The 2003 defense was of course one of the best in LSU history, and the 2004 defense could potentially be another great one. Whenever you're talking about great defense it all starts up front on the defensive line.
The Tiger line in 2003 was anchored by consensus All-American defensive tackle Chad Lavalais. Lavalais terrorized opposing backfields and was the focus of nearly every offensive coordinator's blocking scheme. Ends Marcus Spears and Marquise Hill and fellow tackle Kyle Williams combined to create a front four that shut down nearly every offense it faced, from the vaunted running game of Auburn to Oklahoma's record setting air attack.
Flash forward to 2004. Lavalais and Hill are gone but the Tiger d-line still has the makings of a great one for the coming season.
Spears returns as the linchpin of the unit.
All-SEC in '03, Spears is a potential All-American and first round draft pick for 2004. Through the first half of spring ball it's clear that Spears has taken on a leadership role with this team. He has developed into one of the team's spokespersons and is a regular at media interview sessions. Spears says that his focus is on improving his pass-rush technique, and it showed in the first scrimmage. The Baton-Rouge native picked up two sacks, blowing by linemen both times and closing quickly on the quarterback.
His new partner-in-crime will be veteran Melvin Oliver. The junior from Opelika, Ala. has been a top reserve at right end for the last two years and looks finally ready to step into a starting role. Oliver led the team in sacks with six in 2002, and is hoping that with increased playing time those numbers will increase. He is working to add bulk, and his added strength has shown in early practices.
Stalwart Kyle Williams returns to man one of the tackle spots. Williams isn't the biggest or strongest, but has a non-stop motor that really shows up in workouts.
The tackle position vacated by Lavalais is the scene of some major competition. Veteran Brandon Washington is vying with junior college-transfer Claude Wroten and heralded recruit Carnell Stewart for the starting job. Through the first few workouts Wroten has looked like the superior player.
A 300-pounder with great athleticism, Wroten spent a great deal of time in the offensive backfield in LSU's first scrimmage. His highlight play came while chasing down QB Matt Flynn. Flynn appeared the juke the big lineman but as soon as he let off his pass Wroten quickly leaped in the other direction and swatted the ball down.
The top backup at end is sophomore Kirston Pittman, who flashed great pass-rushing ability in 2003. He continues to look good through the spring, and gave left tackle Andrew Whitworth some fits in the first scrimmage.
The Tigers return two starting linebackers in 2004, and what was a strong but unheralded unit in 2003 could start to step into the spotlight this season.
Lionel Turner will once again man the "mike" or middle linebacker position. The 6-2 257-pound Turner struggled early in 2003 but was really coming on at season's end. In the second half of the SEC Championship Game his interception and touchdown touched off a surge of Tiger points that buried Georgia. His delayed blitz and sack of Jason White on fourth down in the Sugar Bowl helped clinch the national title for LSU. Turner will look to continue that progress through spring practice. The senior is also starting to develop into a leadership role, calling the signals in the huddle and helping some of LSU's young linebackers learn the scheme.
The other returning starter is junior Cameron Vaughn. Vaughn has manned the weakside "will" spot since he was a freshman, and like his teammate, could be poised for a breakout season. The 6-2 225-pound Vaughn has always shown a good grasp of his defensive responsibilities and a nose for the football, but through the first half of spring practice it looks like he may develop into a real playmaker. In LSU's first scrimmage Vaughn picked up two sacks and was frequently used as a blitzer, both against the run and the pass. He also did a solid job dropping into coverage zones and keeping backs and tight ends in front of him.
The point of contention amongst the ‘backers will be the "sam" position, formerly occupied by Eric Alexander. Several players have worked with the first team at the spot, but redshirt freshman Darius Ingram and junior Kenny Hollis saw the bulk of the first team snaps during the first scrimmage. Ingram has bulked up to 232 pounds and looks very athletic, where as the shorter Hollis is more the "sluggo" run-stopper type. Newcomer Ali Highsmith has also worked at the position along with redshirt freshman Dominic Cooper. Both are a bit undersized and may have problems holding up against the run.
The top reserve linebackers include Dorsett Buckels, Willie Demps, and walk-ons Damien Batiste and Anthony Zehroue. Heralded recruits Luke Sanders and Quinn Johnson have both visited practice on occasion. Expect them to complete for playing time in the two-deep rotation and also on special teams in fall camp.
As the 2004 season approaches, the Tiger defense is shaping up to have one of, if not the best secondary in the entire country. Three starters return to the unit, including 2003 All-American cornerback Corey Webster.
Webster chose to let the NFL wait for one more year, a decision that could ultimately reap rewards for both him and Nick Saban. The 6-foot, 200-pound Vacherie native will certainly dot many preseason All-American lists, and he'll likely be a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award given to the nation's top defensive back. Through the first half of spring practice Webster has spent time at corner and wide receiver, his original position. Coaches decided to work Webster and Ronnie Prude at wideout in order to preserve depth at the position, but Saban has stressed that neither player may ever see the field on offense.
With Travis Daniels at the other corner spot, LSU likely has the best twosome in the country. Daniels saw time at both corner and free safety in 2003, but has found a home at corner. The 6-1 190-pounder developed into one of the SEC's best cover men last season, and that development appears to have continued in spring practice. Daniels intercepted a pass in the first scrimmage, and both he and Webster have earned praise from Saban in practice sessions.
At free safey, 2003 Freshman All-American LaRon Landry returns. Landry led the defense in tackles as a freshman, and showed a fearless style and nose for the football. Through the first few workouts of this spring it's very clear that Landry will continue to throw his body around without regard, but his mental game will have to catch up to his physical.
At the other safety spot sophomore Jessie Daniels will step in for the departed Jack Hunt. Daniels may not have Hunt's instincts, but he more than makes up for it in athleticism and a zest for contact. In LSU's first scrimmage defensive coordinator Will Muschamp blized Daniels early and often, and the Breaux Bridge native spent a great deal of time in the offense's backfield.
Top backups will likely include two newcomers. Junior college-transfer Mario Stevenson is competing with Ronnie Prude for the nickel corner position, and it's a competition that will likely last until the season opener. Stevenson is big (6-2, 193) and looks very fluid in coverage, but Prude has an advantage in experience and knowledge of the defensive scheme. At safety, former pro baseball player Joe Lawrence has quickly moved his way into the two-deep rotation. The 6-1 205-pounder is a dead ringer for Jack Hunt and worked with the second team defense in the first scrimmage. Keron Gordon worked at the other safety spot and is another player that has really come on and made a bid for playing time.