*Ed. Note: Saturday, I will be marrying a singularly wonderful woman, and will be spending the first week of spring practice on the sunny beaches of Cancun, Mexico. I look forward to hearing glowing reports of the offense while the Humanoids gripe about how Zach Mettenberger is already gettin' held down by the man. Yes, Les Miles is the man in this metaphor. I leave the special teams preview to my compatriots. Hopefully there will be a coach hired soon.
Once again LSU's defensive backfield is expected to be an overwhelming team strength - a scary thought when you look back at the defensive line talent.
Ron Cooper has turned around this unit dramatically in two seasons, with top-30 pass defenses in terms of yardage and passer rating in both. And just three seniors return to the 12-man outfit in 2010.
13 Senior Ron Brooks - 6'0, 180: 33 tackles, 6 TFLs (2 sacks), 4 passes defended (1 interception) and 1 forced fumble.
17 Junior Morris Claiborne - 6'0, 180: 37 tackles, 11 passes defended (5 interceptions), 1 TFL and 1 fumble recovery.
35 Junior Ryan St. Julien - 6'1, 185: 7 tackles and 1 fumble recovery.
7 Sophomore Tyrann Mathieu - 5'9, 180: 57 tackles, 8.5 TFLs (4.5 sacks), 9 passes defended (2 interceptions), 5 forced fumbles and 3 recoveries.
24 Sophomore Tharold Simon - 6'3, 190: 9 tackles, 4 passes defended and 1 interception in 8 games.
Brooks is the lone senior at corner, and after bouncing around from receiver to safety, he finally found a solid role for himself last season on special teams and in the John Chavis' "Mustang" blitz package. Brooks excelled teaming with Tyrann Mathieu in the dime/nickel positions, both attacking defenses from the edge and handling the flat area in zone coverage. He'll have an outside shot at taking the other starting corner spot across from Morris Claiborne, but that'll largely depend on the development of Mathieu and Tharold Simon as well.
Speaking of Claiborne, he's certainly proven to be the diamond on the rough. He was something of a throw-in recruit, but he translated his impressive combine numbers to the field very quickly and proved he was too athletic to keep off the field. In his first season as a starter he was a solid compliment to Patrick Peterson. He's not a "shut-down" corner, but he's a very good one that can run with any receiver and will take advantage of poorly thrown passes. Classmate Ryan St. Julien didn't see the field much outside of special teams, and may be an attrition candidate.
Amazing to think that Tyrann Mathieu is already the headliner of this secondary. Heck he's probably the headliner of the defense in general. I mean look at what he did as a true freshman.
Mathieu made a name for himself on the camp circuit before his senior year at St. Aug in New Orleans, and while he wasn't as well-regarded as some other prospects due to his size, several recruiting analysts considered him the best pure man-to-man coverage prospect. But he proved to be a lot more than that. He's an instinctive athlete with a nose for the football, remarkable hand-eye coordination (see his strip/fumble recoveries versus Florida and Texas A&M, and both of his interceptions) and fantastic tackling technique. And as evidenced by his tackle-for-loss numbers, he proved a dangerous weapon as an edge blitzer in the defense's sub packages.
And that creates something of a conundrum for the defensive staff (one that's already getting a lot of message board discussion). Should Mathieu move into one of the outside corner starting roles, or remain in the slot position that he excelled at? I see both sides to the argument. Mathieu is still 5'9 (if not shorter), and did get picked on by veteran receivers at times (he was noticeably burnt on a double-move touchdown against Arkansas). And sometimes when you find a player that fits a certain role well, you're better off letting him do what he does well. But at the same time, Mathieu is clearly one of the top four defensive backs on this team, and you don't make the defense better by taking him off the field. As he learns more about techniques, receiver tendencies and film study he can cover for that lack of size. Hell, if he anticipated a few short routes a hair faster there was at least two potential pick-sixes in that highlight film.
Simon is one of the more intriguing members of the secondary. He was considered an extremely raw athlete coming out of Eunice High School, with potential positions including safety, receiver or maybe even tight end or linebacker if he grew enough. There was a lot of talk that Chavis and Cooper thought he could play corner, but most figured that was unlikely for a player with his size. There were some growing pains early (getting burned for a 97-yard touchdown in the opener), but Simon really came on in the final few games. He stepped in against Alabama and broke up a pass, and he had probably the easiest interception of his career against Texas A&M. With his size, he gives you a great match-up answer to bigger receivers, similar to Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick. What remains to be seen is if he has the hips to be a great man-to-man player or if he's better off dropping into zone coverage.
15 Senior Brandon Taylor - 6'0, 195: 44 tackles, 5 passes defended, 4 TFLs and 1 fumble recovery in 9 games.
36 Senior Derrick Bryant - 5'11, 199: 10 tackles, 1 pass defended and 1 forced fumble.
6 Sophomore Craig Loston - 6'2, 200: 22 tackles, 3 passes defended (1 interception) and 1 TFL.
1 Sophomore Eric Reid - 6'2, 210: 32 tackles, 3 passes defended (2 interceptions) and 1.5 TFLs.
40 Sophomore Rocky Duplessis - 6'1, 200: 4 tackles in 5 games.
28 Freshman Ronnie Vinson - 5'11, 190: 2 tackles in 3 games, applied for medical redshirt.
29 Freshman Sam Gibson - 6'1, 205: redshirted in 2010.
Brandon Taylor returns as the dean - not just of the secondary but of the defense in general. He's not the flashiest guy on the field, and truthfully he's not even going to make a ton of plays. But he's always in position, keeps the rest of the defensive backs in theirs and won't get burned too often. It's no coincidence that the secondary started having coverage busts once Taylor suffered a leg injury versus Bama. The exact nature of the injury was never disclosed, but he appears to be full speed entering the spring and look for him to keep the starting strong safety job, even if some of the younger talents rotate in.
The free safety position will be an interesting battle. The two spots are somewhat interchangeable in Chavis' defense, so don't be surprised if Eric Reid and Craig Loston both rotate in. Reid fits the strong safety profile a little more...
And at one time I actually thought he might even grow into a linebacker, but he picked up the defense very quickly and did a solid job once asked to start. He has the ability to be a better version of Taylor -- a physical tackler with the athletic ability to take away tight ends and slot receivers. Both of his big interceptions came from the "robber" middle zone position, jumping in front of receivers on crossing routes.
Craig Loston has been one of the more sought-after players on the team. Everybody wants to see him on the field. Between his impressive high school highlights, his No. 1 ranking in the 2009 safety class and a handful of highlight hits on special teams (underlined for emphasis, because crushing a block on a kick-off return does not make you a great safety) last year, everybody wants him on the field while ignoring why Chavis has kept him off it. Loston is probably the most athletic safety on the team, but his mental game hasn't always been there. And despite the occasional platitude from some Humanoid about how he's "clearly the best safety on the team," he still has some growing up to do. Everybody remembers Karnell Hatcher's major mistakes from last season, but Loston's tend to be forgotten. The interception he dropped against Tennessee would have ended that game before all the last-minute hysterics. He failed to play the ball on a quarterback-throwback play against Ole Miss (that could have resulted in an easy touchdown return), and got sucked in on as many play-action fakes as anybody. That being said, nobody dispute's the guy's talent. He has the size to be a great tackler and the athletic ability to handle center-field. The only question is when will he maximize it?
Derrick Bryant doesn't see the field much on defense, but he was a valuable special teams player at times last season. Ronnie Vinson saw some time early before sitting back down for a redshirt, but look for him to find a lot of time on special teams. Sam Gibson is an intriguing athlete and an ex-quarterback, but he may have some ahead of him to contribute. Don't be surprised if Rocky Duplessis is an attrition candidate.
Conclusions: This is easily the most luxurious area of the team, and that's saying something. Up to seven guys are capable of starting at any of the secondary positions: Taylor, Reid, Loston, Mathieu, Claiborne, Brooks and Simon. And that luxury means they'll all get plenty of playing time. Last year five safeties saw the field - and while that number will drop this year, it means that regardless of nominal starters, Taylor, Reid and Loston will all be on the field a lot. The coaches also have the luxury of a heavy cornerback rotation. Claiborne is probably the closest thing to a No. 1 guy, but T-Rex Mathieu, Simon and even Brooks can play on the other side. The should-Mathieu-move-outside-or-stay-in-the-slot question has a situational answer as well. At certain times against certain teams you can use him outside, and slide him inside with the dime personnel to cover the flats and blitz. If the other team has bigger receivers, Simon can rotate into base sets more often. It gives you the luxury of keeping one of your best cover men on the field as often as possible without him losing the role he was so impactful in last year. Brooks will most likely remain in his sub-package role, and occasionally rotate in to relieve one of the regulars.