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Previewing the 2017 Tigers: Linebackers

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AKA the Dave Aranda Toy Department.

Chris Parent/LSU

Amazing what a difference two years makes.

It wasn’t that long ago that LSU’s linebacker depth chart was the source of tremendous consternation. Defensive coordinator John Chavis had taken an absentee role on the recruiting trail, and it showed. At one point, current defensive coordinator Dave Aranda noted that LSU had more kickers and specialists on scholarship than it did linebackers.

Now? Aranda has a lot to play with.

LSU Linebackers

Position Player Ht/Wt Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF
Position Player Ht/Wt Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF
OLB (Buck) 49 Arden Key (Jr.) 6-6, 265 40 6.30% 14.5 12 0 3 3
87 Sci Martin (So.) 6-4, 256 2 tackles in 5 game appearances.
46 Andre Anthony (Fr.-RS) 6-5, 242 Redshirted.
43 Ray Thornton (Fr.-RS) 6-3, 228 Redshirted.
4 K'Lavon Chaisson (Fr.) 6-4, 240 Four-star recruit.
OLB (F) 23 Corey Thompson (Sr.) 6-2, 228 Injured.
45 Michael Divinity (So.) 6-2, 239 10 1.60% 1 0 0 0 0
35 Devin Voorhies (Sr.) 6-2, 233 4 0.60% 0 0 0 0 0
ILB (Mack or Rover) 48 Donnie Alexander (Sr.) 6-1, 230 29.5 4.60% 0.5 0 1 1 0
56 M.J. Patterson (Sr.) 6-4, 236 No game appeareances in 2016.
40 Devin White (So.) 6-1, 248 22.5 3.50% 3 1 0 0 1
50 Layton Garnett (Fr.-RS) 6-4, 247 Redshirted.
51 Jonathan Rucker (Sr.) 6-1, 240 7 tackles in 6 game appearances.
8 Patrick Queen (Fr.) 6-1, 220 Four-star recruit.
24 Tyler Taylor (Fr.) 6-2, 238 Four-star recruit.
6 Jacob Phillips (Fr.) 6-3, 237 Four-star recruit.
Returning starters in bold.

Fourteen total scholarship linebackers and that number jumps to 15 with the news that walk-on Jonathan Rucker will receive one for the upcoming season. A lot of youth, but a lot of talent, one superstar and a couple of potential breakout players.

SWOT Analysis

Strengths: There are some incredible prospects at this position.

The returning star here, of course, is Buck linebacker Arden Key. He’s fresh off a school record 12 sacks in 10 games last season, and he’s poised to become a top-10 draft pick following this upcoming season. But he’s still recovering from shoulder surgery, and isn’t likely to see the field until SEC play begins in week three.

And this defense is still in relatively good shape for that short term.

A trio of talented young players will rotate through the spot in Key’s absence, and spell him: Andre Anthony, Ray Thornton and K’Lavon Chaisson. Anthony is a former academic redshirt who used his year off to put on a good 25-30 pounds of weight, and excelled in the spring while Key was absent. Thornton, meanwhile, really attacked the offseason program, and has been one of the stars of training camp to date, according to sources inside Football Ops. And then there’s Chaisson, who has every tool to become Key’s successor as a dangerous pass-rush threat.

Those three should be able to approximate Key’s production, at least in the short-term. Once he returns? Aranda should be able to put together a very dangerous rotation — including using two of them on opposite sides, occasionally.

Inside, the starters are set in stone with senior Donnie Alexander and sophomore Devin White, but expect true freshmen Tyler Taylor and Jacob Phillips to rotate in as well. Alexander started the final two games after Kendall Beckwith was injured and performed solidly. He’s bulked up to 230 pounds, which should help him hold up better against the interior running game.

White appears ready to become the Tigers next star linebacker. His 2016 workload was limited, but he showed some explosive potential as a blitzer and playmaker from the “Rover” linebacker position. In the spring, he dedicated himself to the finer points of the position — he’s been open about wanting to model his game after last year’s Rover, Duke Riley, who made most of the play calls for the defense. It showed in the spring game, where White made several tackles from sideline-to-sideline. He has the size to thump around and fill gaps, and the speed to run players down outside. If he can do the little things consistently, he’s poised to be an All-SEC type of performer.

And talents like Taylor and Phillips will give LSU some other options that could lead to Aranda getting a little more exotic with this unit. Indeed, look for the Tiger front to look a little more like a classic 3-4, as opposed to a 4-3 defense with an end standing up instead of in a three-point stance.

The other outside linebacker, the “F,” or Field, position, will be manned by sixth-year senior Corey Thompson. He arrived to LSU as a safety (in 2012 — fun fact, Thompson has played with both Key and Danielle Hunter, and neither of those two were ever on this roster together), but Thompson bulked up to make the move last year, only to suffer a season-ending injury in training camp. Aranda raves about Thompson, much like he did Riley last year. Athletically, Thompson could provide an interesting option in coverage to the wide side of the defense, although you have to wonder about him setting the edge in the running game. Sophomore Michael Divinity will back him up, and should see a steady rotation building towards a starting role in 2018.

Weaknesses: The top of the depth chart is short on experience.

There’s an interesting dichotomy in play for Aranda this season, particularly at the linebacker position. This offseason, Aranda spoke openly about keeping things very basic for this defense last season, and trying to keep as much of what the veteran players were already used to.

The upside to having a younger group is that he has a blank canvas to really paint his own picture on. The downside, is that if he throws too much at them too quickly, he’ll create some confusion with alignments and assignments. And that can be a problem for a 3-4 unit, because stand-up players need to be ready at the snap of the ball, especially against the run. And that won’t happen if they’re trying to figure out their responsibilities.

Opportunities: Dave Aranda has plans to deploy a lot of these athletes.

Of all the sub-plots on defense here, the one that’s getting the least play are the adjustments that Aranda has in store for year two. Honestly, that’s probably because we won’t really know what will happen until we actually see it.

He’s already on the record as saying that the defense will deploy a more typical 3-4 look, but past units at Wisconsin and Utah State were unafraid to use different front alignments with four or even five linebackers. That was mostly because he lacked the big, space-eating linemen, but LSU could be in a similar boat with Tyler Shelvin’s ineligibility.

The idea of pairing Key and one of the other edge rushers like Chaisson or Thornton has already come up, but LSU could also replace a lineman with one of the other inside linebackers, like Taylor. Having versatile linemen like Rashard Lawrence and Christian LaCouture, who could play inside or at end, helps as well. Amoeba-type fronts with a lot of players standing at the line can be vulnerable to power teams, but they can be very effective in small, well-timed doses.

Threats: This group needs Arden Key to hit the next level.

Make no mistake. LSU can be fine without Key in a short-term situation, but let’s not underplay his value. He takes this front seven into a different stratosphere. Key is a force-multiplier for a pass-rush, and he’s somebody that an offense will always account for. Every single QB and center on LSU’s schedule will be looking to see where No. 49 lines up before a given play. The Tiger pass-rush can be plenty dangerous without him — Lawrence, in my opinion, may be the best interior lineman the program has had in some time — but Key is that special.

If he has to miss the BYU game, that’s no big deal. Likewise, I wouldn’t risk him against Chattanooga either. But he needs to be back by SEC play.