- Gary Laney, Reporter, GeauxTigerNation
When one breaks down the 15 returning starters on LSU's football teams, the list does not include junior cornerback Tharold Simon, a fact that may cause one to do a double take.
Simon emerged as a one of the team's rising stars last season as LSU's third cornerback, a backup role that plays almost starter-level snaps. He led the team with 10 pass break ups, tied for second on the team with two interceptions and tied for the team lead with 12 passes defended.
With so many teams playing multiple wide receivers -- either because of a spread scheme or because LSU's potent defense forces so many long-yardage situations -- the Tigers often go to the third cornerback, and fifth defensive back in total, to boost the coverage schemes. That allowed Simon to log plenty of snaps last season.
It's a role Tyrann Mathieu excelled at in 2010, propelling him to a Heisman Trophy finalists 2011 season. Simon hopes for a similar transition.
"I'm going to step in there with a lot of confidence," Simon said of his new starting role. " After the last two corners who went to the top [Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne were both first-round NFL draft picks in the last two drafts], I'm going to try to fit their shoes."
But to follow in the footsteps of Peterson and Claiborne, Simon, who's unusual height and length (he's a long-limbed 6-foot-3) makes him a rare commodity among cornerbacks, said he has to make more big plays to live up to the standards set by his recent predecessors at the position.
"I've dropped too many interceptions," he said. "If I can get my hands on it, I should intercept it. That's what I'm trying to do."
Young vs. old: Two more familiar names who have yet to start are still trying to earn their starters' stripes.
Now, Johnson is in a battle with senior Josh Downs to replace NFL first-round draft pick Michael Brockers at defensive tackle. And Collins is locked in a competition with Josh Dworaczyk for the left guard spot.
Collins seemed like a shoe-in until Dworaczyk, who had 26 career starts before missing all of 2011 with a knee injury, was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA.
"Honestly, it (Dworaczyk's return) was probably the best thing," Collins said. "I'm glad he got that sixth year because he's a guy that not only is a guy on the team, a teammate, he's a guy who can coach. He's a guy who can tell you what you did wrong, tell you how to beat that. He can tell you how to get better."
Johnson is in a similar competition with Downs, who has never been a starter, but has always been in the playing time mix among the defensive tackles since his freshman year.
To compete better, Johnson said he dropped from 320 pounds to 305 pounds this season.
"I was trying to gain weight and get big because of the way SEC players are, but I realized it's not all about the weight," Johnson said. "It slows you down a bit. That's a big part of it."
Speaking of weight: Junior linebacker Tahj Jones came to LSU as a too-svelte 200 pounds. Now, as a junior projected starter, he's "bulked up" to 205 pounds.
That's defensive back size in the SEC, but Jones, who saw his playing time increase in mostly a reserve role a sophomore, held up well last year.
"I'd like to get to 215," he said. "I think I can play at 215 and be just as fast. I think I'll gain some weight during camp."
6hSam Khan Jr.