After a brief offseason following the 2014 Outback Bowl, LSU football gets back in action Friday, March 7, for the first of 15 practices leading up to the spring game.
Before the Tigers hit the Ponderosa, TSD is taking a look at every position on both sides of the ball, previewing where LSU stands and discussing the biggest storylines. Already we've examined the following position groupings:
Offensive Skill Positions
Today we'll turn our attention to the team's linebackers.
WLB: Deion Jones (Jr.), Duke Riley (So.)
SLB: Kwon Alexander (Jr.), Ronnie Feist (Jr.)
MLB: D.J. Welter (R-Sr.), Lamar Louis (Jr.)
- LSU's much-heralded six-linebacker class in 2012 forms the backbone of the Tigers' corps in 2014, even if two of the members have transferred (Trey Granier, Lorenzo Phillips) and one vacillates between reserve defensive end and reserve linebacker (Feist). The most talented holdover from that signing class is Alexander (6-2, 218), who should finally be cleared to take sole ownership of the starting strongside linebacker position and scrap the timeshare. Alexander, arguably LSU's best player on the second level, finished 2013 fourth on the team in tackles with 65 stops, 30 solo, to go with 6.5 tackles for loss (tied for third on the team with Jermauria Rasco and the most of any linebacker). He's the closest thing to a sure thing the Tigers have at linebacker.
After that the picture gets a little murkier as there's little separation between those projected to start and their backups, which ought to make for an interesting and heated spring (and fall) camp from a competition standpoint. The old hand, Welter (6-1, 226), is likely to resume his duty as the starting middle linebacker for the Tigers. Undersized but extremely knowledgeable of John Chavis' system, Welter had an up-and-down campaign last fall, finishing second on the team in tackles with 80 stops, 25 solo, as well as four tackles for loss, two sacks and three quarterback hurries. He is nowhere near LSU's most physically imposing option at Mike LB, but history and conventional wisdom say Chavis will ride Welter, a redshirt senior, until somebody else has progressed enough to be better both physically and mentally.
On the weakside Jones (6-2, 208) figures to be the lead dog going into spring practices, but the junior will get stiff competition from Riley (6-1, 208), a rising sophomore with a ton of energy who made his bones on special teams in 2013. Jones' speed is the main thing that keeps him afloat in any kind of position battle, and he may be LSU's fastest linebacker now that Tahj Jones' time is expired in the purple and gold. The two, D. Jones and Riley, combined for only 22 tackles a season ago, with most of those coming on special teams. Filling Lamin Barrow's vacancy may prove one of the toughest backfill jobs on the entire field for the LSU staff.
Rounding out the returning linebackers are Feist (6-2, 225) and Louis (6-0, 216). The former spent all of last season as a back-up defensive end, but numbers would suggest he'll move back to linebacker this year as there are already at least eight returning ends. I've listed Feist as a strongside ‘backer, but he can certainly line up in the middle, too. And that's where you'll find Louis, who totaled 25 tackles in 2013 (fourth most for LBs) while playing 1-A to Welter's 1. He's still in the exact same boat.
One final note: Both Kendell Beckwith and Melvin Jones began their tenures as linebackers last fall, but I have neither listed at the position with spring ball on the horizon. Beckwith played both linebacker and rush end in 2013, but he spent a whole lot more time doing the latter. Until otherwise seen, consider Beckwith a defensive end. Jones made his transition to the other side of the ball, where he is now the heir to Connor Neighbors' throne at fullback.
Donnie Alexander (Fr.), Clifton Garrett (Fr.)
- Neither of the two above additions are early entrants, hence you won't see them in pads at the Charles McClendon Practice Facility until August. They're listed just so that the scope of LSU's depth for 2014 can come into focus. Two quick personnel notes: Garrett (6-3, 220) was recruited to play the Mike linebacker spot, so expect to see him in the middle, while Alexander (6-1, 201) is borderline strong-safety size. He projects as a speedy outside linebacker than can play either the Sam or the Will.
Which weakside linebacker option will take a step ahead of the other this spring?
- If you're still on the ‘When's Chief going to put somebody else in there for Welter' tip, it's time to stop hitting the snooze button and move on. Clifton Garrett's not walking through that door this spring, so at least until August, expect little movement in the situation at middle linebacker. Welter will start, and Louis will get reps as the two continue competing. The real question is: Which player with mostly special teams experience will grab the reins on the weakside beginning this spring?
Jones has what Chavis loves to refer to as great "suddenness," meaning his combination of quicks and top-end speed render him a threat to dart into the backfield and submarine plays before they get going. He gives LSU its best facsimile of what it lost in the offseason in Tahj Jones. Riley, who went from one-time greyshirt candidate to signee to day-one special teams coverage ace, continues to build steam as a disruptive player and tackler. They're both on the smaller end of the spectrum, size-wise, for an SEC linebacker, but they fit the Chavis mold of playing faster on lower levels of defense. Should be among the most interesting position battles on the Ponderosa.