Sixth-year senior Charles Alexander is commonly referred to as the “old man” on the LSU football team because it seems as if he has been around forever.
Few remember, though, that there is another current Tiger that was a part of Nick Saban’s last signing class at LSU – 2004 – along with Alexander, and the road that he has traveled is filled with just as many hardships and heartaches.
Harry Coleman was quite busy during his four years at West St. Mary High School. The versatile athlete was a four-year letterman in football, basketball, baseball, and track, but he always knew that football was going to be his ticket to college.
And few would argue after the impressive numbers he posted in his last two years playing for the Wolfpack.
As a junior, Coleman recorded 107 tackles and seven sacks lining up at linebacker, safety and even a little defensive end in certain situations. When the defense came off the field his job wasn’t completed as Coleman was also one of the leading receivers on the team with nine touchdown receptions.
Entering his senior season, Coleman had ambitious goals that included winning a state championship and earning a scholarship to college.
His aspiration of winning a state title came up short, but after logging 170 tackles and 14 touchdown receptions – feats that helped him become a Class 3A All-State selection for the second consecutive year – Coleman was rewarded with scholarship offers from Tulane and Louisiana Tech.
Still, his ultimate dream had yet to come to fruition.
On Jan. 23, 2004, Coleman took an official visit to LSU at the urging of Saban. He admits that he didn’t expect to get a scholarship offer from his dream school with the Tigers already having commitments from four linebackers in Quinn Johnson, Matt Stoltz, E.J. Kuale and Luke Sanders. The safety position was also well-stocked with Craig Steltz and Curtis Taylor already in the fold.
But before Coleman left Baton Rouge Saban extended that long awaited overture, and it took only a matter of seconds before it was graciously accepted.
“The decision once LSU came was easy,” said Coleman. “Out of the gate, being a Louisiana kid, I said I was going to LSU.”
Coleman signed with the Tigers two weeks later and he spent the spring of his senior year working on his academics so that he would meet NCAA eligibility requirements. At one point, it looked as if he would have to go the junior college or prep school route, but Coleman eventually made the grade.
Next up was LSU in the summer time. Or so he thought.
“Coming out of high school, Saban called my mom and said he had signed too many scholarships and asked if I didn’t mind grey-shirting,” Coleman explained. “I said I didn’t mind, and I moved out that semester (to Baton Rouge) and got a job and started working out; then I came to school in January.”
Being a grey-shirt meant that Coleman wouldn’t lose any eligibility, and in fact, he gained a semester by enrolling in the spring. His first spring was spent working off the rust and that carried over into the summer and fall camp of 2005 – Les Miles’ first year with the Tigers.
Coleman, who says he was closer to 6-feet, 190 pounds when he got to LSU as opposed to the 6-feet, 200 pounds that his Scout.com profile listed, had hoped to get on the field immediately, as it had already been one year since he played an actual game. However, Miles and then defensive coordinator Bo Pelini had different plans as they elected to redshirt the big-hitting defender.
“I love this game, so when that happened, I just missed playing the game,” Coleman said. “I was on the scout team, but I couldn’t let it loose like I wanted. It just motivated me to be better.”
Coleman used that time to get bigger and stronger, and by the time his redshirt freshman year rolled around he earned playing time on special teams where he was in on 12 tackles.
The following year is when Coleman began to show that he had a future at LSU in a much larger capacity, and he couldn’t have chosen a bigger stage for his best showing.
When Steltz went down with a stinger in the first half against Ohio State in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game, Coleman was thrust into action at strong safety, and he didn’t disappoint logging two tackles, recovering a fumble, and registering a quarterback hurry.
“It was three years without really playing. When Steltz went down, I said, ‘here I go,’” Coleman explained. “Coach Pelini had prepared us right, so I was ready. I said ‘put me in coach, I am ready. You don’t have to change anything, because I know it all.’ By the grace of God, he put me in the place to make plays and I made them.”
With Steltz moving on to the NFL following the championship campaign, Coleman was next in line for the starting strong safety spot. And once again, he came thru for the Tigers, logging a team-high 71 tackles and breaking up seven passes which was second on the team.
Following that frustrating 8-5 season, Miles hired John Chavis to run his defense making that the third defensive coordinator in as many years, and actually fourth when you consider that Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory were co-coordinators.
Chavis was known for having smaller linebackers that run like safeties during his time at Tennessee, and most felt that Coleman would make a great fit at linebacker in the Chief’s scheme.
Chavis eventually made the switch on the last week of spring practice, and for the first time since high school Coleman was back at the position he terrorized opponents at on the prep ranks. It’s a move that Coleman says he’s very comfortable with despite the difference in scheme and terminology.
“Last year I had more responsibility in the passing game, where I always had to cover a receiver,” he said. “Now, I am out there making tackles and running around and having fun. There are certain calls where I cover a receiver, tight end or running back, but for the most part we just zone everything off.”
Coleman does more than your average linebacker as he rarely leaves the field even when the Tigers go to their nickel or dime packages. As a result, he actually has two position coaches and he credits them both for the seamless transition he has been able to make, as they have done a good job of preparing him for his multiple roles.
“Coach Chavis and (Ron) Cooper have done a tremendous job reading the [opponent’s] routes,” Coleman stated. “If they line up in a certain spot, the coaches tell us what they could run and how to eliminate other plays. It is little tips like that which help.”
“We do a lot of film study,” added Coleman. “Chavis tells us to come in during our free time and get film work. He does a great job with the scout team preparing the cards and making the guys run the plays that could be expected. When game time comes, it is a lot easier than practice.”
One of the major differences with LSU’s scheme this year as opposed to the 2008 defense is the way the Tigers play their zone coverage under Chavis.
“When a team sees you playing man, they start running crossing routes and you start chasing them all over the field,” said Coleman. “Even if we are playing man, in Chavis’ scheme we can pass it off to the next defender. We just communicate before the play. As long as communication happens, we can switch off.”
Some Tiger fans are a little upset that LSU plays more zone than in your face man coverage, and they would also like to see the Tigers blitz more often. Coleman says that Chavis knows what he is doing and fans just need to be patient.
“Sometimes we have a blitz called, and the offense checks us out of it,” he said. “Chavis has it called, but we just have to check out of it. We have a whole lot of plays that we could run; we are just not showing our hands.”
LSU’s defense has shown improvement of late and the Tigers have kept opponents out of the end zone over the last six quarters. ULL almost made it to pay dirt last week, but Coleman got into the backfield on fourth and goal and forced a fumble that was recovered by Perry Riley.
Plays like that have NFL scouts excited about Coleman’s potential at the next level.
And he has one person in particular to thank for finding his new home.
“It’s the best move I ever made,” said Coleman, who leads LSU with 25 tackles and is tied for second with two passes broken up and two knocked down. “I have Coach Chavis to thank for it too.”