The outlook on the defense is a bit brighter than the offense, not a surprise given the success that the unit had under first year defensive coordinator John Chavis in 2009.
The three new coaches from 2009 (Chavis, Ron Cooper and Brick Haley) have now been through their second spring with the program, giving the players plenty of time to get used to the trio’s no-nonsense approach. It seems that for the first time in the Chavis era, the entire unit is comfortable with the playbook.
The overall feeling is that the defensive side will be the strong suit for LSU. For most of the spring, especially the back end, Miles said that his defense was ahead of the offense in terms of readiness.
How have the units shaped up over the past three weeks? Here is a look at where everyone’s stock stands after the spring:
Defensive Line: UP
If you wanted more speed from the line, Miles has delivered.
The big winner from March was redshirt freshman Sam Montgomery, who turned out big performances week in and out. In back-to-back scrimmages where he led the team in stops, Montgomery totaled 13 tackles, three for a loss, with two sacks. In the spring game, he added two sacks.
KeKe Mingo, whose speed off the line is comparable to Montgomery’s, used the spring game to leave his mark on the first set of offseason workouts, recording seven tackles and two sacks for a loss of 13 yards. Miles also praised the spring play of Ken Adams, a JUCO transfer who is also competing for time at defensive end.
Add Chancey Aghayere and Lavar Edwards, the assumed starters, and defensive line coach Brick Haley is licking his chops.
On the inside Drake Nevis and Pep Levingston are the veteran names, with young talent blooming in Josh Downs, Mike Brockers, Bennie Logan and Chris Davenport. After playing in 11 games as a freshman last fall, Downs should be the first name off the bench. Brockers’ physical transformation this past year, from 255 pounds last June to 285 pounds this March, helps him stand out from the bunch, and makes him a viable candidate for serious minutes in the fall.
In the middle of the field experience is of the utmost importance, which means the linebackers are in for an uphill battle.
Last season, Chavis had three seniors and a redshirt junior as his starting four. Next fall the cupboard is a bit barer, leaving Chavis with just one returning starter in Kelvin Sheppard and a handful of unproven talent, most of which have never seen snaps at linebacker in a game.
The inexperience begins with the two names that will start on the outsides, Stefoin Francois and Ryan Baker. While both saw action in double-digit games in 2009, most of their time came on special teams. The expectations for both juniors are large, but taking it to the field over 13 games is a different story.
As for the race for the fourth spot, watch for even younger names. While Chavis had Jacob Cutrera, a senior, as the first player off his bench last season, this year that name will be a redshirt freshman, whether Kevin Minter, Lamin Barrow or Tahj Jones.
The group will have to learn on the run, which will get tough when SEC play roles around. Fortunately the spring played out without any significant injuries, which is the most important thing. One of the thinnest units on the entire team, Chavis will need to work his magic with this group.
If you had to bet on which unit would be the most consistent this fall, go with Ron Cooper’s defensive backs.
A second-team All-SEC performer last season, Patrick Peterson is figured by most to be one of the nation’s top corners. And his quote after the spring game said all you need to know about how far Morris Claiborne, now a sophomore, has come since his arrival to campus last summer.
“We are the best,” said Peterson when asked where LSU’s cornerbacks stack up to the rest of the SEC.
While he said that the confidence level of the secondary has always been high during his run with the program, the current group’s attitude has them feeling a step above the rest.
Jai Eugene, who has started in 11 games and played in 37 over his career, will be one starting name at safety. A one-time corner, this was Eugene’s first spring at safety. Brandon Taylor, the team’s second safety, made the same switch last spring.
Expect those four names to be the go-to men at the start of the season, with Craig Loston and Karnell Hatcher in the mix at safety and Ron Brooks taking reps at corner. With only Hatcher sidelined this spring, the core of the group was able to put together a productive second spring under Cooper. And with the promise from a name like Loston, the rotations will likely stay fluid.