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Muncie shows coverage skills at LB

BATON ROUGE, La. -- When Luke Muncie was in high school at suburban Houston power Klein Oak, he was a tall, rangy defensive back who was rated by many scouting services as a future college safety although he had a body type that might eventually allow him to become a linebacker.

"More people recruited me as a safety than as a linebacker," said Muncie, who knew which position would be best for his future. "I knew receivers were going to be faster [in college] and I'm not going to lie, I didn't feel like I had the best coverage skills in the world."

Now a starter for LSU at strongside linebacker, listed at a linebacker-looking 6-foot-2, 220 pounds (he has recently lost weight because of an illness), Muncie showed during the Tigers' 12-10 win Saturday over Auburn that he actually has some coverage skills.

Seeing extended playing time because of Auburn's preference to keep tight ends -- particularly star senior Phillip Lutzenkirchen -- in the game on passing downs, Muncie responded with a solid game, getting two tackles but also an interception of a pass intended for Lutzenkirchen, killing an Auburn possession at the LSU 44.

It was the first career interception for the junior, who is the personification of LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis' preference for speed over size.

While many college coaches who recruited Muncie saw a big, physical safety, Chavis saw a player who could be bulked up to be a faster-than-average linebacker, fitting in to his rule: "We will never sacrifice speed for size."

On the interception, which happened with LSU nursing a 12-10 lead and Auburn facing a third-and-4 at its own 48, Muncie sat in a zone as Lutzenkirchen provided blocking help on defensive end Sam Montgomery. Lutzenkirchen released and wandered downfield, and Muncie followed. Quarterback Kiehl Frazier rolled away from pressure to his left, toward Lutzenkirchen, then lobbed a lazy floater that Munice batted in the air and then caught. It was one of two interceptions on the night for LSU, which is second in the SEC with eight interceptions.

For a player who normally comes out of the game in passing situations, it was perhaps an argument for LSU to stay in its base formation more often.

"I think Luke is getting better and better," LSU coach Les Miles said, adding that he is pleased with the play of all three of the Tigers' starting linebackers.

Middle linebacker Kevin Minter and weakside linebacker Lamin Barrow are the Tigers' two leading tacklers, but they've gotten more snaps than Muncie because of situational substitutions. When LSU goes to a nickel package on passing downs or against spread formations, Muncie comes out of the game for cornerback Jalen Collins, who is the fifth defensive back in those situations.

Muncie, who didn't get the starting job until Tahj Jones was lost to an academic issue shortly before the start of the season, played significant snaps in the opener against North Texas, which used tight ends a lot, even on passing downs, mostly to help block on pass protection. Against Washington and Idaho, however, Muncie's playing time decreased because both those teams often played 3- and 4-receiver sets, meaning Muncie would come out for Collins.

Like North Texas, Auburn chose to not only keep tight ends in the game but to often target Lutzenkirchen, one of the SEC's top pass-receiving tight ends. He did catch five passes, but for a mere 29 yards. Keeping tight ends in the game didn't stop Frazier from getting sacked four times and it didn't help Auburn establish the run, either. LSU dumped Auburn for losses on 10 of 30 run plays.

The LSU defense again featured productive play from the linebackers, who combined for three tackles for loss to go with Muncie's interception, further solidifying the linebackers' presence on the defense.

Muncie would like to take that a step further and get Chavis to keep the 4-3 package in the game on more passing situations. That would, of course, mean more playing time for him.

"Of course, I'd like to do anything I can to stay on the field longer," Muncie said. "But Coach Chavis is an amazing defensive coordinator and anything he says I'll do.

"All I can control is how hard I play and my assignment."