The pieces were put together slowly, but then again one could say the headman moved swiftly following the Tigers’ victory over Georgia Tech on New Year’s Eve.
John Chavis was officially hired as defensive coordinator the first week in January after a 20-year stint at Tennessee.
Brick Haley and Ron Cooper followed shortly after, giving the Tigers not only a new defensive coordinator, but also a defensive line coach and defensive backs coach.
Taking to spring ball, the Tiger defense was introduced to their new mentors and given the task of memorizing a playbook that they had not seen before.
Positions would change over the next month, giving the Tigers a new look and for many a fresh start.
Harry Coleman, a bulky, 6-foot-2, 210-pound hard-hitter who occupied the safety spot last season, found a new home at linebacker in the spring’s final week of practice.
A week later, head coach Les Miles said that the position swap of his leading tackler from a year ago looks to be permanent.
“The move allows you a greater athlete, one who can cover and handle space in both the run and pass,” Miles said. “At linebacker, we have Kelvin Sheppard who can play MIKE. [Jacob] Cutrera is the starting MIKE, and he had a great spring. And then we have Perry Riley, so we needed to add a fourth player.”
Riley had five tackles and intercepted a pass in Saturday’s spring game, while Cutrera finished with three tackles.
Coleman, despite moving from a starting spot into a rotating linebacker role, said that the move should improve the Tiger defense in a big way.
“Instead of running different personnel on the field, they can leave me out there and I can cover a receiver,” he said. “I can also cover the run, so things should be pretty good once I get the scheme down.
“I like it and I am not upset at all,” added Coleman. “Coach Chavis and Cooper are doing a great job, and this team is running to the ball now. They stress communication and we are improving.”
McCray, who is currently running as the second-team safety behind Jones, has recorded the most career tackles (147) of anyone on the LSU team.
Of course, moving from nickel back to safety prior to his senior season, McCray said that much remains up in the air.
“I have been in the box covering slot receivers for a long time, so moving back to safety is like starting all over for me,” he said. “We are learning a new defense, so everyone is trying to stay focused, but at the same time impress the staff so that you can stay on the field.”
Of course, after building a relationship with former defensive coordinators Doug Mallory and Bradley Dale Peveto that dated back to his junior year of high school, McCray said that turning a new leaf this far into the process is tough.
“You have to understand, I knew coach Mallory and Peveto really well, and we go back to family stuff together,” he said. “So I have had to get familiar with coaches like Cooper and Chavis, and that is tough.
“Those guys – Mallory and Peveto – knew what I was capable of and when to play me, and these new coaches don’t know any of that yet. I want to be on the field though, so I am trying hard.”
For Jones, the process is much of the same even though he is now starting at free safety after serving as the dime back his first two years.
“Things are settling in for me back there at safety, and I am trying to make as many plays as possible and give us my best this season,” said Jones. “I think that Danny, Ron and Karnell [Hatcher] are coming along really well, so the safety spot will be on point.”
Brooks, who made it possible for the coaches to move Coleman with his performance this spring, brings a smaller frame than Tiger fans have seen at the position in years past. He said that the move to get him on the field in place of the bigger safeties comes down to playmaking ability.
“I think that coach Chavis is just doing what he told us he would when he arrived, and that was put the best 11 guys out there cutting it loose,” said Brooks, who stands 5-foot-11 and 175 pounds. “He wants me at about 190 to 195 pounds, but I don’t think my size is a factor outside of that. I can make some things happen for us, and coach is just putting the people on the field that are ready to do that.”
With Rahim Alem, Al Woods, Drake Nevis and Pep Levingston set to start across Haley’s defensive line – if he went with the same unit that he did in the spring – as well as Patrick Peterson, Chris Hawkins, Brandon Taylor and Jai Eugene battling at corner for Cooper, the Tigers seem to be on the up-and-up.
“There is a new feeling in the air, and we want it more than ever,” McCray said. “There are some things that we did not do last season, and everyone is making sure that does not happen on defense this season. This new coaching staff has big things in store, so I think everyone will be excited for 2009.”