2011 LSU Preview – Defense
LSU CB Tyrann Mathieu
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - LSU Tiger Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: LSU was ranked 12th in the nation in total defense and bailed out the offense time and again, and even though there are some key concerns at linebacker and tackle, everything should be just fine once again. The D loses three All-Americans in NT Drake Nevis, MLB Kelvin Sheppard, and CB Patrick Peterson, but there's talent waiting in the wings. The secondary is terrific, led by junior corner Morris Claiborne and burgeoning star Tyrann Mathieu, while others like Brandon Taylor, Craig Loston, Eric Reid, Ron Brooks, Tharold Simon provide a group so deep that hard-hitting safety Karnell Hatcher moved to linebacker this offseason. Ryan Baker is a big-time playmaker at linebacker, but he has to shine with an inexperienced group around him. The inexperienced but exceptionally talented defensive line should continue to live up to the expectations, but it might take a little time for the tremendous talent to play consistently well.
Star of the defense: Senior CB Morris Claiborne
Tackles: Ryan Baker, 87
Sacks: Ryan Baker, 7
Interceptions: Morris Claiborne, 5
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior LB Ryan Baker
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore SS Eric Reid
Best pro prospect: True Freshman DT Anthony Johnson
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Claiborne, 2) Baker, 3) Johnson / Sophomore CB Tyrann Mathieu
Strength of the defense: Secondary, Depth, Speed
Weakness of the defense: Linebackers, Inexperience at DL
State of the Unit: With the graduation of Drake Nevis and Lazarius "Pep" Livingston, the Tigers have just one returning defensive tackle with any starting experience, and redshirt sophomore Michael Brockers has just the one start. The lack of starting time would be a problem for most teams, and there's work to do at end, but this is LSU, which has had at least one defensive lineman drafted in the past eight years straight. The 6-6, 300-pound Brockers played in all 13 games, shinning in spot duty behind Drake and Pep, coming up with 25 tackles and one for a loss.
Also inside is Anthony "Freak" Johnson who arrived on campus early to participate in spring drills. What La'el Collins is to offensive tackle, a top-shelf talent who's ready to play right away, Johnson is the same thing for the defensive side with special skills and tremendous upside. Standing 6-3, 300-pounds with a fantastic center of gravity and massive upper body strength, consensus opinion has Johnson as a productive starter as a true freshman. Perhaps not for the opener, but he'll be in the mix right away after being named almost every recruiting service's No. 1 tackle prospect. He came out of spring practice showing nothing to make anyone think otherwise, and he has wowed the coaching staff with his work ethic, skills and ability.
Working in the rotation will be redshirt sophomore Bennie Logan and redshirt freshman Ego Ferguson. Both the 6-3, 280-pound Logan and the 6-3, 286-pound Ferguson are good enough to push for starting consideration. Ferguson arrived in Baton Rouge a highly recruited tackle – nearly every recruiting service had him ranked as a top 100 prep player in the nation – but he's not Johnson. Even so, he's good enough to be a part of a rotation on the inside, while Logan is a quick, active option who should get into the backfield from time to time.
The battle at end will be one of the keys to the defense. Both 6-5, 255-pound senior Kendrick Adams and 6-5, 265-pound redshirt junior Lavar Edwards return. Adams, a one-time top JUCO transfer started 11 games finishing with 27 tackles with 1.5 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. Edwards started seven games, and seemed to improve with every week with 21 tackles with 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss. Quick off the ball, he has the ability to get around the edge, and he has the power to handle the stronger tackles. However, both could lose their starting jobs to underclassmen.
One of them will give up a spot to redshirt sophomore Sam Montgomery. Before hurting his knee in the Tennessee game, he was on pace to have an explosive freshman campaign with 18 tackles, two sacks, and six tackles for loss The 6-4, 250-pounder, missed the final eight games of the season but still made the coaches 2010 Freshman All-SEC team. A speedy pass rusher, at the very least he'll be a specialist who'll get into the backfield, and he must be accounted for every time he steps on the field.
The other redshirt sophomore is 6-5, 240-pounds, Barkevious Mingo appears to have a form better suited for basketball than football. Looks can be deceiving – just ask the SEC coaches, who named Barkevious beside Montgomery on the 2010 Freshman All-SEC team. Mingo closed out the season having played in all 13 games with one start making 35 tackles with 2.5 sacks and six tackles for loss. A one-time top recruit, he's a special talent with the tools to be special. LSU gets great athletes, and he's at a whole other level for the line with big-time quickness and athleticism.
Watch Out For … Mingo. Once he starts to play on a regular basis, he'll be a big-time producer who'll put up tremendous numbers. The All-SEC talent and potential are there once he gets more snaps and more work. He'll be turned loose this year.
Strength: Depth, Athleticism, Speed. Particularly at end, the Tigers will look to pounce on opposing offenses with speed that really shouldn't be possible in bodies that big. The pass rush was good last year and it should be special this season.
Weakness: Experience. For the first time in a while, there's no go-to rock at tackle for the Tigers to lean on. There's a lot of talent, but the two deep doesn't have an upper-classman between them. The ends will pick up the slack, but the tackles have to grow up in a hurry.
Outlook: Speed kills. For a few years, the lines produced little pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and then the corner was turned last year as the Tigers returned to the aggressive style of play everyone had become accustomed to. In 2011, expect the line to take another step forward once the tackles figure out what they're doing.
Unit Rating: 8
State of the Unit: Outside of consistent quarterback play, linebacker might be the biggest question mark for the Tigers heading into 2011. The linebackers are high on promise, but worriedly low on experience among the backups, and with plenty of concern over who will step up and fill key holes after losing leading tackler Kelvin Sheppard.
Senior Ryan Baker is the undeniable cornerstone of the unit, and he's going to have to be a rock that everything works around after finishing second on the team with 87 tackles. There was some talk of moving the 6-0, 230-pounder to the middle to replace Sheppard, but now it appears that one of the team's fastest linebackers will remain at the Will position. A great student of the game, he has tremendous quickness, which he leverages towards a punishing tackling style. Tough as nails, he played the first four games of 2010 with his mouth wired shut from a broken jaw. He'll need that toughness and leadership – not to mention last year's top form –for the Tigers to have success in the middle of the defense.
Redshirt sophomore Kevin Minter will likely take over for Sheppard in the middle. The 6-1, 225-pound Georgia native is one of the physically strongest players on the roster. A pure run stuffer, he was considered by some to be a strong outside linebacker prospect, but LSU wants him for the inside where he could lead the team in tackles. He has excellent lower body strength, and all the skills necessary to be a fixture in the middle of the defense for years to come after making 15 tackles in a reserve role.
Making all 13 starts on the strongside was redshirt senior Stefoin Francois, who made 37 tackles with a sack. Speedy, his athleticism, experience and leadership will be counted on with this young group. However, there's no guarantee he'll even get the starting nod even though he hits like a ton of bricks and has good pop and tackling skills. 6-2, 212-pound senior Karnell Hatcher makes the move from safety over to linebacker this offseason to help with depth, and he has an excellent chance of taking the starting role when the Tigers arrive in Dallas to play Oregon after finishing third on the team with 64 tackles. As a converted defensive back, he clearly has the speed necessary to play the Sam, and no one who's been on the receiving end of a Hatcher hit would question his ferocity. Still, this is a bit of an experiment. However, LSU did the same thing in 2009 when it moved another senior from the secondary to linebacker, strong safety Harry Coleman, and he ended up winning several post-season team honors.
The starters are excellent, but the depth gets thin in a hurry. Behind Minter is a true freshman of nearly equal promise, Trevon Randle, though the 6-1, 208-pound Texan may be redshirted in favor of 6-3,230-pound redshirt freshman D.J. Welker and 6-3, 225-pound sophomore Luke Muncie. None of the three have any material experience whatsoever, so Minter's health is a big deal.
Behind Baker are five sophomores, with the best of the lot the 6-2, 220-pound Lamin Barrow, who has plenty of upside, but so far has only been a special teamer. Behind Francois and Hatcher on the strongside is Tahj Jones, who looks a bit like a smaller Mingo, with similar speed, if perhaps lacking next-level burst and power. Many a Tiger faithful has been pining for the 6-2, 200-pound Jones taking the field – outside of special teams, they had better hope it's not this year with just six tackles so far.
Watch Out For … Is there any chance Mingo could drop back and play a little LB? Since that's likely out of the question, watch for a lot of rotation early as the Tiger brass experiments with everything and everyone, outside of Baker. Given the surplus of talent that LSU has in its secondary, is it possible the Tigers might try a little aggressive 4-2-5, which leverages the one thing LSU's defense has in abundance: speed? It's possible.
Strength: Speed. By linebacker standards, three of the possible four starters - Baker, Francois and Hatcher - are faster than average. Maybe not forty-yard-Patrick-Peterson-dash fast, but they'll catch nearly every opposing player within three yards of the line of scrimmage, sideline to sideline – if they're in the right place, at the right time. And that's a big if. Chavis must figure out ways to maximize this speed advantage for LSU to have a championship season.
Weakness: Depth, Experience, Size. The Tigers are a bit light at the position in terms in several ways. The lack of size may just suit Chavis's style, but they have to play like linebackers and now defensive backs playing linebacker.
Outlook: This hodgepodge assembly of talent and experience has a far better chance of being either a home run or a train wreck than it does being average. Regardless of who gets the starting Mike and Sam jobs, the positions will be considered the weak links early on and if there are any injuries here, the D could break down and fail to be as strong as hoped for.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: The Tigers may have lost Patrick Peterson to the Arizona Cardinals, but they return two starters to a deep group that should be terrific with a little bit of time. The new star at cornerback is sophomore sensation Tyrann Mathieu, a second-team preseason All-SEC selection, as named by the coaches, coming off a special bowl game performance and a strong first year. If it appeared the 5-9, 180-pound Mathieu was everywhere last season, that's because he was, coming from out of nowhere to lead the team with seven broken up passes, was fourth on the team in tackles, and finished first in the conference in forced fumbles. He also had 8.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, and two interceptions, with all the production coming off the bench.
Mathieu might be the burgeoning star, but the anchor of the unit is junior Morris Claiborne, a veteran who was targeted every time he took the field next to Peterson. He handled himself admirably making 37 tackles with six broken up passes with five picks. A preseason first-team All-SEC pick, the 6-0, 177-pounder has excellent range, speed and shutdown coverage skills. The former quarterback has blazing, Louisiana state championship 10.76, 100-meter speed, and he'll also return kickoffs. He and his senior, safety Brandon Taylor, must step into leadership roles and steward this talented, if young, unit.
The 6-0, 195-pound Taylor doesn't hit with great force, but when healthy he has terrific range and timing, with three years of starting experience at strong safety providing stability and leadership. Taylor will wear the No. 18 jersey in 2011, handed down since running back Jacob Hester to the player best chosen to lead, and he has unlimited range and is one of the team's most versatile defensive backs. He returns after suffering a season-ending foot injury in the Alabama game, making 44 tackles with five broken up passes.
Next to Taylor at free safety is redshirt sophomore Craig Loston, a prep All-American recruit from Houston who got the redshirt after damaging his wrist in his 2009 freshman campaign and wasn't quite right last year. However, after a dominating spring practice, the 6-0, 200-pounder appears to have emerged with a productive chip on his shoulder to the point that Chavis felt comfortable enough putting him in for the more experienced Hatcher. With remarkable speed and athletic ability, and with monster hitting ability, it won't be surprising if he goes down as one of the more punishing hitters in the league.
If Taylor and Loston are starters, then sophomore safety Eric Reid is No. 1A on the depth chart. A highly-regarded prep player, he's exceptionally bright and should push for playing time right out of the gate. He emerged on the scene when Taylor went down against Alabama, and recorded six tackles and one tackle for a loss and finished the year with 32 stops and two picks. As a true freshman, he also did a noteworthy job of covering Julio Jones, and then went on to turn heads right through the Cotton Bowl where he was the Tiger's fourth leading tackler and had an interception. At 6-2 and 209-pounds, he plays with a style similar to former Tiger great LaRon Landry.
Yet another talented youngster assumes a backup role at left corner behind Claiborne. Sophomore Tharold Simon improved nicely throughout his freshman campaign, and could be considered the Tiger's third best cornerback. At 6-3, 190-pounds, he has excellent size to go with good ball skills, and will see a lot of action in LSU's nickel package.
6-0, 180-pound senior Ron Brooks has played productively at cornerback and safety, and will challenge Claiborne for return duties. He played in all 13 games last season, finishing with 33 tackles, six tackles for a loss, three pass breakups, one interception and two sacks. His versatility and leadership will be counted on to play a key role.
Watch Out For … Mathieu. Claiborne may be the Thorpe possibility, but don't be surprised if Mathieu becomes the team's best defensive back by season's end. Besides his great athleticism, Mathieu has a rare nose for the football and far exceeded the production as a true freshman playing the nickel spot. He also possesses a toughness that belies his size.
Strength: Depth and speed. LSU has speed to keep up with anyone in the nation, let alone the SEC, and the depth to survive the inevitable bumps and bruises that come with the territory. The Tigers have plenty of options and there's speed to burn at all four spots.
Weakness: Patrick Peterson. LSU might be a factory for fast, talented defensive backs, but you don't get better by losing a player of Peterson's talent. Yes, there are plenty of good players returning, but they were able to shine partly because everyone stayed away from the Thorpe winner.
Outlook: With no pass rush to speak of in 2009, this secondary was stellar, ranking in the Top 20 in pass yards allowed. In 2010, as the pass rush improved, and so did the secondary. The defensive backs might have to step up and help out the linebackers a bit more than last season, but this gifted unit is more than capable of picking up where it's talented predecessors left off. Losing Peterson is a problem, but this should still be among the SEC's best secondaries.
Unit Rating: 9
State of the Unit: The Tigers are starting with a clean slate. Gone is one of the most prolific place kickers in SEC history, Josh Jasper, who single-handedly won or kept the Tigers in games these past two seasons as its offense limped along. Gone is Derek Helton, who continued his great production by forcing a record number of fair catches. Gone is Peterson, an All-American, game-changing return specialist. Finally, gone is special teams coach Joe Robinson.
It may seem like LSU offers more kicking scholarships than any school in the conference, but it appears to have paid off. Assuming the reigns after Colt David and Jasper is Drew Alleman. The 5-11, 182 pound junior averaged 63 yards on seven kickoffs last year, and now he'll handle all the kicking and punting duties after turning heads with a strong spring practice. He was the top prep kicker in the state of Louisiana his senior year, and now he's expected to be excellent.
Redshirt freshman Brad Wing will share the punting duties with Alleman, who's originally from Melbourne, Australia, where he honed his kicking ability playing Aussie Rules Football. The 6-3, 175-pounder has a strong leg, while Alleman will likely be used for placement punting.
Claiborne and Brooks will compete with others for the return duties, with Claiborne likely used on kickoffs and Brooks on punts after backing up Peterson. They have excellent speed and vision, and are more than capable of getting separation. Last year Brooks had a 23 yard average on seven kickoff returns; Claiborne had one kickoff return for 32 yards against the Florida Gators.
Watch Out For … Turnover. The kicking situation should be settled but the return game is an issue as the coaching staff tries to figure out the best options. Don't be surprised if LSU shuffles the deck, particularly early on. After everything Peterson provided, the pressure will be on to produce.
Strength: Speed and athleticism. LSU likely has two dozen superb athletes on the roster that returned kicks in high school, and excelled in so doing. It's likely the Tigers will just reload here like they always do.
Weakness: Sure-thing kickers. LSU finished 13th in the nation in net punting and Jasper nailed 28-of-34 field goals. The kickers will be fine, but there's a lot of pressure to live up to.
Outlook: The special teams, even with all the turnover, will be fine. Alleman is a good talent and there's more than enough speed and athleticism to come up with a good return game again.
Unit Rating: 7
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