When LSU brought on defensive backs coach Ron Cooper in the offseason, Tiger fans knew change was on the horizon. From the playbooks to the players, Cooper would bring life to a down-and-out LSU secondary.
After spring camp, the starting unit began to take shape. At cornerback, Patrick Peterson – following a breakout freshman campaign – emerged as the leader of the group. Jai Eugene and Chris Hawkins continue to battle for the second spot, while true freshman Morris Claiborne - who tried his hand at wide receiver during the first week of camp - has moved into the two-deep behind Peterson.
Junior Chad Jones found his home at free safety – moving away from the nickel back role that he occupied during his first two seasons in Baton Rouge. Harry Coleman is gone from the safety position, becoming John Chavis’ first hybrid-linebacker experiment with the Tigers.
Perry Riley is back at strong side linebacker, with Jacob Cutrera in the middle and Coleman on the opposite side. Kelvin Sheppard will back up Cutrera and Coleman.
Any questions as to position depth seem to be relegated to strong safety. For now, Brandon Taylor – the younger brother of former Tiger safety Curtis Taylor – has grabbed the top spot.
“I have been running with the first team throughout the spring, so I think that I am going to get the start on opening day,” Taylor said. “I have lined up mostly with Karnell behind me, and Chad has been the front man at free safety with Danny McCray behind him.”
Hoping to shore up the unit’s pass coverage, Taylor said, was Cooper’s main motivation for the switch.
A cornerback during his freshman campaign, Taylor made the move to safety less than a month ago. In two weeks time, he could be leading the secondary onto the field against Washington.
“It has not been too big of a shock for me to get thrown into all of this, because I feel like the playbook is a lot easier to understand than before,” he said. “It is a lot less complicated. I enjoyed playing cornerback, but I think I am a better fit in this scheme at safety.”
Hatcher, who had a solid special teams run during his freshman season, worked his way into action in the secondary during the latter half of the 2008 season. In his biggest showing - against Florida - Hatcher logged a career-high three tackles at free safety. This fall, he will stick to strong safety.
“When I run, it is usually with Chad and sometimes Danny,” Hatcher said. “I think that coach Cooper wants to focus me in on the running plays with Brandon in on the passing plays. There is still competition, but that is how things have started to shake out.”
With two bodies making a run at one spot, Brooks is back at work with the cornerbacks.
“We are pretty young all over the secondary, and we could use some more of the experienced guys at corner, which is why Ron is back with that group now,” Taylor said.
Despite the early shakings, the unit is confident that everyone will see significant action come game time.
“All the defensive backs were double trained to learn more than one position, and that will give each guy a chance to make some plays,” Taylor said. “Coach Cooper wants to have at least eight defensive backs ready to go each day, because our packages require that.
“When dealing with a team like Florida, the coaches want to capitalize on speed,” he continued. “Cornerbacks will start playing safety and safeties start playing linebacker. It is a good look, because we can bring speed or strength.”