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Linebacker a top priority for LSU in 2016

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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Look for LSU to address the defensive side of the ball -- particularly the linebackers and defensive line -- as it fills slots in its 2016 recruiting class.

Defensive tackle Edwin Alexander, cornerback Saivion Smith and safeties Cameron Lewis and Clifford Chattman are the only defensive prospects out of the nine players already on LSU’s 2016 verbal commitment list. But after predominantly filling holes on offense in the most recent signing class, recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson said defense will be the priority over the next several months.

“The linebacker position is one that we need to fill,” Wilson said last week at an LSU Tiger Tour stop in Biloxi, Mississippi. “If you look at last year, we only took seven on the defensive side of the ball, so we want to up that. The year prior to that, we lost so many offensively, so we wound up taking 16 in the last class. We anticipate our numbers to be much greater defensively: linebacker, defensive tackle, defensive end and of course a marquee quarterback.”

The Tigers already have a pledge from a marquee quarterback -- 6-foot-6 Feleipe Franks, the No. 55 prospect on the ESPN 300 -- although offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said a few weeks ago that the Tigers might try to sign a second quarterback in this class. However, the Tigers don’t have a commitment from a linebacker yet, and that position might become an adventure over the next year or so.

Two of the Tigers’ three projected starters (weakside linebacker Deion Jones and strongside linebacker Lamar Louis) are seniors and starting middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith will be a draft-eligible junior. Thus it’s entirely possible that new linebackers coach Kevin Steele will have to break in three new starters in 2016.

Most likely, those starters will be players who were already on campus this spring since LSU failed to sign a linebacker in its 2015 class and added just two -- middle linebacker C.J. Garrett and outside linebacker Donnie Alexander -- the year before. Perhaps that’s why Steele worked safety Devin Voorhies and defensive end M.J. Patterson at linebacker spots during spring practice, as he sought solutions for possible future attrition.

Wilson said the Tigers could sign as many as four linebackers in the upcoming class, but insisted the coaching staff is not alarmed by its numbers at the position.

“It’s important for us. Year in and year out, you don’t quite know how it’s going to turn out,” Wilson said. We’ll have Clifton [Garrett], Ronnie [Feist], Donnie, Duke [Riley]. We’ll have six already on campus. We could possibly lose two or three of them with this year’s class and so we’ll sign probably about four at the position. But we like the parity and the dispersement amongst the classes.”

He added that development will be key for Steele’s bunch during the 2015 season. Beckwith and Riley appear to be the strongest candidates to start should they return in 2016. Beckwith is already on the verge of stardom after taking over as a starter midway through 2014, while Riley, Louis’ backup at strongside linebacker, is capable of playing every linebacker position. Otherwise, LSU’s reserves have extremely limited game experience on scrimmage downs.

Those factors will figure into the equation as LSU’s coaches determine which linebackers to add to the upcoming class. If, as the 2015 season progresses, the coaches feel that the current Tigers are not progressing at a satisfactory pace, they might have to emphasize adding players who are ready to contribute immediately instead of talented prospects who might need time to develop.

LSU signs junior college transfers on a nearly annual basis, and Wilson would not rule out that possibility if the Tigers need to address an immediate need at linebacker next year.

“We anticipate what we already have and how those guys are developing. If we feel that we’re in a situation where the development isn’t on pace, then JC may be something we look at it,” Wilson said. “We like our numbers, we recognize attrition before it gets to us and we just go right ahead. But there’s no element of surprise.”