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LSU 2014 Position Preview: Linebackers

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Another unit on the LSU defense looking for a rebound in 2014.

U Mad Bro?
U Mad Bro?
Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Spor

Roster/Depth Chart

23 Lamar Louis (Jr.)

5-11, 229

25 tackles, 1 fumble recovery.

Kwon Alexander (Jr.)

6-2, 227

65 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 4 pass breakups.

31 D.J. Welter (Sr.)

6-1, 235

80 tackles, 4.0 TFL (2 sacks), 1 pass break-up.

40 Duke Riley (Soph.)

6-1, 214

7 tackles, 0.5 TFL.

45 Deion Jones (Jr.)

6-1, 220

15 tackles, 1 TFL.

52 Kendell Beckwith (Soph.)

6-2, 245

11 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), mostly as a defensive end.

22 Ronnie Feist (Jr.)

6-1, 224 DNP in 2013.

Clifton Garrett (Fr.)

6-2, 242 Five-star prospect.

48 Donnie Alexander (Fr.)

6-1, 202 Three-star prospect.

Who's Returning?

Three players with starts under their belts and a solid two-deep of game-experienced players, even if some were mostly special-teams aces.

The biggest name, and the front-seven player with the second-most breakout potential after Danielle Hunter, is weakside (Will) 'backer Kwon Alexander. His career at LSU was off to a fantastic start before a broken ankle his freshman season. Last year, he started out on the strong side (Sam) opposite Lamin Barrow, and he had a handful of big moments at times, but more often than not he could be easily caught out of position, landing him on the bench a few times. Still, the light seemed to come on in the bowl game, where Alexander's speed, particularly in coverage, provided LSU with a lot of matchup versatility that went beyond the four tackles he was credited with. The Tigers were able to use some 50-front defensive lines (five linemen, two linebackers) to handle Iowa's power game at times, along with staying in base 4-3 fronts versus spread looks as well, with Alexander matching up on slot receivers and split out tight ends. It really allowed LSU to stay in their best run personnel when the Hawkeyes tried to dictate positive situations via formation.

In the spring, he moved over to the Will spot, which should be a bit more of a natural fit. He's added some much-needed bulk, changed numbers, and was notably one of the defense's vocal leaders in the spring.

On the strong side, Lamar Louis subbed in for Alexander at times last year. He flashed a similar level of speed, but could easily be overwhelmed at the point of attack. He just never seemed to stick. In the spring, he seemed a bit more comfortable in the position, and had a notable spring game performance. It's just a question of translating that to the field more often.

And of course, in the middle, the only returning linebacker to start all 13 games last year, D.J. Welter -- LSU fans' version of the linebacker boogie man. Look, Welter had his struggles, there's no doubt about that. He couldn't always hold up at the point of attack and had issues with over-running plays. But he doesn't deserve nearly the amount of scorn he gets from most fans. Welter may never be Kevin Minter or Kelvin Sheppard, but neither of those two had MIA defensive tackle play in front of them, either. People who called Welter the worst linebacker of the Miles Era clearly didn't watch players like Stefoin Francois, Karnell Hatcher, Luke Sanders or even Darry Beckwith towards the end of his career. And what's more, he was the only linebacker on the field, despite the presence of a senior like Barrow, that was comfortable calling the signals for the defensive front.

Welter is still the leading returning tackler on this team, and I'd wager that with some improved line play in front of him, Welter will be productive again.

Although just the same, Kendell Beckwith will be pushing him, and Louis, for playing time. Beckwith had kind of the defensive equivalent to Russell Shepard's freshman year. Like I said last spring, the coaching staff clearly wanted him on the field, they just weren't sure where to play him, exactly. Since the bowl game, it's been all linebacker, all the time, and while Beckwith hasn't been able to lock down a starting position yet, it's clear there will be a place on the field for him again. He's got the size and athleticism that's ideal for the position.

Other returnees include junior Deion "Debo" Jones and sophomore Duke Riley. Both are undersized, pursuit types that fit well at the Will position and should be mainstays on special teams. Riley in particular should be one of the top tacklers in that area -- that gorgeous mullet flowing out of the helmet as he runs down the field. Jones has shown a lot of big-play ability at times, but he just has to find a way to harness his speed and aggression on a down-in, down-out basis. As awesome as it looks when Debo hits the right gap and finds the ball, it can be just as frustrating when he runs himself out of a play or loses his lane in kick or punt coverage.

And then there's junior Ronnie Feist, who didn't see the field at all in 2013, but had a big 14-tackle performance at Mike in the spring game. But then, he wouldn't be the first spring-game hero to never really show much in the regular season either.

N00bs?

Two freshmen at this position in five-star stud Clifton Garrett and the lesser-known Donnie Alexander. Garrett has all the tools to see the field quickly, while Alexander is more of an undersized speed type that will redshirt if he doesn't get on the field through special teams.

Where's the Competition?

Look, I won't mince words: there were high expectations for this unit in 2013, and they weren't met. LSU struggled at the second level on defense versus both the run and the pass, for much of the year. I don't think anybody, aside from maybe Alexander, can truly feel safe in a starting spot.

The headlines all offseason have been between Welter and Beckwith, with the latter pushing for a spot somewhere on the field while the former has been consistently been praised by John Chavis as one of the defense's most improved players. My best guess is they wind up splitting some time, similar to Jacob Cutrera with Sheppard back in 2009. But don't rule out Beckwith maybe sliding into Louis' spot at Sam, either. When it comes to linebackers, Chief's generally been of the school of put the best three guys out there and sort out the positions later.

Otherwise, we're all just waiting to see how the rest of the depth chart fills out. Garrett looks like he's going to be tough to keep off of the field, it's just a question of where he fits. Likewise, Jones could be a heat-seeking missile out there if he ever figures out how to actually lock on to said heat. And who knows, I could be downplaying Feist.

And What's the Bottom Line?

Look, there's no question that linebacker is one of those positions where players don't get it until they do. Minter couldn't get on the field on a regular basis, and then suddenly he was the eater of ball-carriers in 2012. Kelvin Sheppard looked lost as a freshman and sophomore but was all-conference as a junior and senior. It's very easy to see a lot of improvement here in 2014, starting with the most obvious candidate of Alexander. He has all of the tools to make a huge impact this season, both with tackles and the big play stats like tackles for loss, interceptions, etc...

In the middle, better defensive tackle play will net better Mike play whether it's Welter or Beckwith. You put Ray Lewis behind defensive tackles so intent on flying up the field that the offense is barely even blocking them in the first place, and he'd still struggle. If this year's tackles do what we think they will, LSU will be sound up the middle.

In the defensive line preview, I talked about the 2010 defense with the emergence of said line. Something else to remember about that unit was that it was balanced at all levels. You had playmakers up front, at linebacker and (especially) in the secondary. The 2011 defense was better, but that group featured an all-world defensive line and an other-worldly secondary surrounding a group of linebackers that were pretty bad at times. It just didn't matter with so many studs on the front and back ends.

The 2014 defense has a chance to have a similar balance to that 2010 group, with Hunter, LaCouture, Herron, etc...making plays up front, Alexander and Co. at the second level and Tre'davious White, Jalen Mills, Jamal Adams, etc...in the backfield.

Look for this group to have a bit of a committee approach. Alexander will probably be the constant in all sets, but a combination of Welter, Beckwith and Louis will all see time on the field in different sets, be it base, 50, nickel or Mustang.