There is one certainty with the LSU linebacker corps: senior Kelvin Sheppard will be the starting man in the middle.
Last fall Sheppard was the regular starter in the middle, leading the team with 110 total tackles, 50 of which were solo.
On his right side was senior Perry Riley, who had been playing football with Sheppard since their middle schools days in north Georgia.
On his left side was Harry Coleman, a sixth-year senior who had been with the team for all of Sheppard and Riley’s years.
The fourth name, Jacob Cutrera, joined the program in the same season as the Peach State natives, making the group one of the closest units on the entire LSU roster.
2010 brings a much different feel.
Instead of Riley, junior Ryan Baker, known primarily for his special teams hits and a goal line stand stop on fourth down against Mississippi State last September, will suit up on the weak side.
While he has made 24 appearances in his two seasons in Baton Rouge, Baker has never started a game. Against North Carolina in the season opener, he will get his chance.
“I think I fit in well,” Baker said. “I have been waiting a long time for this. Those guys paid their dues. They had been in the program going on four years. I didn’t expect to come in and take their spot. The opportunity is now in front of me, so I have to make the most of it.”
The story of inexperience is the same for Stefoin Francois, who has played in 16 games over his three years in Baton Rouge. And like Baker, Francois is a first-time starter.
“We have been waiting for this opportunity,” Baker said. “[Francois] is familiar with the program, and I am too. We bring a tenacity that is different.”
Last Saturday, Miles gave the linebacker group high grades following a poor performance the weekend prior. Each passing practice, according to the headman, has the unit looking sharper.
“The linebackers are playing pretty well,” Miles said. “Baker is better. He is still young, and he will be a guy that with reps will play a lot better. Francois will play a lot of ball this fall, too.”
Sheppard, who both players pointed to as the go-to teammate for advice on the field, has been just as impressed.
“They are going to be very explosive,” he said. “They can make plays, they have just been behind guys like Perry and Jacob and Harry. They could have played last year.”
When it comes to responsibilities, the general approach from the defense will be the same as last season. Instead of bringing in new players on nickel and dime situations, the Tigers will leave a linebacker – Coleman then and Francois now – on the field.
“We still have the opportunity to match personnel,” Miles said. “Short term, they are staying on the field. We want to teach them.”
Baker, who will cover slot receivers in spread sets and running backs in pro sets, was the assumed starter long before Riley left the picture.
Yet, Francois’ rise came further down the road. When summer camp was winding down last year, Chavis approached the Reserve native with an offer. Much like he had hand-picked Coleman to fill the strong side linebacker role, Chavis asked Francois – then a safety – to move positions in hopes of earning a starting spot in 12 months time.
“[Chavis] said that he was getting thin at linebacker, and he asked me what I thought about moving [positions],” Francois said. “We already had two great safeties, so I took on the role.
“I think like a linebacker now,” he added. “It helped me playing safety, because I know where the safeties are and where I need to be.”
Of course, Sheppard, Baker and Francois only make three. If the workload is spread out like Chavis had things in his first season, the team will use the offseason to add one final name to the rotation.
“It is wide open,” said Baker of the race for the fourth spot. “Whoever can rise to the occasion can get themselves some playing time.”
The names being tossed around are all redshirt freshmen: Kevin Minter, Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones. After Saturday’s scrimmage, it was the backup at middle linebacker that drew praise.
“I think Minter is a guy in the backdrop,” Miles said. “Tahj made a play or two, also.”
Halfway through the spring practice schedule, the most important question for the linebackers is whether or not they have accomplished their personal goal of becoming more physical.
After the first full-contact scrimmage of the spring, it appears things are headed in the right direction.
“At first everybody was boo-hooing about it, but once [Chavis] got it started, everyone likes it,” Francois said. “I think we are getting it accomplished.”