LSU head coach Les Miles has been routinely criticized during his tenure in Baton Rouge for his reluctance to play young players. Bottom line, the typical approach has been that veteran players get an opportunity to see the field before youngsters – no matter how highly-touted they were coming out of high school
Not this year.
The 2010 signing class has made an immediate impact on the 6-0 Tiger squad, and not just on special teams.
Maybe we should have seen this coming. Seemingly every time Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis were given a microphone in fall camp they raved about the young talent in the Tiger secondary.
It turns out they were onto something.
Tyrann Mathieu, Ron Vinson and Eric Reid have become integral parts of the dominant Tiger defense, one that sits atop the conference in a number of statistical categories. When the game is on the line, like last Saturday in Gainesville, all three freshmen are seeing significant playing time.
One better, Mathieu made what could have been the play of the first half. With just over two minutes to play, Florida running back Emmanuel Moody broke through the right side of LSU’s defensive line and scampered into the secondary. A blitzing Mathieu turned around and chased Moody down, stripping the ball in the process. Mathieu hit the deck, got up and leapt over Moody to recover the loose ball.
“It was great hustle, great effort,” said Miles. “Frankly, that’s not done, generally, by a freshman.”
The Tiger offense quickly capitalized, driving the ball down and hitting a 39-yard field goal to take a 20-14 lead into the locker room.
Much like Mathieu, sophomore Morris Claiborne was thrust into action in 2009 as a true freshman, and the Shreveport native understands how difficult the transition from high school to the SEC can be.
“It’s tough, but you prepare yourself, and we’ve got the type of freshmen that can play,” Claiborne said. “We don’t have to tell them where to go because they’re so locked in to the game. They’re so locked in during meetings, always asking questions.”
Reid has played in every game for the Tigers at the crowded safety position opposite Brandon Taylor, where the former Dutchtown standout has made four tackles, one that came for a loss. Vinson has also played in every game, and the New Orleans native made a stop in each of the last two contests, bringing his season total to three.
Then there is Mathieu, who has terrorized opponents from his blitzing nickel back position.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder has amassed 23 tackles, three of which came behind the line of scrimmage. He is credited with 2.5 sacks, three fumbles, four pass break ups and an interception.
“Tyrann is amazing,” said Claiborne. “Some of the things he’s doing, no freshman is doing.”
Senior linebacker Kelvin Shepard has seen plenty of talent during his five years on campus, and the general feel is that this year’s crop is no different than any other when you talk talent.
As for their game readiness, consider it on another level.
“It’s because they are all aggressive, and they have bought in to what we are trying to do here,” he said. “It’s all about their heart. We lost a lot of guys last year, and we needed young guys to come in and have an impact early.”
The defense isn’t the only unit getting help from fresh faces.
Newcomers Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue, James Wright and Kadron Boone have bolstered the Tiger offense, though the impact has been less substantial.
Ware, a four-star prospect from Cincinnati, had his most productive night as a Tiger last weekend, hauling in three catches for 14 yards. Moving into an H-back role, the former high school quarterback turned running back should see increased action this weekend against McNeese State.
“Spencer Ware has played in every game thus far,” said Russell Shepard, another high school quarterback who underwent a position change. “He’s played in key situations. He’s a great talent that can play multiple positions. He’s got the potential to be one of the premier backs here in the next couple of years.”
Workhorse running back Stevan Ridley credits the work Blue and Ware put in this summer for their quick entry to the field.
“Spencer and Blue did an awesome job of coming in and grasping the playbook,” Ridley said. “They were getting extra film. They were looking at the fronts, reading defensive lines. At a young age I can say personally that I wasn’t in to it that much. I was lifting weights and running hard, but to actually do the football knowledge part of it, that’s what has put them ahead.”
Miles is counting on the rookies to give Ridley a break on weekends like this, especially given that the schedule heats up with late season bouts against Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas.
“You want to make sure guys like Stevan Ridley are fresh when you come to your best games,” said Miles. “I think we’re fortunate to have some quality young tailbacks that can take snaps there. Spencer Ware and Michael Ford looked to be every bit ready and willing.”
Boone and Wright have seen time at wide receiver in each game this season, though neither has recorded a catch. Yet after the duo proved to be the toughest and most physical of the freshmen receivers in fall camp during the “Big Cat Drill” and in Billy Gonzalez’s blocking sessions, their worth as blocking wideouts increased in a big way.
Another name fans may see this Saturday is Justin Maclin, a freshman linebacker turned defensive end out of Memphis, Tenn. The injury to defensive end Sam Montgomery has left the unit thin across the line, and defensive coordinator John Chavis said after Saturday’s win that he planned to get Maclin in the ballgame. On Monday, Miles left the door open.
“We asked (Maclin) to go down (to defensive end), and he jumps down there and has real ability,” Miles said. “We look forward to that time when he gets on the field. I don’t know that it’ll be this Saturday. It could easily be.”