Entering the 2009 campaign, Tiger fans were looking for a much improved defense under first-year defensive coordinator John Chavis.
The Tiger defense had lost its luster after the 2007 national championship season and had fallen off track under first year co-coordinators Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory in 2008. Les Miles gave Peveto and Mallory a shot but after one year he turned to Chavis, who has been a mainstay in the Southeastern Conference including 14 years as the defensive coordinator at Tennessee.
In year one under Chavis, the Tigers made significant improvement in several areas and laid the groundwork for year two and the Chief’s second spring with the Tigers.
LSU will hit the field running on Friday for the first practice of the spring and there is certainly more confidence with the players after one year under Chavis.
Some of LSU's greatest strides made were in pass defense where the Tigers allowed 194.23 yards a game in 2009, which was good for 29th in the country compared to 73rd in ‘08.
The secondary took a hit when Chad Jones declared for the NFL draft after his junior campaign but the Tigers still return two full-time starters in strong safety Brandon Taylor and All-SEC cornerback Patrick Peterson.
Add in Jai Eugene, who has moved to safety but has started 11 games the past two years at corner, and cornerback Morris Claiborne and Ron Brooks, along with returning safeties Karnell Hatcher, Craig Loston and Derrick Bryant, and there's plenty of talent for Chavis and secondary coach Ron Cooper to work with.
“At safety, Brandon Taylor is a guy that will certainly be starting back in there and we’re going to look at Jai Eugene a little bit at safety; we feel like his abilities and experience may be best served there,” said Miles. “Craig Loston will certainly be a guy that battles for playing time.”
The corner position opposite of Peterson looks to be in good hands and if one defensive back seems to get the headman stirred up and puts a smile on his face then its Claiborne.
"Claiborne is going to be as good as anyone we've had around here," Miles said.
While the secondary took a small hit, the same cannot be said for the defensive line and linebacker corps.
LSU must replace three starters along the defensive front as Rahim Alem, Al Woods and Charles Alexander have all exhausted their eligibility.
LSU has plenty of young talent along the defensive front but while the group is long on talent it is much shorter on experience.
Defensive line coach Brick Haley has only Pep Levingston, who started 10 games last year at defensive end but will move inside to tackle, and Chancey Aghayere, who started three times at end, with starting experience from last year. Aghayere and Lavar Edwards will get the first crack at defensive end but don't count redshirt freshmen Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo out of the equation.
“How we start at the ends may not be how we finish but I can tell you that Lavar Edwards and Chancey Aghayere certainly will get two looks,” Miles said. “I think Pep (Levingston) could be inside playing a three-technique and we’ll have to see after that.
“I think KeKe Mingo is a guy who can put his hand on the ground and come off the edge and give us a pass rush. Sam Montgomery has had great coaching sessions too. I don’t know exactly who will start but I can tell you we will be talented and they will have backups that will provide competition.”
Drake Nevis, who technically did not start a game last year at defensive tackle, returns after being LSU's most consistent and effective presence in the trenches. Nevis led all Tiger defensive linemen with 50 tackles including 11 for loss, and his four sacks was only a half behind Alem's team-leading four.
Joining Nevis inside along with Levingston is sophomore Josh Downs and redshirt freshmen Chris Davenport, Mike Brockers and Bennie Logan.
Miles was unsure of how much Downs, who will get considerable playing time in 2010, would be able to go early in the spring due to a thigh contusion but he feels good about the mix of his veterans and young players.
“I think we will be fine inside,” Miles said. “I think that group with Pep, Brockers, Chris Davenport and Drake Nevis, I think that group could be something else. I think that youth will be served in the spring with a lot going on.”
While Jones opted to take his skills to the NFL, LSU's defense received a major shot in the arm when Kelvin Sheppard returned for his senior season. Sheppard emerged as one of the conference's top linebackers and finished with 103 tackles which was third in the SEC.
Replacing the top three linebackers behind Sheppard is at the top of Chavis and Miles' to-do list this spring as Harry Coleman, Perry Riley and Jacob Cutrera are all gone. Several guys will try and fill that void with junior Ryan Baker being a good bet to fill one of those openings.
“Kelvin Sheppard will provide us with the leadership and give us a great example of physical play inside,” Miles said. “Ryan Baker, really, it’s about time for him to step forward. On special teams he’s been a dominant, dominant player. Now, let’s have that experience benefit him on defense.”
Several guys will be vying for the third linebacker spot including Stefoin Francois, Lamin Barrow, Rockey Duplessis, Josh Johns, Kevin Minter and Kyle Prater.
Barrow is someone that made a strong impression on the staff during his redshirt year last fall and Miles said it’s reasonable to think that Sheppard will man the middle with Baker, Francois and Barrow getting a look on the outside with Barrow also being able to play in the middle.
“I think he’s one of the guys and he has an opportunity to step in and be one of the starters,” Miles said of Barrow.
“That seems like the first four,” added Miles. “Now, that doesn’t mean that the guys who come in behind them don’t have a great opportunity to play.”
LSU's defense finished 11th in the country in scoring, allowing only 16.23 points a game, and 26th in total defense, yielding 326.62 yards an outing. Those are numbers that Miles and Chavis want to continue to build on over the course of the next four weeks.
Something else they will work on is improving at applying pressure as the Tigers registered only 21 sacks - 87th in America - and created only 18 turnovers - 89th in the country – last season. If LSU can improve in those areas it should help with getting the defense off the field but the offense will also have to hold up its end of the bargain by sustaining more drives than it did in 2009.
“Certainly the youth of the team is going to have to be progressed through the snaps in the spring,” Miles said of his defense. “The strategy is to get them off the field a little bit more and leave the downs behind the chains and apply a little bit more pressure on the third down yard marker. I think that’s kind of what we’re looking for, and the want for takeaways.”
There have been several position changes on the defensive side of the ball as Miles and Chavis attempt to get the best 11 players on the field.
Among the notable changes were Jai Eugene going from cornerback to safety, Rockey Duplessis and Josh Johns moving from safety to linebacker, Barkevious Mingo from linebacker to defensive end, Chase Clement from defensive end to tight end, Drayton Calhoun from running back to cornerback and Pep Levingston from defensive end to defensive tackle.
In addition, Miles said that Mike Brockers, who was recruited to LSU as a defensive end but moved inside last season, will remain at defensive tackle. Kellen Theriot will also be playing fullback after giving linebacker a try while he recovered from his shoulder injury.
According to Miles, Karnell Hatcher is the only player that could miss the entire spring as he has a nagging groin injury. Josh Downs is battling a thigh contusion and Richard Murphy will not be tackled during the spring as a precautionary method.
Adams Makes Splash
Junior college transfer Ken Adams, who signed with LSU in December and enrolled for the spring semester, has made a good impression on the LSU staff with what he has done in the morning coaching sessions.
In fact, Adams was singled out when Miles began talking about the defensive ends.
“Ken Adams is a guy that in my opinion will give us great speed off the edge and is a guy who has the exact look that you want at 6-5, 6-6, 240-plus, and really quick, really fast, and really athletic,” Miles said. “He went through these (Morning) coaching sessions without much difficulty which really tells you a lot about his maturity and ability.”
Loston’s First Year
Craig Loston saw action in two of LSU’s first three games as a true freshman in 2009 and is listed as a sophomore on the current roster posted on lsusports.net.
Loston, who was the nation’s No. 1 rated safety coming out of high school, broke the navicular [in hand, formerly used for scaphoid bone] in high school and was plagued by the injury all last fall. Miles said that Loston is still a little “nicked” and he can’t imagine that the talented safety will lose that year of eligibility.
“He was unable to play and I can’t imagine it’s anything but a redshirt year,” Miles said. “He’s still a little nicked with his hand thing but I don’t think it will affect him this spring.”
Special Teams Look
The kicking department is in good hands with Josh Jasper and Derek Helton returning to handle the kicking and punting chores, respectively.
Miles did say that Drew Alleman will contend for the opportunity to handle kickoffs and added that Ron Brooks, Patrick Peterson, Russell Shepard and Rueben Randle will all get their opportunities in the return game.
Aside from Akiem Hicks’ transfer, Miles said that there haven’t been any other defections from the 2009 roster. That, however, doesn’t mean that there will not be any after the spring and in fact there needs to be in order for all of the 2010 signees to be able to report for the fall.
“To me, I think there is a natural attrition that occurs without solicitation through every spring and every fall for that matter,” said Miles. “I hate to predict it in any way but it just seems to happen.”