive coordinator, meaning he would then watch games in the press box.

“It was a double whammy,” Studrawa said. “I go upstairs and the most experienced lineman is done. He’s out and what now? He goes to the sideline with headphones on and helps coaches those kids when they come of the field. No one’s talked about that and that is one of the biggest pieces to the puzzle this season, having that kid down there making those adjustments talking to me and helping those guys is as big as anything else, in my opinion.”

Guard Will Blackwell said Dworaczyk delivers the instruction pretty well, perhaps in a more positive way that Studrawa couldn’t.

“T-Bob and Will and all those guys trust him. They’ve played with him for three years,” Studrawa said.

Dworaczyk, who is from New Iberia, La., said the experience might steer him toward coaching, but in high school, not college. In the meantime, he might as well be a college coach.

“There have been a lot of instances where I’ve been able to help out and that brings a smile to my face when I see that,” Dworaczyk said. “Just a small, little thing and for an offensive lineman that makes a big difference.”

He’s obviously a good messenger.

“That’s one thing we do well, is take criticism, whether it’s negative or positive,” Blackwell said. “To have Josh down there it’s great to have a link between us and coach Stud, who’s in the press box. Josh relates to us a little better than Stud does at times and he can definitely relay the message.”

Stud doesn’t care who delivers the message, as long as someone gets it. And he’s thrilled about the way things have worked out, especially with Lonergan, especially considering in the first LSU-Alabama game, in which there were no touchdowns scored, LSU rushed for 154 yards, well below its season average of 215 per game.

“He has prepared for this one like it’s the biggest game of his life,” Studrawa said. “And it may be. But he’s preparing like that for the first time. He’s there at 7 a.m. knocking on my door saying, ‘Let’s go watch some film.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m trying to sleep, son!’ Those things, he’s never prepared like this before. So I expect him to have a dominant game.”

Dworaczyk agreed, noting that “P.J. has the widest frame. We call him ‘Door Frame,’ because of his big back. For an offensive lineman, that’s a good thing. You can cover up a linebacker, you can cover up a defensive lineman. And for him, with his knowledge, having him back out there brings a lot to the table.”

In LSU’s perfect world, a great game for Lonergan followed, perhaps by the return next season of Dworaczyk, who will apply to the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility.

“I’m just keeping my fingers crossed,” he said, “and hoping things work out.”

So far for LSU, thanks oddly enough to a couple of injuries, they have.