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LSU 2014 Position Previews: The Defensive Line

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What has typically been one of LSU's greatest strengths was a weakness last season. How will this unit, with a number of new faces, rebound in 2014?

Sean Gardner


Roster/Depth Chart

Defensive Tackle

91 Christian LaCouture (Soph.)

6-5, 300

11 tackles, 1.5 TFL (1 sack)

95 Quentin Thomas (Jr.)

6-4, 303

9 tackles, .5 TFL, 2 pass break-ups & 1 fumble recovered

96 Mickey Johnson (Jr.)

6-1, 310

3 tackles in 4 game appearances.

90 Maquedius Bain (RS-Fr.)

6-4, 299

Redshirted.

97 Frank Herron (RS-Fr.)

6-5, 278

Redshirted.

99 Greg Gilmore (RS-Fr.)

6-4, 305

Redshirted.

57 Davon Godchaux (Fr.)

6-4, 298

Four-star recruit.

79 Travonte Valentine (Fr.)

6-3, 325

Four-star recruit.

56 Trey Lealaimatafao (Fr.)

6-0, 300

Three-star recruit.

(returning starters in bold)

Defensive End

59 Jermauria Rasco (Sr.)

6-3, 247

56 tackles, 6.5 TFL (4 sacks), 5 pass break-ups, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery.

94 Danielle Hunter (Jr.)

6-6, 240

57 tackles, 8 TFL (3 sacks), 2 pass break-ups and a forced fumble.

46 Tashawn Bower (Soph.)

6-5, 237

3 tackles in 6 game appearances.

54 Justin Maclin (Sr.)

6-4, 240

2 tackles in 5 game appearances.

92 Lewis Neal (Soph).

6-1, 255

7 tackles, .5 sack in 10 game appearances.

93 M.J. Patterson (RS-Fr.)

6-3, 231

Redshirted.

98 Deondre Clark (Fr.)

6-3, 244

Four-star recruit.

58 Sione Teuhema (Fr.)

6-4, 232

Three-star recruit.


Who's Returning?

Three starters return from an LSU defensive line that was the single largest contributor to the defense's struggles last year. The Tigers posted team lows in sacks and tackles-for-loss in 2013, as defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson underachieved significantly, putting more pressure on the rest of the front, and in turn, the secondary.

The good news is that there's still a lot of young talent on hand, including a couple of potential breakout stars. The headliner, and easily the unit's biggest potential superstar, is junior defensive end Danielle Hunter. From the moment he arrived on campus, Hunter has always looked the part of a big-time defensive end. Simply put, the guy is ripped. As a freshman, he showed enough speed to get in on special teams units, a la a young Barkevious Mingo. As a sophomore, while he didn't put up a ton of big-play numbers, Hunter was easily LSU's best defensive lineman. He improved versus the run all season despite less-than-ideal size to hold up versus 300-pounders, and he was consistently one of the most active players in the defensive front, pursuing the ball with speed and ferocity. By November, he was pretty much the only member of the line drawing double-teams. And that development continued into the spring. He's continued to put on weight (this is going to be a theme but don't trust all of these listed player weights) and really showed out in LSU's spring game, blowing by the Tiger tackles. As a sophomore, Hunter often out-thought himself versus some tackles, trying too hard to set them up and beat them inside with a club or spin move. This summer, he's been encouraged to use that speed more. He's also drawn consistent praise from the coaching staff, not only for his effort but also his leadership. Les Miles mentioned Hunter putting up a nine-tackle, four tackle-for-loss stat line in one of LSU's scrimmages this August, and while those stats are always highly dubious, chances are it's safe to say that Hunter played well.

He's book-ended by one of the unit's only seniors, Jermauria Rasco. The former five-star recruit out of Shreveport didn't meet expectations last season, but still managed a decently active stat line. Now, in his money year, it's time to show if he's the kind of player many thought he'd be coming out of Evangel Christian. It's worth noting that, per reports, Rasco has battled torn labrums in both shoulders for years now, only getting the second one fixed just this past offseason (keeping him out of spring practice). I don't know that I'm willing to predict a big final year for him, but I'll say this much: shoulder injuries can be huge for defensive linemen, because using your hands and arms and getting a good push from that joint is important to almost everything they do at the position. If Rasco truly is healthy for the first time in a few years, improvement's not at all out of the question. I don't know that he has the first-round potential of somebody like Hunter, but he's a stocky, strong player that has shown the ability to play well versus the run and the pass. He definitely has more production in him if he can tap into it.

Inside, Christian LaCouture returns after being, essentially, LSU's only backup defensive tackle last year. LaCouture flashed some talent as a run-stuffer, and he's the kind of big body that this unit really needs, specifically to eat up an extra blocker and free up the ends and linebackers. In fact, that particular skill has been a major point of emphasis for defensive line coach Brick Haley this offseason. Using one's hands to hold position and occupy blockers is one of the most important things a tackle can do in this scheme. Penetration is important as well, but if all you can do is fly off the ball up the field, offenses are more than willing to let you take yourself out of a play, which is something that happened to Anthony Johnson a ton last year.

He's joined by junior Quentin Thomas, who also backed up in 2013. Thomas had been rumored to be out for the season after a bicep injury early in training camp, but the word now is that the tear to the muscle was not as serious as originally feared, and that he'll be able to play through it without risking further damage. Thomas wasn't particularly prolific last season, but he has intriguing potential as an active big body, similar to Bennie Logan. Plus, at 300-plus pounds he provides some more beef in the middle, which is always helpful.

LaCouture's classmates, Greg Gilmore, Maquedius Bain and Frank Herron, are also ready to step in after redshirting last year. Now, some will wonder why these guys redshirted despite the lack of depth at this spot, and that's a fair question to ask. Most of the scuttlebutt has been that Bain and Gilmore struggled with conditioning and technique early -- Bain played mostly offense until his senior season, and Gilmore was a defensive end. I can say that both appear to be in much better shape this time around as well, and ready to contribute.

As for Herron, injuries put him behind the curve a bit and forced the redshirt, and if he can avoid anymore off-the-field issues, he's another player that looks ready to explode. For some background, Herron was a defensive end that Paul and I both particularly liked , not for his edge speed so much as his huge frame and athleticism for his size. He reminds me a lot of Michael Brockers, who likewise was an over-sized high-school end that turned into a 300-plus pound man-beast after a redshirt year. In the spring, Herron flashed outstanding quickness -- in LSU's spring game he was all over the field. Thus far, he's been one of the major stories of training camp. Thomas might have been projected as as a starter coming in to the season, but by most accounts Herron had already taken his job prior to the arm injury. Miles has consistently praised him, and if there's another potential breakout superstar out of this group, it's probably him.

Other veterans in this group include tackle Mickey Johnson and end Justin Maclin, a junior and senior that have struggled to get on the field or stay on it. Among the young crowd returning are 2013 recruits Tashawn Bower, Lewis Neal and M.J. Patterson. The former two saw time as true freshmen, and should continue to see more with a year in the system. Neal, in particular, has added a lot of weight and by most accounts is incredibly strong for his size. There's some talk of playing him inside in some pass-rush situations to try and get a little more quickness on the field. Bower is an imposing physical specimen, but looks like he could use a little more bulk. Patterson was always seen as a bit of a project, but has added some good weight in one offseason, and was an intriguing recruit as an athlete.

N00bs?

The new guys in town provide some intriguing, and much-needed depth here. Davon Godchaux is probably the biggest key at defensive tackle. A former high-school end, he's added some significant size coming off knee surgery that ended his senior year, but was in good enough shape to practice right away with the veterans while training camp practices were split. He's probably your fifth or sixth defensive tackle this season, but just having that many is an upgrade over last year.

At defensive end, most expected that Deondre Clark would push for some early playing time, but it's been Sione Teuhema that's been a surprise. He's bulked up well for a guy that was in the 210-220 range out of high school, and his speed likely gets him on the field on special teams if nothing else. Clark is a hell of an athlete though, and won't sit for long.

Other true freshmen include tackles Travonte Valentine and Trey Lealaimatafao. The former recently got some good news from the NCAA Clearinghouse, and while everything's not set for him to start practicing as of this moment, he should be with the team by next week. Now, how does that relate to his playing time? Who knows. But reportedly, the Miami native spent his summer training with Patrick Peterson's dad in South Florida -- that training is part of what allowed Rashard Robinson to hit the ground running last year in a similar spot. But a 325-pound defensive tackle might have more conditioning work to do.

As for Trey L., he appears to be sitting out the season following the injuries suffered in his weight room incident this summer. His future may be a bit in doubt, but I'm told he's likely going to stay in school, possibly part time, to take a grey shirt of sorts.

Where's the Competition?

Hunter, Rasco and LaCouture's starting spots appear to be solid, so the from there it's all about filling out the rotation and the two-deep. Herron likely takes the other tackle spot, while Thomas, Bain, Gilmore and Godchaux vie for snaps. If those four can handle 10-12 snaps a game on a consistent basis, that should more than help this unit stay frosty versus most offenses. As for Valentine, with his late arrival any contributions from him at all this fall should be considered a bonus.

At end, look for Bower and Neal to be the main backups, although it wouldn't surprise me if Teuhema gets an "OR" listed next to his name on the depth chart released during game week. Clark should get in on the rotation as well.

So What's the Bottom Line?

In thinking about this defense, I keep coming back to the last time we entered a season with questions about LSU's defensive line: 2010. It's easy to forget that while John Chavis had made a nice impact in year one here, the 2009 Tiger defense was still limited, largely by some talent issues up front. But in 2010, a gang of relatively unknown, unproven young veterans and several redshirt freshmen -- guys like Sam Montgomery, MIchael Brockers, Barkevious Mingo, Lavar Edwards and Josh Downs -- teamed with emerging senior Drake Nevis to lead a helluva defensive front. Now, that unit also had peak-level Patrick Peterson, plus Morris Claiborne, Kelvin Sheppard, Brandon Taylor and some kid named Tyrann Mathieu in the back seven as well, but it was a still a major leap forward in line play that carried through to the dynamic 2011 group.

This group has the same chance to take that step forward with the veterans at the two end spots and a host of young talent emerging around them like Herron, Gilmore, Bain, Bower, Godchaux and Teuhema. There's exciting potential here, and it should go a long way in putting the Tiger defense back where we've come to expect in recent years.