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Spring preview: Secondary

2/28/2012

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Given the past few seasons, it seems like it's a good situation to be a rising star in LSU's secondary.

Since 2008, the Tigers have turned talented potential into professional production in the defensive backfield. Starting in 2007 with Craig Steltz, LSU has had three defensive backs vie for the renowned Thorpe Award in the past five years.

Better still, Tiger players have owned the award for two years running, with cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne sweeping the award in 2010 and 2011. As if the secondary needed more recognition, nickelback Tyrann Mathieu went to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist.

On top of losing two starters, LSU's secondary sent more talent to the NFL last week when secondary coach Ron Cooper parlayed his success in Baton Rouge into a job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Cooper's spot will be filled by former Nebraska secondary coach Corey Raymond.

With the talent the Tigers are pushing out of the program right now though, being a new face in the secondary isn't exactly a bad prospect, for players or coaches.

Moving on from Mo: LSU lost a first-round NFL draft pick at cornerback in 2011, but it was hard to tell because of the emergence of Morris Claiborne.

The junior took over duties as a lockdown corner after Peterson and flourished, earning his own Thorpe and a likely top-10 draft pick of his own.

This spring, the Tigers begin the process of finding Claiborne's heir apparent. Rising junior Tharold Simon is the obvious choice and has spent most of the season on the opposite side of the field from Claiborne.

Mathieu technically was credited with starts at cornerback a majority of the time, and he will undoubtedly get some looks out wide. But it seems like a reasonable assumption that the Honey Badger will remain as a free-roaming nickelback, where he can blitz and create havoc. Or will he?

Simon, with his wiry 6-foot-3 frame, is primed to take over cornerback duties. But where does the other half of that equation come from? Rising sophomores Jalen Collins and Micah Eugene have been hot names for LSU fans. Or is it Mathieu? Starting Thursday with the beginning of spring practice, a better picture will start to become clear.

Raymond's arrival: Raymond comes back to LSU, his alma mater, after spending less than a year with Nebraska.

In his one season in Lincoln, Raymond's secondary finished No. 34 in passing yards allowed, or roughly 192 yards per game. The ranking climbed as high as No. 18 when factoring in pass efficiency defense. The Cornhuskers allowed opponents to complete just 53.2 percent of their passes.

Those numbers are a good start, but LSU fans have become accustomed to a dominant secondary after three years with Cooper. A lot of the Tigers' production probably had to do with talent, but there's still plenty of talent stocked in the backfield, and last year's secondary gave up a measly 173 passing yards per game and a mere seven passing touchdowns to Nebraska's 16.

As a former LSU player and high school coach in his hometown of New Iberia, La., Raymond will undoubtedly be looked to as a recruiter for this Tiger coaching staff.

Considering he joins the team just a few days out from spring practice, it will be interesting to see his top priorities play out between recruiting and meshing with his new secondary.

The Last Line: For all the ballyhoo about Claiborne's departure (which is justified), LSU's other lost starter in the secondary is perhaps just as important.

Departed senior safety Brandon Taylor was a force throughout the 2011 season. He was one of just three defenders - the other two being early draft entires Claiborne and Michael Brockers - to start all 14 games. He finished third on the team in tackles with 71 and added 7.5 tackles for loss and two picks.

Taylor's nose for the ball was undeniable. He constantly snuffed out draw plays and screen passes for losses or minimal gains.

The Tigers return one monstrous starter at safety in rising junior Eric Reid, who drew second team All-America and All-SEC honors in 2011 after he led the team in tackles. Reid's credentials are unquestionable and he seems to be one of the defense's main leaders going into the spring.

But aside from Reid, who seems guaranteed to remain in his playmaker spot at free safety, LSU doesn't have another proven commodity. Craig Loston was the top safety recruit in the country coming out of high school in 2009, but he has yet to make an impact outside of special teams.

Other highly touted recruits like Ronnie Vinson will undoubtedly have a chance to make waves during spring practice. But with the loss of Taylor, the Tigers have to be hoping someone steps up to prove they can erase the defense's mistakes half as well as their lost senior.