Next man up

Injuries and attrition have forced a number of youngsters into key roles for LSU in 2012.

Nobody's put it better than Jalen Collins did Saturday night.

"In the absence of one player, somebody else has got to step up."

The redshirt freshman corner was dead-on in the aftermath of LSU's 63-14 shellacking of Idaho, describing the "next man up" mentality the Tigers have been forced to adopt early and often three games into the 2012 season.

It may even be the defining characteristic of the team heading into the back half of September.

The 2011 group had to overcome distractions galore. The 2012 group has attrition as its biggest hurdle.

Perhaps nowhere is that trend more evident than in the secondary.

LSU came into Fall Camp knowing it would be without the services of NFL-bound defensive backs Ron Brooks, Mo Claiborne and Brandon Taylor. Ditto for a trio of youngsters – safety Sam Gibson and corners David Jenkins and Ronnie Vinson – who parted ways with the program following spring ball.

Then the TM7 bomb dropped in mid-August.

Following Tyrann Mathieu's unexpected dismissal from the team, a sense of urgency began to set in for those who would be tasked with filling the shoes of the cornerback/nickel back extraordinaire.

"Coming into camp, I knew I was going to have to step it up because I knew I was going to be coming in on nickel and stuff like that," Collins admitted recently. "But then when Tyrann was dismissed from the team, it just kind of took it to a whole other level. And I'm just working hard every day."

So far the secondary is doing well, maybe even better than expected, backfilling for Mathieu.

True freshman Jalen Mills, who not only starts in Mathieu's usual second-corner spot but also frequently slides down to take on his nickel back role, has been a revelation.

He's currently tied for the team lead in interceptions with two and ranks third in tackles with 17 stops.

But it's not just preseason shake-up that's forcing so many youngsters into filling voids.

Since toe met pigskin for the first time Sept. 1, LSU has been decimated with injuries and a rash of academic non-qualifiers that came to light a week ago.

Gone for the season are Tahj Jones (starting strongside linebacker in Fall Camp), Tyler Edwards (second tight end), D.J. Welter (backup middle linebacker) and Evan Washington (reserve offensive lineman).

Out for an extended period of time, if not the whole season, is Chris Faulk, starting left tackle and a 2011 second-team All-SEC performer. It now seems starting running Alfred Blue will also miss several weeks himself.

Then there are those players who just can't seem to shake loose of nagging injuries lingering since camp like safety Craig Loston, running back Spencer Ware and center P.J. Lonergan.

The cumulative effect from so much loss and uncertainty is a reduced margin for error.

No longer can players new to the program afford to look, think or play new. Good thing, too, because LSU has already played an uncanny 15 true freshmen this fall, tied with TCU for most in the nation.

And, in the case of sixth-year senior Josh Dworaczyk, who is the next man up filling Faulk's vacancy, he no longer has the luxury of being an experienced backup on paper.

He has to be a reliable blindside protector on the field against SEC defenders.

"Coach Stud [Greg Studrawa] and Coach Miles have an understanding that we need guys to be prepared throughout the practice week for whatever happens in the game, especially after you lose one guy," Dworaczyk told reporters a week ago. "I was that sixth man, and now I've been thrust into a position where now we need another sixth guy."

It's the domino effect Dworaczyk describes that best explains the strain attrition puts on a roster.

Prior to the North Texas opener, talented true freshman offensive tackle Vadal Alexander was seen as the future on LSU's line who could see limited action in 2012.

Now, with Faulk down and Dworaczyk in, Alexander is on the verge of playing major minutes in the toughest conference in America.

He'd be wise to take a cue from sophomore safety Ronald Martin, who sounded as good after the Idaho game as he looked during it, when the White Castle product picked off two passes, returning one for six, starting in place of the injured Loston.

"I just have to be patient and wait for the next thing that's going to come to me next," Martin said of his mindset. "When I get that opportunity, I've just got to keep performing and keep playing that hard each and every down."

Talent is one thing, but it's that type of outlook, especially from the next guy in line, that can continue to keep this LSU team afloat in the face of adversity.


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