All this week, with LSU spring football approaching quickly on the horizon, TSD will tackle a question a day surrounding the 2013 gridiron Tigers.
Today's Question: How will the new-look defensive line fare?
Nowhere on the field, on either side of the ball, will there be more turnover for LSU in 2013 than on the defensive line.
Gone are the likes of Sam Montgomery, KeKe Mingo and Lavar Edwards on the outside. Ditto for Bennie Logan and Josh Downs on the interior. And for many, fear of the unknown – not knowing the level of production the replacements will bring or, in some cases, who the replacements even are – is enough to equate to weakness at the position.
That's not necessarily the case.
As always the Tigers have a horde of talent stockpiled along the defensive line. The thing is, since many of the now-departed underclassmen played big minutes since their first or second seasons on campus, there hasn't been a lot of time to shine for some of the guys below, who've been relegated to platoon work and a supporting role.
So while Brick Haley's crew will unquestionably be green in 2013, it won't be a cast of misfits or also-ran recruits.
Before I continue, here's a list of the enrolled scholarship players at both end and tackle meant to familiarize you with the characters involved (and, yes, they're listed in the order I project them to contribute this spring).
Anthony Johnson (Jr., 6-3, 304)
Ego Ferguson (R-Jr., 6-3, 308)
Quentin Thomas (R-So., 6-3, 294)
Christian Lacouture (T-Fr., 6-5, 290)
Mickey Johnson (R-So., 6-0, 306)
Jermauria Rasco (Jr., 6-3, 255)
Danielle Hunter (So., 6-5, 235)
Jordan Allen (R-Jr., 6-6, 253)
Justin Maclin (R-Jr., 6-4, 237)
Starting at defensive tackle, where LSU is slightly more experienced, the headliner is Anthony "Freak" Johnson. The former O.P. Walker five-star has had the opportunity to come along slowly in his two years on campus, getting on-the-job training from Michael Brockers and then Logan while never being burdened with having to be the guy.
Still, he's produced at a pretty nice level for a player who's been strictly rotational. As a true freshman Johnson totaled 12 tackles, three for loss and a sack. During his sophomore campaign, in which he saw increased playing time, Johnson amassed 30 tackles, 10 for loss (third on the team) and three sacks. He'll have to continue down that developmental path now that he's tasked with being the alpha dog inside in 2013. Expect Johnson to assume that leadership mantle beginning this spring.
After Johnson, the Tigers could have a nice position battle for the second DT spot between Ego Ferguson and Quentin Thomas. Ferguson is the player with experience, netting 27 tackles, 1.5 for loss, in the past two seasons combined. He'll enter spring as the second starter, but Thomas finally has a platform to make a case with all the upperclassmen gone.
Look for Thomas to push the at-times underwhelming Ferguson and for the entire D-Line to benefit from the competition. And, either way you slice it, both players will see major minutes in 2013 in Haley's preferred rotational system.
Early enrollee Christian LaCouture and redshirt sophomore Mickey Johnson round out the grouping at tackle. LaCouture brings a lot of promise with him from Lincoln, Neb., and he'll also get a leg-up on the other big-name defensive tackles set to arrive in the summer. It wouldn't be surprising if he parlayed that advantage into second-team status by the time Fall Camp is in session.
At defensive end Jermauria Rasco is a pretty good parallel to what Anthony Johnson is inside. He's also been around the program for two full seasons, having played in both while always having had the benefit of being the understudy. For his career the Shreveport native has made 27 tackles, 5.5 for loss, two sacks and forced a fumble. Those are solid numbers, but, like Johnson's, they'll have to take a serious jump now that Rasco is the lead defensive end.
Rasco has shown already in brief spurts that he can be disruptive behind the line of scrimmage and can get to the quarterback. With the run-stopping assistance he'll get from a stellar linebacking corps in 2013, look for that to again be his M.O.
The most likely player to start opposite Rasco is also, for my money, the most intriguing future prospect of any on this list, at end or tackle. That would be Danielle Hunter. The Katy, Tex., native is just a ball of athleticism and speed rolled up into an impressive physical package (6-5, 235). He's the closest proximity to Mingo, someone long but also with incredible speed, that LSU will feature on the defensive line in 2013.
The major question with Hunter, and a fair one, is will he develop into the force he'll eventually be one day in time for this season? We'll learn a lot more about that subject this spring. Hunter featured very rarely at end in 2012, but the true freshman did spend most of the season chasing down kickoffs and showcasing his long strides and effortless pursuit of the ball. Hunter will impress everyone with his athleticism, but the rest of his game – physicality, run-stopping, reading the play – remains a work in progress for now.
If Hunter doesn't get the nod opposite Rasco, then it will almost certainly go to Jordan Allen. He tore up his knee during Fall Camp 2012, and all indication is that he's been recovering nicely. Like the other redshirt junior at end, Justin Maclin, there is some uncertainty as to the level of his availability this spring. But, whenever he's ready to come back (be in spring or fall), Allen could be the best run-stopper the Tigers have at end with his size.
Finally, it must be noted that the big picture for this unit will change once the flock of non-early enrollee freshman arrive in advance of Fall Camp. Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain will be added at tackle, and Frank Herron, Tashawn Bower, Lewis Neal and Michael Patterson will be added at end.
So, while the overall numbers will be low this spring, the next few weeks are a big opportunity for leaders to emerge on the defensive line, setting the tone and standard of play before all the rookies join the fray. Because, like Johnson and Rasco before them, several of the above newcomers will be expected to play right away, easing into long careers in TigerTown.
Schedule for pre-spring preview stories
Tuesday, February 26: Spring Preview - New names to monitor
Thursday, February 28: Spring Preview - Two-deep depth chart
Monday, March 4: Spring Question 1 - Who's going to start at left tackle?
Tuesday, March 5: Spring Question 2 – How will the new-look defensive line fare?
Wednesday, March 6: Spring Question 3 – What alignment will Chavis go with at linebacker?
Thursday, March 7: Spring Question 4 – Who will step up as leaders on this 2013 team?
Friday, March 8: Spring Question 5 – How will Cam Cameron's presence affect the offense?
Monday, March 11: Video – Offense Preview
Tuesday, March 12: Video – Defense Preview
Wednesday, March 13: Video – Early Enrollees; What to Watch: Staff Picks
Spring Question: How will new D-Line fare?
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