Training Camp Preview Roundtable: Defensive Backs

Ah...training camp.

Actually, training camp kind of sucks for actual football players, but the upside is it means the season's getting close. Which means it's time for some positional previews for the Tigers. We got the band back together for a series of roundtables where we talk about what we like, what we love, and what we're worried about for the 2011 season.

Projected Depth Chart:

Cornerback:

17 Junior Morris Claiborne - 6'0, 185
7  Sophomore Tyrann Mathieu - 5'9, 175
24 Sophomore Tharold Simon - 6'3, 187
13 Senior Ron Brooks - 6'0, 177 

Strong Safety:

18 Senior Brandon Taylor - 6'0, 194
1  Sophomore Eric Reid - 6'2, 208

Free Safety:

6 Sophomore Craig Loston - 6'2, 208
1 Sophomore Eric Reid - 6'2, 208

Other key backups: Senior Derrick Bryant, Freshmen Ronnie Vinson & Sam Gibson

Billy: Is it crazy to suggest that LSU lost one of the best defensive backs in school history, yet the secondary will remain the overwhelming strength of the team?

Paul: I don't think there's any question that the defensive backfield is the strongest unit on the team. Typically, losing a guy like Peterson would make you fret, but due to the outstanding coaching and recruiting by Ron Cooper, we're loaded with talent at the position, though we don't have a single other player as dynamic as Zod.

For starters, Morris Claiborne is a tremendous player in his own right. He's tall, athletic and quick-twitch, and if not for playing opposite of PP7, he would have been more nationally recognized for his outstanding play. Further, his willingness and ability to come up in run support is an underrated aspect to his game. Across from him, we have Tharold Simon, who is perhaps the only person who can even sniff Peterson's athletic tools (and it's still not close there really), as he is one of the unusual tall guys who can still lineup and run with receivers and be quick/athletic enough to break on the ball and make plays. T-Rex will remain in his role of general wreaker of havoc, which is likely best suited, but in a pinch, I would trust his coverage skills on the outside as well. And that's just your top 3 corners.
At safety, we run about 3 deep in terms of quality guys that could start anywhere in the nation: Taylor, Reid, Lofton. Behind them are guys that aren't too shabby in their own right in Ronnie Vinson and Sam Gibson. Loston has yet to live up to his lofty recruiting potential, but camp reports say he is starting to come on strong. Eric Reid looked like a natural last year. And Brandon Taylor is an underrated component of our defense. He really helps clean up all the messes and make sure nothing happens over the top.

When you break all that down, what you have is an incredibly talented, incredibly deep unit that offers flexibility and gobs of speed to help compete with the spread offenses that we are sure to see plenty of in 2011.

Poseur: I can't disagree with a thing Paul said.

Look, you can't replace Zod. He will go down as one of the greatest players to ever wear an LSU uniform, so expecting anyone to come in and do what he did is just silly. Luckily, we're not even going to try.

Last year's secondary was essentially Zod and three other guys (ok, T-Rex became a cult fave right off the bat), but this year's unit is all about depth. Last year was about trying to attack the secondary's weak links. This year, how the hell do you do that? What are our weak links? 

This is a unit so deep and so good that T-Rex, probably our most disruptive player, can't get on the field in a standard 4 DB set. Luckily, we'll face a lot of spread teams and three-wide sets, which means we can get T-Rex out there on critical downs. Going to the nickel allows us to rely on our best defensive unit, the secondary, while taking off a player from our weakest unit, the linebackers. 

This secondary is scary good (and its worth pointing out it might not even be the best secondary in the division - Alabama's secondary is freakishly good as well). Claiborne is a preseason All-American and I personally think Simon is an even better cover corner. This unit is stacked.

The weakness of last year's secondary was the safety position (think the Arkansas game) once Taylor went down. This year, the safety position should be a strength, particularly if Loston's progress is real. This is a special unit, even if it's now missing its most special player.  

Billy: I look at Eric Reid and I see a big, mean safety that will lay the wood, just like LaRon Landry, but possibly with better ball skills than the former All-American. I have very little doubt the guy has star quality. And he still might not be able to land a starting job in this secondary. That's how loaded LSU is.

Between Claiborne, Taylor, Loston, Reid, Mathieu, Simon and Brooks you have seven players that have starting experience. Hell, Ron Brooks is the fourth corner on this team and I can think of at least three or four SEC teams he'd be good enough to start for. 

It has the defense's leader in Brandon Taylor, best returning player in Claiborne and two of its biggest stars-in-the-making in Mathieu and Simon. Size, speed, smarts, there's the total package. The question will be playing up to it week-in and week-out and setting the tone for the rest of this defense.

To me, the beauty of it all is that John Chavis has the luxury of choosing "all of the above" as the answer to the "will Mathieu play nickel or outside corner?" question. Play him inside in sub, outside in base, or swap him with one of the other corners when they need a breather. Plenty of corners have made up for a lack of height with smarts and physicality, and those are two things Mathieu has in droves.

What do you see as an encore for T-Rex?

Paul: Some guys just have a knack for finding the football. I hate using this comparison, lest people think I'm saying he's proven to be in this caliber, but look at a guy like Charles Woodson. Coming out of college Woodson was known for being a man-up, cover corner and an elite one at that. After doing that for a few years in Oakland, he lost some sheen, and signed a deal in Green Bay, while many thought he was washed up, that most thought was absurd overpayment. 5 years, 1 Defensive Player of the Year and 1 Super Bowl Ring later, who is laughing now?

Seriously though, Woodson has long lost his ability to man up with a guy like Andre Johnson and blanket him for an afternoon, but he makes his impact felt play-in and play-out on the football field. He has to be accounted for. He could blitz you, he could deke you, bail on the blitz and pick you off, he can nail your RB for a 5-yard loss, or he can still, on occasion, drop into coverage and make plays there. I profile Mathieu the same way. Some guys find the football. Mathieu is one of those guys. Fumble recoveries and even interceptions can be stats of fortune a lot of the time, but some players have a unique ability to just seemingly be omnipresent when it comes to the football, and Mathieu strikes me as that guy. This is why I don't believe he'll simply be a flash-in-the-pan, one-year wonder type of player, but a guy that each of our opponents will have to scout very carefully, lest he unleashes his fury upon them.

Billy: Mathieu is like one of those multi-purpose offensive players you "just have to keep on the field." The defense doesn't get better with him on the sidelines, and I doubt he'll spend much time on them. Base, nickel, mustang, he'll be on the field. The instincts he showed last year were uncanny. As much of a cliché as the "always-around-the-ball" thing is, it definitely applies. Whether it was on the blitz, in coverage or on the tackle, the kid made things happen. His strip/recoveries against Florida and Texas A&M were the type of plays you'd expect out of veteran NFL guys like Woodson or Antoine Winfield. And yeah, his height is less than the ideal, but the rest of his skill-set will make up for it more often than not.

Look no further than game one to see that impact. I'll cover this more in the DB portion of the Oregon preview series, but Mathieu will play a huge role in defending the Ducks, both against the run and the pass. I expect him to be one of the defense's leading tacklers this season, and I don't know that in any other circumstance you would ever want to say that about a cornerback.

Poseur: T-Rex is just an exciting player. I'm not sure if he's going to force as many turnovers as he did last year, but I still expect the guy to be a disruptive force, particularly on the blitz.  He's just a guy who seems to always be around big plays. The great thing about him is that other teams can't really gameplan for -- you want to account for the other team's nickel corner?  Any adjustments you make to neutralize Mathieu just opens you up to attack from our starters.  Who are also pretty darn good.

He's allowed to freelance because Simon and Claiborne are so good in coverage.  So a lot of T-Rex's success should be credited to those two.  They allow him to have the freedom to go out and make plays without worrying about the consequences if he fails to reach the QB in time.  He's got one hell of a safety net.

Billy: So how about the safety spot? I know all three guys will play a ton, but how do you pick a starting two out of a threesome like Taylor, Loston and Reid?

Paul: You don't pick, is the answer. You let them all play. Reid is probably the best of the bunch. Loston may finally be realizing his potential, and Taylor is that safety net. With Taylor, my only concern is how he plays coming back from the injury. Pictures of him make him look like he's bulked up a bit. Hope he's kept his speed. Reid the concern will always be injuries not ability. And Loston, he's had trouble adjusting to the mental game... let's hope he has put it all together upstairs. If so, this will be not just a very good bunch, but a special one.

Poseur: Three players of starting caliber and only two starting spots is not a problem, it's a solution.  I don't see any problem with a rotation similar to what we see on the lines. Safeties get tired, too.  Though I really think Taylor is this year's Sheppard -- the heart and soul of this defense, maybe this team.  They did a good job selecting the #18 this year. 

Paul: Taylor never gets enough credit from the fanbase at large for his contributions, mostly because they are semi-invisible. It's not always the play he makes, it's the play he didn't let happen.

Billy: Agreed. And I think Taylor already IS this team's KShep. Without knowing completely just what injury he had, if it was a torn ligament or whatever, I do wonder how he'll be affected. But his game has always been more about physicality and smarts than pure speed anyway.

If you'd have asked me who was going to be starters Reid would have been my easy answer last spring. He looked that good down the stretch of the season. So hearing that Loston is holding him off has me really excited. Chavis has shown that he's going to keep them rotating in a lot, and they'll probably be joined by Ronnie Vinson and Sam Gibson a few times as well. This group has size (and appears to be incredibly jacked up, as we've mentioned), speed and athleticism. And it'll all be tested in week one against Oregon...

And for the musical portion of our discussion?

Poseur: Well, I want to say T-Rex's Get It On (Bang A Gong) for the obvious reason, but that only applies to one guy.  So let's just give this unit the most kick ass song ever recorded which also touches on my feelings right now: Kick Out the Jams, Motherf#%*er by the MC5. 


I done kicked 'em out!

Paul: Bombs over Baghdad by Outkast.


Billy: It's a part of the team not currently involved in any sort of controversy everybody! God do we need to hear some good news. I'll go with...


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