Competent but not dominant.
That's the easiest way to describe the 2013 LSU defense. It's a unit that flashed bright, such as it's suffocating performance against Johnny Football and Texas A&M. But it also flashed ugly, such as the 45-point, 500-yard performance in Athens. Most of the rest tilted somewhere between those two extremes, suitable enough to find LSU with 10 wins yet again. Yet, it's not a unit anyone would be tricked into believing in dominance.
As the 2014 season approaches, one of the major question marks will be how can LSU shore up it's run defense. The Tigers ranked 40th in Rushing S&P+, hardly a horrible output, but the teams that found the most success all were able to run the football on them: Georgia (196 yards, 5.4 per carry), Ole Miss (176 yards, 4.1 YPC), Alabama (193 yards, 4.6 YPC), Auburn (213 yards, 4.1 YPC), Mississippi State (216 yards, 6.0 YPC) and Arkansas (182 yards, 5.4 YPC). These were much worse performances than the 143 YPG and 3.93 YPC the final stats would lead one to believe. Three of these teams were able to beat LSU while the other three proved the next toughest challengers (well, excluding the entire 2nd half in Starkvegas). LSU did conclude with a dominant performance vs. the run against Iowa, limiting them to just 76 yards on 37 carries. That said, Iowa's run game ranked 69th in Rushing S&P+, so hardly a dominant unit.
For the Tigers to take a step forward on defense in 2014, major emphasis will need to be placed on strengthening their defense against the ground game. How can they make this happen?
1) Get Deeper
LSU's defense suffered at times in 2013, particularly on the defensive line, due to the inability to throw defenders at opponents in waves. It's a recipe for success that's proven brilliant for Chavis since his arrival, often rotating eight or even nine defensive lineman to keep bodies fresh. In 2013 that number dwindled to seven-ish, two of which were defensive tackles who had never played. There were other players that played very small roles, but the staff clearly only felt comfortable rotating their top seven (Hunter, Rasco, Ego, Freak, Allen, Thomas, LaCouture). Even within that, Thomas/LaCouture played demonstrably fewer snaps than we've become accustomed to seeing from the Chavis scheme.
It's no big secret that Anthony Johnson never had the best conditioning, so while he was capable of the explosive play, he also wore out over the course of games. Ego Ferguson battled, and often took on double teams, but he, too, wore down. The result was a defensive line that's formerly pinning back its ears and pounding the ground in the fourth quarter, begging for more, now sucking air trying to recover. Chavis already noted he will likely rotate up to six tackles this season. That's a marked difference from last season.
LSU doesn't presently have the benefit of featuring a man-eating run-stuffer like Michael Brockers in the middle. Brockers was the quiet engine that allowed the entire 2011 unit to run. So the best counter is to throw bodies at the opposing offense. Keep legs fresh.
2) Get Bigger and Stronger
It's well known that Chavis prefers leaner, faster defenders. It's part of the trade secret that allows our team to excel against tempo offenses and spread looks. We combat speed with speed. But it's a misnomer that LSU has entirely sacrificed size for this aim. Sure, players like Barkevious Mingo and Danielle Hunter are thinner, more athletic players on the edge, but they are often supported by a bevy of 300+ pounders. Chip Kelly makes big noise about "bigger people beat up little people" and he's also taken to drafting a handful of LSU players, as well as taken a first-hand beating from some of LSU's big guys. The unique thing about what we do is that we are both big AND fast.
Yet, last year, LSU suffered from not being big and strong enough in the front seven. LSU's entire front seven struggled to win battles up front, often being physically overmatched and easily blocked up in the run game. It's not that LSU needs to go the route of Alabama and beef everyone up to the point of sacrificing speed, something they are in the process of doing. We've practiced the same lighter, faster, meaner philosophy before and found great success.
Enter, Tommy Moffitt's offseason plan. Take a look and some of the transformations of the current roster. Quoting 247:
Rashard Robinson was light in the pants as a true freshman at 6-foot-1, 163 pounds. He hit a nice growth spurt and is filling out nicely at 6-foot-3, 177 pounds.
Danielle Hunter looks even more impressive than he did in the spring. He looks a little bigger but came into fall camp one pound lighter than he played at last season at 6-foot-6, 240 pounds.
His work ethic was in question as a true freshman when Greg Gilmore was 6-foot-4, 311 pounds. Sources talked up Gilmore’s work in the summer and he looks more put together at 6-foot-5, 305 pounds.
Tashawn Bower wanted to be quicker off the edge and after playing his freshman season at 6-foot-5, 243 pounds he is now weighing six pounds lighter.
A redshirt year paid a lot of dividends for Michael Patterson as he is up to 231 pounds at 6-foot-3 – a 16 pound gain in 12 months.
Lewis Neal carried 238 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame as a true freshman last August. He’s now carrying 255 pounds from his defensive end spot.
Brick Haley is counting on his three redshirt freshman defensive tackles from the 2013 class and Maquedius Bain looks ready to play at 6-foot-4, 299 pounds and nine pounds lighter than last season.
Davon Godchaux played defensive end at Plaquemine but the plan all along was to move him inside. He has bulked up nicely and is listed at 6-foot-4, 298 pounds after starting his season last August at 275 pounds.
LSU needs to be more physical in the middle and D.J. Welter took steps to help with that. He looks bigger and stronger after gaining 10 pounds and getting up to 6-foot-1, 235 pounds.
John Chavis has challenged his linebackers to be more physical and most of them have added weight since last season. Kwon Alexander is nine pounds heavier at 6-foot-2, 227 pounds.
Deion Jones checked in at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds after playing last year at 208.
Speed is a big part of Lamar Louis’ game and it will be interesting to see if he still has that speed after adding 13 pounds to get up to 229 pounds at 5-foot-11.
Kendell Beckwith worked to keep the weight off and he lost a pound to get down to 245 pounds at 6-foot-2.
The biggest thing John Chavis wanted Duke Riley to do was get bigger and stronger. After weighing 208 pounds as a true freshman, Riley is now listed at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds.
Clifton Garrett told us he was weighing 230 pounds in early May. After being on campus for two months he is now listed at 6-foot-2, 242 pounds which is just two pounds lighter than Kendell Beckwith.
Tre’Davious White didn’t have the typical size that Corey Raymond likes in his corners when he was a young true freshman at 5-foot-11, 177 pounds. He looks the part now, though, at 191 pounds.
Ed Paris enrolled at LSU in the spring and has taken advantage of the extra time by adding 19 pounds to his 6-foot-1 frame to get up to 208.
What's the common theme here? Everyone got bigger. Everyone got stronger. But you need to see the pictures to see. These players aren't just maxing out as huge muscle heads. They added good, strong, lean muscle. The type of stuff that allows you to more easily push off blockers, get separation and make plays. It's not looking to sacrifice speed in the hopes of getting huge. This is getting the best of both worlds. Slender, athletic bodies with tremendous functional strength. That's the type of stuff that can win the run game.
3) Shed Blocks
One thing you'll quickly see is that LSU's defenders were blocked up far too often in 2013. Couple that with a hole at safety, players that often overran tackles or were blocked up themselves, and opponents found success. Let's take a look at some examples of specific players that will need to improve.
Danielle Hunter & Tre'Davious White
Hunter makes a pair of mistakes here. First, this is a simple zone play from the UGA line. Student body left, and every blocker is trying to reach across the face of the man occupying the nearest gap by taking a 45 degree step toward the direction the play is going. Hunter first comes up the field, but instead of working across his man's face and outside shoulder to control leverage and defeat the progress of the direction of the play, he instead falls inside. The best way to beat zone blocks is to always push the lineman back into the gap. Hunter mistakenly thought he was quick enough to slip inside the OT and make a play in the backfield, as you can see his initial punch is strong enough to rock the OT backward. However, the OT is able to get his right arm on the inside of his shoulder pads, which is always a great way to lose a battle. OT latches on and once Hunter recognizes he can't keep crashing, and that Gurley is beginning to cut outside, he attempts to change direction, only to be fully latched on and trapped inside.
Hunter completely yields the edge on this play, which allows Gurley to break outside for a nice 8-yard gain.
The other player to watch is Tre White at the top of the screen. The receiver starts into a route, aiming to get Tre moving backward, before engaging him in a block. Tre is easily outmatched, which enables Gurley to have a free pass to the sideline. It's worth noting that the Georgia game was Tre's first as a starter.
D.J. Welter, Kwon Alexander, Jermauria Rasco
This is just a very basic power run to the strongside of the formation. The center and left side of the line are simply reach blocking, while the right guard gets a chip on the nose tackle (Freak), before advancing to the second level to pick off a backer. The right tackle and tight end both kick out their men. What you see is every defender pretty soundly defeated, but I'll focus on the three major returners here. Firstly, Rasco is completely locked up by the RT. He cannot hold his ground and is pushed at least two yards out, which leaves a wide open hole for Marshall. Ditto for Kwon, who is unable to defeat the tight end's block. Ideally here, both would collapse that hole with solid leverage, giving Marshall less room to operate in. The third man to watch here is D.J. Welter. Welter identifies the action of the play pretty quickly, but rather than going to take on the blocker and stuffing the play inside, he tries to beat him with quickness. It simply doesn't work. Welter wipes himself out of the play, gives the RB a clear cut back lane and is completely blocked up by the right guard. He needs to learn to attack that blocker and push him back into the hole. One final note, it doesn't help either that Freak is completely unable to work across the center's face. Our tackles this season must improve in that regard. On the other hand, Ego does a nice job fighting through his double team and nearly makes the tackle to limit this to a 5-6 yard gain rather than a 13-yard one.
D.J. Welter, Danielle Hunter, DTs
This is a pretty basic lead play to the right. The two lead blockers are the h-back, who is put in motion pre-snap, and the pulling guard. The RT down blocks, chipping the tackle on his way to the second level. The action of the play is described pretty well by Dr. B at Shakin' in the Southland:
The G-block is just an outside trap by the playside guard, and is vicious against DEs who are wary of outside blockers. Therefore, its good to run against a 5-7 technique DE who has an OT head-up/inside and a TE on his outside shoulder. That DE will always be wary of what the TE is about to do to him, and its that waryness that opens him up to a trap from the inside. Once he sees the Tackle down-block, he's going to look to his left and prepare himself for the TE to down-block on him. In that split-second the OG should catch him and blindside him.
I can't see super clearly from the tape I have, but I believe Hunter is lined up exactly there, on the outside shoulder of the tackle, but inside the tight end. You can see that moment of hesitation when he reads the down-block from the tackle. He then takes on the pulling guard, absorbing the block pretty well, but also being eliminated from the play.
Anthony Johnson completely takes himself out of the play by over aggressively lunging into the backfield. You can see the h-back is a bit confused as to what to do, since Johnson was the man turned free for him to block and Johnson is so far in the backfield, the h-back really just kinda gets in the way and that's enough. He probably could have gone right up into the hole and hunted on the next level for somebody else, to the same result. Aggression is good, but taking yourself out of plays is not.
Welter is hesitant here. He takes one bunny hop forward, toward the action of the play, but the down-blocking right tackle is on him in a heart beat, and gets a block that springs Perkins another 3-4 yards. This is another example of how he needs to better attack the blocker and try to stuff the hole, even if it means sacrificing his tackle numbers.
I want to pause to give Yeldon proper credit, because this is some pretty nifty running in tight spaces. Yet, then again, this is something pretty much every quality back in the SEC does effectively. LSU doesn't beat a single block here. Not one. Every single guy is blocked up and then Barrow takes an inexplicably terrible angle and is left in the dust.
There are more examples I could pull, but this gives us a baseline understanding of the troubles that plagued the rush defense in 2013. Point one remains up in the air. Did we get deeper? Chavis says we'll play more DTs this season, but what about DE? We return three players with experience, and the group after that is questionable for various reasons. Point two, based on camp reports and pictures, appears to have come to fruition. As I noted, these guys really do look impressive.
Point three remains the biggest question mark. An underrated aspect to the games of both Sam Montgomery and Barkvious Mingo is that each was able to set the edge in the run game. Even Mingo, playing as light as he did, frequently was able to use leverage to stand up offensive tackles, or command double teams due to his quickness. This allows backers to flow to the ball and make tackles. Neither Rasco nor Hunter stood up to that task in 2013. Both were far too easily blocked up in the running game, especially Hunter. If they don't make strides there, LSU could be in for another dose of 200-plus yard rushing performances by the opposition.
Further, the defensive tackle play left a lot to be desired. Freak had his moments as a playmaker, but seemed to become infatuated with that rather than maintaining discipline up front. His quick first step typically allowed him to get a jump on interior offensive line, but he'd also regularly shoot himself right out of a play. Winning up front is a numbers game, so the offensive line will gladly take one less person to block... every single time.
Ego seemed to handle the run game a bit better, something that lead to his surprisingly high draft status, but he was also hardly a dominant player.
Beyond the D-line, our linebackers all need to make major strides. The 2013 LB crew could frequently be seen running themselves out of position, refusing to take on blocks, and generally trying to be more cute and athletic rather than aggressive and physical. Few LBs have the athletic skills to run around blocks, and typically, that's still a strategy that will fail them. Can Welter, Kwon and Louis improve in that regard? That remains to be seen. All three look bigger and stronger, more ready to handle the physical grind of it. Further, all three now have serious playing time under their belts and should be more adjusted to college football. But if they aren't, well Kendell Beckwith and Clifton Garrett are right there waiting to steal their jobs.
LSU's pass defense should be a strength in 2014, but the corners and safeties must also show improved ability to defeat outside blocks, read the run game and come up and make tackles. Tre White really improved over the course of the season and the bulk and muscle he added should make him a further asset there. Jalen Mills has always been a good tackling player, so inserting him as a safety should also help shore up things. The rest, we will have to wait and see.
LSU can and should improve on run defense in 2014, but it's time for the big-time players to step up. They will be challenged right away, as Wisconsin will feature one of the best backs and overall rush games in the entire country. Let's see if they are up for the task.