For all the optimism I have towards LSU's offense entering these spring practices, I'm aware of the idea that there's more than likely going to be a step back from 2013. As I explained in the offense preview piece, regression -- to some degree -- with all of those personnel losses is an incredibly fair expectation. We'll just have to find out what that means.
In a lot of ways, it's kind of a similar situation to what LSU's defense went through last season. The Tigers allowed 340 yards per game and 5.08 yards per play. Both figures were the highest the Tigers have allowed since John Chavis became defensive coordinator here, and for a large part of the season fans spoke of the unit with words like "horrible," "terrible" and "disaster."
It finished 15th in the country in total defense. As in 15 out of 125 FBS programs. Relativity, y'all.
Now, that said, 2013 was the first LSU unit to finish:
- Out of the top 10 in total defense since 2010;
- Out of the top 25 in yards-per-play since 2008;
- Out of the top 10 in Brian Fremeau's FEI ratings since 2009;
- And Out of the top 10 in Bill Connelly's defensive S&P ratings since 2010.
It was hardly a unit to be proud of. Huge drop-offs came in the big-play areas were the biggest culprits. Sacks, tackles-for-loss, interceptions and fumble-recovery rates all dropped to a five-year low. The lack in big plays contributed to a defense that couldn't get teams off the field (opponents' third-down conversion rate was at a seven-year high, per CFBstats.com). In a year where the SEC had maybe its greatest assemblage of quarterback talent ever, that led the worst unit of the Chavis Era.
Facing massive personnel losses, LSU had to work in not only a lot of new starters, but a ton of young contributors at every level. But rather than the youth that proved to be the letdown, it was the veterans of the unit that struggled, particularly up the middle. Defensive tackle, linebacker and safety all proved problematic at times, and through the first three quarters of the season LSU allowed 400-plus yards or 25-plus points four times each.
But come November, the younger players began to settle in to their increased roles and improvement came. The Tigers held Texas A&M, the league's best offense, to its lowest point and yardage totals by far in a 34-10 win (Johnny Football may have left College Station with a ton of records, but that includes an 0-2 mark and all of 1 career touchdown versus LSU). And in the bowl game, they managed to just 233 yards and 3.48 yards per play (yes, the Hawkeyes were no great shakes on offense, but neither were teams like Mississippi State and Arkansas).
Seven starters return from that Outback Bowl starting lineup, at least two at every level of the defense. There are question marks to be sure, particularly in that soft middle I talked about, but much like the offense with the offensive line as a starting point, the Tigers have a potentially great secondary to build around.
Sophomore cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre'davious White took their lumps as newbies, but got better as the year went on and closed on strong notes. Robinson in particular has some rock-star potential. As a late qualifier he only joined the team a week before the season opener and missed all of training camp. He still was on the field within the season's first month, and was starting by the halfway point. Down the stretch, he owned one of the nation's best wide receivers, pushing around Texas A&M's Mike Evans and holding him to just four catches for 58 yards. Joining them will be junior Jalen Mills. The former freshman All-American corner seemed lost at times with some new teammates in 2013, but really flourished with a late-season move to safety. He's also one of the defense's emotional leaders and will be the odds-on favorite to don the No. 18 in 2014.
That group will be joined by Ricky Jefferson, who came on strong with the rest in November, and stud recruit Ed Paris. Corey Thompson and Ronald Martin will be recovering from injury, so the other safety spot should be wide open.
In the heart of the defense, linebacker was a pretty big letdown from our preseason expectations. Veterans like Lamin Barrow and D.J. Welter really struggled versus the run and pass. Kwon Alexander took a little while to come around, but he helped pace the defense down the stretch, and the lightbulb seemed to come on in the bowl game. The job he did in coverage on Iowa's slot receivers and flexed tight ends allowed Chavis to use the base 4-3 defense versus the run without having to use the lighter nickel or mustang packages. He could be in for a breakout year. Welter returns, along with two very interesting X-factors in Debo Jones and Kendell Beckwith. And of course there's the anticipated arrival of Clifton Garrett in the summer.
The defensive line, without a doubt, is the biggest question mark area. It was arguably the source of most of the unit's problems, with the defensive tackle combo of Anthony Johnson & Ego Ferguson underachieving while the ends failed to get much of a consistent pass rush. Junior-to-be Danielle Hunter was a bright spot, but was often the only lineman drawing extra attention. Senior Jermauria Rasco is back on the other side, but was incredibly inconsistent. Youth will be served in the middle with some combination of Christian LaCouture, Quentin Thomas, Frank Herron, Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain filling out the depth chart until the freshman arrive. Tashawn Bower, Lewis Neal and senior Jordan Allen make up the rest of the end group. There's talent here, enough that it's hard to believe a solid rotation won't develop. At a minimum, it's hard to see this group getting worse.
And that's where the rubber will meet the road here, ultimately. If the defensive line can come on strong (and there's precedent for that happening -- see 2009/10), with a potentially outstanding secondary, this unit could rebound back to form easily. Spring practice will begin to tell the tail.