LSU 2013 Optimistic/Pessimistic/Realistic: Defensive Backfield

Crystal Logiudice-US PRESSWIRE

The glamour position for the LSU defense has an interesting mix of youth, experience and experienced youth this season.

Grading the LSU secondary has been the ultimate exercise in relativity the last few seasons. Since 2010, this is an outfit that has had: Patrick Peterson, one of the greatest cornerback talents in college football history; Morris Claiborne, All-American and top-10 draft choice; Tyrann Mathieu, a unique defensive backfield jack-of-all trades, the winner of nearly every defensive award possible and Heisman Trophy finalist; and yet another first-rounder and All-American in Eric Reid. And that's not even mentioning players like Brandon Taylor, Tharold Simon and Ron Brooks, all of whom are also drawing NFL paychecks.

Compared to unit's passed, the 2012 crew struggled -- especially down the stretch. Quarterbacks had much more success in the season's final weeks, but it the top 30 in nearly every measure of pass-defense performance.

Cornerbacks

13 Dwayne Thomas (RS-Fr.)

6-0, 181

Redshirted.

16 Tre'Davious White (Fr.)

5-11, 177

Five-star recruit, All-American.

19 Derrick Raymond (RS-Fr.)

6-1, 175

Redshirted.

24 Jeryl Brazil (Fr.)

5-10, 189

State sprinting champion, four-star recruit.

21 Rashard Robinson (Fr.)

6-1, 165

40 tackles, 3 interceptions at Ely High School in Florida.

28 Jalen Mills (So.)*

6-0, 189

Started all 13 games and had 57 tackles, 7 pass break-ups, including 2 interceptions.

32 Jalen Collins (RS-So.)*

6-2, 195

30 tackles, 8 pass break-ups, including 2 interceptions.

36 Kavahra Holmes (RS-Fr.)

6-2, 184

Redshirted.

Safeties

6 Craig Loston (Sr.)*

6-2, 209

55 tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss, 4 pass break-ups, including 3 interceptions and 1 fumble recovery.

12 Corey Thompson (So.)

6-2, 212

11 tackles, mostly on special teams.

26 Ronald Martin (Jr.)

6-1, 218

35 tackles, 2 interceptions and one forced fumble.

29 Rickey Jefferson (Fr.)

5-11, 199

Four-star recruit.

34 Micah Eugene (RS-So.)

5-11, 188

29 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss (3.5 sacks) and 3 pass break-ups.

39 Jerqwinick Sandolph (So.)

6-1, 201

5 tackles, mostly on special teams, and 1 fumble recovery.

I'm not sure this secondary group has a Peterson- or a Claiborne-type of pro prospect on hand, but the ingredients are still there to be one of the best defensive backfields in the country. Last year saw a lot of younger players thrust into larger roles due to the unexpected loss of Mathieu, with the resulting trials sharpening a lot of skillsets for 2013.

Starting at corner are the brothers (not really) Jalen -- Mills and Collins. The former arrived to campus to relatively little fanfare. Of this 2012 classmates, Mills was easily the least-regarded, another coal that former DB coach Ron Cooper plucked during one of LSU's 2011 summer camps. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, perhaps, given Cooper's record) he hit the ground running in training camp, moving quickly into the top three at the corner position. That became top-two quickly with Mathieu's untimely departure, and it really put a lot on Mills plate. According to John Chavis, he was forced into learning both corner positions, as well as the nickelback spot that Mathieu excelled in. And while there were certainly some lumps, overall Mills handled himself relatively well. He's a tough, smart competitor that reminds me a lot of former Tiger Chevis Jackson: a strong, physical zone corner that may not be a true man-to-man lockdown guy, but will rarely get beat. What's more, he quickly proved himself as one of the more dedicated leaders on LSU's defense this offseason.

His partner on the other corner position (and in given name) was another one of Cooper's pet projects, but one that many had high expectations of after a redshirt year behind the Claiborne/Mathieu/Simon trio. And likewise, he had an up-and-down, but relatively strong redshirt freshman season. Collins is a much bigger, more physical player, with great size and long arms. He may not have the top-end speed of a Peterson or a Claiborne, but he can make up for that with his range and physicality. Both he and Collins struggled against veteran receivers that could set the up with head fakes and other double-moves, but that's not unusual for inexperience guys, and something that should be better this season.

Five-star super recruit Tre'Davious White (Claiborne's cousin, though I swear they could be twins) headlines the reserve corner group along with redshirt freshmen Dwayne Thomas, Derrick Raymond and Kavahra Holmes, with fellow true freshmen Jeryl Brazil and Rashard Robinson (if he qualifies) waiting in the wings. One of the interesting sub-plots to the defense is whether White or one of the other youngsters can slide into the nickel position. Prior to Mathieu's arrival (granted, we're only talking one season), John Chavis didn't use a ton of nickel looks, moving back and forth between base and dime looks. That might've also been due to the strength of the 2009 linebacker group -- once Mathieu arrived he gave Chavis the luxury of a nickel corner that actually played more like a linebacker. White and Thomas appear to be the top of the reserve corner depth chart. Can they slide into a Mathieu like role, or can they play outside while a versatile player like Mills slides inside? Or will we see the Chief lean on a very talented linebacking corps again?

White is a tremendous athlete that may turn out to the best true man-to-man corner in this whole group. The question is how he fits on the field early on. His classmate Brazil also has incredible speed that may lead him to the field more on offense and in the return game, but he's going to have to show that he's willing to play to contact, whether he's dishing it out or taking it.

On the back end, senior Craig Loston is in position to shine like the No. 1 safety recruit he was back in 2009. Injuries put him behind the likes of Reid, Taylor for his first three seasons, but last year he really came into his own as a starter. In fact, he was probably the best safety on the team, despite all of Reid's accolades. Down the stretch he did a great job of playing within himself and often times directing traffic for his younger teammates. He's not the vocal leader that Reid or Taylor was, but he's a respected locker-room presence in the same vein as fellow senior Lamin Barrow. A stalwart that his mates look to for example. Physically, everything is there for a breakthrough, All-American type campaign this year. Loston has good size, knows how to lay the big hit and has solid hands when the ball's in play. It's now his time to add to the accolades his 2009 classmates brought in.

Loston will be the constant at safety, with a committee of Ronald Martin, Corey Thompson and Rickey Jefferson likely joining him. Martin saw a lot of time last season as a sophomore, and really struggled at times, struggling with recognition on play-fakes and route combinations. But a solid offseason has him up near the 220-pound mark. The question is whether that increased weight improves his tackling. Thompson, a true sophomore, made his mark on special teams and had a whale of a spring. He really looks the part of a physical hybrid safety.

Jefferson is this area of the team's X-factor. Let's not mince words -- there was a lot of consternation to LSU accepting his recruitment, and a lot of that is tied to his last name. His brother left a bad taste in just about every Tiger fan's mouth. But Ricky is his own man, and has quickly made a name for himself, both in summer conditioning and practice. He did a bit of everything at Destrehan High School. A little cornerback, running back and receiver, but he seems to be settling in at safety and reportedly has a real nose for the ball. There's even been some scuttlebutt about him moving into the Mathieu nickel position. At the very least, he'll be active on special teams.

Watch out for fellow St. Charles Parish native Jerqwinick Sandolph as well, another former special teams demon that really showed out in the spring. As well as sophomore Micah Eugene, who found a niche as a blitzing dime back in the Chief's 3-2-6 "Mustang" package.

Optimistic

There aren't many other secondaries that can boast on this one. Loston comes through with an All-American year leading up to a high 2014 NFL Draft grade, while the Jalens impress at corner. Youngsters like Thompson, White and Jefferson all have highlight moments bridging to a very bright future.

Pessimistic

Loston's injury problems resurface and with him sidelined, the defensive backfield struggles a bit against the better quarterbacks on the schedule. This unit's success will also be very closely tied to the rebuilding defensive line, something that cannot be overlooked.

Realistic

As I've said here, I don't see a 2010 or 2011 type of secondary here. But I do see a very good one that will hold their own against just about anybody. There are smart, talented and physical corners and an athletic safety group that will rotate different talent at different times. Loston will be the known commodity, and he'll be considered one of the nation's top safeties by year's end.

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