Tuesday, April 2, 2013
Welter gets studious, earns reps at MLB
By Gary Laney
Sidelined by grades most of last season, D.J. Welter has become a better student on and off the field.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- D.J. Welter struggled as a student so much that he missed all of the 2012 season because he was academically ineligible.
That has not stopped him from progressing so much as a student of the game of football that he might end up being LSU's starting middle linebacker.
After missing all of last season except for LSU's loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl -- a game Welter played as Kevin Minter's primary backup -- Welter has surprised many not only by opening the spring as the starting middle linebacker, but by staying at the top of the depth chart through the first three weeks of spring practice.
"There's an opportunity here that he certainly has," head coach Les Miles said after last Thursday's second scrimmage, one in which Welter saw the majority of the snaps with the first team. Miles added, however, "We're not ready to say that's a starting lineup yet."
The Tigers have so many possibilities at middle linebacker that it makes it both impressive that Welter has dominated the reps with the first team and seemingly unlikely that LSU won't explore other options before next season.
LSU has a massive void to fill at the position after 130-tackle junior Minter opted to forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft. Many thought Lamin Barrow, who had 104 tackles last season as the starting weakside linebacker, would be a strong candidate to move over. Others thought LSU might try some of the more physical members of the talented 2012 signing class, including Lamar Louis or Ronnie Feist, who has been taking snaps with defensive ends this spring.
But few thought Welter, who played little before missing his entire sophomore season, might be the guy. The difference, said Welter and his teammates, is the way Welter has embraced the responsibilities of a middle linebacker.
"The mentality of a middle linebacker is a lot different than the outside," Welter explained. "They get to just make more plays on the outside, and I have to line everybody else, and then do my job. I feel like it's more of a burden on me to do that."
As the quarterback of his group, Welter said he has to work more not only in a given play, but off the field to get to know the defense and opposing offenses. Barrow has noticed that Welter has taken that role seriously.
Barrow has taken on the role of the senior leader of group, and part of that is that he tries to hit the film room more than his peers, to show the dedication of the leader. He said he has one rival in that department.
"If he's not in there (the film room) more than me, it's not anybody else," Barrow said. "Hats off to him for becoming a student of the game."
First, he had to become a better student.
Tahj Jones could join D.J. Welter in going from academically ineligible to the starting lineup.
Both Welter and Tahj Jones, the projected starter at strong-side linebacker, missed the entire 2012 regular season because of academics. Welter had to work on getting his grades up for the fall. When he did, he said he received a nod of approval from defensive coordinator John Chavis.
"I went up to (Chavis's) office and I told him that I could play in the game, and he told me, 'Do well in bowl practice and you'll have a chance to play,' " Welter said. "After I heard that, it really did help my confidence."
Minter had played extended snaps all season, rarely coming out of games unless he was hurt or if a game got out of hand. In the bowl game, however, Welter saw significant snaps as a backup, finishing with two tackles.
After that, he upped his time in the film room, a nod to what he has learned in years of backing up Minter and, before him, Kelvin Sheppard, two players noted for their physical prowess and football smarts.
"They were both very smart players," Welter said. "Kelvin, he knew the offensive plays as they were lining up. He'd be like, 'Watch right here, the flare,' and the offense would do it. I'd be like, 'Wow.' "
He said he had heard of linebackers with that sort of dedication and smarts, but seeing it with his own eyes was more impressive.
"Being able to see somebody else do it first-hand and not just hear about it, like Ray Lewis, Mike Singletary and all them, to see him do it first-hand gave me the confidence that if I keep working at it, I can be like him one day," Welter said.
It looks like now is the time for Welter to show that he can be that kind of player.