By Sonny Ship
A lot has changed down on the bayou since the Tigers took the field in the Georgia Dome for the Chick-fil-A Bowl on New Year's Eve.
And after last year's fall from the 2007 BCS National Championship to an 8-5 finish, a lot needed to change in Baton Rouge. The changing of the guard happened on the defensive side of the ball where LSU had its poorest showing in years. The Tigers yielded 30 or more points in five of 13 games, and allowed 50 or more points twice in the same season for the first time in the history of the program. There was plenty of blame to go around as LSU's once vaunted defense allowed too many big plays and struggled under first year co-defensive coordinators Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto. The Tigers picked off a mere eight passes in 425 pass attempts and recovered only 11 fumbles on the year. That was in stark contrast to the defense that played a pivotal role in the 2007 banner year that created 49 turnovers – 26 fumbles and 23 interceptions. Mallory and Peveto gracefully exited the program along with defensive line coach Earl Lane, and Les Miles went out and hired three skilled replacements with a wealth of experience in the Southeastern Conference. Running LSU's defense is former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis who's built quite a résumé in his 31 years at the collegiate level. Chavis went out and hired former Chicago Bears defensive line coach Brick Haley to serve in that same capacity at LSU and convinced Ron Cooper to leave South Carolina. Chavis and Co. will have seven starters returning from the group that started in LSU's 38-3 demolition of Georgia Tech on New Year's Eve. Second-team All-SEC selection Rahim Alem, who led the Tigers with eight sacks and 11.5 tackles for losses, returns at one defensive end spot. The Tigers, however, lost four main contributors – three regular starters – and will have to have some youngsters step up and contribute right away on the front. The line received a boost when Charles Alexander was granted a sixth year of eligibility due to a medical redshirt, but he's struggled to stay healthy so durability is a question mark. Two starters return at linebacker in Kelvin Sheppard (64 tackles) and Perry Riley (60 tackles) then the linebacker corps got an added bonus late in the spring when Harry Coleman – the team's leading tackler from a year ago (71) – was moved from strong safety to linebacker. The secondary has its top three corners back in Patrick Peterson, Jai Eugene and Chris Hawkins with two experienced safeties roaming the field in Chad Jones and Danny McCray. The defense was put in a hole several times last season by an offense that struggled with first-year starter Jarrett Lee at the helm. The redshirt freshman passed for 1,873 yards and 14 touchdowns, but completed only 53.2 percent of his tosses with 16 falling into the opposition's hands and seven of those going the other way for touchdowns. Jordan Jefferson came on and started the final two games when Lee injured his ankle and the true freshman came up big in the season-ending victory over the Yellow Jackets. He took home the Offensive Most Valuable Player honor after completing 16-of-25 for 142 yards and a score. Jefferson picked up where he left off and had a solid spring that ended with him hitting 8- of-10 passes for 97 yards in the spring game. Jefferson's play was good news for LSU's offense but the much bigger news came three months earlier when three all-conference performers all announced they were returning for their senior year – Charles Scott, Brandon LaFell and Ciron Black. Rarely do three players of that caliber all return after entertaining the thought of leaving early but LSU now has one of the conference's top running backs and receivers in Scott and LaFell, to go with a four-year starter at left tackle in Black. There are some openings to fill on offense but with seven starters back offensive coordinator Gary Crowton is all smiles. The holes on defense appear to be plugged with the new regime in place on that side of the ball and now the question is can the Tigers find their way back to the top in 2009?