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Insider

LSU defense makes the grade

10/25/2012
Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Offensive grades came yesterday. With LSU taking the weekend off, we now have a chance to look at LSU's defense -- the most enjoyable part of the squad to watch. Despite massive losses from 2011, the Tigers' defense continues to chug along.

SECONDARY

The starters: Tharold Simon, Eric Reid, Craig Loston, Jalen Mills

Key reserves: Jalen Collins, Ronald Martin, Micah Eugene

The breakdown: So much for the loss of Morris Claiborne and Brandon Taylor to the NFL draft, and so much for the preseason dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu. Mills beat out Collins for the open cornerback spot, and this unit hasn't looked back since. The Tigers are ranked fifth in the country in pass defense, allowing a mere 148 yards per game.

Even more encouraging, the unit has proven it still has depth despite the string of losses earlier this year. Loston missed one start with a toe injury, and Martin stepped in to nab two interceptions in his stead. And though Mills has started all eight games, Collins has stepped in and prevented big plays from the nickel and dime formations.

It'd be foolish to pretend that the loss of Mathieu has been totally negligible. The Tigers have not found a reliable playmaker to swing the momentum of the game quite like Mathieu, but the defensive backs are making plenty of big plays in their own right. The secondary has accounted for 13 interceptions through eight games, which is on pace to better last year's mark of 18. Eugene, who has taken a lot of Mathieu's nickelback reps, has come up with three sacks so far, which is twice as many as the Honey Badger managed.

The bottom line: The Tigers had to replace three starters from last year's squad, not to mention secondary coach Ron Cooper, who departed during the offseason. It hasn't mattered. LSU is ranked in the top 10 in pass defense, the secondary hasn't allowed a completion longer than 29 yards in conference play, and it has given up just two passing touchdowns in those four games. Grade: A

LINEBACKERS

The starters: Kevin Minter, Lamin Barrow, Luke Muncie

Key reserves: Lamar Louis, Deion Jones

The breakdown: Miles said Wednesday that Muncie is practicing, which seems like a good sign for his ability to return to the lineup against Alabama next week. If not, Louis has been stellar serving in spot duty -- he was originally playing behind the now-injured Kwon Alexander, after all. Minter is playing at such a high level that it's almost taken for granted these days. His 20-tackle outing in the loss to Florida was one of the most impressive performances at linebacker for LSU in some time.

Just as impressive and much more surprising is the improvements made by Barrow. The Tigers spent the majority of their time on defense playing out of nickel and dime formations last season, partially because neither Barrow or Tahj Jones could provide a consistent third option at linebacker. That hasn't been the case this year, as the junior is second on the team in tackles with 59.

The injury bug that has plagued LSU can be seen here as well, as Alexander went down for the year during what was probably his best game against Florida. Louis and Jones have been strong in reserve for Muncie.

The bottom line: For a unit in which Minter was the only proven commodity among many unknowns, the linebackers have not been the liability many thought they'd be. Grade: B+

DEFENSIVE LINE

The starters: Sam Montgomery, Bennie Logan, Anthony Johnson, Barkevious Mingo

Key reserves: Lavar Edwards, Josh Downs, Ego Ferguson, Chancey Aghayere

The breakdown: It's absurd to think that this defensive line isn't living up to the hype when you look at the statistics. LSU is third overall in total defense and ninth in rush defense, allowing fewer than 100 yards per game. The team also has 23 sacks on the season. So it's a bit hard to argue the defensive line isn't getting the job done.

But just for the sake of playing devil's advocate: six of those 23 sacks have come from positions not along the line. Montgomery and Mingo have just four and three sacks, respectively, after countless All-America predictions between the two of them. To be fair, Mingo has nine quarterback hurries and two fumble recoveries to his name.

The line responded well to getting gashed for 146 yards by Mike Gillislee -- which you can at least partially attribute to the time of possession woes in that game. They limited South Carolina and all-everything back Marcus Lattimore to 35 total yards. Texas A&M rushed for 138 total yards last weekend, but that came on 38 attempts -- a so-so average of 3.5 yards per try.

The bottom line: The defensive front has been strong and at times dominant. Running the ball on LSU takes a full 60-minute commitment, and the Tigers have proven adept at hurrying the quarterback, if not always bringing him down. It hasn't looked quite as easy as the preseason hype made it out to be, but that's more a product of the huge expectations put on the unit than a lack of production. Grade: B+