30 days, 30 topics inside the world of LSU football.
TSD is previewing and analyzing the 2014 edition of the Tigers from every angle, bringing you a daily dose of "Summer Session" each weekday through June 11, three days before the unofficial kickoff to football season at SEC Media Days.
TODAY'S SESSION: SECONDARY SHAKE-UP?
I'll interrupt my scheduled content plan for today to react to the big breaking news surrounding LSU football – junior safety Jalen Mills was arrested Wednesday morning on charges of second-degree battery and has been indefinitely suspended from the team.
Now, before I go any farther there are two things I'd like to make abundantly clear. First, all of these details in the report by the Baton Rouge Police Department are still alleged, meaning Mills will have his day in court and is, as everyone is in America, presumed innocent until proven guilty (that's still a thing in the Twitter era, right?). Second, by moving past the story itself and onto how it could hypothetically affect the LSU football team, I'm in no way making light of what happened to the alleged victim. It's just my job to look ahead in the LSU sports landscape.
Disclaimers done, here's my initial take on how LSU would move on in the secondary should it be without Mills for the 2014 season.
The biggest concern would be at free safety, where Mills moved from cornerback late in the 2013 season for a variety of reasons. The Tigers were down a man with starting safety Corey Thompson (knee) injured and, frankly, wanted to accommodate two stud freshmen corners in Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White.
There was also a belief on the staff, however, that Mills would be a better fit in the back. He was well on his way to proving that theory with a solid performance in the bowl game victory over Iowa and a whole spring's worth of mental and physical reps at the position.
Minus Mills LSU would almost certainly get younger at safety. There are six main contenders for two starting safety roles – Thompson, a junior; Ronald Martin, a senior; Dwayne Thomas, a redshirt sophomore; Rickey Jefferson, a sophomore; and two true freshmen in Jamal Adams and John Battle.
Martin and Thompson have the most on-field experience but are fairly similar players – both weigh 212 pounds or more and tend to float more toward the "lumbering" side than the "rangy" side of things. It's difficult, though not impossible, for me to envision position coach Corey Raymond playing those two together. I should also note at this point that Thompson beat out Martin midway through last season for the starting job.
So, assuming a healthy Thompson has a leg up on the senior, who lines up next to him? Hard to say. Competition in Fall Camp would ultimately determine the answer to that question, but my gut tells me Adams and Jefferson would be the first ones considered. Jefferson started the Arkansas game a year ago but took a number of lumps and ultimately had to be replaced. An offseason of work will better position him to take to the field. Adams, the top safety on the high school level in 2014, comes in with a world of potential and acclaim.
The dark horse candidate, though, is Thomas, who spent all of spring at safety after playing much of his first two seasons at corner. He has proven coverage skills and plays tough in the box (see below), making Thomas a player that can vie for a starting role against the likes of Adams and Jefferson. Thomas, 6-foot, 181 pounds, is on the smallish side, but his athleticism and experience last season will keep him in the conversation.
Mills wasn't just pegged as the starting free safety. The Texas native was also set to reprise his role as nickel back, where he's been each of the last two seasons in LSU's post-Mathieu world and excelled.
Any discussion of replacing Mills in that capacity has to begin with Thomas, who played opposite Mills as the Tigers' dime back most of last fall and registered four tackles for loss, three sacks and five pass break-ups. But, while Thomas seems a lock to step in as the nickel back in this hypothetical situation, it's unclear whether Raymond & Co. would want him as the starting free safety and nickel back. That's a lot to digest for one player who featured only in six-DB sets in 2013 (leading me to believe, again, that Jefferson or Adams would be preferred as the starter in the back).
Either way, look for Thomas to move from dime back to nickel back and for another member of the secondary to backfill his spot from a year ago. The two primary contenders: redshirt junior Jalen Collins and true freshman Edward Paris. The latter was on campus as an early enrollee this spring, bolstering his chances at seeing the field right away, particularly given today's latest development.
The only other option is to slide Robinson or White inside to nickel back and bring Collins or Paris in as the third corner, manning an island. This would require a good bit of confidence in a first-year player or a fourth-year player already lapped by a number of younger guys.
Putting a bow on things, it's pretty clear Mills wears a lot of hats in this LSU defense. Should he be kicked off the team at some point before the Wisconsin game, the Tigers will have to reconfigure their starting safeties (likely turning to a freshman or sophomore opposite Thompson) and move everyone up a spot in line in nickel and dime sets (Thomas to nickel; Collins/Paris to dime).