For the last five years, defense has been the main constant in LSU's success. We just expect it. Maybe even take it for granted a little.
But the equation within the variable changes up in ways we haven't seen since 2009, with a new defensive coordinator and defensive line coach in Kevin Steele and Ed Orgeron. The latter's reputation both for recruiting and developing talent at his position is unmatched in all of the sport, and a big reason fans felt better about the reputation of the former.
But whether you were excited about Steele's hire or fearful, the effects ultimately won't be fully known this season. He inherits eight starters from a unit that fought through early growing pains to be one of the nation's best in just about every major category. There's been a lot of talk about changes for this unit, but I don't think you'll see many. Steele has reportedly told people close to the program that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Which makes sense. Aside from the obvious of the unit's strength, Steele and Chavis aren't extremely disparate, schematically. Any real changes to the defense, and the effects we'll see from them, will largely come in the later years.
For now, job one for Steele is to take all the little things that the 2014 unit did well, like limit big plays and take teams off the field on third down, and add to them the big plays that were missing, like tackles for loss, sacks and turnovers. The Tigers ranked in the bottom of the SEC in just about all of those big-play stats, including just 19 sacks -- only Vanderbilt had fewer. The league-leading pass efficiency defense looks all that more impressive when you consider it.
Generating more pressure will be job one for Steele, and there are certainly a ton of ingredients for it. The returning defense is pretty stout up the middle at all levels, with experience players, superstar potential, oh, and Jamal Adams.
Outside, however, LSU returns just one corner. And yeah, Tre'davious White is one of the best cover men in the country, but the other side will be, perhaps, the biggest competition in camp between playmaker Dwayne Thomas, returning from injury, five-star early enrollee Kevin Toliver II, and sophomores Ed Paris and Russell Gage.
The bigger questions are at end and outside linebacker, where LSU has to replace a number of veteran stalwarts. And while there's talent there with a nice experience level, none of the returnees have proven they can be the kind of playmakers LSU needs to turn last season's little plays into big ones.
The competition at end, linebacker and cornerback, and however Steele plans on deploying those positions won't get as much play in the next few weeks as the quarterback competition, but make no mistake. They'll play nearly as big of a role in LSU's success in 2015.