Lavalais ready for a hard-nosed season

Southeastern Conference football has evolved into a pass-first, run-second league centered around speedy skill-position players -- basketball on grass, some might call it -- but that's not the kind of game Chad Lavalais saw as he watched Virginia Tech run wild over defenseless Arkansas State.

No, in studying film of the Hokies' season-opening, 63-7 victory last month, Lavalais, LSU's junior defensive tackle, was treated to a brand of smash-mouth football that would make John Facenda smile. With each snap that found the gut of Lee Suggs or Kevin Jones, Virginia Tech's heralded running back tandem, holes opened in the line and bodies crashed to the turf.


Lavalais, like any good lineman, licked his chops.


"They're gonna come right at us," Lavalais said in the days before the game, his eyes full of excitement. "I mean, everybody's going to be looking to knock you down. It's going to be a nose grind."


Opportunities to bump and grind in the trenches are few and far between for the LSU defensive linemen -- most conference rivals are more inclined to pass the ball -- so Lavalais made sure to enjoy himself Sunday afternoon in Blacksburg, Va. Despite the Tigers' 28-6 loss to the Hokies, the 6-foot-3, 270-pound Marksville native reaffirmed his status as an All-SEC candidate.


Lavalais made 11 tackles (2 for a loss) in the opener, teaming with senior defensive tackle Byron Dawson to give the Tigers a steady force in the middle. Not that any of this was a surprise: Lavalais, as his coaches and teammates will tell you, is one player who could be destined for a breakout year.


Since arriving on the LSU campus as a 21-year-old freshman in August 2000, Lavalais has quickly emerged as a cornerstone of the Tigers defense. After starting the final four games of his freshman season, Lavalais came into his own as a sophomore, making 12 starts and registering 53 tackles -- more than any other LSU defensive lineman -- as the Tigers reached 10 wins for the first time since 1996.


Now comes Lavalais' chance to put up even bigger numbers, garner post-season honors and vault himself into a high-round NFL prospect. Because it took him so long to reach this point in his career, Lavalais, who didn't qualify to play for LSU until after signing a third time, is trying to enjoy the ride.


"My heart was always here at LSU," Lavalais said.


No one ever questioned the talent of Lavalais, a do-it-all schoolboy standout who, in addition to returning punts and kicks, played running back, tight end and linebacker at Marksville High. But when he failed to produce the necessary score on his ACT after signing with LSU in 1998 and '99, even Lavalais thought about giving up on football and making an honest living in his hometown.


Working as a security guard at Avoyelles Parish Prison and parking cars as a valet for a nearby casino were among the various jobs Lavalais held during his time away from the game. Lavalais didn't let go of his dream, though, and in 2000 he finally fulfilled the commitment he had made to LSU.


"He was so close," said Benny Brouillette, Marksville's coach from 1996-2000. "I think he finally relaxed enough and got it done."


The day when Lavalais arrived at LSU as a timid, out-of-shape rookie seems like ancient history to most who follow the Tigers, but he remembers it vividly. He remembers missing tackles and blowing assignments. He remembers looking up to veteran linemen and asking them for inside tips. Most of all, he remembers the relentless, booming voice of an angry Pete Jenkins.


"I thought he was out to get me or something," Lavalais said of Jenkins, the former LSU defensive line coach who retired after last season. "He was always on my back, and I didn't know why. Midway through that first season, I started to understand he was just trying to make me better."


Lavalais is so good these days that there's already talk he could be headed to the NFL after his junior year. Should the up-and-coming lineman with the smash-mouth mindset progress enough to reach the next level, he'll have at least one super fan before he ever even takes the field: Benny Brouillette.


"I think if every coach had a Chad Lavalais, they'd stay in coaching for a hundred years," Brouillette said. "I told him when he goes to the next level" -- the coach laughed -- "I'm ready for my new truck and boat."


What color would you like, Coach?


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