If LSU’s 2017 spring practices are about turning over a new leaf for the offense, they’re more about turning a page for the defense.
The 2016 Tiger defense couldn’t have played much better under first-year coordinator Dave Aranda, but after inheriting an experienced unit, he now has to plug in a number of new and very young, albeit talented, players.
Keeping Aranda around wasn’t just a major priority for Orgeron; their relationship played a significant role in Orgeron’s pitch to Joe Alleva to become LSU’s full-time head coach. Both parties involved know they have something special here, even with replacing a group of veterans that could easily include six NFL Draft picks.
The cupboard is far from bare.
LSU 2017 Spring Defensive Depth Chart
|DE||97 Frank Herron (Sr.)|
|91 Christian LaCouture (Sr.)|
|96 Glen Logan (So.)|
|NT||99 Greg Gilmore (Sr.)|
|95 Ed Alexander (So.)|
|DE||90 Rashard Lawrence (So.)|
|98 Deondre Clark (Sr.)|
|Justin Thomas (Fr.)|
|OLB (Buck)||49 Arden Key (Jr.)**|
|84 Sci Martin (So.)|
|94 Isaiah Washington (So.)|
|93 Andre Anthony (Fr.-RS)|
|43 Ray Thornton (Fr.-RS)|
|ILB (Mack)||24 Devin White (So.)|
|56 M.J. Patterson (Sr.)|
|50 Layton Garnett (Fr.-RS)|
|51 Jonathan Rucker (Sr.)|
|ILB (Rover)||48 Donnie Alexander (Sr.)*|
|35 Devin Voorhies (Sr.)|
|OLB (F)||45 Michael Divinity (So.)|
|23 Corey Thompson (Sr.)|
|CB||1 Donte Jackson (Jr.)|
|22 Kristian Fulton (So.)|
|17 Xavier Lewis (So.)|
|CB||2 Kevin Toliver (Jr.)|
|8 Savion Smith (So.)|
|29 Andraez Williams (Fr.-RS)|
|SS||21 Ed Paris (Sr.)|
|30 Eric Monroe (So.)|
|Jacoby Stevens (Fr.)|
|Grant Delpitt (Fr.)|
|FS||26 John Battle (Sr.)|
|31 Cameron Lewis (So.)|
|* Will miss spring with injury.|
|** Taking leave of absence from team.|
|Returning starters listed in bold.|
Still, LSU will be replacing five starters in the defensive front seven, two in the secondary plus two more seniors that saw significant playing time in Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas.
Who’s next at linebacker?
When we talk about the losses in the front seven, this is really the area we’re talking about. Three starters have moved on and the one returnee, superstar pass-rusher Arden Key, is likely missing the entire spring session with a mysterious “leave of absence.” Although his return in the fall is expected, as of today.
The primary losses are inside, with Kendall Beckwith and Duke Riley moving on after huge senior years. What’s more, one of the presumptive replacements, senior Donnie Alexander, will sit out the spring with injury. What it ultimately means is that the “mack” and “rover” positions won’t be fully settled until fall camp when freshmen Jacob Phillips and Tyler Taylor enter the mix.
There is one potential big-time playmaker on hand in sophomore Devin White, who closed 2016 with several big plays versus Texas A&M and Louisville. But now he has to transition from a reserve role — one where he was put in some spots designed to take advantage of his particular skills — to an every-down role, where he must be much more consistent and, ideally, understand the defense well enough to make calls for the rest of the front.
Classmate Michael Divinity is currently slated to compete with senior Corey Thompson at the field outside linebacker spot, but it’s not crazy to suggest that one of those could move inside for depth purposes. As of now, walk-ons Layton Garnett and Jonathan Rucker will comprise a significant portion of the inside linebacker depth chart, along with another converted safety in senior Devin Voorhies.
He’s on the short list of players who don’t “need” spring practice, but make no mistake, it’s not a good thing for LSU to be without one of its best players while Key figures out whatever personal issues he’s dealing with at the moment.
Still, if there’s a silver lining to the situation, it’s that LSU does have numbers, and talent in reserve at the Buck end/outside linebacker position, and those players can all benefit from Key’s reps. Redshirt freshman Andre Anthony, whom the coaches are particularly high on, and sophomore Sci Martin are two of the main names involved, but watch out for sophomore Isaiah Washington as well. Washington was set to be Key’s backup before a preseason injury last year, and has always fit the “first off the bus” cliché of looking like a prototypical pass-rusher from the edge. He also had a very nice spring last season.
Class of 2016 member Rahsaan “Ray” Thorton is also listed as in the mix at the buck spot, but could also move to one of the other linebacker positions as well.
The Next Class at DBU needs new corners and a safety.
If there’s one position where fans expect a true “reloading” it’s in the secondary, even with the loss of some real superstars like Jamal Adams and Tre White. For one, there’s still a lot of experience returning with three former starters in Kevin Toliver, Donte Jackson and John Battle. And that’s only scratching the surface, talent-wise.
Toliver will be a very interesting player to watch in 2017. After looking like the next superstar for this unit as a true freshman, he struggled a bit last year and wound up in Corey Raymond’s doghouse , in addition to suffering some nagging injuries. His counterpart, Jackson, has all the speed and athleticism to be a fantastic corner if he can only be a little more consistent and avoid some of the concentration lapses that led to penalties and big plays in 2016. He could also be in line for an increased role on special teams as well.
On the back end, Battle stepped in following Rickey Jefferson’s injury and had a remarkably solid second half of 2016. He was always in position and never surrendered a big play. You can do a whole lot worse at safety. His running mate will be a competition between former superstar recruit Ed Paris and a number of other former four-stars in Eric Monroe and Cam Lewis. Along with two very highly touted freshmen we’ll talk about later.
Other up-and-comers include second-year players Savion Smith and Kristian Fulton, who will be competing for the nickel job, if not pushing for one of the top two corner spots outright.
Who’s Next on the defensive line?
LSU is replacing two very productive upperclassmen in Davon Godchaux and Lewis Neal, and one very productive waste of everybody’s time in Travonte Valentine. That said, there’s still quite a bit of experience on hand and strong depth: four seniors, including a fifth-year player in Christian LaCouture, three sophomores, all of whom saw extensive time in the 2016 rotation, plus one early enrolling freshman in Justin Thomas.
Greg Gilmore is back at the nose tackle spot after a very underrated season in the position. While Gilmore isn’t the classic, giant 3-4 nose, he did his job very well for the most part, particularly in LSU’s two-linemen sub packages, where he could help create rush lanes for other players. Frank Herron and LaCouture can fit in at either the three- or five-technique end spots, as could fellow senior Deondre Clark.
The have more potential. Ed Alexander was a very effective nose in spurts, ditto Rashard Lawrence at the three-tech spot. Glen Logan is more the classic five-tech, and may fit that role better than the veterans ahead of him.
How do the newbies fit in?
Three true freshmen will take part in spring practices, including two of the most highly recruited players from the Class of 2017 in safeties Jacoby Stevens and Grant Delpitt, both of whom just happen to play a position that LSU has an opening at. It’s doubtful that either could earn a job right out of the shoot — the guys they’re competing with are pretty talented too — but it would not surprise me at all if Stevens is LSU’s starting safety a few games into 2017. He’s that special of a talent.
Justin Harris seems like more of a redshirt candidate than the rest of his class, but he’ll provide depth right away and have a chance to get accustomed to college coaching and life in the LSU program.