Daniels steps into big shoes left by Hunt

When LSU's 2003 season kicked off with a lightning-interrupted clash against in-state opponents ULM in Death Valley on August 30, wide-eyed freshman Jesse Daniels stood patiently on the sidelines waiting for his chance to make an impact as a sixth defensive back in the Tigers' ‘Dime' formations.

He would have done well to remember the words head coach Nick Saban repeats ad nauseum to his players before each and every game though: If you're a backup, you're only ever one play away from starting.

And just like that, as quickly as Daniels signed his name on the dotted line to become a member of the purple and gold, he found himself thrust into the spotlight when safety Randall Gay went down with an injury against the visiting Indians.

Welcome to the big time, kid. Hope you have that playbook memorized.

"I knew going in to the first game that I would have to see some action, I would be playing ‘dime' back, the sixth DB," said Daniels. "But in the first game, Randall Gay got hurt and I ended up on the field for about forty-seven plays. It wasn't too bad; I had help from Travis (Daniels), Corey (Webster) and Jack (Hunt). I knew Jack would help me out.

At the time, Hunt was playing strong safety, a position often referred to as being the quarterback of the defense; the strong safety is called upon to make the defensive calls, look over the formation the opposing offense lines up, in and call the appropriate audibles. The cerebral aspects of the position are difficult enough to master, even for a senior like Hunt, so it is hard to imagine how a sophomore would cope with being named the starter at the most critical of defensive positions.

But that is exactly the task Daniels faces as he prepares for the start of the 2004 season, as Hunt's graduation opened a vacancy that Saban volunteered Daniels to fill.

The big time just got a whole lot bigger.

"I feel good, because coach Saban is confident in me," said Daniels. "I'm getting a lot of reps in practice, I'm still new to the position, but I'm adjusting."

The adjustment should be made a lot easier by the fact that in front of the Breaux Bridge native stands the defense that was rated the best in the nation in 2003, although both Daniels and Saban are quick to quash any thoughts of comparison between the defending national champions and the team that, as Saban describes it, is "At the bottom of the mountain" again.

"Between '03 and '04, we have a whole new defense," said Daniels of a unit that lost four starters to graduation and the NFL Draft. "2003 is in the past, but we still have a great defense this year. We work hard, and as long as we're together I know we will do what we have to do to get the job done."

Following Gay's injury, Daniels put together a freshman season that was more solid than spectacular.

The 5-11, 195-pound hitman registered 33 tackles, 23 of which were solo, and saw action in all 14 games while splitting time between safety, dimeback, and special teams. When the Tigers edged the Oklahoma Sooners 21-14 in the Nokia Sugar Bowl to win the BCS National Championship, Daniels registered one tackle for a two-yard loss, and one pass breakup.

The workload is expected to increase exponentially in 2004 for the second-year player, as Hunt alone registered 73 tackles and four interceptions while playing strong safety in 2003. Daniels does not seem phased by the challenge, and his optimism is reflected in the eyes of Saban and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, both of whom do not expect the defense to miss a beat under the watchful eye of Daniels.

"I have been very pleased with what we have been able to accomplish to this point in the seven practices that we have had to this point," said Saban. "We have gotten a lot of work done, and we have a lot of carry over from some of the older players. We have some young players on the team that have made a significant amount of progress. That obviously will help our team because we do have a very, very young team. I think we have something like nine seniors on our team, and probably well over 50-plus guys that are first incoming freshman or have been here for one year. It's going to be important that those guys mature, and add a kind of chemistry that we need to this team."

"We've got seven practices under our belt, and we're pleased so far with the progress of our defense," said Muschamp. "We still have a lot of things to work on and we've got a short time to get there.

"We've got to continue to develop toughness on our football team on defense, continue to develop depth on our defense. We lost four good starters last year, and more than anything we lost a lot of good backups that gave us a lot of quality snaps. Right now that is really what we are trying to do is develop those guys, develop some guys up front, at linebacker and a couple of more guys in the secondary that can step up and play some quality snaps for us."

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