Senior leaders

It's not every season a defense looks to replace three All-Americans. Following the departure of Glenn Dorsey, Ali Highsmith, and Craig Steltz to the NFL, though, that is the challenge facing the LSU coaching staff in 2008. Add in the loss of Chevis Jackson and Jonathan Zenon from the secondary and it's easy to see why LSU fans are cautiously optimistic about the '08 campaign.

The Tigers have some holes to fill on the defensive side of the ball but the senior leadership that does return, led by middle linebacker Darry Beckwith, free safety Curtis Taylor, and defensive end Kirston Pittman, sees no reason why this defense can’t maintain its dominance with new faces.


“It’s a great opportunity,” said Beckwith. “It’s a blessing to be in that kind of role, and we’ve got great players coming in that will surround us.”


After spending 2007 surrounded by seniors, Beckwith finds himself in charge of a linebacker corps that many fear does not have the depth needed to last through an SEC schedule. Redshirt sophomore Kelvin Sheppard and junior Perry Riley will be flanking Beckwith after spending the bulk of their careers as special teams reserves.


“I have no worries about [Riley and Sheppard],” Beckwith said. “Those guys have been in the system for three years now; they are very athletic and very talented players. Another thing I’ve really noticed is that they are very intelligent. They’re very focused and they’re going to bring a lot to the table this year.”


Ask any fan, though, and it is the secondary that gives cause for concern. Outside of Taylor, safeties Chad Jones, Danny McCray, and Harry Coleman have plenty of experience as nickel and dime backs.


But what about the gaping holes at cornerback?


“It is somewhat of a new role,” said Taylor. “But most of those guys have game experience now. I know these guys are going to work hard and they can all make plays. It’s not that big of a difference this year; it’s just the game experience. That’s the key.”


The big X-factor outside the returning players in the secondary is the true freshman tandem of Patrick Peterson and Brandon Taylor.


Johnson, a Pompano Beach, Fla. product, has been the definition of impressive since he arrived on campus. Equally impressive has been Taylor, who is Curtis’ younger brother.


“The young guys look really good,” Curtis said. “They look great as far as picking up schemes; they’re coming along fast. All the recruiting is over with, though, and it’s time for work to get done.”


As a sixth-year senior, Pittman is the most experienced player on the Tigers’ loaded defensive line. After two seasons marred by injury, the Garyville native exploded for eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss in 2007. But Pittman knows he can’t fly under the radar this season, and he’s looking forward to that.


“Hard work counts for everything,” he said. “If I listen to what coach Lane preaches and teaches, my technique is going to get better, my get up is going to get faster, and I’m going to get stronger at the point of attack. I’m not feeling any pressure at all. I’ve just got to play well within the scheme of the defense.”


The popular topic concerning this unit is replacing Dorsey. Pittman mentioned Ricky Jean-Francois, but said he has been impressed with a number of guys who will help take pressure off the edge of the line.


“Big Al Woods is a big strong guy,” he said. “He’s one of the biggest, quickest guys I’ve ever seen. He comes off the line like a guy that’s 280 pounds. Marlon Favorite was also huge for us last year, and all of the tackles look just really impressive in camp.”


In a unit this deep, it seems easy to get lost in the shuffle. A year after posting All-SEC numbers, Tyson Jackson slumped to a mere 3.5 sacks in 2007 while Pittman became the line’s leading producer.


That’s without mentioning the number of upper classmen who are just fighting for playing time. With all of that said, Pittman is not concerned about the pressure of keeping up with last season’s production.


“Everyone is working to achieve one goal,” he said. “We just want to be a success. If someone slacks, then someone needs to pick up that slack. We’re deep on the defensive line, but there are enough snaps to go around because we need to stay fresh. We can rotate eight or nine guys on the defensive front, and that’s going to give the offensive line trouble. It’s great to have depth.”


Even with the influx of youngsters, it’s hard to find a hint of concern amongst the veterans. Despite the departed personnel, on the field and off it, it’s even harder to doubt Beckwith as the leader of a defense that’s been outstanding in every season under Les Miles.


“This is a great defense,” Beckwith said. “And it’s going to be a great year for the LSU Tigers.”

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