Note: This is part seven of a series that takes a look at each position heading into spring camp.
Projected Spring Depth Chart
7 Patrick Peterson 6-1, 205, So. Pompano Beach (Fla.)
29 Chris Hawkins 6-1, 184, Sr. Walker (La.)
4 Jai Eugene 5-11, 191, Jr. St. Rose (La.)
15 Brandon Taylor 5-11, 183, So. Franklinton (La.)
25 Phelon Jones 5-11, 190, So. Mobile (Ala.)
13 Ron Brooks 5-11, 175, So. Irving (Texas)
31 John Williams 5-11, 180, So. Breaux Bridge (La.)
36 Derrick Bryant 5-11, 187, So. Lawrenceville (Ga.)
35 Ryan St. Julien 6-1, 175, Fr. St. Martinville (La.)
3 Chad Jones 6-3, 214, Jr. Baton Rouge (La.)
24 Harry Coleman 6-2, 205, Sr. Baldwin (La.)
44 Danny McCray 6-1, 212, Sr. Houston (Texas)
37 Karnell Hatcher 6-1, 196, So. Delray Beach (Fla.)
42 Rocky Duplessis 6-1, 185, Fr. Belle Chasse (La.)
23 Stefoin Francois 6-1, 194, So. Reserve (La.)
A Look Back
Sure, there were not many bright spots on the LSU defense in 2008. The Tigers allowed opponents an average of 24.2 points per game, good for ninth in the Southeastern Conference. The group finished in the same spot in total defense, allowing an average of 325.5 yards per game.
Yet, the defensive backfield seemed more suspect than most, getting burned time and time again from the conference’s quarterback play.
The numbers showed, seeing the unit finish 11th in the conference in pass defense.
With the departure of Doug Mallory, the Tigers have taken the first steps towards the climb back to the top, hiring Ron Cooper away from South Carolina, where he served in the same position.
Cooper has a track record of developing under the radar high school prospects into NFL defensive backs, the latest being the five-foot-nine Captain Munnerlyn, who looks to go in the mid rounds of the NFL draft in April.
Fortunately for Cooper he does not have to go out searching high and low for prospects as his new role with the Bayou Bengals has him sitting on a secondary that consists of some of the nation’s most talented defensive back prospects when they came out of high school.
Patrick Peterson, who was a Parade All-American when he came out of Ely Blanche High School, showed promise despite the poor numbers from the unit. The high school USA Today Defensive Player of the Year recorded 41 tackles and a forced fumble on four starts and 13 games played.
Chris Hawkins started all 13 games a year ago on the left side and picked off a team-high three passes. Jai Eugene started nine games before giving way to Peterson and his 35 tackles were six fewer than Peterson and he did not register an interception while Peterson picked off one pass.
Harry Coleman led the team in total tackles (71) in thirteen starts from his strong safety spot, recording one forced fumble in the process. Danny McCray logged 53 stops and broke up five passes from his nickel spot, but he did get three starts at free safety when Curtis Taylor was banged up.
The bowl game gave the coaches a chance to try Chad Jones at free safety and he got the start in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in place of Taylor. Jones was in on four stops and broke up a pass in the big win over the Yellow Jackets.
The secondary was constantly confused and out of position last season, but with Cooper’s attention to detail that should change going forward.
Peterson and Hawkins should lock down the starting corner spots this spring and with Cooper in charge it will be interesting to see if the Tigers go with a cornerback at the nickel position or stick with McCray.
Eugene, who was rumored to have flirted with thoughts of transferring after being replaced by Peterson late in the year, could be a leading candidate to see time at nickel or dime. Unfortunately, the race for those spots is gaining runners, the most recent name surfacing being Ron Brooks.
Brooks played in 13 games in reserve duties last season, recording 18 tackles in the process. Coach Les Miles referenced Brooks as one to watch in the spring, so keep an eye on the Irving-native as there will be some fierce competition at cornerback, nickel and dime between Brooks, Hawkins, Eugene, Phelon Jones, Derrick Bryant and Ryan St. Julien.
With Cooper and defensive coordinator John Chavis new to the scene, the spring could be a time to experiment with Coleman at linebacker, especially in nickel and dime situations. That would also make room to get both Chad Jones and Danny McCray onto the field at the safety spots, a move that the previous coaching staff never turned the corner to make.
The race for playing time behind Jones, McCray and Coleman will focus on Karnell Hatcher and Rocky Duplessis since Stefoin Francois will miss at least the spring, and quite possibly may be done for his career with the ACL injury he suffered against Georgia Tech.
Two Burning Questions
1) Will Chad Jones win a starting job this spring?
For the past two seasons, Tiger fans have wondered when the staff would get Jones on the field in a bigger role.
While the safety spot seemed the place for the Southern Lab-graduate to be, the Bayou Bengals had a slew of senior talent that was stacking up the secondary. With Coleman and McCray the only two upperclassmen left for Jones to jump, it looks like the move is ready to be made.
This spring, Chavis may experiment with Coleman in a linebacker role. That would free space for Jones to move to free safety, moving him out of a backup role and into full time action on a more consistent basis.
Though he started in less than half of the Tigers’ games (6) last season, the junior recorded 50 tackles. The total was good for seven more than veteran Curtis Taylor, who started in nine games at free safety.
Baseball has become a bigger part of Jones’ life, but he will focus solely on football during the spring – except for spring break – then head back to the diamond after the spring game on April 18.
Jones looks to make his biggest mark to date for Miles and the Tigers and his journey begins tomorrow.
2) Who will be the breakout player on the 2009 unit?
Last season LSU fans were impressed by a number of the younger Tigers' play on special teams, from Ryan Baker to Derrick Bryant. Yet, perhaps no redshirt freshman made a bigger impact than Ron Brooks.
Brooks, who saw action in all 13 games, served as a backup defensive back who exploded with his play on special teams. He wrapped up his opening campaign with 18 tackles, nine of which were solo, forced two fumbles and recovered a fumble. Both forced fumbles came in SEC play – South Carolina and Alabama – while the fumble recovery came in the Tigers' bowl victory over Georgia Tech.
The sophomore has come a long way since his dual-threat quarterback days at MacArthur High.