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Spring Football 2016 Five Things: Defensive Backfield

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Need a lot more of these in 2016.
Need a lot more of these in 2016.
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Depth Chart

Cornerback

Name

Height/Weight

2015 Season

13 Dwayne Thomas (Sr.)

6-0, 186

34 tackles, 3 tackles-for-loss and six pass break-ups.

18 Tre'Davious White (Sr.)

5-11, 191

44 tackles, 1.5 TFL and 7 pass break-ups. Second-team All-SEC (Coaches).

24 Ed Paris Jr. (Jr.)

6-1, 210

Four tackles.

2 Kevin Toliver II (So.)

6-2, 196

35 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 interception and 5 pass break-ups. Freshman All-America (247 Sports).

1 Donte Jackson (So.)

5-11, 167

26 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 interception, 2 pass break-ups and 1 fumble recovery.

17 Xavier Lewis (RS-Fr.)

6-0, 193

Redshirted, four-star recruit.

8 Savion Smith (Fr.)

6-3, 191

Four-star recruit.

Safety

9 Rickey Jefferson (Sr.)

6-0, 206

36 tackles, 1 TFL (1 sack), 1 interception amd 3 pass break-ups.

33 Jamal Adams (Jr.)

6-1, 211

67 tackles, 5 TFL, 4 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, 1 recovered and 6 pass break-ups. Second-team All-SEC (Coaches, AP).

26 John Battle (Jr.)

6-1, 194

5 tackles, 1 interception and 1 pass break-up.

What's Good?

Four starters are back from a secondary that in what we all considered a down season, ranked seventh in passing defense S&P+ and in the top 45 in IsoPPP and passing success rate. Plus the starting nickel and dime backs. Additionally, the top back-up was a former four-star recruit, as is the rising redshirt freshman and the top incoming freshman.

LSU and loaded secondaries are synonymous these days, but it's not hyperbole to suggest that this might be the most loaded defensive back unit the Tigers have had since the 2011 defense. The one that lost one Thorpe Award winner and top-10 pick but returned another plus another five defensive backs that were all drafted (the sixth of which just signed a three-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles).

The most pleasant surprise of LSU's 2016 NFL Draft exodus was senior cornerback Tre'davious White, who will return to finish his career, passing on a chance to be a top-100 pick. White had a good, but not great 2015 season, struggling with the best receivers on the schedule. He was still a second-team All-SEC pick and a Thorpe Award semi-finalist, but here, the expectations are simply higher. Enter Dave Aranda and a simplified, more pressure-oriented defense that will likely feature a lot of man-to-man and very simple coverage concepts. That will be refreshing after watching last year's secondary struggle with zone coverage assignments for much of the season. And it should be a boon for a pure man-to-man cover corner like White.

Sophomore Kevin Toliver joins him on the other side after starting nearly every game as a true freshman and largely living up to the hype. Toliver, a former big-time recruit and to date the longest continuous commitment in LSU history, started out like a house of fire, pushing and shoving receivers around and erasing his side of the field. But as the season went on he hit a bit of a wall, especially from a mental standpoint. Like his opposite number, Toliver should really benefit from a simpler style. He's the kind of corner we've become used to as the prototype here -- big and physical with long arms.

Outside, Dwayne Thomas and Donte Jackson return at the nickel/dime positions. The former brings veteran leadership to the table, and gives Aranda another weapon as a blitzer from the position. He was, however, picked on very often in coverage. Jackson has much more potential, and will surely slide outside to man White's cornerback spot in the future. But he showed a bit of a knack for the ball attacking up the field, in addition to being, legitimately, the fastest player in the game. His growth in Aranda's scheme, and his versatility, will be exciting to watch.

Depth at the corner position will come from junior Ed Paris, redshirt freshman Xavier Lewis and true frosh Savion Smith. Paris had a ton of buzz last offseason but fell flat in the fall, losing his spot in camp and struggling when he did get on the field. Still, he was a superstar recruit with two more years of eligibility to go. Hopefully, the recent Ron Brooks news provides an example. Brooks, likewise, was a mega recruit who just couldn't seem to find a regular spot until his senior year, when he settled in as a valuable dime back, spot starter and special teams ace.

Safety may be the position that has more of an adjustment under Aranda's scheme, but in terms of talent Jamal Adams and Rickey Jefferson are one of the better twosomes in the country. Adams gives this team a real jack-of-all-trades at the position. He's played up near the line of scrimmage and is ferocious in run support, but has the ball skills to handle center field as well. He's struggled a bit in man-to-man coverage, but that's a problem that can be ameliorated for a safety.

Jefferson provides a veteran presence and a rangy, physical player in the middle of the field. He struggled with assignments at times, but the talent is there if Aranda can find a way to isolate his skill-set.

What's Bad?

Three scholarship safeties is mighty thin, and John Battle is sitting out practice rehabbing an injury, so that narrows things further.

Now, luckily, between Aranda's new defense and a number of bigger, versatile type of cornerbacks, LSU can easily make lemonade out of the situation. Paris, Lewis and Smith will all work at safety in the spring as well as corner, which is probably the best thing for all three. For newbies like Lewis and Smith, it's a chance to gain an even greater understanding of the coverage scheme of the new defense, and for Paris, its maybe a chance to find a better fit. He's already on the big side for a cornerback, and some recruiting analysts thought his skill-set would better translate to safety out of high school.

Likewise this creates a very interesting position for Smith. His high school film suggests that he's more of a general all-purpose playmaker as far as defensive backs go, which might make him a better fit as a safety or a nickel/dime defender than a true outside cornerback. Plus, he's on a little bit more level playing field with the veterans, because they're all having to learn a new defense. It's not just him.

Overall this isn't a major concern for the team, because there's also plenty of high-profile help coming in the 2016 recruiting class, but from a spring practice perspective, it's definitely less than ideal.

What's the goal this spring?

For this group spring is all about the players and Aranda adapting to one another. The former picking up the core ideas that the new coordinator wants to implement, and the latter adjusting that to the talent on hand.

So far Aranda has spoken of being more of a field/boundary defense instead of strong/weak, which basically means that the defense will align on space instead of strict offensive numbers. White, as more of a pure man-to-man corner, should fit in well as a field corner, and Toliver is likewise a natural fit on the boundary, where he can use the sideline to help hem receivers in.

The safeties are a little bit more of a question mark. Adams a natural in-the-box player on the field side, where he can have lots of room to move and attack. Jefferson has struggled in coverage in the past, but he could be a better fit as more of a robber/center-field guy where he has a very simple assignment play to play. But who will fit which roles in nickel/dime will be something to watch -- and it was the area of last season's defense that struggled the most in terms of coverage assignments in zone.

The talk has been more man-to-man coverage to date, but will still apply to the inside DBs? And who will fit those spots? Thomas struggled in a role like that last year, but he's shown a nose for the ball in the past. Could he be a better fit playing in the middle? Jackson, likewise, has the skill to play outside -- could he move there while White slides inside, as he did against Texas Tech in the bowl game?

The biggest challenge of any new defensive coordinator is figure out how he and his new players fit each other's needs.

What am I watching for?

Again, relativity is always something to remember whenever you talk about LSU and defensive back play. But there's no doubt about it -- the secondary took it on the chin last year. Despite the best pass-rush since Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo were in town, the Tigers had the least-efficient pass defense of the Les Miles Era. This is a group that needs to grow up and find a consistent playmaking presence.

Particularly when it comes to getting their hands on the ball. LSU has intercepted just 10 passes the last two seasons. That number has to go up by a good 50 percent or so. A more simple approach in terms of assignments will certainly help, but some of the onus is on players to step their game up. White has been good, but can he get his name on the DBU plaque? Adams, likewise, can truly be the best safety in the country if he can learn to play a little more under control on a consistent basis.

Who steps up, and how they do it, will be an underrated subplot for the next few months.