TSD returns with the eighth installment of our early position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 LSU football team. Today we finish up the defensive side of the ball, previewing the Tiger secondary, which will be under second-year coach Corey Raymond.
At the bottom of this post are links to our seven previous position previews.
Returning Players at CB: Jalen Collins (R-So.), Jalen Mills (So.), Dwayne Thomas (So.), Derrick Raymond (R-Fr.), Kavahra Holmes (R-Fr.)
Added Recruits at CB: Jeryl Brazil, Rickey Jefferson, Rashard Robinson, Tre'Davious White (all incoming freshmen)
Starters at CB: Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins
Key Rotational Player at CB: Dwayne Thomas (dime situations)
Darkhorse at CB: Jeryl Brazil
Returning Players at S: Craig Loston (Sr.), Ronald Martin (Jr.), Micah Eugene (R-So.), Jerqwinick Sandolph (So.), Corey Thompson (So.)
Added Recruits at S: Jeremy Cutrer, John Diarse (both incoming freshmen)
Starters at S: Craig Loston and Ronald Martin
Key Rotational Players at S: Micah Eugene (nickel and dime situations)
Darkhorse at S: Corey Thompson
DBU had an interesting year in 2012.
It was well-documented and established heading into the season that LSU's back four – or five or six – would be without 2011 standouts Mo Claiborne and Ron Brooks at corner and Brandon Taylor at safety, all selections in the 2012 NFL Draft.
What was not known prior to Fall Camp in August was that Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu would be out of the mix, a victim of his own off-the-field demons. His absence not only left a void; it clearly took its toll on players who benefited from his ball-hawking presence the past few seasons – players in the secondary, at linebacker and on the line.
The other thing that could not have been anticipated, or at least fully appreciated, was how much this unit, under first-year coach Corey Raymond, would miss Taylor. A high school cornerback at Franklinton, Taylor seamlessly shifted from his strong safety position down into the box to man-cover slot receivers. His versatility was hard to duplicate this fall by Eric Reid, who was also working alongside a hit-happy, cover-second tandem partner in Craig Loston.
Still, despite the absences of many 2011 key contributors, the defensive backfield more than held its own for the first nine games of 2012. Following the Alabama game, LSU ranked as the second-best pass defense in America, letting up a meager 150.3 yards per game through the air.
And it did so despite regularly featuring at least four first- or second-year players.
Freshmen Jalen Mills, starter as the team's second corner, and Jalen Collins, the third corner used in nickel and dime sets, were thrown into the fray from game one. Mills, almost amazingly, started the season off with a bang, transitioning fairly smoothly into both of Mathieu's defensive roles – second corner and nickel back. At safety sophomore Ronald Martin was used interchangeably with Loston at strong safety, rotating in frequently (often in passing situations), while redshirt freshman Micah Eugene stamped his claim to the team's dime back role and became the secondary's best blitzing option in the box.
These players will be the backbone of LSU's defensive backfield in 2013. And, if they're going to properly carry on the mantle of DBU, they'll have to improve vastly upon the final three regular season games of 2012 – a stretch against Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas in which LSU gave up an average of 326.3 yards per game through the air (with all three teams eclipsing the 300-yard mark).
Of course the DBs, like several other units on LSU's team, will have to play the wait-and-see game as far as early entrants into the NFL Draft go. Safety Eric Reid and corner Tharold Simon, both juniors, are expected to put their names into April's draft. Reid is almost certainly gone while Simon, who made a recent comment on Twitter stating he'd like to improve again next season and take a crack at earning All-SEC honors, is a bit less certain. Call it a hunch, but I'd say he's leaning closer to leaving, despite not having his best season in 2012.
Under the assumption that both are unavailable, the two Jalens are virtual locks to start on the corners in their sophomore seasons. The picture is slightly less clear at safety, considering Martin and Loston played the same position in 2012, but the smart money is on both experienced players starting in 2013, with Martin assuming the role of free safety.
At cornerback one thing that sticks out immediately when perusing the above lists of options is how young the position is at LSU. There will be no upperclassmen there in 2013 assuming Simon leaves. After Mills and Collins, the list quickly turns into Dwayne Thomas (a rising sophomore with no meaningful experience in 2012) and a bunch of freshmen (six to be exact). At least one player from that grouping will have to emerge to give the Tigers proper depth and an option or two in various dime or Mustang packages.
At safety there's a bit more tenure with Loston a redshirt senior and Martin a junior. However, after that, the outlook is fairly similar to that at corner. Eugene, strictly a player the staff trusts in the box, along with Jerqwinick Sandolph and Corey Thompson, guys who can play in the back, are sophomores. Then there are two incoming freshmen in Jeremy Cutrer and John Diarse. The former of those two still has some hills to climb academically to make it to campus while the latter could well be a player who sees the field early, especially if he's able to come in during the spring as an early enrollee.
To wrap up this overview, it's important to preview the nickel and dime/Mustang packages that John Chavis has favored of late in TigerTown. LSU has been able to secure favorable matchups in three- and four-WR sets and also get perimeter pressure on the quarterback in these looks, and at least three players – on top of the regular projected starters – will be needed in 2013 to keep up the trend.
With nickel (4-2-5) there are two options. One: keep Collins and Mills on the corners and bring in another player (for a linebacker) at nickel. Two: bump Mills inside and bring in a third corner (for a linebacker). In the first scenario, look for Eugene or possibly even outside linebacker Debo Jones to be that sub. The second scenario, which would require Corey Raymond and John Chavis to develop real trust in another cover guy, would likely see someone like Dwayne Thomas, Derrick Raymond or one of the freshmen enter the game.
With LSU's dime/Mustang package (3-2-6), there are also a couple of options and they are based on what the Tigers are trying to accomplish.
If LSU is facing an offense like Texas A&M's, predicated on the spread run, then the Mustang is applicable because it allows quicker guys to crash in on the quarterback and force a fast decision. In that look, expect to see Eugene as one of the nickel or dime backs in the box along with either Loston (in which case a player like Sandolph or Thompson would replace him in the back) or Mills (in which case a player like Thomas or Raymond would replace him at corner).
If LSU is facing an offense more like Ole Miss' was in 2012, where guarding a passing attack from three- and four-WR sets is the name of the game, then a true dime package will be needed. The only real difference is getting more true coverage guys in the game. It would likely mean less Eugene and more of a player like Thomas or Debo Jones or perhaps even freshman Jeryl Brazil, depending on how he does with the learning curve.
As you can see, it takes a high volume of players to operate LSU's defensive system, particularly in the secondary. For DBU to keep its form, more freshman will have to step up in 2013.
2013 Position Preview: Secondary
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