With new personnel comes change. The Tiger defense found that out after the arrival of three new coordinators on the defensive side – a group prepared to make whatever changes needed.
In the spring, first year defensive coordinator John Chavis – also the Tigers’ linebacker coach – moved longtime safety Harry Coleman to strong side linebacker. Perry Riley, who had occupied the position in 2008, has made a home on the weak side.
“It was a good move because I am more comfortable playing the Will (spot), and Harry is just the kind of athletic linebacker that coach Chavis wants at the Sam (spot),” Riley said. “The defense will play a lot faster and be more aggressive.”
Jacob Cutrera, who has served as the backup middle linebacker for three seasons, will get the start at Mike linebacker. The main substitution will be to get Kelvin Sheppard, the primary backup to both Cutrera and Coleman, onto the field.
After starting five games at weak side linebacker last season, Sheppard said the switch to the middle and strong side has suited him well.
“I caught on to everything quickly, and coach Chavis has really helped speed the process up,” Sheppard said. “He compliments me on my play all the time.”
Miles said that he has been equally impressed.
“[Sheppard] can play outside and has always gotten a lot of reps at the Mike linebacker (spot),” Miles said. “He’s just a guy that gives us a lot of depth at two positions. He’s a veteran now, and he’s a guy that understands what we ask of him and how to get the defense called. He’s a key member inside there.”
In the secondary, first year defensive backs coach Ron Cooper mixed things up as well.
A cornerback in his freshman season last fall, Brandon Taylor – the younger brother of former LSU safety Curtis Taylor – was moved to strong safety during fall camp. While Ron Brooks and Karnell Hatcher battled out the position in the spring, it was Taylor who earned the start.
“I am ready to go, and I don’t think I would have said that in the spring,” Taylor said. “I feel good about playing opposite of Chad [Jones], but I know that I can’t get out there in Seattle and then just rest. Someone will beat me out, so I have to stay focused on keeping this position locked up all season.”
While Taylor was hospitalized with a virus last week, the sophomore said that he practiced on Tuesday and is still penciled in as the starter for Saturday.
“I was in the hospital from Wednesday to Saturday, and they let me out early on Saturday morning,” Taylor said. “I had to sit out the first day back, and I just finally got into a groove [Tuesday]. They put me back with the ones, and everything slowed down and I played well.
“When I was sick, I just read the playbook,” he added. “The coaches would call me and I would call them, and I stayed on top of what I needed to know.”
Hatcher will also see snaps at strong safety, primarily against run-heavy teams where the 210-pound sophomore can move into the box.
Junior Chad Jones moved into the free safety position, where senior Danny McCray has backed him up. With the versatile Jake Locker under center, Jones said that he already has his eye on the Washington quarterback.
“Some plays I will come down and key on him, while other plays I just stay back and get into coverage,” Jones said. “He is a fast guy and a pretty good thrower, but I can hold my own. I can handle Locker.”
Outside of McCray, freshman Craig Loston could help give Jones a breather. After the Houston native’s late August arrival, whether that happens as soon as this weekend remains to be seen.
“Craig has come in and shown great speed and ability to hit and has a very good, natural understanding of football,” Miles said. “Frankly, we might get him some snaps on special teams this Saturday. He’s just a fast, hard-hitting athletic man.”
After he started four games in 2008, Patrick Peterson will get the start at right cornerback. Morris Claiborne, a true freshman out of Shreveport, will back up the sophomore.
On the opposite side, senior Chris Hawkins got the nod over junior Jai Eugene. The battle was close through the spring and fall, so expect both cornerbacks to see plenty of action on the left side. Sophomore Ron Brooks is the fifth cornerback.
On first-year defensive coordinator Brick Haley’s line, senior Rahim Alem and junior Pep Levingston will man the two defensive end spots. While Alem saw extensive action at right end in 2008, the depth chart released for the Washington bout has the senior on the left side.
Alem remained mute on the subject.
“I could be anywhere,” he smiled. “Pep could be anywhere. We will have to wait and see.”
Chancey Aghayere will back up Alem, while Lavar Edwards will play the second man behind Levingston. Freshmen Mike Brockers and Sam Montgomery should also see minutes.
On the inside, senior Al Woods has emerged as the leading man. The 6-foot-4, 311-pound Woods will line up at left tackle, while the battle for the right slot wages on between junior Drake Nevis and senior Charles Alexander.
With no clear-cut starter named, expect all three tackles to see action throughout the afternoon.
“The guys inside—Al Woods, Drake Nevis and Charles Alexander—will rotate and play really well for us,” Miles said.
Freshmen Josh Downs and Chris Davenport and JUCO transfer Akiem Hicks should also see time in the middle, with Downs running as the first man off the bench. If Hicks - who battled an ankle injury during preseason camp - is healthy, then expect the junior to see action at left tackle.
On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest change from 2008 was the most necessary.
Jordan Jefferson, who was told by Miles during spring camp that he would be the starter, will carry the Tigers into battle after starting the final two games on the 2008 calendar.
Playing smart football with a young mind under center, Miles said, is the main focus of the weekend.
“We have to be able to run the football, so we’re not asking him to execute in long-yardage situations,” he said. “I think the opportunity for our defense to get the ball back to us certainly gives any offense the opportunity to score. What we need to do is take care of our business, execute, take care of the ball and move the ball efficiently, both run and pass.”
An appearance from freshman jack-of-all-trades Russell Shepard is also in the cards.
“We’ll play him at quarterback,” Miles said. “We’ll play him at wide receiver and possibly running back. What he does with his feet certainly make him special. We give him a limited menu with throws, but he’ll have the opportunity to do those things. We have not scripted the game plan just yet. I don’t know exactly which situations he’ll be in, but I can tell you that we look forward to getting him some snaps.”
At running back, Charles Scott is the top name once more. Fellow seniors Keiland Williams or Trindon Holliday will serve as the second and third names off the bench, with junior Richard Murphy in the fourth spot. Miles said that sophomore Stevan Ridley, who is still recovering from ACL injury, should also get touches.
At fullback, expect a combination of Richard Dugas, James Stampley and Dominique Allen. At 240-pounds, Stampley is the lightest back of the group. Both Dugas and Allen are above 270.
Without a frontrunner, Miles said that he would play the hands as they come. When the headman addressed the media on Tuesday, Dugas was the lone Tiger to earn praise.
“[Dugas] had a knee surgery this summer and really has done a great job coming back really quickly,” Miles said. “He gives us physicality at 270 pounds at fullback. He can go in there and block for most tailbacks and give us some tough sledding. When it’s a key situation and we need physical play, we can call his number.”
On the offensive line, Ciron Black returns to left tackle and Joe Barksdale to right tackle. The same veteran leadership will be back at right guard, where Lyle Hitt returns after starting all 13 games at the spot in 2008.
The newcomers are Josh Dworaczyk at left guard and T-Bob Hebert at center. At 6-foot-6, 281-pounds, Dworaczyk gives Miles the long, athletic guard that he prefers. In the middle, the race between a pair of Tigers remains tight.
“I think T-Bob Hebert - he and P.J. Lonergan - will both play,” Miles said. “I think T-Bob will start. They both fit in real well, and they’re guys who are very serious about their trade. They’re going to get it right, and they’re making all the right calls. We’ve not really missed a beat there.”
Richard Dickson takes to the starting tight end spot for the fourth straight season, where Mitch Joseph and the emerging Deangelo Peterson – a former wide receiver - join him.
At wide receiver, senior Brandon LaFell will start at the Z, where Chris Tolliver backs him up. Terrance Toliver is the starting name at the X, with Rueben Randle as the second man. On three-wide sets, expect to see Chris Mitchell or RJ Jackson.
While Tiger fans know what to expect from LaFell and Toliver, Miles said to keep an eye on the progress of both Randle and Mitchell.
“Reuben is constantly getting better,” Miles said. “He’s young. He has to understand what we’re going to expect from him, but he has real ability. He has real speed and great ball skills, so he’s coming. It’s a steady process. It’s not something that you can just go out there and accomplish in a short amount of time. It takes work.
“Mitchell is a seasoned veteran, and in the position where Randle is, his eyes are a little bit wider and wanting to figure it out where as a guy like Chris understands the route, understands the catch and is really enjoying the fruits of being a veteran,” he added. “We expect that Chris will have a great senior campaign.”