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: DEFENSIVE UNIT RANKS
TSD is ending this week with our unit ranks for the LSU offense and defense, examining which position groups are in the best and worst shape, comparatively, in terms of talent, depth and several other factors leading up to the 2014 campaign.
Yesterday I published the offensive breakdown, shedding light on a boom year up front and a rebuilding year in the receiving corps.
Today it's time for the defensive side of the ball. The three units being ranked – Defensive Line, Linebackers and Secondary. Here's how we rank ‘em.
It's not that the defensive backfield has been bad since LSU's 2011 SEC championship season, just that it hasn't been quite as dominant, ushering in new blood to replace the likes of Mo Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu and Brandon Taylor. Now, after a two-year building process, DBU has a chance to reclaim its throne. The talent level in 2014 is that good, back up to a level where the secondary is once again the preeminent unit within John Chavis' defense. And, as always in the secondary, it starts with a couple of lockdown corners. LSU has a pair of them in sophomores Rashard Robinson and Tre'Davious White, the former having come on strong down the stretch in 2013 (completing locking up Texas A&M's Mike Evans, recently the No. 7 pick in the NFL Draft) and the latter a starter in his freshman season from the third game.
At safety there are plenty of talented options, but a lot will hinge on the outcome of junior Jalen Mills' legal situation. The converted corner was pegged as the starting free safety, which would give the Tigers about as strong of a three-headed monster (Mills plus the two CBs) as there is across SEC secondaries. If he's available LSU will have the personnel and flexibility to go a lot of directions in nickel, dime and Mustang sets as well. If he's not a number of younger players – Jamal Adams, Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas – will have to step up and fill the voids Mills leaves behind. The defensive backfield would suffer some in that instance, but with a couple of veterans in Ronald Martin and Corey Thompson around, the DBs would still have enough firepower to stay ahead of the pack in these rankings.
These guys aren't far behind the leaders. In 2014 Chavis' linebackers have two tremendous assets – first, they're a veteran unit, planning to start two juniors and a redshirt senior; second, there's an abundance of capable depth. Just about the only thing holding back the ‘backers is some uncertainty at the top of the depth chart. Yes, D.J. Welter has a year of experience starting at Mike linebacker under his belt, but it wasn't always positive and he often left something to be desired in run support. Similarly Lamar Louis, who's moved out from behind Welter to the starting strongside spot, has shown glimpses of strong play, but he'll be a first-year starter and will have an adjustment period in front of him.
The surest thing in the starting three, in my opinion, is Kwon Alexander, who's moving over to Lamin Barrow's old haunt on the weakside. Alexander racked up 65 tackles and made 6.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage in 2013, the most of any non-linemen. With more playing time this fall, he could end up as LSU's most important and impactful defender. Behind those three are a bunch of young studs waiting to emerge. In the middle there's sophomore Kendell Beckwith, who gave Welter some competition in spring ball, while a slew of outside ‘backers – Deion Jones, Duke Riley and Ronnie Feist – are waiting in the wings, too. Then there are freshmen Clifton Garrett, Scout's top MLB in the country for '14, and Donnie Alexander, arguably the top linebacker in Louisiana last year. They'll be a strong group this fall, perhaps the strongest by season's end if Welter and Louis make significant strides.
3. Defensive Line
Yesterday the receivers were ranked fifth and last of the offensive units based largely on a poor showing in spring practices. It's not at all the same story here with the D-Line. This ranking is more predicated on turnover at defensive tackle and all the young, inexperienced players who will be forced to man those positions. The two projected starters inside, junior Quentin Thomas and sophomore Christian Lacouture, actually performed well in spring, but their limited experience between the lines is impossible to ignore. Last year that duo combined for 20 tackles. Starter Ego Ferguson notched 58 tackles by himself. Behind LaCouture and Thomas is even more youth, namely three redshirt freshmen (Maqueduis Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron) and two true freshmen (Trey Lealaimatafao and Travonte Valentine). Simply put there's just a lot of newness at defensive tackle.
It's a different case altogether at defensive end, where LSU brings back both starters in senior Jermauria Rasco and junior Danielle Hunter. Rasco, who missed spring ball coming back from offseason shoulder surgery, will be the leader of the bookends while Hunter has a chance to be one of the SEC's top pass rushers this season, fresh off a monstrous spring game and continuing to build speed. Sophomore Tashawn Bower is projected to rotate in as the third end while Lewis Neal is also making a case for playing time. The Tigers are in good shape at defensive end, maybe not as deep as position coach Brick Haley would desire but loaded with talent and experience at the top (presuming Rasco comes back at or near full speed).