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Monday, March 18, 2013
LSU D-line's talent trumps experience

By Gary Laney

Anthony Johnson
LSU junior Anthony Johnson (90) will lead an inexperienced D-line into 2013, but the new faces dotting the lineup show plenty of promise.

BATON ROUGE, La. -- For LSU fans who worry about how the defensive line will look in 2013 after the Tigers lost all four starters, seeing Danielle Hunter walk into a room would ease their minds.

He's all of 6-foot-5, with the long, slender build of a basketball player, but the bulk of a football player. Will he be able to produce in the way that LSU expects at the position? That much is uncertain.

But he and a lot of LSU's young, talented defensive linemen sure look the part.

"It's not going to be easy to replace those two first-round prospects who are going to the NFL," said Hunter, referring to Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, the Tigers' starters for the last two seasons. "All we have to do is keep grinding, listen to the coaches and take it practice by practice."

Hunter personifies LSU's fate on the defensive line. As a group, there isn't one Tiger defensive lineman who has experience in the role he'll be asked to play in 2013, as LSU looks to replace six of its top nine linemen, including all four starters. But almost to the man, every DL candidate at least looks like he has the potential to handle the role that's asked of him.

Take the group's leader, junior defensive tackle Anthony Johnson. As the most productive returning player on the line -- Johnson had 10 tackles for loss in 2012 -- he inherits the role despite not starting a season ago. That might be a concern. On the other hand, Johnson was the nation's top-rated defensive tackle in the 2011 signing class and likely would have started for most college football teams last season.

"I sat behind some great guys my freshman year, Michael Brockers, and last year Bennie Logan and Josh Downs," Johnson said. "This year, it's just me and Ego Ferguson. It's time to step up. It's a move, but it's part of life. I have to step up to it."

Stepping up to a leadership role is something to which Johnson is accustomed.

"It's part of life," he said. "I was always the bigger kid. I was always put into a leadership role at a young age. I was ready to take that opportunity when the time came."

Given his resume and his ease at embracing a somewhat familiar leadership role, it's not hard to imagine Johnson going from being LSU's No. 3 defensive tackle to not only the leader of LSU's line but one of the better defensive linemen in the SEC. The only catch: He hasn't proven himself when it counts.

Hunter passes the eye test. Johnson passes the resume test. But the tests that matter are the ones they will take on this fall on Saturday nights.

Johnson and Ferguson will get promoted to first team after playing second-team tackle last year. Defensive end is an even less proven position. Hunter and juniors Jermauria Rasco and Jordan Allen are the only veteran ends in spring camp, as LSU awaits the arrival of four true freshmen this summer after their high school graduations.

In the meantime, the Tigers will experiment with sophomore linebacker Ronnie Feist at one of the defensive end spots.

"He's a guy at linebacker who is physical enough to step down and play that short-side end," Miles said. Perhaps the bigger reason is LSU has just three scholarship defensive ends in camp and needs numbers at the position.

While LSU lacks experience and, at least for the spring, depth, expectations remain high because of the pre-LSU resumes of the key figures in camp.

Johnson was the consensus No. 1 defensive tackle in the country coming out of high school in 2011. Ferguson and three ends vying for starting jobs were four-star prospects. LSU has plenty more talent coming this summer, including the four true freshmen ends and two more tackles (one true freshman tackle, Christian LaCouture, has enrolled and is going through spring practice).

Part of the reason LSU has young talent ready was the expectation of the roster turnover that took place after last season. Hunter said he anticipated players leaving for the NFL, and Montgomery often spoke to him about stepping up to a leadership role.

"Sam was my mentor," Hunter said. "He taught me everything."

But most of Hunter's playing time last season came on special teams. Montgomery might have prepared him, but Hunter hasn't had a chance to translate that to games. He is getting ready for that chance now.

He looks good doing it. But it doesn't matter how good he looks in March. How will he look when TCU lines up against him and the Tigers to start the season?

"You'll have to wait and see," Hunter said with a smile.