Signing Day Preview: The Linebackers

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

When's the last time LSU fielded a truly elite linebacking unit? Not one great player and a couple of solid guys. Not two good players and someone else. I mean, a truly elite unit. The 2009 squad of Sheppard/Riley/Coleman was pretty good -- the three, along with Jacob Cutrera, each wracked up 80-plus tackles. In 2001, Trev Faulk and Bradie James were pretty special, but Jeremy Lawrence was just kinda... there. 1989 featured four LBs with 70+ tackles: Verge Ausberry (now Senior Associate Athletics Director), Oliver Lawrence, Nigel Ventress and David Walkup.* But the unit ranked just 63rd nationally in Total Defense (by comparison this year's "failure" ranked 15th nationally in Total Defense, 21st in Scoring D and 27th in YPP).

*Corey Raymond, Karl Dunbar and Gordy Rush also played on this defense.

Based on this old LSU statistics guide, the 1987 crew featured three LBs with 80+ tackles and a combined 29 (I think, Nicky Hazard's TFL are smudged) tackles for loss. That may be the answer, but of course, the guide denotes "from coaches' film study," so who knows how accurate those statistics are.

The larger point here is that despite the many outstanding defenses LSU's fielded in the past three decades or so, the linebacking corps has never been the standout unit. Great DL? Absolutely? Stout secondary? Sure. But at linebacker? We're typically tossing out a good to great LB or two and then a warm body that benefits from playing next to them.

When LSU hired John Chavis in 2009, many expected a drastic turnaround. Even under Saban, while guys like Faulk and James starred, our '03 defense rocked the house with nobodies like Lionel Turner, Eric Alexander, and Cameron Vaughn. Chavis came from Tennessee with a lengthy history of LB pupils ranging from Kevin Burnett to Al Wilson to Jerrod Mayo. Since 1995 he's taken on the task of not just coordinating a defense, but coaching LBs. Surely, with Louisiana talent backing him, LSU would start pumping out stud NFL LB prospect after stud NFL LB prospect? Yet, five seasons into his tenure, only Kelvin Sheppard and Perry Riley have grown into NFL regulars (Kevin Minter is still unknown having only played one NFL season), with no pupils going in the 1st round (this is treating Barkevious Mingo as a DE, though he was drafted to play OLB).

The 2012 signing class featured an array of linebacker talent, many of whom were expected to quickly ascend the depth chart and formulate what would be the best LSU LB corps since... god knows when. Yet, in year three, only Kwon Alexander has seen regular playing time, while Trey Granier and Lorenzo Phillips have left the program and Debo Jones and Ronnie Feist have served backup roles.

At the end of the day, what this all equals is opportunity. In 2014, LSU returns D.J. Welter and Kwon Alexander as regulars (underwhelming as they could be at times), while the third LB spot remains in balance. Reports are that Kendell Beckwith will make a full-time transition to LB and every LSU fan will hope that Debo Jones is ability to translate his fantastic athletic ability into more disciplined and quality LB play.Yet, there's jobs to be won. Kwon is likely the only player with a death grip on his starting spot, so it's not out of the realm of possibility that the 2014 LSU defense features Kwon and a pair of under class men as your best three LBs.

So, for the 2014 signing class, there is opportunity to play early. Who could potentially man those spots? Let's check them out below:

Commits

Clifton Garrett

Rivals: #60 Nationally, #3 ILB
ESPN: #31 Nationally, #2 ILB
247: #31 Nationally, #4 OLB
Scout: #24 Nationally, #1 MLB

After months of anticipation, Garrett pledged to the Tigers in December. It was as close to a public secret as could be imagined, which Garrett openly admitted in post commitment interviews. The 6'2", 228 LB became enamored with LSU at the Spring Game in 2013 and never seriously considered any other school, despite taking a few visits.

After LSU's strong LB haul of 2012, the addition of Kendell Beckwith, Duke Riley and Melvin Jones (maybe) in 2013, and the departure of only one senior LB, the linebacking corps wasn't an area that needed immediate addressing from a numbers perspective. Yet, sans Kwon Alexader, it's a group lacking proven play makers, and one we expected to lead the LSU defense in 2013, only to be disappointed.

For those reasons, there's opportunity for Garrett. A U.S. Army All-American, Garrett's got the size and skill set that could lead to immediate playing time.

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Garrett's got an all around skill set at the LB position, which should give him the opportunity to play all three LB spots in the Chavis defense. If I had to pick a singular trait that stands out about his play, it's his elite instincts. Garrett's got a great feel for the game, both against the run and the pass. While there's not a ton of footage available with him dropping into coverage, he seems to "get it" back there. Naturally, as a LB, his hips are a little tight and doesn't look all that natural in his drops, but this is an area of the game that can be improved. Even if he's never able to become an elite coverage LB (few are), his instincts should make him a threat for the occasional INT.

When Garrett hits you, you stop. As a downhill player, he's as good as you'll find in this class. He can track down ball carriers sideline to sideline, but he's not a pure speed merchant. Garrett looks comfortable sorting through the trash and locating the ball carrier even among a mountain of bodies. For that reason, he could project to the middle. He's advanced for a LB at taking on blockers as well. Does an excellent job of using his hands to shuck blockers and disengage. All in all the total package means he's probably the best pure LB LSU has landed in the past decade, though I'd rank him behind Alexander and Beckwith in terms of raw athleticism.

Donnie Alexander

Rivals: NR Nationally, #22 OLB
ESPN: #261 Nationally, #19 OLB
247: NR Nationally, #31 OLB
Scout: NR Nationally, #66 OLB

Alexander committed without much fanfare in February of '13, and I'm guessing if you asked even knowledgeable LSU fans to rattle off the 2014 recruiting class, Alexander is a name that'd oft be left off. "Black Mamba" is a prime example of a player that knew where he wanted to go to school, made his decision and didn't invest much time into the rest of the process. Just look at his 247 timeline, he never visited another school and didn't waste energy on traveling to camps and events to perform in front of recruiting industry evaluators in hopes of a rankings boost.

As our commitment piece cited, former Karr coach Jabbar Juluke stated that Alexander could be the best of the Karr recruits, which includes 5-star Speedy Noil and 5-star Gerald Willis, who both spurned LSU for SEC rivals. The fact that Juluke made that statement in October of 2012, four months before Alexander would ever commit, makes me inclined to believe it wasn't just a kind sound bite.

Alexander is the type of LB prospect we've seen Chavis target throughout his career. He's not the biggest, but he's a fluid athlete that can run. He's an explosive player, as you can tell from the very first highlight on his reel. He excels as a blitzer, showing a natural feel for timing the snap and using his speed to create pressure. Super, super impressed with how fluid he moves. He may not be the biggest LB, but watching the tape at times he looks like a S prospect with his ability to turn and run in coverage.

If you're looking for a Tyrann Mathieu in this class, I think Alexander might be it. He's a bit of a Swiss Army knife of a linebacker, looking equally adept at stepping up and stopping the run, dropping back and covering a TE or blitzing off the edge and wreaking havoc. In a lot of ways, he reminds of prototypical 4-3, Cover 2 MLBs that are asked to open their hips and take away the middle of the field. I think he can bring that to LSU, though he'll certainly play on the outside. He needs to be more consistent with his tackling form, but when he explodes from the hip, the impact is there.

At the time he committed, I think many believed his offer was a byproduct of trying to lure Speedy Noil and Gerald Willis, but Alexander is an outstanding prospect in his own right.

Remaining Targets

Kenny Young

Rivals: #95 Nationally, #5 OLB
ESPN: NR Nationally, #16 ILB
247: #222 Nationally, #8 ILB
Scout: #150 Nationally, #7 MLB

HS teammate of receiver target Malachi Dupre, Young lead a defense that captured three consecutive state championships at John Curtis Christian High School. Young claimed the Outstanding Player award in the State Championship, and was elected a U.S. Army All-American. He played for the West Squad, along with Clifton Garrett, and garnered praise early, making 247 Top Performers' list. His former HS teammate, Duke Riley, committed to LSU last year and saw early reps at Special Teams as a true freshman. From my understanding, Duke is also one of the top recruit hosts on visit weekends.

At 6'2", 220 pounds he's got the size and frame, much like Clifton Garrett, to play all three LB spots. There's no YouTube clips of Kenny, but you can view his Senior highlights on HUDL, here.

I think what most stands out about Young is his closing speed. When the guy winds up in downhill pursuit of a a ball carrier, he swallows them up and puts them down. He's got speed to play sideline to sideline. He's a strong tackler capable of dealing the occasional monster blow. He doesn't look all that natural dropping back into coverage, at times even stiff and awkward, but there are a couple of pass breakups and a nice interception on the reel. Overall, I think he may profile best to the middle, as a player like Kevin Minter, who really excelled playing downhill. He's very aggressive and trusts his eyes... not the type of player that gets caught "thinking" a lot. He also frequently shifts around his defensive tackles and seems to be making the calls for the defense. He's a well-coached player. He's not as widely built as Garrett, nor as seamlessly athletic as Alexander, but he looks every bit the part of a top notch SEC LB.

As for his recruitment, it's been a bit strange. From the LSU side, there was never as much talk as we heard on the other local prospects, including his own teammate, Dupre. Every Crystal Ball pick through August went to LSU, then slowly A&M and now UCLA have crept into the picture. The current trend is UCLA, including the last nine picks, four which switched from LSU. Shea Dixon changed his pick from LSU to UCLA and Sonny Shipp simply removed his LSU pick.

Young visited LSU on Monday, January 27th. LSU reportedly canceled the visited of Texas LB Otaro Alaka for the weekend of January 24th and notified his coach that they were full at LB. Does that mean they are feeling more confident on Young? Or simply a sign that they believe other spots will be filled by an unexpected prospect or two? It's really hard to know at this point. There's been little said about his visit thus far, but Young himself did have this to say:

What to Watch For on Signing Day

Garrett and Alexander are all LSU so there's nothing to see there. Eyes will be centered on Kenny Young. On the one hand, you'd hate for LSU to lose yet another highly ranked in-state talent. But Young would be a loss more easily absorbed due to the large number of LBs recruited in the previous two classes. Young's announcement will be the only to keep an eye on.

The Future

The LSU LB core in the immediate future is perhaps only less settled than the WR group. LSU returns starters in Kwon Alexander and D.J. Welter. In the case of the former, he's arguably the defense's best player, and there's little chance he's unseated. As for Welter, while he improved over the course of the season, he's hardly a player that's irreplaceable, unless he makes a huge step forward in the spring and summer. Beckwith is reportedly making the full-time move to LB, and assuming he puts it together mentally, you'd think his considerable abilities would make him an early favorite for the third spot. Lamar Louis and Debo Jones should also see playing time, as they did in spots in 2013. Lorenzo Phillips saw some sparse time in 2013, but his academic issues mean he won't be on the 2014 roster. Beyond that, Duke Riley, Ronnie Feist and Melvin Jones (maybe) will fill out the depth chart.

I suspect Clifton Garrett will work his way into playing time at some point in 2014. Donnie Alexander should likely RS and add some bulk, but he'll be in the mix as early as 2015. Adding Kenny Young to the mix would only give LSU more depth and versatility. It's been some time, but over these past three recruiting classes, we've built up a stock hold of LB talent that's as deep and as talented as any in recent memory.

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