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Questions for the LSU Defense this Spring

A look at what the Tiger defensive lineup may look like in spring practice.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Louisiana State vs Central Florida Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a month out from the start of spring football, but now’s as good of a time as any to look at the returning LSU depth chart, where the open spots are and what competition will look like this spring.

We’ll start with the Tiger defense.

LSU Defensive Two-Deep, Spring 2019

Position Returning Starter Competition
Position Returning Starter Competition
NT Tyler Shelvin, Dominic Livingston, Siaki Ika
DE Rashard Lawrence -or- Glen Logan Neil Farrell, Nelson Jenkins
DE Breiden Fehoko Davin Cotton, Justin Thomas, Travez Moore
OLB (Bench) K'Lavon Chaisson Andre Anthony, Jarell Cherry
ILB Patrick Queen, Micah Baskerville
ILB Jacob Phillips Damone Clark
OLB (Field) Michael Divinity Ray Thornton
CB Derek Stingley, Kary Vincent, Mannie Netherly
CB Kristian Fulton Kelvin Joseph, Jontre Kirklin
Nickel Kary Vincent -or- Jacoby Stevens Eric Monroe
S Grant Delpit Cam Lewis
S Todd Harris, Jacoby Stevens, Eric Monroe
Returning starters in bold.

Dave Aranda returns seven true starters for his group, which finished 12th in defensive S&P+ and 21st in yards per play allowed. There’s an eighth when you count bench linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson, who looked ready for a breakout season before blowing out his knee at the end of the season opener.

Overall, eight of the top 10 tacklers on the team are back. That said, let’s look at the big questions this unit will have to answer before the 2019 season begins:

Defensive Line Reshuffling

Up front, LSU has one spot up for grabs technically in the departed Ed Alexander’s nose tackle position, but it may just lead to a reshuffling overall. Breiden Fehoko, Rashard Lawrence and Glen Logan combined for 17.5 tackles for loss last season, and Fehoko started the first half of the season in the nose position. So there’s a solid argument to be made that Aranda and Dennis Johnson would have their best three guys on the field in that set.

That said, LSU’s most effective front usually featured Alexander in as more of a classic, space-eating, zero- or one-technique nose. And even without Alexander, there’s some fantastic depth there with sophomore Tyler Shelvin, redshirt freshman Dominic Livingston (should he stay) and true frosh Siaki Ika. Fehoko will likely be at least limited this spring coming off his torn bicep, if not completely out, so there’s an opportunity here for all three guys to make their case for an increased role. Shelvin definitely showed a lot of improvement down the stretch in 2018. The question is can that continue, or will he fall back into some bad habits.

Reserve Neil Farrell has flashed some impressive talent at times as well, and he provides some quality depth while he waits his turn. Likewise, redshirt players like Nelson Jenkins and Davin Cotton can begin to find their roles as well.

Former JUCO recruit Travez Moore is in a bit of a crossroads here. You don’t see many junior college guys redshirt, but Moore did last year. He was always kind of a project recruit, a long, athletic guy who had some pass-rush skills to develop. But that development needs to start quickly, because attrition is going to loom for this roster over the next five months.

Linebackers Try to Replace a Legend

Two true starters return here, plus a host of players with some starting experience — including the returning Chaisson, who racked up five tackles and a sack in the season opener against Miami before leaving with a season-ending knee injury.

But the hole is a big one; Devin White may very well be the best linebacker in LSU history, and replacing his speed and athleticism is hard enough, but then there’s also the mental aspect. White was very much the quarterback of the front seven last year, and those duties will fall to either the returning Jacob Phillips or Michael Divinity, or possibly the new starter inside. The question is whether that will be junior Patrick Queen — who played very well in a relief/rotational appearance in the Fiesta Bowl — or sophomores Micah Baskerville or Damone Clark.

There is still a path for Tyler Taylor to return barring some change in his legal status, as he is still enrolled in school. Off hand, I don’t think that would time out with spring practice.

At the Bench position, Chaisson should be ready to go five months out from his surgery, but one would imagine that the coaches will still give him a light practice load. Behind him, Andre Anthony and Ray Thornton need to step up and show if they can contribute as well.

Secondary Openings at Corner & Safety

Corey Raymond and Bill Busch have two openings with the departures of Greedy Williams and John Battle, and as usual, they have a host of talented options in competition. Superstar true freshman Derek Stingley looks like a lock to take the other cornerback spot opposite of Kristian Fulton. He started practicing with LSU immediately in bowl prep and, from reports, was every bit as impressive as his billing. And keep in mind, his billing is that he is the best cornerback prospect LSU has ever signed.

That said, nickel corner Kary Vincent had an excellent Fiesta Bowl subbing in for the starting corners. But then he also came into his own as a versatile nickel corner this year with 31 tackles, a sack, an interception and six pass break-ups.

At safety, Todd Harris would seem to be the natural choice to replace Battle alongside Delpit, but junior Jacoby Stevens may have something to say there, as will sophomore Kelvin Joseph and former stud recruit Eric Monroe. He has battled injuries to date, but was still a top 10 prospect at the position. Joseph saw time at corner as a true freshman, but is more of a natural fit at safety. Whether he works there, or continues to bounce around will be a sub-plot to watch as well.

What to do with Jacoby Stevens?

The former five-star recruit caught fire in the final three games of the season with 27 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and an interception. But what is he? A sub-package linebacker, a nickel/dime back or a true safety? The latter probably offers the biggest role, and there’s a spot up for grabs opposite of Delpit, but he’ll have some strong competition from Harris.

This may be Aranda’s best chance to experiment a little with some three-safety looks against multi-receiver sets. At 225 pounds, Stevens has plenty of size to play in the box, and he’s certainly fluid in space. The question is how he can hold up in coverage on a regular basis. If he can continue to show the instincts we saw in the final few games, he might be a very intriguing wild card for Aranda to play.