Over the last seven and a half months, the word respect has been tossed around quite often around the LSU Football Operations Complex.
Respect was something that the entire nation had for LSU football entering the 2008 season, but by season’s end the same could not be said.
After an off-season of grueling workouts combined with several coaching changes, the Tigers will take the field on Saturday against Washington in the 2009 season opener. And when the Tiger defense takes the field shortly after 7:30 p.m. PT, one word comes to mind for starting cornerback Patrick Peterson.
“Respect; I think that’s what every guy on the defense wants back,” said Peterson. “We want to get our respect back. Teams doubted us (last year) and didn’t think we could stop the run or the pass. But, I think this year we have a different aspect of the game and I think we’re just ready.”
Opponents had good reason to doubt LSU’s defense last year as the Tigers had problems stopping just about everyone they faced. With a new defensive coordinator calling the shots in John Chavis, LSU fans hope to see more of what they’ve grown accustomed to this decade – a stingy unit that causes many sleepless nights for the opposition.
Chavis’ first test is certainly no easy task as LSU faces one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country in Jake Locker.
The label ‘dual threat’ has become a cliché at all levels of football, but there is no better way to describe Locker and the challenges he poses to a defense.
Locker stepped onto the big stage as a redshirt freshman in 2007 and had one of the best years for a freshman quarterback in Pac-10 Conference history. He set a conference record with 986 yards rushing by a quarterback and his 13 scores on the ground broke a UW record for signal callers.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pounder’s passing stats were less than stellar in ’07, but still respectable taking his youth into consideration. Locker completed only 47.3 percent of his passes with more interceptions than touchdowns – 15 to 14 – but he threw for 2,062 yards which gave him 3,048 yards of total offense, good for second in school history in a season.
Locker showed improvement during the spring and expectations were soaring heading into 2008, but a broken right thumb suffered against Stanford ended his season prematurely. His numbers showed some improvement as he completed 53.8 percent of his passes and did not throw an interception, but in four games he passed for only 512 yards and a touchdown, and chipped in 180 yards and three scores on the ground.
Those who follow Washington closely say that Tyrone Willingham and his staff did not do a very good job of developing Locker as a quarterback. That excuse is no longer valid, however, with former USC quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian now running the show in Seattle as the headman, with help from a new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach – Doug Nussmeier.
LSU head coach Les Miles and Chavis has used a combination of studying USC’s offense and factoring in Washington’s personnel to prepare for Locker and the Husky offense. That doesn’t give them much to work with and they may not know what to fully expect on Saturday, but they do know that Locker’s running ability will present some unique challenges.
“Any time you play a quarterback that has mobility, there are a number of ways that he can be used,” Miles said. “He throws very well on the run. At USC, they used a very extensive naked bootleg package that gets the quarterback on the run and gives him options to throw the football and run. Certainly, that’s one of the things they can do as well as call his number on runs, so it’s something certainly that we have to prepare for.”
For a defense that was not technically sound last season, the Tigers have been drilled on what it will take to successfully defend the run-pass option that Locker presents.
“As a safety or anybody in the secondary for that matter; when you have a person that is athletic like him and that can scramble and throw the ball, you have to make sure you’re disciplined in coverage,” said LSU safety Danny McCray. ”When he scrambles you can’t always go up and try to make the tackle. You have to make sure you stay back in coverage on your receiver. It’s hard on us because you have to be disciplined on every play.”
Keeping Locker and his reported 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash contained will be an emphasis for LSU’s defensive linemen and linebackers. Senior linebacker Perry Riley says that will be the key to how successful LSU’s defense is in the opener.
“First thing is keeping him in the pocket,” said Riley. “We need to put pressure off the edge to try and keep him in the pocket. If he does get out of the pocket then we have to rally to the ball. But you don’t want to leave your receiver downfield too early, because if you do then he’ll throw it over your head. Our main focus is keeping him in the pocket though.”
Riley says that Tim Tebow, whom the Tigers have faced three times over the last three years, is who comes to mind when he watches Locker on film. McCray, however, has a different take.
“I don’t think I’ve seen one like this,” he said. “We played against some scramblers and some throwers, but they’ve all been different. He’s just a different person. He’s pretty big and to be able to move like that is unique.”
LSU has defeated Tebow and Florida twice in those three meetings, and a big key to their success was getting pressure on the quarterback with the defensive front and blitz packages. That’s something that Peterson is looking for on Saturday – and the entire season – as it will go a long ways towards helping the Tigers regain what was lost last season.
“Those guys are going to play physical every snap,” he said. “Last year, I don’t think we put enough pressure on the offense, but our new defensive coordinator (Chavis) knows exactly what to do and when to do it. I think we’re definitely going to get that respect back this year, and that’s why I’m just waiting for Sept. 5, 7:30, to just get everything rolling.”