- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Chat with Lamar Louis for a minute or two and it will become clear that LSU’s linebackers have plenty of confidence.
One of several Tigers linebackers who will shift to new positions this spring -- Louis spent the first few practices at strongside linebacker after playing in the middle in 2013 -- Louis believes this could be the strongest the position group has been in his three seasons at LSU.
“I would like to think this is the best linebacker group that we’ve ever had,” Louis said. “Most definitely it’s the fastest and most athletic. I was looking at drills today and I was talking to Kwon Alexander, basically telling him that this might be the most talented, athletic group ever, period.”
They certainly look capable, but still have a lot to prove about their abilities to produce in game situations. LSU’s defense took a step backward last season -- the Tigers ranked 15th nationally in total defense (340.7 ypg) after ranking second (261.5) in 2011 and eighth in 2012 (307.62) -- and the linebackers weren’t a particularly dominant group.
Obviously one of their top goals is to reverse that downward trend.
“As a defense, I think we have to prove a lot. Every year I think we have to prove a lot because LSU defense is top-notch,” Louis said. “We’re known to be tough, and we’re known to be fast. You could say that the past few years, we haven’t had that swagger from the other teams, maybe the national championship contenders and whatnot. Same talent, same great coaching. I just think we were missing that swagger, basically saying that we’re here and we’re knocking down doors. That’s what we’re trying to bring back to the game this spring.”
Perhaps that’s why defensive coordinator John Chavis is trying out some new personnel groups this spring. In the early practices, Louis shifted outside, Alexander switched from strongside linebacker to the weak side -- where he would replace Lamin Barrow -- and touted sophomore Kendell Beckwith is backing up senior D.J. Welter in the middle.
There are a lot of moving pieces in play, but they all relate to Chavis’ philosophy of putting the best three linebackers on the field.
“At LSU, you can be a starter one year, but the coaches preach that every day, you have to give your all every year,” said Welter, LSU’s leading returning tackler with 80 stops a season ago. “So definitely it’s a big-time competition at every linebacker spot, so you have to be on your A-game and just work on the small individual battles every day. If I handle mine and my buddy handles his, then somebody will end up making a play.”
Beckwith was LSU’s highest-rated signee in 2013 and said he was the “happiest man ever” when LSU’s coaches told him he’d move back to linebacker. That’s one of the positions he played in high school and where he wanted to play all along.
Welter has assisted him in learning a new position, even if both players realize that their competition for playing time has already begun.
That’s no different than any of the other linebacker positions, though, where competition is the theme of the spring.
“When you’re competing against each other, we all work hard,” Alexander said. “That’s the first thing we talked about when we were on our break -- just to work hard, go out here and just compete and whoever gets the spot gets the spot. We’re all going to back each other up regardless.”
Welter said the ideal situation for the linebackers would be for each player to prove to Chavis that he deserves a role in some package or a spot in the rotation. The veteran said he sees plenty of potential for such a situation within the group.
“I feel like we have the strongest room since I’ve been here,” Welter said. “Depth-wise we definitely have people at every position in the linebacker room that can play multiple positions.”
LSU’s defense will need to improve across the board if it returns to the dominant form of previous seasons, and the linebackers know they will play a vital role in that improvement. One area of emphasis is developing an attitude, which is why the defense has taken to calling itself the “Legion of Boom” and breaking group huddles during drills by chanting, “L-O-B.”
On-field results allow such a motto to evolve from idle chatter to a defensive identity -- just ask the inspiration for the L-O-B label, the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks -- but the process has to start somewhere. It might as well be with a linebacker group that’s trying to bring some fire back to LSU’s defense.
“We look at the Seahawks and we’re just trying to resemble them in what we do and the swagger that we approach the game with,” Louis said. “We’re all competing with each other and the thing about it is we’re all trying to be great. We’re all practicing like we’re the No. 1 guys and we’re developing great relationships outside of football at the same time.”