Through seven games in 2009, the Tiger defense has their opponents right where they want them.
Middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, who finished the 2008 season with a second-best 64 tackles, leads the team with 57 tackles. Of those tackles, 4.5 were for a loss – the same total he finished his sophomore campaign with.
On the outside, linebackers Perry Riley and Harry Coleman have both recorded 47 stops.
Coleman, often the blitzing linebacker, has recorded two sacks, three forced fumbles and 4.5 tackles for a loss. Riley, who has found his new home on the weak side after starting on the strong side in 2008, added the group’s lone interception – the game-clincher in Athens against UGA.
Though Coleman led the team in tackles with 71 in 2008, he did so from the safety position. Having three linebackers lead the way in 2009, said defensive end Rahim Alem, means that the unit is back on track and headed in the right direction.
“That is really not good when your safeties lead the team in tackles,” he said. “The linebackers are supposed to lead; that is the mark of a good defense.
“It is a mix of the way we play with [defensive coordinator] [John] Chavis, and we have some pretty good linebackers.”
If you spend more than five minutes around the defensive side, the realization that Chavis is behind most of the improvements begins to set in.
“Chavis does a great job of putting the linebackers in position to make those plays,” Riley said. “We have gotten a lot better because of him. He has come in with a great scheme, and we are running it well. We have done a great job of answering the call.”
On pace to finish alongside his fellow linebackers as one of the top three tacklers on the team, Riley said that the memories of 2008 have now become an afterthought.
“Then, we just wanted to win a game, and we didn’t care if a d-tackle led the team,” he said. “This year to have [the linebackers] lead the team, it is a good compliment on what we have done in the offseason and the hard work that we put in.”
While Sheppard, Riley and Jacob Cutrera have played lights out on Saturdays, the key to the unit’s success might be Chavis’ move of Coleman from safety to strong side linebacker last spring.
“I knew from the get-go that it might be one of the better moves on our team,” Sheppard said. “It is not a surprise to see him playing this well. And when we are going 60 snaps a game, you have to be able to sit out a series and know that a guy is in there that can get the job done.”
An explanation to the success might be that the relationship between the four linebackers is one of the strongest bonds the team has going.
Sheppard and Riley were childhood best friends in Stone Mountain, Ga. Both met and grew close to Cutrera, a Lafayette native, during their junior season of high school, when all three were being recruited to LSU. Coleman, a member of Nick Saban’s final signing class, was already on campus by the time the younger three Tigers showed up.
Thanks to their history, the corps said that communication on Saturday’s has become second nature.
“We don’t even need to say anything to each other anymore, we don’t even talk,” Sheppard said. “We just look at each other and we know where we are going. It is pretty cool.”
With five games still on tap, including three Western Division bouts, head coach Les Miles is more than pleased with the effort from the group – though he maintained that all focus remains on one weekend at a time.
“I enjoy the development,” he said. “That defense is getting better each week. There is a spirit; they want to play better than the teams that they are against.
“Our team understands that we made improvement against our last opponent, but that has to continue against this opponent. Our greatest ally at this point is time, to improve and do better and play dominant against our next opponent. Then we will look around and see where we are at.”