LSU Football 2013 Optimistic/Pessimistic/Realistic: Linebackers

Derick E. Hingle-US PRESSWIRE

A look at the deepest and most talented unit of John Chavis’ defense -- the LSU linebacking corps.

LSU defenses have, by and large, been defined by ridiculous defensive lines and defensive backfields. And not just under John Chavis -- as we've talked about in Wednesday WayBack, Nick Saban's insane 2003 defense featured a pretty "meh" group at the second level. The headliners have always been linemen like Glenn Dorsey or Chad Lavalais or Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, or defensive backs like Patrick Peterson, Corey Webster, LaRon Landry, Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu.

But thanks to a loaded 2012 recruiting class, there's some serious meat in the LSU defense's sandwich this season. Just look at the roster below.

18 Lamin Barrow (Sr.)*

6-2, 232

104 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 5 passes break-ups and 2 fumble recoveries.

23 Lamar Louis (So.)*

6-0, 216

13 tackles.

25 Kwon Alexander (So.)*

6-2, 218

12 tackles, 1 TFL and 2 fumble recoveries in seven games.

31 D.J. Welter (Sr.)*

6-0, 226

2 tackles in 1 game appearance.

35 Lorenzo Phillips (RS-Fr.)

6-2, 219

Redshirted.

40 Duke Riley (Fr.)

6-1, 208

124 tackles as a senior at John Curtis High School (3-star recruit).

45 Deion Jones (So.)

6-2, 208

23 tackles, 3 TFLs.

51 Trey Granier (RS-Fr.)

6-1, 227

Redshirted. (Ed. Note: There are some transfer floating around re: Granier at the moment.)

49 Melvin Jones (Fr.)

6-3, 245

125 tackles as a senior at Washington-Marion High School.

52 Kendell Beckwith (Fr.)

6-3, 246

91 tackles, 17 sacks as a senior at West Feliciana High School (4-star recruit).

58 Tahj Jones (Sr.)*

6-2, 205

Missed 2012 regular season on suspension. Started and made 4 tackles in Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

*Indicates starting experience, BOLD indicates potential 2013 starter.

Six guys with starting experience, all of whom will likely see the field in some capacity. How and where to deploy this very fast, very active group is what Chavis gets to decide (and getting to decide is so much better than having to decide) this season.

Lamin Barrow, Tahj Jones, D.J. Welter, Kwon Alexander, Lamar Louis and Deion "Debo" Jones will all see lots of game action this year for LSU. The when and the where are two of the best depth chart questions for the team this August, and could very well be what defines the 2013 LSU defense.

Barrow is the one certainty for this group this season. He earned the No. 18 jersey as one of the team's leaders, and while he might not be the vocal Kelvin Sheppard type, he's a hard worker and a leader by example that seems to have the universal respect of the team.

I have to admit, his 100-tackle 2012 season came as a complete surprise, personally. Barrow had always been one of the "first guy you want off the bus" announcer's clichés, a big, athletic guy. But he never seemed to be able to secure a starting job, even over the likes of Stefoin Francois and Karnell Hatcher. But last season it all clicked for him on the "Will" or weakside position, where he consistently stuffed the run, made plays in pursuit and was also an effective blitzer. The question now is, can he handle that load without a dominant "Mike," or middle linebacker, next to him like Kevin Minter.

Ryan Baker's career is what makes me wonder. In 2010, playing next to Sheppard, Baker racked up some 80 tackles and 11 tackles-for-loss. In 2011, without Sheppard keeping him lined up properly and cleaning up his mistakes, Baker's numbers fell off to just 64 and 3.5, and was exposed for what he was: an aggressive but undersized linebacker that couldn't shed blocks struggled to change direction, making him really vulnerable in coverage or to misdirection plays.

Barrow is going to be the man for this unit -- he's the one starter who's spot appears etched in stone, and there's even been some talk of sliding him to the middle spot, though I don't think that is Chavis' first choice. He needs to prove that 2012 wasn't a mirage.

The two names starting next to him will be the subject of quite the competition, and in my opinion will likely wind up changing throughout games and throughout the season. Back in 2009, the Chief's first season in Baton Rouge, he relied on his linebackers early and often, rotating Sheppard, Perry Riley, Jacob Cutrera and Harry Coleman fairly evenly, to the point that all four snagged more than 80 tackles that season. He often left LSU in a base defense on third down situations due to the strength of that group (three of whom are still playing in the NFL) and the weaknesses of LSU's corners that season. The defense tended to shift between base and dime packages, with a more defined nickel group not really emerging until Tyrann Mathieu arrived in 2010 and emerged as a dominant nickel corner.

That makes for an interesting sub-plot to fall practices, scheme-wise. When LSU has blitzed in recent seasons, it's often relied on corners and safeties. This season, that might shift back to the linebackers. It could also create more roles to get different lineups on the field based on personnel and down and distance. A standard starting group for first-and-10, but different combinations for nickel, dime or short-yardage situations.

At the moment, the Mike job appears to be up for grabs between Welter and Louis. Both are a little light to be a pure between-the-tackles thumper, though Welter has shown a bit more ability in that area. Louis was thrown out in the last couple of games of the 2012 regular season. He struggled with the responsibilities a bit, but appears to have really worked through the offseason. The speed and athleticism are definitely there for him. Welter missed the regular season on an academic suspension, but came back strong and secured playing time in the bowl game and starting reps in the spring. My theory at the time was that as one of the few upperclassmen in the group, it made sense for Chavis & Co. to get Welter as ready as possible to step in, as he was well behind Tahj Jones and Barrow in actual game time. But he's making it awfully tough to take him out of the lineup.

Over at the "Sam" or strongside position, Tahj Jones appears to be the incumbent, despite also missing last season on suspension. He's a solid cover guy, but obviously undersized against the run. He's backed up by Alexander, who worked his way into the lineup and was doing a fantastic job before a broken ankle sidelined him. He showed some real superstar potential, doing almost everything well, whether it was asked to force, contain, pursue, cover or blitz. If there's a "too good to keep off the field" guy at this position that doesn't appear to be an obvious starter, it's Alexander.

Barrow fits in on the weaksiade, and appears to be backed up by "Debo" Jones, another second-year guy that really showed out as a rookie. He's a pure speed player and had a real knack for making plays in the backfield (I believe his first snap versus North Texas resulted in a tackle behind the line). Again, we're talking about a guy that will be on the field quite a bit, even if he's not technically a starter.

And then there's there are freshmen Duke Riley and Kendell Beckwith, both of which have drawn quite a bit of praise from the staff through the early weeks of practice. That's no surprise from Beckwith, a big-time recruit LSU had to fight off most of the SEC to land. Riley, however, was a bit of a throw-in guy, and he's often the first name mentioned by Chavis. His tape reminds me a lot of Harry Coleman: an undersized linebacker with great speed and instincts, but one that might be a little stiff in coverage. The fact that he's drawing so much praise tells me that, at the very least, he'll be on the field a lot on special teams. Many have thought Beckwith would wind up as a defensive end, but I'm of the opinion that he has the athleticism to play in space. Once again, Beckwith is a guy that's going to be very difficult to keep off the field.

And there's still freshman linebacker Melvin Jones, who may be moving to fullback, based on some rumors.

Chief has to feel a bit like a kid in a candy store with this group, and I'm not really sure how he's going to pick a starting three. My opinion on the top three guys would be a combination of Barrow, Alexander and Debo Jones. How that fits into the traditional roles is a bit of a question mark however. There are a lot of possibilities, though, obviously.

Optimistic

Barrow has an all-conference, if not All-American, caliber season and becomes one of the SEC's best all-around linebackers. Chavis settles in on a core group with the others, setting up multiple substitution options that not only put the defense in the best situation versus different offenses, but also continue to prepare young players like Debo, Alexander, Beckwith and Riley for the future.

Pessimistic

Barrow's 2012 season proves to be a bit of a mirage, and without some sort of constant, this group could be a bit scattered. Chemistry can be important for linebackers, and if the group on the field aren't all on the same page there can be mental busts that lead to big plays. Over-specialization can be a bad thing if personnel become too predictable. Offensive coordinators will find ways to attack the weaknesses of particular players if those weaknesses are too obvious.

Realistic

If this unit isn't the strength of LSU's defense, it means that either the secondary or the defensive line completely exceed expectations in really awesome ways. There's just too much speed and talent here. I expect Barrow to set the pace and the rest of this group to fall in on him, with Chief rotating multiple players based on the situation and the opponent. It would not surprise me at all to see four or even five linebackers top the 40-tackle mark.

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