Five Questions on LSU Spring Practice: the Defensive Backs

Cornerbacks:

Roster Information

Height/Weight

2011 Season

No. 7 Junior Tyrann Mathieu

5'9, 180

76 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss (1.5 sacks), 11 passes defensed (2 interceptions), 6 forced fumbles, 5 recovered. Averaged 15.6 yards per punt return and scored four total touchdowns. 2011 All-American, Chuck Bednarick Award winner, Heisman Trophy finalist, First-Team All-SEC and SEC Defensive Player of the Year

24 Junior Tharold Simon

6'3, 190

42 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 12 passes defensed (2 interceptions) and 1 forced fumble

28 Sophomore Ronnie Vinson

5'11, 185

7 appearances, 1 tackle

32 Freshman Jalen Collins

6'1, 185

Redshirted

25 Freshman David Jenkins

6'1, 193

Redshirted

Safeties:

Roster Information

Height/Weight

2011 Season

No. 1 Junior Eric Reid

6'2, 210

76 tackles, 2 TFLs, 5 passes defensed (2 interceptions), 2 forced fumbles, 1 recovered. Second-Team All-SEC (AP)

6 Junior Craig Loston

6'2, 210

14 tackles, 1 pass defended, 1 forced fumble

40 Junior Rocky Duplessis

6'1, 210

6 tackles

29 Sophomore Sam Gibson

6'1, 205

5 tackles in 3 total appearances

26 Sophomore Ronald Martin

6'1, 199

3 tackles, 2 passes defensed in 3 games

34 Micah Eugene

5'11, 194

Redshirted

Should we be excited?

Aren't you already?

There's a returning Heisman-Trophy finalist, one of the best young safeties in America (and young as in he cannot legally drink -- he has two years of PT on his record) plus another cornerback with big-time NFL potential. Plus we've all kind of reached the point at this spot where when there are new players involved we honestly expect them to be awesome rather merely wondering how they'll do.

The 2012 secondary has a lot to look up to, and naturally there are going to be some growing pains, however, whereas 2011 had to hit the ground running in the first couple of weeks with teams like Oregon and West Virginia, next season realistically features one really good quarterback in the schedule's first half (Washington's Keith Price). So there's time for this unit to come together.

Morris Claiborne or Brandon Taylor, whom is the bigger loss?

The answer is Claiborne, but it's not quite as cut and dry as you might think. LSU probably (I really wish I could find some stats to back this up but people rarely keep track of defensive personnel groupings), played with three corners on the field on the majority of the defensive snaps in 2012. Take one away and you still have two really good ones in Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon. But Brandon Taylor was more than just one of the top two safeties. He was every bit the defense's leader and heart and soul. And while there are still players like Bennie Logan, Sam Montgomery, Eric Reid and Mathieu that are vocal pace-setters, we still don't know if there's that one guy that knows everybody's assignments backwards and forwards the way BT18 did.

Reid seems like the best candidate (he's a sharp guy if you haven't heard), and is due to break through as an All-American type this season. He's got the total package: speed, size, ball skills and a willingness to lay the wood. As for his partner back in the middle of the secondary, the best two candidates seem to be Craig Loston or true sophomore Ronald Martin.

Loston, of course, came in as the No. 1 recruit at his position, and has certainly had his highlight moments but they've been a bit few and far between. And his own body has borne the brunt of some of his biggest hits in the form of concussions. Physical ability has never been the question with Loston, it's been more about the mental side of the game and playing with discipline. To a degree, this is something of a make-or-break year for him. If he can't lock down a starting position now, he may never be anything but a career backup.

Martin was a bit of an afterthought recruit in 2011, a do-it-all kid that played both ways on the football field and even led White Castle High to a state basketball championship as a point guard (and was good enough to get offered a spot on the basketball team). He had his redshirt burned in November and saw time in the final couple of games, partly due to injuries, but per team scuttlebutt, also partly because John Chavis and Ron Cooper began to believe Martin would play a major role in 2012 and wanted to start getting him ready.

Can Tyrann Mathieu do it all again?

Well, considering he improved in virtually every statistical category from his first year to second, not to mention developed into a dynamic punt returner, I don't think I'd bet against him.

The two most interesting dynamics of 2012 for the Honey Badger involve A) how he continues to develop as a true cornerback; and B) how he continues to adjust to the spotlight, not only in terms of the media but in terms of how opponents attack him.

Mathieu has worn a lot of hats for Chavis the last two seasons, and that's been a luxury for both men. Mathieu has been allowed to develop into a unique playmaker, one of the best blitzers in the country, but having corners like Patrick Peterson and Claiborne on hand allowed him to thrive in that nickel/dime role. This season he may (depending on the development of guys like Jalen Collins and David Jenkins) be needed a little more as a true cornerback. For sure he'll be one of the top two guys in base defenses, and while he'll certainly still slide inside in some nickel and mustang situations, how often that happens may depend on the abilities of the other newbs. Opposing offenses will no doubt target the younger players, and if they can't hold up in coverage Mathieu may have to pick up the slack. Who knows, he might even move back to safety a little, something he did well filling in for Reid when he missed a game with injury.

Developing into a better pure corner (as opposed to an amazing all-around DB) is also something to focus on. Sometimes due to size (see: Rogers, Da'Rick), sometimes due to his willingness to take chances, Mathieu was occasionally beat in man-to-man situations. At the very least, he didn't have the same value in this area of his game as he did as a general havoc-wrecker. He may never be the pure "shut-down" player that Peterson or Claiborne were (those two had a rare combination of size and speed), but with technique, physicality and an improved sense of timing, he can continue to improve. He may always be at somewhat of a size disadvantage, but at the college level that's not nearly the issue it can be in the NFL. Plus, Mathieu has a natural athleticism and feel for the game that is rare at any level.

What's with this new coach?

Enter Corey Raymond. Former LSU player, former LSU coaching intern/assistant strength & conditioning coach, now on hand to replace Ron Cooper. The list of new assistants with tougher acts to follow isn't a long one. He has to replace three out of the top six players from one of America's best secondaries, but at least he has a fairly well-stocked cupboard to work with.

As previously mentioned, it would be unreasonable to expect Raymond to match Cooper's abilities as a teacher, or his eye for raw talent, but he'll have Chavis' experience to lean on in those areas. He has six years' worth of NFL coaching to draw on, and spent a couple of years working under Bo Pelini as well. Plus, he'll almost certainly be a more active presence on the recruiting trail.

But in the meantime, job one is establishing the go-to group of DBs. Loston and Martin will compete for the other starting safety gig, with freshman Micah Eugene likely the next backup up. There was a lot of talk of Sam Gibson's development last spring, but the Lafayette native appears to have passed him up. Eugene is something of a tweener; built more like a cornerback but, as his highlights show, definitely the type of physical player you like to see at safety.

The "tweener" label also applies to backup corner Ronnie Vinson, who worked at safety last year and had an interception in the spring game. Through the first few practices he appears to be working at the nickel role, and one has to wonder if Chavis is trying to develop another Ron Brooks-type, a corner with a safety's skill set that can work as a blitzer or zone-cover guy in the mustang dime package.

At corner, Collins and Jenkins are looking to step in. Both have the size everybody likes to see (north of six feet), and Collins got some rave reviews for his athleticism last fall. The question is can one of them step up and handle outside receivers to allow Mathieu to play in the slot? Or will Vinson hold that third corner spot down? This may be the best competition we'll see this month.

Who/what is the X-Factor?

Eleven out of last season's 18 interceptions are gone (counting one from the departed Michael Brockers). We may feel pretty good about this returning group, but somebody emerging as that playmaking ball-hawk type is what will be the difference between a good and great secondary.

The first candidate who comes to mind is Simon. He has the size and the speed to be LSU's next first-round corner. In 2011, he was money on deep passes due to that height and his long arms, which buy an extra step or so in makeup speed. The issue has been consistency and discipline. Simon can handle the down-the-field stuff, but Claiborne and Peterson suffocated receivers on the short and intermediate routes as well. That's Simon's next step.

Another player to watch for is Martin. I keep going back to his redshirt getting blown last year. That was done for a reason. Even with Reid's injury in the final few games, there were other safeties the coaches could've played. My guess is they wanted to get the training wheels off him for this season. Loston's shown that he can hit, but ball skills have never been his strong point. That may be Martin's edge.

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