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2015 LSU Football Optimistic/Pessimistic/Realistic: Linebackers

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It’s not the first position we talk about with LSU’s 2015 defense, but it might wind up being one of the strengths.

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11 Lamar Louis (Sr.)

5-11, 232

29 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 3 passes broken up and 1 forced fumble.

52 Kendell Beckwith (Jr.)

6-3, 252

77 tackles, 7.5 TFL (2 sacks), 4 passes broken up (1 interceptions) and 2 fumble recoveries.

45 Deion Jones (Sr.)

6-1, 227

27 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 pass broken up and 1 fumble recovery.

40 Duke Riley (Jr.)

6-0, 227

20 tackles, 1 fumble recovery.

22 Ronnie Feist (Jr.)

6-1, 234

4 tackles, 1 fumble recovery in four game appearances.

35 Devin Voorhies (Soph.)

6-1, 216

5 tackles, 1 forced fumble in 8 game appearances.

48 Donnie Alexander (Soph.)

6-1, 215

1 tackle on special teams in 12 game appearances.

93 M.J. Patterson (Soph.)

6-3, 223

1 tackle in 3 game appearances.

LSU returns a veteran group of linebackers this season, with a new defensive coordinator that seems to be a bit more focused on that position in terms of its role within the scheme. John Chavis might have been a fantastic nuts-and-bolts, fundamentals linebacker coach, but he never really emphasized the position. Sure, having fantastic defensive lines and all-world secondaries to focus on made it easy to forget about the LBs, but when you look at the above roster, it becomes apparent that he didn't do the best job of stocking the position.

That should change under Kevin Steele. He's already doing a better job of bringing in prospective talent, and there's a lot of talk going around about the changes he's bringing to the defense that have involved using the linebackers a little more to create pressure and attack the line of scrimmage, as opposed to the corners and safeties that Chavis preferred. He also seems to be making more of an effort to get the "best three" on the field, training guys at multiple spots versus being rigid with the SAM/MIKE/WILL positions.

The star of the show, and possibly the star of this defense, will be middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith. He has the potential to be the most complete linebacker LSU's had in a long time. He's got the size and strength to stuff the run inside the tackles and the athleticism to track the ball down, as well as get up the field and attack the backfield. Beckwith went through some growing pains in his first full season, but took over as the starting MIKE a few games into the season and never looked back. A big focus this offseason has been developing his coverage skills, which were exploited at times last year. The goal for Steele is to feature Beckwith on almost every down. LSU's likely moving towards a classic one-linebacker/six defensive back Dime set, which would really put a lot on Beckwith's plate. He's also the most natural choice to be featured in some of the pressure looks. The thought of Beckwith shooting the A-gaps is a pretty attractive one.

In the outside spots, Beckwith will be flanked by seniors Lamar Louis and Deion "Debo" Jones, a pair of 2012 classmates that have played a lot of football for LSU over the years either through special teams or spot duty on the defense, but have never been able to really hold a job long-term. The hope is that the SAM and WILL positions in Steele's "under" front defense might be a little more natural fit for their abilities.

Louis will man the strong-side, or SAM position, which will see him spend most of his time up at the line of scrimmage over the tight end, almost in a seven-tech defensive end position. It's not the most glamorous position -- the SAM spends most of his time fighting with the tight end, either trying to jam him out the line before getting into coverage, or setting the edge versus the run. On the one hand, Louis definitely has the athleticism for the coverage responsibilities, but on the other, he's not the big set-the-edge type. Although at 5-11 and reported 230-plus pounds, the added bulk in such a stocky frame might make him a little tougher to handle, if he has the strength to hold up.

If there's a real potential breakout star of this unit (and I'm not sure Beckwith counts, because he's relatively established after 2014), it's Debo. He has the prefect skill set for the weak-side WILL position.  Weakside linebacker is a pursuit position that requires fast linebackers that excel in space. Think Derrick Brooks, Lance Briggs or Lavonte David. And one thing that we know Jones has is plenty of speed. He's always flashed dynamic ability and a real aggressiveness to get in the backfield and really pursue via special teams, but he's always been kind of a missile in need of a guidance system -- either over-running plays or biting on misdirection and play-fakes. If Steele can help Debo learn to play under control, that speed could be a tremendous asset, not just running plays down, but also shooting gaps as a blitzer. It's a question mark, but one with the potential to really push this unit to another level with the right answer.

A lot was made of the fact that LSU failed to sign any linebackers in the recruiting class of 2015, and for good reason. At the moment, depth is pretty solid here with one very experienced backup in Duke Riley and junior Ronnie Feist, who has been around the block a few times. The real problems set in in 2016, when Louis, Jones and possibly Beckwith could all be gone. Safety Devin Voorhies and defensive end M.J. Patterson have been moved to the position, and senior Corey Thompson could slide in as well.

Look for Riley to be the first player in off the bench, likely at either outside position. There's also been the talk that he'll be the fourth man when the defense moves to its "Hippo," or four linebacker look. Riley is much more of a speed/pursuit guy, so it stands to reason that the Hippo set will be more about trying to get more speed on the field against some spread teams, as opposed to chasing the quarterback. Although mum seems to be the word on specifics.

Still, there are some intriguing weapons here for Steele to work with. Beckwith can really do it all, and I think you'll see him used in a variety of ways in pressure packages. Debo's explosiveness is intriguing as well. Watch for some possible delayed blitz looks out of him, after the weakside tackle and end have opened some gaps. Pressure, and improving on last season's anemic 19 sacks is a priority, and without a true pass-rush threat on the defensive line, the linebackers are going to have to play a role.



Optimistic

Beckwith contends for all-conference and all-American honors with a 100-plus tackles and plenty of big plays: tackles for loss, sacks, interceptions, fumble recoveries, etc...Jones breaks out as a playmaker from the Will position with 80-some tackles and 8-10 tackles for loss, while Louis holds down the more Sam position with a strong, if statistically pedestrian season.

Pessimistic

Injuries stress the depth chart, while Jones and Louis's past issues with discipline and consistency continue.

Realistic

Beckwith is one of the safest bets on this defense. With just a little natural progression and more playing time he should be in the 100-tackle range. I like that the outside linebackers are seniors, and while they haven't ever gotten the job done consistently, there's no question there's a lot of potential there, especially with Debo. And while there are some questions about Steele as a coordinator, most of the issues have come from the secondary. I think he'll have this unit on the same page.

But he's really going to have his work cut out for him in 2016.