Actually, training camp kind of sucks for actual football players, but the upside is it means the season's getting close. Which means it's time for some positional previews for the Tigers. We got the band back together for a series of roundtables where we talk about what we like, what we love, and what we're worried about for the 2011 season.
Projected Depth Chart:
SAM (strongside linebacker):
23 Senior Stefoin Francois - 6'1, 223
58 Sophomore Tahj Jones - 6'2, 205
39 Sophomore Josh Johns - 6'2, 206
MIKE (middle linebacker):
46 Sophomore Kevin Minter - 6'2, 242
37 Senior Karnell Hatcher - 6'2, 227
31 Freshman D.J. Welter - 6'0, 226
WILL (weakside linebacker):
22 Senior Ryan Baker - 6'0, 236
57 Sophomore Lamin Barrow - 6'2, 229
52 Sophomore Luke Muncie - 6'3, 220
Billy: On to one of the potential concerns on the defense, the linebacking corps. Personally, this is one of my main areas of concern on the team. Replacing somebody like Kelvin Sheppard is no easy feat, and the new guys won't have very long to get up to speed. Ryan Baker flashed some great big play potential last year, but he also struggled at times as well. And he's going to be joined by a pair of converted safeties (Karnell Hatcher and Stefoin Francois) and a bunch of newbies. So should we be worried?
Paul: There are a few reasons I remain generally unconcerned. One, the guy we have coaching LBs is pretty special. He seems to know what he's doing out there. Seriously though, John Chavis' track record for spotting and developing linebackers is 2nd to none, so that gives me confidence. Additionally, we're returning Ryan Baker, so it's not as if we're completely green at the position. Losing Sheppard does hurt, but I think we'll be okay talent wise.
Secondly, and this is a broader point regarding football in general... how important is linebacker play really? I'm speaking specifically of the 4-3 here, because linebackers are essentially defensive ends in the 3-4. But has a LB core ever really been a game changing force for a team? To me, LBs have the least influence of maybe any position in all of football -- in fact, the entirety of their game is almost dependent upon others. For years I've watched the Eagles trot out excellent defenses and other than Jeremiah Trotter, who was above average to good at best, you couldn't pick their starting linebackers out of a lineup. Ditto for LSU. Sheppard got a good bit of attention, but none of the other guys have been anything special... yet we've still managed to field consistently good defenses except for the year of which we will not speak.
Billy: I have to disagree here -- linebacker play played a major role in both of LSU's losses last year, and at times teams really targeted that unit. Whether it was in coverage or with a misdirection running game, you could see other offensive coordinators saw that as a point to attack. Baker in particular was pretty brutal in coverage, and as much of an asset as his aggression was in the blitz game, it was also a liability that teams like Ole Miss and Arkansas took advantage of. Brandon Bolden's long run early in that game was a prime example. And you can bet Oregon's aware of that.
Yeah, last year's defense was still very good, but if LSU's run defense is going to be a little more consistent that's going to have to come from the linebackers.
Paul: I actually feel like poor line play dictated those losses, both offensive and defensive more than the LBs.
It's just my opinion, but there are very few "game-changing" linebackers, and not because of lack of talent (I'm talking broadly about the position). It's a position that is really hard to "take over" the game from. At CB, a guy like Peterson can change the dynamic of your whole defense. At DE, a Montgomery can do the same. Even a safety like Landry was so dynamic he altered the way teams played. You rarely see that with LBs in the 4-3. Even if you look at the '07 squad... you had an experienced vet (Ali Highsmith) with a younger, talented but unproven guy (Perry Riley) and some wishy-washy vets (Darry Beckwith/Luke Sanders). I can't remember Auburn having any standouts last year. Florida had Brandon Spikes and a couple of nobodies.
I think it's a position you can get away with having lesser players at without it being an egregious flaw.
Billy: But one that can be taken advantage of by the right teams. For the 2007 squad, the Arkansas game's a great example of that. Bringing that one up gives me chest pains.
Poseur: If Paul is fire, and Billy is ice, let me be tepid water.
I can't agree that linebackers aren't that important, because poor linebacker play can be pretty clearly detrimental to the team. That said, the reason teams run a 4-3 is to stress the defensive line over the linebackers. It's not something inherent in the position, but in LSU's system.
Paul spent a good bit of time last year pointing out that Sheppard wasn't that spectacular of a player, but a beneficiary of a system that funneled tackles to him. And I largely agree with that, and see no reason why Karnell Hatcher can't perform the same role in the middle of our defense this year. Baker fills the "leadership void", which is not insignificant. Shep was the heart of our team, and we will miss that. But leaders usually emerge.
I do think LSU has a pretty impressive starting unit. Baker made a ton of tackles last year and had plenty of big plays. Hatcher and Francois have both shown they can make plays. I'm not worried about a unit that returns "two and a half" starters (Hatcher's position change -- he was a starter, but not as a LB). The depth, though?
There are a whole lot of question marks if anyone, especially Baker, goes down with an injury. Can Lamin Barrow carry the load? I think our linebackers could be great, but they also could be the weakness of the team. It's really a unit that could go either way, and we're just banking on Chavis' track record and the fact the starters have played a lot of minutes.
Billy: The benefit of having John Chavis around is something we can all agree on. The guy can flat-out coach linebackers. That being said, what's one thing about this group that you do like?
Poseur: I'll give you two -- speed and experience. The great thing is that these are the two things you can't teach. While I have huge concerns about our depth, the starting three should inspire confidence. All three started last season, though Hatcher was a safety. And three have speed to burn, which you desperately need in the SEC. ESS EEE SEE speed is a running joke, but there's a lot of truth to the joke. You absolutely have to have speed out there, or you're gonna get run over. This defense has lots of it.
Paul: I think Hatcher in a position that suits him will go from liability to asset. I'm more worried about Francois, but apparently Tahj Jones has bulked up and impressed so far. Wouldn't shock me if he unseated him.
Like Poseur said, speed. And depth wise, I believe all 6 of our guys in the 2 deep have played in live games. That lessens the culture shock of starting.
Billy: Agree on the speed part -- and if he can do a better job of harnessing that speed on a consistent basis, I think Baker can be special. He's one of the best blitzing linebackers LSU's had in some time.
So, sum this unit up in song gentlemen? I'll go with Helter Skelter.
Paul: Seek and Destroy.
Poseur: I think the unit is underrated, so I wanted an underrated act. Chavis will always have good linebackers, so I've decided not to worry. So I chose Talib Kweli's Back Again. Because our LB unit is back to being a strength.