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Previewing the 2017 Tigers: Defensive Line

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Lot of beef and spice to snap into #DIGIT.

NCAA Football: Southern Mississippi at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Long before defensive back became the glamour position of LSU, defensive line was the backbone. It was the singular, unique talent vein that ran through both the state of Louisiana and the Tigers.

It’s a position that has fallen off for the program in recent years, but we’re starting to see an interesting transition over the last year. Beyond the fact that the best defensive line coach in the country is the head coach now, with his (and well, every other defensive line coach’s) mentor running the unit.

One thing that’s easily visible at the depth chart is the talent change — this year’s group is an odd mix of four seniors and a ton of freshmen and sophomores (and one junior transfer that will sit out the season and be eligible next year).

For another, we’re really seeing this group transition into more of a 30-front line for a 3-4 defense. That’s different for LSU. The lineage of defensive linemen here are usually 4-3 guys, and defined by the slightly undersized, penetrating type of tackle. From Booger McFarland through Chad Lavalais, Kyle Williams and Glenn Dorsey, when you thought of LSU defensive linemen you thought of guys that were shorter, stocky fire-plug types. Not the stronger, two-gap types that specialize more in occupying blockers to free up the linebackers. And there’s a lot more of that here.

2017 LSU Defensive Line

Position Player Ht/Wt Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF
Position Player Ht/Wt Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF
NT 99 Greg Gilmore (Sr.) 6-4, 308 19.5 3.00% 1 1 0 1 0
95 Ed Alexander (So.) 6-2, 339 9.5 1.50% 0.5 0 0 0 0
72 Tyler Shelvin (Fr.) 6-2, 380 Four-star recruit.
91 Breiden Fehoko (Jr.) 6-3, 298 Transfer from Texas Tech -- former four-star recruit (ineligible for 2017).
DE 18 Christian LaCouture (Sr.) 6-5, 292 Injured.
97 Frank Herron (Sr.) 6-4, 312 13 2.00% 2 1 0 0 1
98 Deondre Clark (Sr.) 6-4, 268 Six game appearances.
90 Rashard Lawrence (So.) 6-3, 300 4 0.60% 1 1 0 0 0
96 Glen Logan (Fr. -RS) 6-4, 315 Redshirted.
93 Justin Thomas (Fr.) 6-5, 277 Three-star recruit.
92 Neil Farrell (Fr.) 6-4, 287 Three-star recruit.
Bold indicates returning starter.

Note: if jargon like three-tech, four-I, five, etc... seem a bit confusing, here’s a quick refresh on defensive line “techniques,” or alignment. Generally based on landmarks of the offensive line.

SWOT Analysis

Strengths: There is a lot of premium talent here.

LSU has at least a good five bodies that I think the coaching staff would feel comfortable starting at each defensive line position: Rashard Lawrence, Christian LaCouture, Greg Gilmore, Frank Herron and Ed Alexander.

Those five have enough versatility to allow Dave Aranda to mix things up and shift his lines around. Gilmore and Alexander can both play the classic zero-tech nose, or shift to the one, and the other three are comfortable farther inside at the three-technique position, or out over the tackle as a four-I or a five.

Gilmore is a bit miscast as a former defensive end playing on the nose, but he’s better than he gets credit for. He’s a strong, disciplined lineman that helped keep Duke Riley and Kendell Beckwitih clean for all those tackles last year. Alexander is much more of a “true” nose, and more talented. But can he do it in more than spurts?

LaCouture, aside from being a team leader, is a more natural 3-4 end: a tough, strong anchor helping set the edge. Lawrence and Herron have the size to hold up in a similar role, but the quickness to make plays out of the three-tech spot inside as well. Herron is getting his usual preseason hype, but his graduation already makes him one of the best stories on this team regardless of what happens this season.

Deondre Clark is fine as a backup, and youngsters like Glenn Logan and Neil Farrell are going to be hard to keep off the field.

Weaknesses: It’s still necessary that some younger players be ready to go.

For the future of this unit, Ed Orgeron and Pete Jenkins will have to find ways to get Logan and Farrell work, and get Tyler Shelvin eligible. Shelvin has a chance to be a real marvel in the middle of this defense. A massive human who also happens to be incredibly athletic. As of now, he is still awaiting the NCAA Clearinghouse, but staffers have been confident that he’ll at least be cleared to join the team, even if a forced academic redshirt is necessary.

If he does get on the field, expect a couple of “wow” moments, even if they come in sparse doses.

Opportunities: Rashard Lawrence.

If there’s a player here that could break out and become a true star, it’s the sophomore from Monroe. Lawrence has a similar profile to those classic LSU tackles I mentioned previously, and also happens to be one of the strongest players on the team. He hasn’t received a dramatic amount of hype with some second-team All-SEC selections, but that’s impressive for a guy that made just four tackles as a true freshman.

Lawrence could do it all for this team as a disruptive force on the interior. Especially with the heat that LSU can bring from the linebacker position.

Get ready for the breakout.

Threats: Finding a rotation that will keep the right players fresh and the young players happy.

If there’s one thing that this past offseason has taught us, it’s that a line unit can become thin relatively quickly when playing time is at a premium. This group is going to lose four seniors after this season, so developing the younger talents — and keeping them — will be incredibly important. Players like Logan, Farrell, Alexander and Justin Thomas all came here with expectations. They could all play much larger roles in 2018, but we have to get them there.

All five of the top guys will likely be gone by the end of 2018. The working to develop 2019 will begin now, to an extent. It’s not a huge sub-plot, but it is something to watch this year.