Starting Monday I'll kick off a 30-part "Summer Session" series that will take us all the way to SEC Media Days in mid-July. The aim of those stories is to dissect the 2014 LSU football team from every angle – position battles, strongest units, youngsters playing early, assistant coach impacts, schedule review and much more.
Before all the in-depth gridiron talk begins in earnest, though, I want to set a baseline, dropping my expectations for how the starting 11 will look on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. These are my picks for who will start the season opener versus Wisconsin barring injury, suspension, etc.
CLICK HERE for yesterday's run through the 2014 LSU offense.
Now onto John Chavis' defense . . .
PROJECTED STARTING DEFENSE
DE: Danielle Hunter
DT: Quentin Thomas
DE: Jermauria Rasco
SLB: Lamar Louis
MLB: D.J. Welter
WLB: Kwon Alexander
CB: Tre'Davious White
FS: Jalen Mills
SS: Ronald Martin
CB: Rashard Robinson
Given how frequently the Tigers' defense shifts and brings on varying personnel, here is my quick breakdown of the Backup/Platoon Factor with some accompanying notes.
Also, as I go from position to position, I'll assign a numerical value (1-10) to each backup/platoon player, indicating how much I think they'll factor into the in-game rotation. The higher the number, the more I believe that person will play (platoon). The lower the number, the less I believe that person will play (more of a reserve).
- After a massive effort in the spring game, Hunter is primed to take over as the defense's preeminent pass-rusher. He'll line up opposite Rasco, a returning senior, as LSU's starting bookends. Behind those two, now that Jordan Allen has transferred out to Arizona, will be Bower and Neal, in that order. Both saw limited action as true freshmen in 2013, and Bower in particular, at 6-foot-5, 243 pounds, has the look of a future NFLer. When only one bookend subs in to spell Hunter or Rasco, expect it to be Bower. But, when position coach Brick Haley sends in two fresh replacements for a series here or there, the sophomores should run out together. There is at least one other intriguing "platoon" option at this position (see "LB" section for more).
- This situation feels a lot like the wide receivers' did yesterday in that there's still a whole lot to be determined and youth will have a big say in it come August. Bain, like Bower at defensive end, appears to be the current leader in the clubhouse for "next up" after projected starters LaCouture and Thomas. The redshirt freshman from Florida has put a little distance between himself and fellow second-year players Gilmore and Frank Herron, although Bain will have to continue to prove himself in Fall Camp. Gilmore, in my early estimation, will start the season as the fourth tackle, subbing in occasionally alongside Bain, but Valentine, a true freshman, will usurp that role sooner or later. It's difficult for a defensive tackle to play a lot in year one (even LaCouture was brought along slowly a season ago), which is why I have Valentine at a "4" despite the fact I think he'll ultimately be in the top four on the DT depth chart. One thing's for sure, though: it will be difficult for LaCouture and Thomas to stay on the field as much as Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson did last fall.
- You may or may not have noticed, but the Chief typically likes to stick to his guns – his starters in this case – when it comes to who plays and how much in the linebacking corps. However, when Welter struggled in the middle a season ago, Chavis did bring in Louis for stretches at a time. With Louis now in the starting lineup, next to Welter and opposite Alexander, that guy coming in for periods at Mike ‘backer will be Beckwith. The only question is how much? It's that concern that kept Beckwith's number lower than it probably should be. He reminds me a lot of TE Desean Smith, just on the other side of the ball, in that it's hard for me to imagine how the staff can keep either off the field in 2014 despite plenty of position competition. Also it should be noted that the Tigers may still bring Beckwith in at defensive end for situational pass-rushing. Here's what Haley told me on that following spring ball: "It's just one of those deals – maybe, maybe not, who knows? We're not going to give away any secrets if we can help it." After Beckwith, Jones and Feist should feature in reserve roles while two others, Duke Riley and freshman Clifton Garrett, will push them. There are a plethora of options at linebacker this fall.
CB: Dwayne Thomas (5), Ed Paris (3)
- Yes, I know Thomas lined up primarily at safety this spring, but part of that wasn't just cross-training. He was pitching in where there were low numbers. When it comes to in-game usage in 2014, Thomas is most likely to be deployed as a dime back, where he enjoyed success getting to the quarterback and guarding slot receivers in 2013. Redshirt junior Jalen Collins may be the next guy in line, after Thomas, to play as a reserve or occasionally in six-DB sets, but it's my take that Paris, a true freshman, will take that mantle at some point. It could happen as early as August for Paris, who was fortunate enough to get reps and experience this spring as an early enrollee.
- When putting together the starting 11 above, the hardest decision to make was strong safety. Martin did secure a hold on the job in spring ball, before missing the spring game, but it must be mentioned that Thompson missed the whole thing while recovering from knee surgery. And while Martin, a senior, has the most experience, there was a reason Thompson overtook him before succumbing to injury last fall. Still, assuming it's Martin who lines up next to Mills in the starting unit, the bigger question centers around how the rotation works in nickel and dime sets? Mills, an ace of a nickel back in the box, would have to be replaced in the back assuming he moves down. Thompson and Jefferson will vie for that duty, as will incoming freshmen John Battle and Jamal Adams, the nation's top safety in the Class of 2014.