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2015 LSU Football Optimistic/Pessimistic/Realistic: Defensive Line

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There are some question marks here, but a great foundation is in place.

Chris Graythen/Getty Images

There are some question marks about LSU's defense entering 2015, and all of them are worth asking. But one thing that is not deniable is that the base of this defense up the middle is very strong. From defensive tackle, to middle linebacker to safety, LSU has talent and experience at each level, and that's as good of a place for a defense to start as any. The questions will come more on the outside.

Defensive Tackle

Name

Height/Weight

2014 Season

91 Christian LaCouture (Jr.)

6-5, 307

40 tackles, 4 TFL (2.5 sacks), 2 passes broken up.

95 Quentin Thomas (Sr.)

6-4, 313

9 tackles, .5 TFL, 1 pass broken up.

57 Davon Godchaux (Soph.)

6-4, 293

42 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 forced fumble.

97 Frank Herron (Soph.)

6-5, 289

3 tackles in 4 game appearances.

99 Greg Gilmore (Soph.)

6-4, 313

4 tackles, .5 sack, in 6 game appearances.

96 Mickey Johnson (Sr.)

6-1, 329

3 tackles in 2 game appearances.

Starting up the middle, LSU may have its best tandem of defensive tackles since the Kyle Williams/Claude Wroten days in junior Christian LaCouture and sophomore Davon Godchaux. The former was an expected starter last season but the latter emerged surprisingly, given that he was coming off of a knee injury as a senior. Both players had a rocky start to 2014, but by game five had solidified the middle of the defense and helped set up new middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith for success.

Godchaux was on the field quickly in week one and in the starting lineup quickly thereafter. He's very much the classic Tiger interior linemen, quick an explosive up the field, to the point that it didn't take long to start drawing double teams at both tackle positions, along with LaCouture.

LaCouture is a little more built for that type of action, big and strong with long arms and strong hands for controlling guards and centers. He should fit the changes Kevin Steele is bringing to this defense well as more of a classic nose tackle, playing in the 0 or 1-technique spot.

The 4-3 "under" front is the style of defense Steele coached as Clemson's defensive coordinator and also fits what Ed Orgeron is used to coaching during his days working with Pete Carroll. Here, we see an example of the more typical style it's played with the Seattle Seahawks.

4-3 Under 1 gap

As you can see, this is what's known as a "one gap" style of defense. Each member of the front seven is responsible for a gap. But, as you can also see, it creates a numbers problem for the defense. In order to cover the eighth gap, the backside D in picture above, a safety must rotate down in support. Obviously, that creates a disadvantage against the pass.

To avoid this, the defensive front will typically try to have a player steal a gap by trying to control two. "Two-gapping" for a defensive lineman involves trying to handle the gap on either side of an offensive lineman, and sometimes even controlling two blockers. In the 4-3 Under, this is usually accomplished with a big, physical nose tackle.

In this model via this Baltimore Ravens blog, you can see how the weak side linebacker is free to roam rather than be responsible for a specific gap due to the two-gapping nose.

4-3 Under, 1 gap/Nose

Sometimes, as you see here, the strong-side defensive end will even try to two-gap and free up even more pursuit in the back seven.

4-3 Under, strong-side 2 gap

Both LaCouture and Godchaux should fit this style very well. LaCouture is already used to this type of dirty work. Godchaux will be allowed to play a much more explosive style that will lend itself to sacks and tackles for a loss, as he'll generally be in one-on-one matchups and free to try and explode up the field. Similar to some of the great tackles Orgeron has coached in the past, like Cortez Kennedy, Warren Sapp, Mike Patterson, etc...

In fact, Orgeron has used those names in describing the kind of player he thinks Godchaux can be.

Depth behind these two, however, is a little less than ideal after an offseason exodus of three backups here. And while the roles of Maquedius Bain, Trey Lealaimatafao and Travonte Valentine weren't really known here, they at least gave Orgeron some options in setting his rotation. Now, the top three backups will all have to play in some capacity. Just a question of how many snaps they can handle.

Senior Quentin Thomas is healthy after battling a shoulder issue through the offseason, and should be able to give LaCouture breathers at the nose position. That's also the spot that sophomore Greg Gilmore will man. Gilmore was a big-time recruit in 2013 that has yet to find a place in the rotation to date. Although he did come into his third training camp in some fantastic shape.

Sophomore Frank Herron will backup Godchaux in the three-tech position. Another much-ballyhooed prospect that many expected to play a huge role last season, Herron is likewise unproven. But his skill set should it the three-technique tackle well, and barring injury he won't be needed more than 25-30 snaps a game at the most.

Senior Mickey Johnson, who had reportedly transferred to Louisiana Tech but instead chose to return to LSU this summer, will be the sixth body inside. He'll likely only see the field in emergencies or extreme blowout situations.

Five defensive tackles is more than fine for a rotation, and in line with LSU's best units of the past. Thing is, there's nobody else here to compete for a spot. It HAS TO BE these five guys.

Defensive End

46 Tashawn Bower (Jr.)

6-5, 240

16 tackles, 2.5 TFL.

92 Lewis Neal (Jr).

6-2, 264

3 tackles, 1.5 TFL.

98 Deondre Clark (Soph.)

6-4, 253

9 tackles .5 TFL.

58 Sione Teuhema (Soph.)

6-4, 251

7 tackles, 2 sacks in 9 game appearances.

49 Arden Key (Fr.)

6-6, 231

Four-star recruit.

94 Isaiah Washington (Fr.)

6-4, 241

Three-star recruit.

Now, here's where the big question marks come in. LSU received a combined 20.5 tackles for loss from last season's starting defensive ends, but just 5.5 sacks. And now they're replacing them with a group that combined for just 7.5 tackles for loss last season, along with a couple of true freshmen.

However, there is talent. All four of LSU's returnees were highly recruited. None have ever been able to distinguish themselves in game action, however.

The presumptive starters at the moment will be juniors Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal. Bower will man the strong-side position, where he'll line up in a five-technique position over the right tackle, and be asked mostly to help the strong-side linebacker set the edge in the running game. Whether he'll be asked to two-gap, as we previously talked about, is unknown at the moment. The good news is that fits Bower's profile well. He's a well-built, strong player that has rarely been pushed around when he gets in the game, but hasn't made many plays either. I would somewhat compare him to the guy he's replacing, Jermauria Rasco: a solid, fundamentally sound player that will rarely impress but never really get embarrassed either. If he can at least match Rasco's motor, Bower will acquit himself well this season, as the strong-side position isn't necessarily one that lends itself to big numbers anyway.

Neal is something of a wild-card on the weak side. He's undersized, but had a huge spring and really has become one of Orgeron's favorites. Mostly because he's so similar: short, muscled-up and with the perfectly clichéd high motor. Neal had some of the best film in the 2013 recruiting class -- just a hyper-productive defensive end making plays everywhere. But he's never really found his niche at LSU, and battled a lot of injuries. But, much like Bower, he should fit well in the Under front as the seven- or nine-technique defensive end on the weak side, where he'll mostly be asked to rush the passer and get in the backfield. The question is whether Neal's speed will translate, and whether his lack of size will hurt in run defense or affect his durability.

The top backups in terms of experience will be classmates Deondre Clark and Sione Teuhema, who both fall into the "talented but unproven" category. Teuhema I particular has flashed some impressive speed off of the ball, and could fit the weak side end spot well. Clark is very similar to Bower, although he appeared to be a little more athletic coming out of high school in the 2014 class.

At a minimum, these four should be able to approximate what LSU got from its defensive ends last year. The problem is that last year wasn't good enough.

Now, where things get exciting are with the incoming freshmen, particularly Arden Key. He's the quintessential speed-rush defensive end, and when he didn't initially qualify for summer school, there was some concern with the shape he'd show up in. After all, Key weighed about 210 pounds when he signed. But he reported around 238 and has done nothing but impress ever since he hit practice. There is no doubt that Key will see playing time in a designated pass-rusher type of role, and if he can learn to play under control and help in run defense, it'll only grow from there. Dan has been impressed with Key, and former Atlanta Falcons star Chuck Smith, who worked with Key this summer to help prepare him to arrive at LSU, thinks he's a future star. Look for him to see the field very early on in obvious passing situations, such as third-and-long.

His classmate Washington has impressed as well. Something of an afterthought in the '15 class, some projected Washington to grow into a tackle eventually, but the New Orleans native has impressed enough to maybe see time this season and avoid a redshirt.

Optimistic

One of Orgeron's themes in this offseason has been to find at least one thing that every player here can do, and to let them do that. In the best case scenario, this involves LaCouture and Bower gumming up the works on the strong side and allowing Godchaux and Neal to disrupt from the backside with big tackle-for-loss and sack numbers. Key and Teuhema add a little more speed and big-play capability off of the bench, while Thomas, Gilmore and Herron provide quality relief support. The hope is that each relief guy can give a certain number of relief snaps -- Orgeron has mentioned 35 for Herron, 20 from Gilmore and 15 from Thomas.

Pessimistic

Injuries are a worst-case scenario here, and likewise the one-gap emphasis can be something some teams may take advantage of at times. The interior here has the potential to be great, and that can help put the ends in some very positive positions. But there's no guarantee they take advantage. And the prospect of relying on a freshman like Key to help generate a pass rush is not a situation you want to be in. And if players like Herron, Gilmore, Teuhema and Clark can't provide this team with quality snaps, the starters, especially LaCouture and Godchaux, will wear down.

Realistic

You build a defense inside-out and front-to-back, and LSU is set up well for that. LaCouture and Godchaux are good enough to help keep whoever is manning the end positions clean to make plays. And Orgeron and Steele are definitely hoping to create a more attacking style that will also include more movement from the defensive line up front with shifts, stunts and twists based on down-and-distance and matchups.

John Chavis was so focused on gap control and pursuit, that attacking up the field kind of got lost in the shuffle -- some of the drills Orgeron has run with this unit, Brick Haley wasn't even allowed to bring to practice. And while that style of defense helped LSU win a lot of games, it started to limit things as the talent and experienced waned in recent years. Orgeron coming here is the right coach at the right time for this unit, and he's bringing a new energy that should be exciting to watch unleash. Haley did a great job here, but when it comes to defensive line coaches, Orgeron is just at another level over everybody in the college game.

I expect a breakout season from a statistical standpoint from Godchaux. Something similar to Drake Nevis' 2010, with a lot of big plays behind the line of scrimmage. At a minimum, the defensive end production from the starters should be able to match last season, and with some help from Teuhema and Key, surpass it. I don't know if LSU can be a 35- or 40-sack team, but they should definitely surpass last season's 19.