The Sporting News rated the Tigers' three junior linebackers — Treverance Faulk, Bradie James and Jeremy Lawrence — as the best in the nation. Faulk was named the country's best middle linebacker, while James, his best friend, was tagged the 10th-best weakside linebacker in America.
"You can't help but pay attention to that, even though you try not to," says James. "But we haven't strapped on any pads. The pre-season doesn't mean anything. It just means that somebody put a ‘X' on our backs. The attention will be on us. It makes us work harder because everybody will be aware of us."
Faulk, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound native of Lafayette, has made everyone aware of him —particularly on his own team. Vocal and fiery, relentless and demanding, he was named a team captain for 2001 during spring practice.
"As far as the defense goes, Trev and (free safety) Ryan Clark are really big about getting on everybody," says defensive end Kyle Kipps. "And I think Bradie James is more of a quiet person who just goes out there and does his job."
It is Faulk's voice that chirps loudest among the LSU linebackers, cajoling James and Lawrence during games, practice or off-season training. Obviously, the two respond well to his leadership.
"I feel like we're complements and real similar at the same time," Faulk says of James and himself. "We both have pretty good motors, and we're going full speed all the time,"
The talented trio combined for 265 total tackles last season, making them quite probably the greatest factor in LSU's defensive success. Faulk led the way with 113 stops, while James finished second on the team with 109.
"When we're running, we know Trev's motor never stops," James says. "You try to keep with him, and he won't let you not give the ultimate effort. As we go on, Trev is always going to be there. Jeremy is always there, and I'm always there. If we didn't push each other, we probably wouldn't be as good as we are right now."
Lawrence, the Tigers' starting strongside linebacker and designated pass rusher, was eighth on the defense with 43 tackles.
"I think all three of us complement one another, but we all work toward the same goals," Faulk said. "That's really important for us, so we're just trying to form one of the better linebacking corps in the country."
All this has happened, of course, while the three men have played under three different linebackers coaches — Lou Tepper, Sal Sunseri, and now, Will Muschamp, who first got to coach them during spring practice in April. There were times, James said, when the players may have known more about the system than the coach. But Faulk, who picked up coach Nick Saban's system quicker than the rest, and James have been able to help each other while they help their new mentor.
"He always kept it open," James says of Muschamp. "If there was something we disagreed on, we could always go to him and let him know. That was the good part about it. I think that made the corps jell to him quicker. We were able to move forward."
Not counting the Spring Game, Lawrence was last seen in Atlanta doing the Heisman Trophy pose, which he struck while trying to stiff-arm Georgia Tech quarterback George Godsey during a (15)-yard interception return, the first of his career.
Behind James at the weakside position is Walter Moreham, a senior who spent two seasons on the inside. A senior from Houston-Yates, he has been a mainstay on special teams throughout his career and will reprise that role once again.
Lionel Turner, a redshirt freshman from Walker and the cousin of former LSU safety Raion Hill, had a productive spring and entered fall camp as the No. 2 strongside linebacker behind Lawrence. He will miss at least the Tulane game with a knee injury suffered in the second August scrimmage. Junior college Dave Peterson, who has flourished in fall camp, is now the second stringer.
Jason LeDoux, who transferred from Texas A&M last fall, sat out the 2000 season and is now eligible to play. He backs up Faulk at middle linebacker, giving the Tigers some quality behind the three starters, and will likely play a part on special teams. James, who played with LeDoux at West Monroe, knows what LSU is getting with his old and current teammate.
"With him coming, he adds depth and he adds competitive spirit," James says. "Anybody that competes, we know we can count on."
Tim Pope, a signee from Panama City, Fla., has generated the most buzz off all the freshmen during the off-season. He pleaded not guilty to charges of fleeing police pursuit in Panama City, Fla., and faces a court date in September.
A class 5A all-state first-team member, Pope registered 115 tackles and four sacks as a senior at Rutherford High. He drew immediate praise from coach Nick Saban.
"For the first time," Saban said on signing day, "we have a linebacker who I think we can compare to the ones we have now."
Over most of the summer, Pope stayed in Baton Rouge lifting weights and working out with his new teammates. He made dozens of jaws drop after he body slammed defensive lineman Melvin Richey.
"He won the (Florida) state championship in wrestling, and a lot of guys didn't know that," James says. "So everybody was horsing around one day, and some people started wrestling. They became victims of Tim Pope."
Similarly, in 2001, the Tigers' Southeastern Conference opponents may become victims of what's been called the best linebacking corps in the nation. At least for the pre-season.
IN 2000: James, Faulk and Lawrence, as the starting three, combined to form the best group of young linebackers in the Southeastern Conference. Were it not for their Herculean efforts in some games, the Tigers might have suffered more losses than wins.
IN 2001: The Sporting News award to LSU's linebackers is just the beginning. Faulk and James have both be named to the "watch list" for the Butkus Award, given to the top linebacker in the nation. Expect the starting three to tally up more than 250 tackles by themselves once again.
ON THE SPOT: Tim Pope. His future is uncertain with legal charges hanging over his head, but Nick Saban has the blessing of Florida authorities to keep Pope in Baton Rouge until his day in court. Tiger fans are torn between giving a break to a very talented player and removing a bad seed from the roster before a problem takes root.
THE X-FACTOR: Injuries, injuries, injuries. Statistically and historically, the linebackers' positions have been among the most hazardous on the field. Only injuries can mar what figures to be a great season for the juniors.
LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: An LSU linebacker has not made the standard All-SEC team since Eric Hill and Ron Sancho were honored in 1988.
PRE-SEASON GRADE: A+
QUOTABLE: "As a team, you can talk about being the hunted or the hunter. But playing linebacker, you always have to be the hunter." —Bradie James