|It's time for the LSU Defense to eat again|
Much like we did for the offense, we decided to take a roundtable discussion approach to previewing LSU's defense this year. We've got the same panel together again:
Kris Brauner (@snslant) - That's me, I run this site
Jordan Grove (@LASportsDude) - Contributor here at SNS
Chandler Rome (@Rome_TDR) - Sports Writer at The Daily Reveille
Justin Goar (@tigertangents)- Contributor at Tigalaya.com and former contributor at CollegeFootballNews.com, SIOnCampus.com, and FoxSports.com
Kris: After the 2010 season, LSU lost an All-American caliber player from each level of the defense in Drake Nevis, Kelvin Sheppard, and Patrick Peterson. Everyone thought the 2011 defense would be badass, but I was skeptical that LSU could recover so easily from losing those guys. I was wrong. LSU's defense was beyond badass last year. Now...here we are again. LSU lost a pair of first rounders in Morris Claiborne and Michael Brockers, along with some other outstanding players in Brandon Taylor, Ryan Baker, and Ron Brooks. Now, we learn they'll be without the Honey Badger too. LSU can't possibly just recover so easily again from these losses, can they? When you look at this group on paper, it looks like LSU will again have outstanding defense. As in...Top 10 to 15 nationally good. But can it match last year's incredible dominance, when factoring in the loss of the aforementioned players?
Jordan: Last year's defense was special. There is no disputing that but I have a hard time seeing this year's defense match the production and dominance from years prior. This year's defensive ends, Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, are perhaps the best duo in the country and should put a ton of pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The interior of the defensive line with Bennie Logan and "Freak" Johnson should pick up right where they left out with the Freak replacing Brockers as the disruptor in the middle.
The linebackers have some experience but not the amount of experience that Stefoin Francois, Ryan Baker, and Karnell Hatcher had. Kevin Minter, Luke Muncie/Lamin Barrow, and Tahj Jones, who was the starter in the back-half of the season at SLB, should all provide solid linebacking play but nothing spectacular.
The secondary is where LSU's lack of experience will be exposed. Tharold Simon should emerge as the latest in LSU's line of shutdown corners. True freshman Jalen Collins will assume right CB opposite Simon, and while he's praised as being a freakish athlete, he doesn't have the experience playing against SEC offenses that's desired. At safety Craig Loston is solid enough while Eric Reid is the type of intelligent, aggressive leader you expect in the back-half of the defense.
What will be missed is Tyrann Mathieu's knack for making big plays whether through forced fumbles, interceptions, or timely special teams production. Odell Beckham Jr should pick up some slack in the punt return game but Mathieu was something special at that position. It's possible that freshman Micah Eugene could become a play-maker at the nickel but that's expecting quite a bit from a redshirt freshman.
All in all, I expect the Tigers front four to be just as good as it was last year while being backed up with LSU's typically sound yet unspectacular linebackers. Where LSU will be tested is in the back-half, especially where Jalen Collins lines up. That's the biggest weakness on the team even more so that cornerbacks Ronnie Vinson, David Jenkins, and Sam Gibson transferred out of the program leaving a once stocked position somewhat bare now with the dismissal of Honey Badger.
Chandler: Alright, Tiger fans. Get off the ledge you've been contemplating jumping off of since last Friday morning. I promise, it will be alright. Life will go on without the Honey Badger.
I sat in the Ops building on media day and was literally befuddled at John Chavis' description of his endless array of formations and bases on which he shifts the defense into. Trust me, this man is a defensive genius and he will have this defense ready to go, sans Badger.
With Mathieu gone, I think it's obvious that comparing this defense to last season's monsters may not be in the cards anymore. His cover skills were often exploited (see 1/9/12), but his football instincts and the instant spark he gave to the team when the going got tough is something no player on this team will be able to replicate, making him dearly missed in the Tiger secondary.
Now, on to those who will actually suit up this season. Plain and simple, this defensive line may be the best in the country. Everyone lauds Sam Montgomery and KeKe Mingo coming off the ends, and rightfully so. Mingo brings speed to the defensive line that no SEC team will be able to handle, and he'll feast heartily on the oft-weak offensive lines he'll face week in and week out. Bennie Logan (or is that Jacob Hester? Or Matt Mauck?) will be a force on the inside. Les Miles has lauded the junior on numerous occasions for his work ethic and overall leadership. Overshadowed by the big names in Montgomery and Mingo, look for #18 to harass opposing quarterbacks all season. Round it out with a guy named "Freak" and this defensive line will scare even the most veteran of SEC coaches.
Considered the weak aspect of the defense heading into the season, it appears the linebacking corp. will be just fine in the absence of Stefoin Francois and Karnell Hatcher. Sure, Kevin Minter, Tahj Jones and Luke Muncie aren't household names and haven't had much experience other than mop-up duty, but they've been turning heads at camp. Chavis spent a good portion of his time at media day lauding Jones and his development through camp. When I asked Eric Reid at SEC Media Days in Hoover about Minter stepping up and being the anchor of the defense, his face lit up with excitement as he told me how he's ready to call plays and be the on-field leader of the vaunted defense. Now, don't expect Bradie James-esque numbers here, but don't turn your back on this group, they will definitely surprise as LSU heads into conference play.
If I could copy and paste Jordan's assessment of the secondary, I would. He's right on point in lauding Tharold Simon as a blanket cover corner, and I can foresee him having a Mo Claiborne/PP7-esque season. But I have to say-- look out for Jalen Mills. In the battle of the Jalen's, I think Mills may play just as many, if not more, snaps than Collins. Mills took the majority of the snaps with the first team in Saturday's first fall scrimmage, and I look for him to be the sleeper of the defense. As we all have seen, Les and Chavis are not afraid to throw freshman into the fire, so don't be surprised to see Mills in the mix as a starter opposite Simon. Add in Eric Reid being Eric Reid, and the secondary will survive without the Honey Badger. Reid is going to bring his intelligence and crushing hits to every facet of his game and will surely anchor an otherwise weak secondary.
As good as Mills and Collins are, remember, they're both still freshman. There will be growing pains and busted coverages along the way, but with a more favorable schedule than last season's gauntlet, it won't cost the Tigers too dearly until conference play-- when, hopefully, both Jalen's have gotten their feet wet and are ready to play SEC caliber football.
Justin: If you follow some of the players on Twitter and hear some of the buzz around campus, you get a sense that something special is about to happen. Not only can they see it in each other off the field, but they can see it in workouts and practice. It's a focus and a desire. It's something bigger than them, and also bigger than just one player.
That's fortunate since the Tigers just dismissed their best defensive player and possibly the best player on the team. Last year I wrote a piece about how scary the defense was, but the most frightening part especially for opposing teams and coaches was the relative youth on this defense. This season, if Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson start at DT over Josh Downs, then LSU's projected starting eleven on defense will have no seniors. In most cases, that would cause red flags to rise in concerns over inexperience. But of the projected eleven, nine or ten saw signifcant time on the field last year.
The Tiger D won't be rebuilding (even with Mathieu gone) they just simply reload. Cliche's aside, they have really done this before in the secondary and defensive line in recent seasons. Tharold Simon will fit just fine into the Peterson and Claiborne mold of all-world cover corner, and the duo of "All Jalen all the time" (Jalen Collins, Jalen Mills) will be tested early and often. But cornerback really is a position steeped in fundamentals where freshmen can excel if they're a quick study and are sound in technique. If the front seven is strong as they should be, the worry decreases at corner. Also, Eric Reid is really set up nicely to be the leader back there.
While there's some new blood at linebacker, they are new in starting roles only and not necessarily new to playing time. And let's face it, if one guy can get them ready, it's John Chavis. I'm so confident, I'm just going to stop writing about the linebackers now.
And last and certainly not least, is the defensive line. The Tigers have an absolute murderer's row up front. They are the sole reason no out of conference opponent will sniff beating LSU this year. But on an SEC scale, they are the best in the conference. I would say "best in the country" but I think "best in the SEC" is more impressive. With Mingo and Montgomery coming off the edge, LSU will be hard to beat. If they can handle, draws, screens, and quick hitters, then the D will be monstrous like last season. Most schools would kill for just one interior lineman like Freak, Logan, or Downs. LSU is dripping with talent there.
The only piece of kryptonite the purple and gold would have to deal with is injuries in the secondary. It's almost the only spot on the entire team where a position could be truly decimated. Linebacker is thin in experience behind the starting three but not in bodies like at CB.
Despite this, there's no reason LSU won't be as good as last year's D, in the very least statistically. With no Oregon or West Virginia this year and an easy September, the schedule sets up nicely. And John Chavis seems to turn out a stronger defense with every year he coaches here.
Kris: I agree with you guys for the most part. I'm really excited about the defensive line and think they'll be every bit as good as last year's unit. It basically IS last year's unit except that you have a more mature group with more experience and you have the combination of Ego Ferguson and Freak Johnson filling the void left by Michael Brockers.
I think LSU will be better at linebacker. Kevin Minter is ready to step up, and I think the potential is there for him to be one of the true breakout defenders in the conference. I like Tahj Jones as an upgrade over Stefoin Francois, and I think the combination of Lamin Barrow, Luke Muncie, and the ultra talented true freshmen can make up for Ryan Baker's loss. Those freshmen will also give LSU quite a bit of depth. I expect at least three of them to play this year.
And while I like our secondary, I just can't get to the point where I'll agree that they'll be on the same level as the 2011 group. LSU loses a first round pick, a fourth round pick, and a Heisman finalist....all at cornerback. That's not counting a third rounder at safety. Do they still have good players back there? Yes, of course. But not even LSU can lose that much talent and expect to not suffer a slight drop. Eric Reid is an All-American. Craig Loston, if healthy, is way above average. Tharold Simon is very good, though not quite on the level of Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne and he's a bit limited in what he can do. After that, I have a lot of question marks. The good news is that if LSU does have any issues back there, the D-line will help mask them.
With the Honey Badger out of the picture, I'm going to assume that LSU will play a lot less nickel this year. I think back to 2009 when John Chavis first arrived, and he said he didn't like to play much nickel. He preferred his SAM linebacker to be able to handle those responsibilities. Harry Coleman played that spot and did very well. For the next two seasons, Mathieu was in that spot. Sometimes, LSU played what was essentially a base 4-3 defense, but it's just that Mathieu was the de facto SAM. And then other times, they played a true nickel, where Mathieu was a legitimate nickel back with extended coverage responsibilities. But he blitzed from either one, and the offense never truly knew what defense LSU was in. It will be interesting to see if Chavis relies on Tahj Jones as much as he did Harry Coleman in 2009 or whether he'll mix and match and use redshirt freshman Micah Eugene, the expected nickel back, like he did Mathieu.
For what it's worth, here is a look at the numbers of the guy who played that spot the last three years under Chavis, understanding of course that Mathieu moved around quite a bit:
Harry Coleman (2009) - 82 tackes, 9 TFL, 4 sacks, 3 forced fumbles
Tyrann Mathieu (2010) - 57 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 INTs, 5 forced fumbles
Tyrann Mathieu (2011) - 76 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 INTs, 6 forced fumbles
Jones and Eugene must be licking their chops at the possibilities. I'll guess that John Chavis will have them in position to make a lot of plays this year.
Justin alluded to it, but LSU's schedule is not as "spread heavy" as it was in 2011. Gone are Oregon and West Virginia. You've also got traditional spread teams such as Auburn and Florida swaying their pendulum back to the pro-style offense. Mississippi State still runs the spread, but it's more of a power spread. However, you do have to deal with Texas A&M, Washington, and Arkansas who will all spread you out in the secondary.
Your thoughts? More true 4-3 base defense this year? Or will we still see five and six defensive backs most of the time? Keep in mind that Tahj Jones and Micah Eugene weigh about the same.
Justin: No I totally agree. I think the D will be more matchup based and that LSU will be able to handle most teams in a 4-3 and it's in that set where they can put their best eleven on the field.
Going back again to no WVU or Oregon this year, LSU bent but didn't break vs the Mountaineers and beat Oregon at their own game. Both were good enough for wins and nothing too crazy coming the way of the Tigers in 2012.
The only out of conference challenge will be against Washington. They'll have to deal with Kevin Sumlin installing a new look at Texas A&M which will be Air Raid-ish. South Carolina swings onto the schedule which is an upgrade from Kentucky or Tennessee. The Gamecocks will be more than a handful. Ole Miss is not a threat yet. You can group State, Florida, and Auburn together as capable but not frightening. Which brings us to Alabama and Arkansas. Alabama will be the most complete team LSU faces. Historically with any Saban team a competent offense is enough when you have his defenses to contend with. Last year, that offense saved their most impressive performance for the national championship. That effort would've been good for about 42 against anyone else but LSU limited it to half that. AJ McCarron looked superb which wasn't exactly in- character for him and his receivers made NFL type catches. It was the perfect storm versus the vaunted Tiger D that could only do so much thanks to an LSU offense so impotent that Kate Upton juggling Cialis-filled raw oysters couldn't have helped.
Arkansas poses the biggest threat talent wise and this is mostly because of QB Tyler Wilson and and RB Kniles Davis. LSU might have to come out of a 4-3 a bit against Arkansas but like LSU, the Hogs can be dangerous because of its balance. The great thing about Chavis though is he can throw different guys at you in different looks and it can be confusing. Chavis doesn't blitz as much as let's say Saban, but when he does it seems well timed, well executed, and effective. These two teams pose the biggest threats offensively, and therefore are LSU's two biggest chances to lose. Chavis will install whatever sets and looks he wants and it will be highly dependent on who the Tigers are matching up against.
Jordan: Due to the opponents this year, the Tigers won't be forced to play as much nickel, dime, or quarter as they did last year to counter the potent offenses they faced. Because of the decrease in the level of out-of-conference competition, I expect Chavis to play more base 4-3 defenses with less exotic blitzes as he did when he had the benefit of having the human highlight reel, Honey Badger, out there on the field.
The loss of Mathieu likely means that Chavis will be less risky with his play-calling but more controlled and rely on his front four to create pressure rather than disguising where it's coming from a la Dick LeBeau and his use of Troy Polamalu (in his prime). That's fine and dandy to me because I expect LSU's front four to be a handful for almost all of the offensive lines in the country.
The good thing about this year is that LSU has the luxury of being able to fine tune their defense by warming up with North Texas, Idaho, and Washington. LSU's young defensive backs will be able to see some action before facing Auburn who, themselves, don't present much fight.
As Justin hit upon, the offenses in the SEC, especially given the departure of Urban Meyer and Father time nipping at Spurrier, have become less exciting and more plain, bread-and-butter. Even Gus Malzahn and his exciting no-huddle, read-option based offense are gone leaving the most exciting offense in the conference to a John L. Smith Arkansas team. Who knows what Crazy John L. will do in Fayeteville but if you're excited about then so be it. Hey, whatever gets your piss hot, amiright?
Kevin Sumlin will do good things in College Station and I expect the Aggies to be airing it out in no time but until then LSU's defense will have to tangle with the Fightin' John L's and Alabama's smash-mouth style. Both present the biggest, strongest, and fastest test in the conference... by a long shot.
As Justin just touched on, the defense will be match-up based, just like they were last time, but I would temper expectations for a blitz-heavy scheme week in and week out. It will still be exciting to watch the sacks LSU's defensive line should rack up and the hits that are sure to cause the receiver a week's worth of pain. However, this will be a controlled, efficient, sledgehammer of a defense. Nothing fancy, just painful.
Kris: Last year, we saw a guy like Bennie Logan, who wasn't even expected to start, take control of a starting job and have a standout season. Now he's on some early watch lists as a first rounder next April. We saw Tharold Simon, who most were hoping would be just adequate as a third corner, step up and finish sixth in the conference with 12 passes defended. You could even count Eric Reid, who went from a promising freshman to a pre-season All-American in 12 months time. Who could have similar breakout seasons this year?
Most of you have already touched on most of the new faces. Micah Eugene. Kevin Minter. Jalen Collins. Jalen Mills. Tahj Jones. Anyone else in mind that you haven't already mentioned that may enjoy a breakout season?
I'm going with the Freak. After being touted as the top defensive tackle in the nation out of high school, Anthony Johnson was pretty good in his freshman campaign. He notched 12 tackles, 3 TFL and one sack in limited time. With a year of experience under his belt, he seems primed to break out, even though he's not even a starter at this point. He also seems to have figured out some things in terms of work ethic and preparation. As this article details, Johnson has lost about 20 pounds since last year. Johnson showed off his size and strength in 2011 but what truly made him special as a prospect was that he combined those skills with incredible quickness. Dropping 20 pounds may help him put that quickness and explosion back in his repertoire at the college level. Putting it all together, I think the time is right for the Freak to become one of the star defensive tackles in the league.
Justin: Well I was all set to go with the Freak for breakout player so now I have to pick somebody different which will be difficult.
None of the linebackers made a whole lot of noise last year. They were solid but not brilliant. I don't look for a spectacular year from anyone back there but Kevin Minter has a chance to be very solid. I think you'll see it this year in his tackle numbers.
I also think Tahj Jones is one of those true "Chavis" LB's. He has some speed and can fly to the ball and hopefully with all that flying he'll be able to cause some turnovers to make up for TM7's loss.
But I'm gonna go with Big Ego Ferguson. It was a toss up between him and Rasco. But we've seen that D-line with guys rotating I and out all game and I think Ego will play the role Bennie Logan did last year.
And yes I think I covered all my bets by mentioning half the defense, sorry about that.