A Look at the Secondary

Fall camp starts bright and early Monday morning, so with that TSD brings you the final two installments of 2008 preseason evaluation. Special teams will go up Sunday night or Monday morning, but for now we'll continue with the defense and the gigantic question mark that is the secondary.

A Look Back


As with the rest of LSU’s 2007 defense, last season’s secondary was a phenomenal bunch. The Tigers entered the national title season with two legitimate lockdown corners and a safety that ended up an All-American, but it was a small concern that a relatively untested Curtis Taylor would be replacing first-round draft choice LaRon Landry.


That concern evaporated early in the year, with all four starters jumping out to banner seasons. The Tigers’ defense allowed just 182.7 passing yards per game over the course of the season, and the starting secondary combined for 17 interceptions.


Strong safety Craig Steltz was the go-to guy all year long. In his first season as a full-time starter, he led the team in tackles with 101, and interceptions with 6. He continued an ongoing trend of smash mouth LSU safeties with his great tackling ability, notching as many as 16 on two separate occasions. His efforts earned him a first team All-America selection, and a place as a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to college football’s best defensive back.


Third-year starter Chevis Jackson will likely go down as one of LSU’s most reliable corners of this decade.


Jackson shut down his side of the field on a weekly basis, recording 44 tackles, five interceptions, and a whopping 16 pass breakups. That number helped him finish second all-time in passes defended for LSU (with 44), and it earned him first team All-SEC honors for 2007. The Mobile native started 40 consecutive games to cap his career, and finished up in style with a wonderful interception of Todd Boeckman in the 38-24 win over Ohio State.


Jonathan Zenon entered 2007 as a second-year starter, and did not disappoint. While he did finish behind Jackson in interceptions (3) and passes broken up (9), he topped Jackson’s tackle count by one with 45, and was a very reliable No. 2 corner for the nation’s third-best pass defense.


Zenon started 27-straight contests to end his career, and will be remembered fondly by the LSU faithful for his pick-six of Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge. The score put LSU up 21-14 in the SEC Championship game, a lead they would not relinquish.


Taylor entered ’07 as the unit’s unknown, but quickly put any questions to rest. The junior performed impressively in his first year as a starter, finishing seventh on the team in total tackles with 54. He matched Zenon with three interceptions (including the game-clincher against the Buckeyes), and he added six pass breakups of his own.


Taylor also added a punishing sack of Virginia Tech’s Sean Glennon in the 48-7 win against the Hokies, and a crucial fumble recovery to set up the game-winning touchdown at Alabama.


The reserves and contributors had their growing pains behind the talented starters, but we definitely got a look at what’s coming in 2008.


Zenon and Jackson were the SEC’s premier cornerback duo in 2007 and barely got off the field, so it’s understandable that their backups saw little playing time.


Destrehan product Jai Eugene was seen most commonly as Jackson’s backup; he got into 12 of 14 games and made eight tackles with a pass breakup. While it’s important that the redshirt freshman got his feet wet, it’s easy to understand that LSU fans are anxious about his progress. It was Eugene after all who was battered by Kentucky’s Andre Woodson when Jackson left the game with an eye injury.


Sophomore Chris Hawkins saw action in 13 games, coincidentally making 13 tackles with two-thirds of them against Louisiana Tech and Middle Tennessee State.


The safeties showed a bit more promise as nickel backs and backups.


Super-recruit Chad Jones raised the hype-meter ever higher in his true freshman year. The Baton Rouge native played in all 14 games, making 34 tackles with an interception and four pass breakups. He also added two sacks, one of which forced the game-changing fumble by John Parker Wilson in the contest against Alabama.


In his true sophomore season, Houston native Danny McCray got the nod as the secondary’s top nickel back. Although he was not an official starter, he still finished sixth on the team in tackles with 64, and grabbed two interceptions as well as two sacks.


McCray had his coming out party in the rain against South Carolina, as he led the team with 11 tackles and added an acrobatic interception of Blake Mitchell.


The average LSU fan had not heard the name Harry Coleman entering the 2007 bowl season. Then the sophomore exploded like an atom bomb in the Louisiana Super Dome.


With Steltz out of the national title game with a shoulder stinger, Coleman entered with just 16 tackles on the season. He proceeded to record two tackles, a sack, a quarterback hurry, and a crucial fumble recovery in the rout of Ohio State, and entered spring practice as the next big thing at safety.



Spring Football


While the quarterback controversy raged all through spring, the secondary quietly had just as pressing issues of its own. The unit would be facing a season without Jackson, Zenon, or Steltz for the first time since 2004, in other words the replacement of 190 tackles and 14 interceptions. Ouch.


Jai Eugene and Chris Hawkins held the starting corner spots all the way through spring as the most experienced of a very green group of corners.


Eugene seemed to have made some progress from last fall, and was very vocal throughout drills. Hawkins was a lesser known commodity, having played less in ’07. He was able however, to hold off the competitors for Zenon’s vacated place.


The coaching staff made no secret that Patrick Peterson (formerly Johnson) figured to play prominently in their plans for the ’08 secondary, and it was not happy with the shenanigans a certain Florida coach pulled that forced him to delay his enrollment and miss spring practice.


With all his talent it’s easy to forget that Chad Jones is a two-sport athlete and was drafted to play pro baseball out of high school. He spent a portion of his time with the baseball team in the spring, and it probably affected his progress.


Despite his obvious favor with the fan base, Jones spent the spring as the #2 strong safety behind Coleman and did not seem to make a move at the starting spot. He’ll have his shot next week, but 2008 could be another season of nickel and dime duty for Jones.


Observing all of this was Curtis Taylor. In the spring of ’07 he was preparing for his first shot as an LSU starter, no doubt taking his cues from the three seasoned veterans around him.


As soon as the confetti finished falling in January, however, Taylor lost his safety nets and instead became the safety net. Every time I caught him at spring drills he was quietly leading with his play. He was the starter at free safety throughout the spring, and spent a good deal of his time talking to and coaching Eugene and Coleman during drills. Taylor was the lone DB who grabbed an interception in the spring game, and will need to do plenty more of that in the coming months.



Fall Practice


Things will be a bit more interesting this time around.


Peterson has been on campus since June, and will finally have a shot to prove his top-five-talent billing. He’ll be pushing all month long for one of the corner jobs. Considering the absolute lack of experience at corner, the coaches will be looking for anyone to make some plays.


Redshirt freshmen Phelon Jones and Ron Brooks seem likely to get another chance to start, and the guys that impressed in the spring won’t be planning on going anywhere.


Aside from Peterson, Brandon Taylor and Ryan St. Julien enter the fall as touted true freshman. Taylor is physically ready to get in the mix at corner while St. Julien seems destined for a redshirt year.


Chad Jones will now have his focus solely on football, and that will certainly factor into who wins the strong safety job. This spot more than any other seems like a huge risk-reward situation. Whoever wins out between Coleman and Jones is sure to struggle some, but both are the type of talents that will make up for mistakes with gigantic plays like the ones they both made last fall.


Danny McCray will also be in the mix, but seems likely to spend his junior season as the Tigers’ nickel back.


Taylor is the only constant. He enters the fall as the only senior in the secondary, and he absolutely has to produce to give this group a hope of overcoming its youth. He has not received much attention from non-LSU publications in the weeks leading up to the season.


Barring injury he is not going to lose his job to anyone, but the question is whether he’ll simply be a solid option for 2008 or grab the bull by the horns and continue the pattern of NFL-caliber play at the safety position for LSU.



My Take


Curtis Taylor is the key to the 2008 season, even more so than the new quarterback. He and Darry Beckwith are the only returning starters in the entire back seven of this defense, and if Beckwith is the anchor that everyone will rally around, Taylor has to be the mistake-eraser that everyone is glad to have behind them.


This is LSU so everyone around #27 is talented, but that talent is just so young. Of the 19 defensive backs on the roster, eight are freshman, four are sophomores, six are juniors. Only Taylor represents the senior class.


In an SEC that is moving ever-so-quickly to the spread offense, this unit will likely be spending a good bit of its time in five and six-DB sets. Danny McCray is a valuable veteran, but the likely scenario is that both starting cornerbacks and the starting strong safety will have combined for zero starts when LSU takes the field against Appalachian State.


With memories of LaRon Landry still fresh in the mind, LSU fans know how important it is to have a run-stuffing, ball-hawking safety in the backfield reading the offense. Taylor doesn’t have to launch himself into the NFL Draft’s top 10, but he’s going to need to be there big-time in run support, and he’s got to be automatic at erasing the mistakes made by the corners.


Whoever wins the Jones-Coleman battle is going to be a reliable playmaker. Both safeties are going to go a long way in helping out the green corners, but it’s still Taylor who has been a starter in primetime. He had a solid junior season, but when everything was said and done he was 47 tackles behind his counterpart Steltz. It has to be him that shoots for triple-digit tackles this time around.


With any luck, the stellar defensive line can up its sack total from 2007 and really help the new kids out. But even if Tyson Jackson and Co. crank out 40 sacks, this pass defense seems likely to fall from its lofty #3 ranking of 2007. Chevis Jackson won’t be there to erase the #1 receiver in single coverage, and this unit is going to have to improve quickly for that much-anticipated trip to Auburn in week four.


Who better to hold it all together than the lone senior? Mr. Taylor, consider the challenge extended.

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