TSD returns with the seventh installment of our early position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 LSU football team. Links to the previous previews are listed below.
Today we take a look at the linebackers.
Returning Players at LB: Kevin Minter (Sr.*), Lamin Barrow (Sr.), Luke Muncie (Sr.), Tahj Jones (Sr.), D.J. Welter (Jr.), Kwon Alexander (So.), Lamar Louis (So.), Deion Jones (So.), Ronnie Feist (So.), Lorenzo Phillips (So.), Trey Granier (R-Fr.)
* = Candidate for early departure to NFL Draft
Added Recruits at LB: Melvin Jones (Fr.)
Starters at LB: Kwon Alexander (SAM), Kevin Minter (MIKE), Lamin Barrow (WILL)
Darkhorse: Tahj Jones
LSU will have plenty of experience and a wealth of talent at the linebacker position in 2013. The highly touted Class of 2012 LBs will all have a full year of experience, to build upon, and a number of other veterans return to make linebacker a deep position for the Tigers.
The biggest question mark surrounds Kevin Minter, who had a breakout season in 2012. Minter tied for third in the Southeastern Conference with 111 tackles, while earning a spot on the All-SEC first team and being named a Butkus Award finalist.
That play has sent his NFL stock soaring, and he ranks as one of the top inside linebacker prospects for the 2013 draft. Entering the 2012 season, few considered Minter a candidate to depart after the season, but he's joined his defensive cohorts Sam Montgomery, Keke Mingo and Eric Reid as potential high-round picks come April.
If he stays, LSU will greatly enjoy the luxury of having his intelligence and talent, especially at a position John Chavis likes to consider the quarterback of the defense. But if he leaves, LSU doesn't have much experience behind him.
DJ Welter, Ronnie Feist and Trey Granier have the most experience working at that middle linebacker position. Welter missed the entire 2012 season due to academic ineligibility. Before his suspension, Les Miles told reporters that Welter still had some room for improvement before he could be considered for steady contribution.
Welter was still able to practice all season, but if he's not ready to start in 2013, that would leave a host of young players in line to possibly replace Minter should he dart for the NFL. Granier redshirted in 2012, and the general consensus is that he's still a year or two away from being considered for possible starting duty. He'd likely fall behind whoever lands atop the depth chart.
Feist played sparingly in 2012, seeing action in only five games, including when he replaced Minter, who suffered from cramps against Florida. He recorded two assisted tackles and a solo stop, which came in that Florida game. Incoming freshman Melvin Jones has loads of potential, and the coaching staff projects him to play on the inside, but it would likely be too much to ask of a new player to step into the big shoes vacated by Minter.
That lack of experience behind Minter may be a cause for concern should he leave for the NFL, and may lead to the coaches making some more drastic changes amongst the linebackers.
Another possible option should Minter not be around in 2013 would be moving Lamin Barrow from the weakside to the middle. Barrow doesn't have the optimal speed Chavis cherishes in his outside linebackers, and with four years in the program, he has the knowledge of the scheme that would serve the defense well from the MLB spot. He did crosstrain inside and outside in 2011 to help a then-inexperienced Minter. It would also leave the door open for several of the talented young linebackers on the outside to jump to the top of the depth chart.
Deion Jones and Lorenzo Phillips were the two freshmen listed behind Barrow at the WILL position for most of the 2012 season. Phillips recorded one solo tackle in the four games he played in, while Jones saw significant playing time on both defense and special teams. Jones saw action in all 12 games, recording tackles in all but two, finishing the season with 14 assisted and seven solo. Should Barrow go down with an injury or move to the inside, Jones would be the heavy favorite to start at WILL with Phillips being his backup.
That moves us to the strongside, where LSU will have several deserving names vying for playing time. Heading into the season, Tahj Jones was listed as the starter before he was ruled academically ineligible for the 2012 season. While he continued to practice with the team, he hasn't seen the field since 2011. Assuming he returns to eligibility for his senior season, he could factor into the discussion for that OLB spot.
The thing that will make it difficult for Tahj Jones to return to his spot atop the depth chart was the emergence of talented freshmen Kwon Alexander and Lamar Louis. Though Luke Muncie started the season in place of Tahj Jones, he was quickly overtaken first by Alexander, then again by Louis.
Alexander earned his first start in the fifth game of the season against Towson, racking up seven solo tackles before being sidelined with a season-ending leg injury in the next game. Miles has said that Alexander will return for the bowl game, but it's not certain in what capacity. Though if he's able to maintain the play he displayed in 2012, he's the likely favorite to start there again in 2013.
Louis will likely be Alexander's stiffest competition after starting the last four games after overtaking Muncie for the SAM position. Louis totaled five solo tackles with eight assisted on the season and will likely battle Tahj Jones and Muncie for the No. 2 spot behind Alexander.
The final question mark will be where Kendell Beckwith will fit should he commit to LSU. He projects as a bigger outside linebacker, fitting nicely into that hybrid OLB/DE role. He still has room to improve in terms of coverage, which would likely prevent him from getting a full-time look at an OLB spot in 2013 should he wind up at LSU, but his size and athleticism would likely tempt Chavis to find a place for him on his defense as a freshman.
There still remains a bit of uncertainty at the linebacker spot in 2013, with several different possible starting lineups. Things will begin to clear once Minter announces his decision about the NFL. But LSU appears to have the best group of linebackers its had since 2009, and regardless of how things end up, the Tigers almost can't go wrong with all the talent and depth it will have in 2013.
2013 Position Preview: Linebackers
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