Five Questions on LSU Spring Practice: Defensive Line

Defensive Ends:

Roster Information

Height/Weight

2011 Season

No. 89 Senior Lavar Edwards

6'5, 265

26 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss (1 sack), 2 passes defensed and 1 fumble recovery.

87 Senior Chancey Aghayere

6'4, 279

3 tackles in 8 appearances.

99 Junior Sam Montgomery

6'4, 250

49 tackles, 13.5 TFLs (9 sacks), 1 forced fumble. First-team All-SEC, finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award and earned first, second or third team All-America honors (Football Writers Assoc., AP, Rivals, Fox Sports and Sports Illustrated).

49 Junior Barkevious Mingo

6'5, 240

46 tackles, 15 TFLs (8 sacks), 2 passes defensed and a forced fumble. Second-team All-SEC (AP).

59 Sophomore Jermauria Rasco

6'3, 255

17 tackles, 3.5 TFLs (2 sacks) in 9 appearances.

54 Sophomore Justin Maclin

6'4, 241

Redshirted.

98 Sophomore Jordan Allen

6'6, 252

1 tackle in 3 appearances.

Defensive Tackles:

Roster Information

Height/Weight

2011 Season

77 Senior Josh Downs

6'1, 287

9 tackles and half a TFL.

93 Junior Bennie Logan

6'3, 290

57 tackles, 6.5 TFLs (3 sacks), 1 pass defensed, 1 forced fumble and 1 blocked kick.

90 Sophomore Anthony Johnson

6'3, 310

12 tackles, 3 TFLs (1 sack), Freshman All-American (CBSsportsline) and Freshman All-SEC (Coaches).

9 Sophomore Ego Ferguson

6'3, 283

13 tackles, half a TFL and 1 pass defensed.

96 Freshman Mickey Johnson

6'1, 312

Redshirted.

95 Freshman Quentin Thomas

6'3, 279

Redshirted.

Should we be excited?

It's rare that you can lose two starters from a defensive line but still return eight out of the 10 or so linemen that saw crunch-time minutes in last season's rotation. That depth was a big part of what made LSU's defensive line one of the best in America in 2011.

The departed Michael Brockers leaves a pretty big hole, but four of the returnees earned some sort of individual honor last year, be it SEC linemen or player of the week or a spot on a post-season all-conference or all-America team.

Depth is a little thin at defensive tackle, but there's a potential rising star in Anthony "Freak" Johnson and one of the team leaders in Bennie Logan. And if the redshirt freshmen prove worthy of early playing time, the depth concern goes away for this year (though d-line recruiting in general is a major priority for the 2013 class).

But outside, LSU returns at least four future NFL draft picks at defensive end.

Who's back?

Of course, this discussion clearly has to start with the returning defensive combo of Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. After combining for 28.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks in 2011, the duo are without a doubt as good a bookend combo as there is in the country, and there's a pretty good chance they'll improve on last season's numbers.

Montgomery will likely be a pre-season All-American and join Tyrann Mathieu on several award watch lists. Sonic Sam rebounded from a 2010 knee injury in a big way with 49 tackles and 13.5 TFLs, including a team-high nine sacks (the highest individual total anybody at LSU has had since Melvin Oliver and Marcus Spears put up nine in 2004 and 2005). If the old "it really takes two seasons to rebound from torn knee ligaments" adage holds up, he could be even better in 2012. Montgomery is a pure speed rusher, but he's managed to be a strong run defender as well with fantastic technique and pure hustle. That hustle, along with the Tigers' amazing pass coverage, even managed to help him get two sacks off of Alabama's Barrett Jones. From the burst off the line, to the first pass-rush move, to the counter and the counter-to-the-counter, Montgomery just keeps going. That attitude has also made him one of the more vocal leaders on the defense.

The scary thing is, as good as Montgomery is, Mingo just might be better. In fewer snaps (he was mostly a third-down pass-rusher and split time with Ken Adams and Lavar Edwards), Mingo managed to put up almost the exact same numbers as Montgomery -- 46 tackles, 15 TFLs with 8 sacks. He was an extremely raw athlete coming out of West Monroe High School; a bit thin for defensive line but not really instinctive enough for linebacker, and it was a little hard to project the guy to be honest. But his raw tools would make any coach salivate, and we all saw them Mingo's redshirt freshman as he consistently smoked offensive linemen at the snap, but struggled with gap-discipline and pursuit angles. But he really cleaned up those technique issues in 2011, becoming much more disciplined and effective run defender. He showed a knack for blowing up outside runs on either side of the field, and his backside pursuit-and-tackle of Oregon's LaMichael James in the JerraDome opener might have been as impressive a play as any defensive end made in 2011. He may never be as strong at the point of attack as bigger ends, but with his long arms and quickness, he can at least hold the line enough to not be a liability. The sky is the limit for this kid if the mental side of his game can match his athletic tools.

Frankly, with a little improvement, these two should be able to top the 20 sack and 30 TFL barriers this season.

On the bench, Edwards is as good a backup as you can ask for at the end position. He provides a heavier alternative to Mingo, and is certainly capable of big games, though the inconsistency has been what's kept him from starting. Still, there are other teams in the SEC that would gladly take him and I have a feeling the NFL will take a long look in 2013. Fellow senior Chancey Aghayere is a former big-time recruit that has been slowed by back and neck issues, but has also found a way to provide the others a blow from time to time.

At that tackle spot, Logan returns at one of the starting spots after a surprising year in the starting lineup that saw him lead all defensive linemen in tackles, recording five or more in seven games (including an-SEC-D-linemen-of-the-Week performance against Miss. State with five tackles and 3 tackles-for-loss).

Logan, Freak Johnson and the other presumptive member of the top-three tackle rotation, Josh Downs, aren't the sort of mammoth run-stuffers that Brockers served as last season, but they fit more in the classic LSU defensive tackle mold. Short, squatty, quick and tougher-n-hell to block -- more in line with past stars like Anthony McFarland, Drake Nevis, Chad Lavalais, Kyle Williams and Glenn Dorsey. Up-the-field rushers that are athletic and active.

And while Brockers' large (literal and figurative) presence will certainly be missed, Johnson, at 310 pounds, is hardly a lightweight. He's likely the unit's breakout star after a strong freshman year that saw him enter the two-deep quickly and even draw double-teams at times. Plus, he and Logan, along with Montgomery, are emerging as the pace-setters for the defense this spring. Logan and Johnson in particular are some of the more vocal cheerleaders during the Big Cat drill sessions we've seen video of.

Downs is a solid depth player with a high motor and fantastic up-field burst that can be valuable on passing downs, but his lack of size has led to injury issues that have kept him out of the lineup on a consistent basis. Ego Ferguson will round out the two deep; another highly regarded talent that hasn't been able to breakthrough yet, and a similar player to Logan -- a former high school end that sacrifices size but can get into the backfield.

Who's new?

At tackle, 2011 recruits Mickey Johnson and Quentin Thomas should get some playing time after redshirting, and given that there's only six tackles on this roster, they'll be needed to give the top guys a blow, if nothing else. Like I said, it's a big position of need for the 2013 recruiting class.

Thomas is a raw prospect that had to sit out his senior year of high school for disciplinary issues, but whom the coaches liked enough to still give a shot. He reminds me a lot of Logan, which means he's probably another year away from any truly meaningful playing time. Johnson is more the true nose-tackle type -- short and wide, but a guy that could easily absorb double-teams.

Outside, new is kind of a relative term. We saw Jermauria Rasco take the field at around the midpoint last season and make a couple of big plays late in games. Granted, he was usually taking advantage of offensive tackles that were probably tired of chasing Montgomery and Mingo, but the experience will likely land him a spot backing one of them up in 2012. Likewise, Justin Maclin redshirted last year after seeing some limited blowout time in 2010. It's unclear whether this was due to injury or the coaching staff wanting to preserve some eligibility for Maclin while developing him further, but he's a player John Chavis has always been high on, so I expect to see him in the lineup. Classmate Jordan Allen also adds a larger option among the depth players at end. Some thought he might grow into a tackle (defensive or even offensive) out of West Monroe, but he's never really bulked up. Not that he's what you'd call skinny either, if you've watched his Big Cat videos. Somebody whose contributions might be coming in the years ahead.

Any concerns?

Had Brockers returned, I'd be in love with this defensive tackle group. Without him, it's a little thinner than you'd like. Six tackles is enough, but if there are any injuries you're close to some unproven guys having larger roles forced on them. And as I mentioned regarding the offensive line, it's one thing for one of the redshirt freshmen to play because he's earned it, it's another thing if it's out of necessity. The end position is much deeper.

And, while I'm not worried about Freak holding up as the unit's main run-stopper, it would be nice if there were a little more beef up the middle. But that brings me to...

Who/what is the X-Factor?

Watch out for Mickey Johnson. On top of being north of the 3-bills mark, he also happens to be one of the strongest players on the team, and set some state powerlifting records at St. Paul's High School in Covington. He reminds me a lot of Marlon Favorite, only Johnson spends his free time in the weight room instead of the recording studio. At the very least, he'll provide some solid depth, but if that Olympic strength translates on the football field, he could be a valuable asset in short-yardage defense. It would definitely be nice to have another gap-filler that can absorb blockers and free up the ends whoever is manning the other tackle spot.

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