A Look Back
LSU’s national title squad had about as solid a group of linebackers as one could ask for. Led by 2007 All-American Ali Highsmith, the group boasted great experience with two seniors and a solid junior in Darry Beckwith.
At the weak side spot, Highsmith led the team in tackles with 101 and nine tackles for loss. The Miami native was also solid in pass coverage with nine pass breakups. In the final game of his career he buried the Ohio State Buckeyes with eight tackles and 1.5 sacks to go with a forced fumble.
After making the switch to the middle as a sophomore, Beckwith had a fantastic 2007 campaign. The junior finished fifth on the team with 65 tackles, 6.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks. Furthermore, he recorded his lone interception of the season in the dying moments of the SEC Championship Game, sealing the deal in the 21-14 victory.
Beckwith fell off pace just a bit toward the end of the season as he missed both the Ole Miss and LA Tech games with an ankle injury. His performance was enough for a second team All-SEC selection to end 2007.
Luke Sanders grabbed the other outside spot in his senior season and notched 30 tackles. He missed three starts over the middle of the season, but came back strong towards the end. He had a fumble recovery in the score fest at Ole Miss, and capped off his career with two tackles against Ohio State.
Backing up this trio were the guys that will be filling their shoes in a matter of days.
Behind Highsmith, redshirt freshman Kelvin Sheppard did a phenomenal job getting his feet wet. As the team’s lesser known No. 11, Sheppard spent a lot of time getting confused with Ryan Perriloux, but that did not stop him from posting 21 tackles, two for loss, with two forced fumbles as a contributor in all 14 games. He also added 15 tackles as a special teams demon.
Sanders’ back up, sophomore Perry Riley, had a very similar season to Sheppard, and in fact almost matched Sanders’ output with 28 tackles on the year in 14 appearances. Riley also added to his tackle-total on special teams, making 14 stops for the unit.
Backing up Beckwith was sophomore Jacob Cutrera. The middle linebacker was the only one of the reserves to get starts, as he got the nod against Ole Miss and Tech when Beckwith went down. Cutrera made the most of his opportunities, as he made 21 tackles in 12 games. His success as a starter put his name in the minds of LSU fans searching for the middle linebacker to lead the Tigers “D”.
The unit only lost two of its six scholarship ‘backers’ following the national championship, but unfortunately those two were the teams most experienced and, in Highsmith’s case, the most productive. If that wasn’t bad enough, the guys were plagued with injuries throughout spring ball.
Perry Riley missed the majority of camp after sustaining an injury in the very early going of the offseason, and Jacob Cutrera was there albeit in a green non-contact jersey as he had nagging injury problems as well. With Riley out for the spring, and Cutrera working mostly with coaches without contact, the staff began throwing anyone they could find into the strong side position.
Shomari Clemons got a lot of work in with the big boys after not playing a single down in ’07. And I have to believe that the last thing Kellen Theriot expected when he enrolled early for spring ball was to be thrust into the starting Sam spot with the likes of Darry Beckwith working with him.
Beckwith was his usual, steady self all the way through the spring. He was probably the most underrated aspect of the national championship defense, but with a first team All-SEC selection to solidify his progress, the senior was looked to as a leader in drills and that will obviously continue into fall camp.
Sheppard seemed to have a firm grip on the weak side spot in the spring, as he was constantly in the mix as the starter despite the enormous amount of shuffling going on at strong side. At 6’3, he has the height that NFL scouts wanted Highsmith to have, not to mention the speed. He looked downright terrifying behind the D-line in drills, and proved his abilities in the spring game with several vicious run-stuffs. He also earned an award for offseason performance.
The spring ended on a bit of a down note, as Clemons was arrested and suspended for an altercation with a BRPD officer in April. We will see how that pans out in just a short while.
This year’s team should really get a feel for its linebackers this fall, rather than the injury-plagued spring.
Beckwith and Sheppard are good to go, and it looks like Cutrera and Riley will be at 100 percent for two-a-days. Theriot finished his spring with shoulder surgery, but should be ready for fall camp.
In addition, new recruits Ryan Baker and Kyle Prater are on campus, and with such little depth it seems they will be given their chance to show their stuff. Baker was 2008’s #7 ranked middle backer coming out of high school, and Prater wasn’t far off at #10 at weak side, so it’s not like these guys can’t play.
Depending on how Clemons’ situation turns out, we’re looking at seven or eight players to handle the load; only two of them have starts at linebacker for LSU, and only Beckwith has real experience as a starter for the Tigers.
Beckwith is a first team All-SEC selection and is going to have to be one of the entire team’s leaders, not just the head guy for this unit. Sheppard doesn’t seem likely to go anywhere, as he’s the only other guy besides Beckwith who made it all the way through spring, and he’s likely the speediest guy available to man the weak side spot. Riley is certainly the favorite for the last spot, but he can’t have a 100 percent lock on it without any meaningful work in the spring. Many people feel that Cutrera could play outside just as easily as middle and the junior could give Riley a battle for that spot.
Theriot has an early advantage on Baker and Prater, as he’s got an entire spring with a college defense under his belt. But if Baker is as good as people say, the true freshman could find himself as a key reserve after just a month of work. Hopefully the injury bug is done with this group, or LSU fans could see a freshman starting for a defense that’s only returning two starters to its back seven.
I’m not too excited about the depth the 2008 linebackers are going to have. It’s hard to believe that a program as loaded with talent as LSU is returning just two of eight players with any experience as a starter. Baker and Prater will be great I’m sure, but the thought of one of them getting starts if the older guys can’t stay healthy is pretty scary.
However, I’m getting quite excited about the potential top three ‘backers’ have.
Beckwith will be a force in the middle. Along with James Laurinaitis, Rey Maualuga, and Brian Cushing, he will be one of the country’s top linebackers and should have a shot at the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. Assuming Sheppard and Riley get the nod for the outside positions, I’m sold. These two were high school teammates, and they nearly matched Luke Sanders’ production as underclassmen contributors.
Riley will have some competition to beat for his job starting next week, but I’m buying stock in Kelvin Sheppard 30 days before the season starts. It seems like a yearly occurrence that a guy like Ali Highsmith fails to get drafted as an outside linebacker because he’s 6’0 instead of 6’2 or 6’3.
Sheppard has that extra bit of height, and it seems like a bit more speed too. Not to mention the guy was just nasty in the spring game, jumping through gaps and demolishing plays at the line, and stopping several potential big gains dead in their tracks with brutal hits.
I’m expecting to see a starting lineup of Sheppard/Beckwith/Riley, but with talented players like Cutrera and Clemons hanging around there’s going to be some interesting battles in fall camp.
Regardless of who wins out, Beckwith is a great player to anchor the back seven around, and it will be one of his many responsibilities to help everyone along and usher in this new crop of linebackers before he moves on. They are going to have some growing pains (who doesn’t after losing two senior leaders and 131 combined tackles?), but not as many as the secondary.
The linebackers have a fantastic line to help eliminate the running game, and a nice and easy start to the season with three cupcake opponents in the friendly confines of Tiger Stadium. If everyone can stay healthy this unit will be steady as a rock by midseason.