Season preview: Linebackers

Veteran Ryan Baker leads an untested LB crew into the season. Converted safeties Karnell Hatcher and Stefoin Francois are also keys and Kevin Minter heads a batch of newcomers expected to play a major role.

For three years, Kelvin Sheppard was always there for the LSU defense.


Right in the middle of whatever the Tigers did.


Just like the defensive scheme did the last two seasons, Sheppard evolved under coordinator John Chavis and wound up as one of the better players at his position in the SEC.


Players move on, though, and Sheppard has done so to the NFL.


Finding somebody to fill the multi-faceted role Sheppard filled so well and you’ll the challenge facing Chavis and his linebacker corps this season.


Not that the cupboard is completely empty.


Senior Ryan Baker is back for his second year as a starter. Although a different kind of linebacker than Sheppard, Baker’s tools – namely his speed and penchant for blowing up plays before they take root – elevate him to the role Sheppard held as the heart and soul of an LSU defense that is potentially as nasty as any in the country.


Baker will again man the weakside linebacker spot for the Tigers in what figures to be a 4-2-5 scheme most of the time, especially early in the season against spread/read-option style offenses.


As much as anything Baker brings to the table skill-wise and technique-wise, an even bigger key will how well he has embraced the role as a vocal leader – maybe the biggest void Sheppard left behind.


“I’m not as vocal as Kelvin, but I can get my point across,” said Baker, who ranked second on the team behind Sheppard with 87 tackles in 12 games. “I am a guy who’s always been kind of vocal. It’s part of my personality. I’ve never been shy.


“The big thing to me is I just want to be that uplifting guy who brings guys together. I’m a guy that most of the guys have seen me play this defense, so they know I’ve been in situations and as long as I’m playing at a high level, I believe they will too.”

That level was a major cog in the Tigers’ stingy defense last season.


Besides his tackle total, Baker also supplied a tough-to-handle blitzing presence from the outside. That led to a team-high seven sacks and forced offense to focus more on him, which allowed Sheppard to contend with fewer double teams.


“At the end of the season last year, I thought he was playing as well as any linebacker in the country,” Chavis said. “He’s got to pick up where he left off and certainly be a leader for us and he can do that.”


While Baker is a known commodity, who lines up at the other linebacker spot or spots is up in the air, although there are some familiar faces for Chavis to choose from.


Stefoin Francois was the starting strongside linebacker last season, but never really leapt forward as a game-changer, finishing with 37 tackles but only two behind the line of scrimmage.


That triggered some change in the offseason, with senior Karnell Hatcher – like Francois, a former safety – shifting to linebacker and learning both the middle and strongside spots.


Kevin Minter: In mix for starting spot.

Hatcher and sophomore Kevin Minter are the top two candidates to step in to Sheppard’s shoes. Minter got a start in the season opener against North Carolina last season with Baker recuperating from a broken jaw and recorded six tackles.


When Baker returned in the second week, Minter saw very little time the rest of the way. He’s not the same kind of refined athlete as Baker or Sheppard, and will have to sharpen his technique to win the job over Hatcher.


“Kevin Minter had a great spring and a great offseason,” Chavis said. “So certainly (Minter and Hatcher) are going to be battling for the starting position inside.”


When LSU is in a 4-2-5 look, Hatcher is the prime candidate to line up next to Baker because he gives the Tigers the kind of hybrid look that Harry Coleman did in 2009 – a hard-hitting tackler who is also comfortable in pass coverage.


Baker said Hatcher has come on strong in pre-season camp and even surprised him a little with how well he has adapted to linebacker.


Chavis has noticed as well.


“I’m excited about where Karnell is at this point,” Chavis said. “He’s still learning, but let me tell you, he’s a football player and he’s got great instincts and can find the football. Having him inside is going to be a big plus for us, particularly with the number of spread teams we’re going to facing this year.”


Francois will stay in the mix, and a young corps of linebackers will also get shots at rotating in, led by Lamin Barrow, Tahj Jones and D.J. Welter.


Chavis said Jones – built more like a safety at 205 pounds – “has turned the corner.”


“He’s a guy that’s got tremendous speed and he’s put on a few pounds and worked his rear off in the weight room.”


Lamin Barrow: Headlines list of young LBSs ready to make a mark.

Barrow also drew Chavis’ praise and is often one of the first linebackers LSU coach Les Miles rattles off when he’s asked about the future wave of players.


“Lamin Barrow is SEC-ready, there’s no question about that,” Chavis said. “He’ll give us some depth.”


Depth won’t be a problem for the Tigers’ LB crew, but experience is to start the season.


Miles conceded there are “some guys without experience.”


“A linebacker steps onto the field and it’s their time to grow,” he said.

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