Entering the season, if there was any one position of uncertainty for the 2011 squad, it was linebacker. Sure, there was Ryan Baker, but after that it was a wash of inexperience. Karnell Hatcher made the transition from safety (probably two years too late) and youngsters Jones, Kevin Minter, Lamin Barrow, Luke Muncie, et. al. were expected to hold up the rest of the rotation, along with uninspiring returning veteran, Stefoin Francois. Needless to say, not a lot to get excited about.
Every player has their fair share of flaws. Minter is more or less a downhill attacking LB without great speed sideline-to-sideline and limited coverage ability (which we've seen repeatedly this year). Hatcher is smallish and can't take on blockers. His coverage is merely okay, so he doesn't really compensate for it either. Barrow is reckless and often out of position, though he may be the most physically gifted of any of them. Muncie, well, we haven't seen much of. Francois never really stands out on tape, which I guess is both a good and bad thing.
And then we have Tahj Jones. Jones came to LSU thinner than a wet noodle. Turn on the tape and you can see what caught Chavis' eye: the kid can really run. But, he was/is tiny. Now midway into his third season, after seeing spare playing time last year, it appears Jones may be pushing for more and more time in this defense.
As I mentioned above, none of the other linebackers (sans Baker) have exactly inspired confidence. Minter had a very nice game against Florida, but responded with just one tackle vs. Tennessee. That's not encouraging, as downhill, N/S, I-Form offenses should be where his game excels. Nevertheless Minter is a MLB, so Tahj Jones' playing time should have little to nothing to do with where and how Minter factors in going forward.
At the SAM, Francois has been our "guy." You probably haven't noticed him, much. Why? Well, the primary reason is that he isn't on the field a whole lot. Baker plays just about every snap, regardless of defensive alignment. Hatcher/Minter are splitting the other duties, and Francois takes a seat on the bench when we go into Mustang packages (which we do, a lot). The secondary reason is that, well, he hasn't done a whole lot. In fact, he has only 5 tackles all year. Tahj Jones has 13.
Further, Miles went out of his way to mention Jones in his presser this week, saying he likes the way he's played. Is that a sign that Jones has taken over the SAM position permanently? I wouldn't be so sure. Miles is usually pretty coy in the way he talks about players. You usually must take what he says with a grain of salt.
So the question then becomes, is Jones and upgrade over Francois (even if he will only be on the field for limited snaps)? What does he bring to the table as a player?
Well, as previously mentioned, Jones possesses great natural speed. It would seem to hold true for Francois, but that hasn't ever seemed to transfer onto the field for the former U.S. Army All-American. Jones likely showed up at LSU weighing between 180-185 pounds. The roster lists him at 205, but he still looks rather thin, and certainly not 6'2, 205. For comparison's sake, Jarrett Lee is listed at 6'2, 206, and he looks noticeably thicker to me.
To me, that makes him a natural fit for playing against a team like Auburn, who will likely try and spread us out. But should we but putting another smallish player on the field for when we matchup with a team like Alabama? Well, that depends. Size isn't everything, to be clear. And it's not as if Francois gives us some huge size advantage over Jones. Like linemen, a LB's game is mostly leverage based. Big hits and sideline-to-sideline speed get a lot of the publicity, but most of the best linebackers have the ability to fight through blocks to make plays. Can Tahj use his speed and leverage to undercut big physical linemen and make plays in the running game? Let's hope so. It doesn't take all size and strength to beat a blocker. Tyrann Mathieu frequently beats blocks, using his quickness and craftiness to move around defenders and make plays.
Speaking of Mathieu, this is one reason we won't be seeing a ton of Jones going forward. LSU typically plays it's best defense out of those Mustang packages. Sure, the sacks and turnovers created from pressures get the most credit, but it's proven to be an effective run stopper as well. Why? Well, partially because we have our best 11 on the field, typically. Part of what makes Mathieu a truly elite player is that he is not afraid to stick his nose in there and make tackles on running backs. In this way, he is essentially a de factor LB, with tremendous coverage skills.
People keep trying to talk about making our fronts "bigger" so we can take on a smashmouth team like Alabama, but I'm not certain that's the best idea. I'll take my chances with our best 11 before I simply try to work a "bigger player" onto the field.
Back to Jones. Yes, I do believe he may have snatched the SAM job from Francois' grasp. How productive will he be? Who knows. But considering our LBs have lacked production most of the season, it certainly can't hurt to try out some fresh blood. It's not as if Francois has only had six games under his belt to get comfortable. This guy has started for a season and a half now and has yet to make any noticeable impact upon the defense. One final note, Francois went down early in the WVU game last season and (a smaller, lighter) Jones filled his spot for the rest of the game. Jones played quite well that night, in some of his first action. Let's hope that's a sign of great things to come.