In the era of the spread offense, nickel backs have, for most intents and purposes, become full-time starters on most defenses. Whereas it was usually a position for the top backup corner, or an undersized player that could handle typically undersized slot receivers, nickel now requires players that can balance coverage ability with blitzing savvy and toughness in run-support. The position has essentially become a corner-safety-linebacker hybrid spot — one that LSU has been spoiled at via legends like Tyrann Mathieu and even steady seniors like Dwayne Thomas last year.
Luckily, defensive backs coach Corey Raymond has a lot of options to find a replacement:
Reserve Defensive Backs
|22 Kristian Fulton (So.)
|17 Xavier Lewis (So.)
|29 Andraez Williams (Fr.-RS)
|15 Kary Vincent Jr. (Fr.)
|13 Jontre Kirklin (Fr.)
|30 Eric Monroe (Fr.-RS)
|3 Jacoby Stevens (Fr.)
|9 Grant Delpitt (Fr.)
|31 Cameron Lewis (Fr.-RS)
|33 Todd Harris Jr. (Fr.)
Raymond’s recruiting has been at such a level that there are names on this list that make you think “oh yeah, that guy...man he is a big-time prospect,” and they’ve barely played — mostly because they’ve been sitting behind other studs.
Incumbent: Xavier Lewis
Lewis is a case-and-point example — a former four-star prospect out of East St. John High School in Reserve that is in his third year but has barely played aside from special teams. Yet he took the lead for this spot in the spring, and seems to have the lead entering camp.
Lewis has worked at both safety and corner, and his skill-set is likely a better fit at the former, but in the spring he took the bull by the horns at this spot. In the spring game he showed some veteran awareness in helping to force Danny Etling’s one pick in the game: in a third-down passing situation, LSU called a slant/flat combo and Lewis drifted to the flat with his man, while Toliver manned up on the outside receiver on the slant. But instead of coming up tight, Lewis gave the flat some space and was able to block the throwing lane to the slant (giving himself room to come up and make the tackle). Etling threw the slant, as a quarterback is trained when he sees the nickel corner break wide on that concept, but Lewis cut the route off and allowed Toliver to break and make the interception.
If he continues to make plays like that, Lewis could be an interesting weapon this fall.
Focus: Finding the Right Fit
Having so many bodies that can compete for time at this spot gives Raymond and Dave Aranda some room to tinker in order to find the best fit. Safeties like Eric Monroe, Grant Delpitt, Jacoby Stevens and Todd Harris (who has drawn a lot of praise from coaches in the press this summer) are intriguing talents that are going to be hard to keep off the field. The question becomes exactly what Aranda wants out of the position — a tweener-type player like Lewis, Harris or Monroe, or a true safety like Delpitt or Stevens, who have the size to have a lot of impact at the line of scrimmage, but may not be true man-to-man cover guys.
X-Factor: Kristian Fulton
Again with the “oh yeah, that guy” player. Fulton was one of the top corners in the country in the class of 2016, and while he played as a true freshman it was a relatively limited role.
He’s going to have a larger one eventually, but is it as a true backup to Kevin Toliver and Donte Jackson outside, or will he work inside at nickel and then move outside when those two have moved on to the NFL? Fulton doesn’t appear to be working too much at the nickel spot specifically, but if he can show that he truly understands the defense at multiple levels and is just too athletic to keep off the field, he may jump the rest of the competition there.