LSU Tigers: Kwon Alexander
BATON ROUGE, La. -- One of the leading questions for LSU's spring practice is how the Tigers' defense might function differently with Kevin Steele as defensive coordinator.
We probably won't have an answer there until a few weeks into the season -- LSU has no incentive to reveal anything before then -- but here's a small twist. Apparently the linebackers will be more involved when the Tigers shift into a nickel defensive package.
Under previous defensive coordinator John Chavis, the strongside linebacker (nicknamed "Sam") left the field and the Tigers used five defensive backs in the nickel along with the middle linebacker ("Mike") and weakside linebacker ("Will"). But strongside linebacker Duke Riley said he has started working at the "Money" position since spring practice started.
"Usually I wasn't in the nickel when Chief [Chavis] was here when I was at Sam," Riley said. "Me or Lamar [Louis] would go out and just the Will and the Mike would be in at the nickel, so I'm the Money now."
That shouldn't come as an enormous surprise. At Steele's previous stop, Alabama, Nick Saban's defenses frequently repped an assortment of linebackers and defensive backs at the Money position. Riley and Louis seem like obvious candidates for the job since Sam linebackers typically possess strong coverage skills in addition to tackling ability.
Such personnel adjustments frequently accompany the changes in philosophy that come with a new coordinator hire. But LSU's linebackers said they haven't noticed many major changes between the Chavis and Steele defensive schemes.
And in the meeting room or on the practice field, Steele's methods seem to be meshing well with the players from the position he also oversees, linebacker.
"He's not the type of coach that hollers and is just on you, on you, on you," Riley said. "He'll treat you like a pro and make sure you understand. It's hard to focus out there when a coach is [yelling], 'rawrrr rawrrr.' Steele is just the kind of coach where he'll pull you to the side, talk to you, tell you what you've got to do and everything goes from there.
"It's actually better for all of us. I've been having some of the best practices. Everybody has been having some of the best practices since we've been here."
The starting lineup seems set -- at least for now -- with Louis at Sam, Jones at Will and Kendell Beckwith at Mike. However, a key for LSU's linebackers this spring will be developing depth behind the three veterans.
Garrett, one of LSU's most highly recruited signees last year, believes he is better prepared to contribute than he was last fall, when he appeared in just three games.
"To be honest, toward the end of the season I was still a little bit confused," Garrett said. "I never really got the whole scheme down, so this year when Coach Steele got here, we got a chance to go over some of the new stuff and things like that, it kind of started clicking to me. I felt like I got a chance to really get a chance to sit down and actually look at it and understand it more."
It will be a tall order to steal snaps from Beckwith, though, after the junior linebacker developed into a star once he joined the starting lineup midway through last season. He finished the year with 77 tackles -- second only to Kwon Alexander's 90 -- and 7.5 tackles for loss.
Beckwith said during bowl practice that he was ready to take ownership of LSU's defense this season, and he insisted after a recent practice that it is now "his."
"I already own it. They know it. The guys on defense know it," Beckwith said with a grin. "I've been trying to just get the hang of everything right now, so I've kind of been keeping to myself and just helping people if I can. Once we start rolling and we get deep into this thing, they know. It'll be mine."
That certainly will not be a bad thing. Beckwith looks like a star in the making, and the veterans at the top of the depth chart should be fine in starting roles.
Yes, depth is a concern -- and it could become a greater issue in 2016, particularly if Beckwith plays well enough to enter the NFL draft after this season, since Louis and Jones are both seniors. But should the Tigers avoid any major health issues, Beckwith has high hopes for what LSU's linebacking corps can become this fall.
"I think we'll be the best three in the country, so I don't really have no concern about us," Beckwith said.
As is the case each spring, there are a number of positions that are up for the grabs for the Tigers. The competition between quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will generate the most attention, but there are several other positions where multiple players are vying for playing time.
Let’s take a look at five LSU position battles of interest this spring.
Offensive line: When last we saw Vadal Alexander and Jerald Hawkins, the two draft-eligible mainstays along the LSU offensive line both announced that they would return for the 2015 season. They also said they expect to man the tackle positions after Alexander played left guard last season and Hawkins played right tackle. If that comes to pass, that leaves three interior line spots up for grabs. Ethan Pocic would fill one of them -- he has started at both center and guard -- and inexperienced youngsters will likely fill the others. A few names to watch this spring: Junior Josh Boutte, sophomores Andy Dodd and K.J. Malone and redshirt freshmen William Clapp and Garrett Brumfield.
Linebacker: It will hurt losing All-SEC weakside linebacker Kwon Alexander, who led the Tigers with 90 tackles, but LSU still has a solid core at the position starting with junior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith (second on the team with 77 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss). New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele might shift things around a bit, incorporating some of the 3-4 looks that his defenses employed in his previous stop at Alabama. That might create some new roles for Steele’s linebackers. Lamar Louis could conceivably play a larger role, as could 2014 reserves like Duke Riley, Deion Jones and Clifton Garrett. The Tigers have everyone back at the position except for Alexander and D.J. Welter, so this veteran bunch should be a strength once everyone settles into the roles that Steele assigns them.
Cornerback: Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson -- who combined to start 13 games last season -- are out of the picture, so LSU essentially has one starting position to fill opposite junior Tre'Davious White. It will be interesting to see how Steele and secondary coach Corey Raymond opt to fill that hole. Jalen Mills, who started at cornerback for two seasons before starting at safety in 2014, would be a capable option. But they have plenty of alternatives, including Dwayne Thomas (returning from ACL surgery), Ed Paris and highly touted early enrollee Kevin Toliver. LSU’s secondary is loaded with talent, so this will not be a situation where Steele and Raymond are forced to settle on a lineup. They’ll be able to work through a number of options this spring and decide which personnel combinations they like best.
Defensive end: This will be only the first chapter of this battle. It will truly get interesting in the summer once signees Arden Key and Isaiah Washington arrive on campus, but somebody has to take the first step in replacing starters Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco for now. Hunter (13 TFLs and 1.5 sacks) and Rasco (7.5 TFLs and 4 sacks) were LSU’s top pass-rushers a season ago, although the Tigers left a lot to be desired in that department. Only South Carolina (1.08 sacks per game) averaged fewer sacks per game than LSU (1.46) among SEC defenses. Junior Tashawn Bower seems like an odds-on favorite to take over a starting job, but Sione Teuhema and Deondre Clark also played a bit as freshmen last season. New defensive line coach Ed Orgeron will certainly make it an objective to build a line that generates more sacks this season, and it will start with more consistent pressure off the edge. But who will Orgeron identify as the players who can handle that duty?
Quarterback: We can’t do a list like this and not touch on the quarterbacks. No position got more attention last season -- largely because Jennings and Harris were so inconsistent -- and it will continue to draw the most speculation until somebody nails down the job. Early enrollee Justin McMillan joined the team in January, but this remains a two-man race. Jennings has started 13 of the last 14 games, but he was underwhelming in his first season as a starter, completing 48.9 percent of his passes for 1,611 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions last fall. Harris had a few impressive moments as a freshman, but bombed in his starting audition against Auburn and failed to earn the trust of the coaching staff. LSU’s coaches insist, however, that he has every opportunity to win the job between now and September.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- He might add some new job responsibilities, but Kendell Beckwith should be the centerpiece of LSU’s defense in 2015.
Leading tackler Kwon Alexander’s departure after a standout junior season only reinforces that possibility -- one that Beckwith himself embraces.
The rising junior took over as the Tigers’ starting middle linebacker early last fall and wound up ranking second on the team with 77 tackles, trailing only Alexander’s 90.
It remains to be seen how defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s new scheme might affect Beckwith’s role -- might the Tigers shift him outside at points to use him as a rusher off the edge? -- but his first season playing linebacker full-time has set up Beckwith to lead the defense this fall.
“I feel like I’ve got a little bit of experience now and I kind of know what it’s going to take,” Beckwith said. “I feel like I can take over the defense.”
But who will join him in the starting lineup now that Alexander and departed former starter D.J. Welter are out of the picture?
Starting strongside linebacker Lamar Louis seems like a safe bet to occupy one of the starting spots. Before he decided to return for his senior season, Louis and Steele put their heads together, with Steele telling the undersized linebacker that he envisions him playing a role similar to that of former New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers linebacker Sam Mills.
The 5-foot-9 Mills was an All-Pro linebacker while playing under Steele with the Panthers in 1996.
“Me and Coach Steele were just talking about work ethic and just doing the right things at the right times. That’s one of the biggest things that we talked about,” Louis said. “Definitely we’re going to have some discipline in the linebacker room and he’s going to expect us to be good people, foremost, much more than good players. So that’s something that he was stressing was that Sam Mills was a great player, but he was also a disciplined, good person.”
Among the other candidates for increased playing time are Deion Jones and Duke Riley, who both started against Louisiana-Monroe last season while Alexander and Louis were sidelined. Ronnie Feist might be another possibility after ranking among the top performers in last year’s spring game, as could rising sophomore Donnie Alexander, who played in 12 games (mostly on special teams) as a true freshman.
But the candidate who will likely receive the most attention this spring will be sophomore Clifton Garrett, ESPN’s No. 2 inside linebacker prospect of 2014, who appeared in just three games last fall.
Illinois native Garrett reportedly had difficulty acclimating to the South Louisiana heat when he first arrived last summer, but still impressed teammates with his potential.
“His future’s going to be bright. He’s just got to come along a little bit faster,” Alexander said during bowl practice. “He works hard and he’s going to be a great player. When he learns to get the plays down and everything, be smart -- he’s the Mike backer, so he’s got to know all the keys and all that -- when he gets all that down, he’s going to be all right.”
During that same conversation, Alexander predicted that his position group in 2015 would be “the best linebackers in the country.” He later opted to pursue a future in the NFL, but even without Alexander, the group should still have the depth and talent to remain productive.
“We work hard enough to be the best linebackers in the country,” Alexander said. “Kendell coming up, he’s going to be one of the great ’backers, I’m trying to tell you. He works hard, he works real hard. We’ve got Lamar, D-Bo Jones, Duke Riley, all them. They work hard, everybody’s coming along well.”
Expect to see Steele move several of them around during the spring as the Tigers nail down some of their new defensive looks. But as Alexander indicated, LSU should have more than enough at linebacker in order to handle the demands of any additions Steele will make to the scheme.
Returning players: Kendell Beckwith (77 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 INT), Lamar Louis (29 tackles, 2.5 TFL), Deion Jones (27 tackles, 3.5 TFL), Duke Riley (20 tackles), Ronnie Feist (4 tackles), Donnie Alexander (1 tackle), Clifton Garrett (0 tackles).
Departed players: Kwon Alexander (90 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks), D.J. Welter (35 tackles, 2 TFL),
Committed prospects: None.
Outlook: It hurts to lose Alexander, the team’s leading tackler, but this is still a capable group with pretty good depth. LSU could potentially lose a lot from this position after this season, so closing strong on the recruiting trail would be big. But as for 2015, returning starters Beckwith and Louis are among the leaders of what should be a highly productive position for the Tigers. They will transition a bit with some new wrinkles that will likely come under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, but the Tigers have enough different skillsets within the group that we shouldn’t notice any drop-off.
Here are four key storylines to watch as kickoff approaches:
Snow Tigers: The weather could become a major storyline in this game, and it will be interesting to see whether it impacts the style of play in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
As of Thursday afternoon, the weather forecast for Saturday’s game called for temperatures in the 20s at kickoff along with a 10 percent chance of snow.
If that prediction comes through, it would be the coldest game in Les Miles’ tenure as the Tigers’ coach. To date, the coldest temperature at kickoff since Miles arrived at LSU in 2005 was 43 degrees for a 2005 game at Ole Miss. The Tigers have played just three games under Miles in which the temperature was 50 degrees or cooler at kickoff (the others were 47 degrees for a 2012 game at Arkansas and 50 degrees for a 2008 home game against Troy).
It could also be the coldest LSU game from at least the last 40 years. According to LSU’s online archive of box scores, the coldest temperature at kickoff since 1974 was 31 degrees for the 1992 LSU-Arkansas game in Fayetteville. The Tigers played 28 games in that timespan when the temperature was 50 degrees or cooler at kickoff and just seven when it was 40 or cooler.
Run and run some more: If it does snow, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see two run-heavy teams rely even more heavily on the ground game.
ESPN Stats & Information reports that LSU has run the ball an SEC-high 67 percent of the time this season, and its rushing success seems to have a correlation to its wins and losses. The Tigers are 5-0 when they rush for at least 200 yards and 2-3 when they do not.
Likewise, Arkansas has run for more than 200 yards in all four of its wins, but it has broken the 200-yard mark just once in its five losses (in an overtime loss to Texas A&M).
So if Arkansas’ backfield duo of Jonathan Williams (137 carries, 877 yards, 10 TDs) and Alex Collins (134-840, 10 TDs) enjoys more success moving the ball on the ground than LSU’s Leonard Fournette (152-736, 7 TDs) and Terrence Magee (81-447, 3 TDs), the Razorbacks are likely the favorite to win. LSU senior Kenny Hilliard (87-431, 6 TDs) is questionable to play after injuring his shoulder against Alabama last Saturday.
Loading the box: The worse the weather, the more likely it will be that the two defenses crowd the line of scrimmage to defend the run. That would be nothing new for the three top running backs in this game.
Fournette (67) has the most carries of any SEC back against defenses with eight or more defenders in the box. Williams (59) and Collins (56) are next in line behind the Tigers’ star freshman.
ESPN Stats & Information reports that Fournette is averaging 4.1 yards per carry against defenses with eight or more men in the box and 5.4 yards per carry against seven or fewer defenders.
LSU defense trending upward: It didn’t seem like it at the time, but the Tigers’ 41-7 loss to Auburn was a turning point in their season – particularly for their run defense.
In LSU’s first three games against Power 5 opponents (Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn), the Tigers surrendered 289.3 rushing yards per game. In the last four games (Florida, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Alabama), LSU gave up 109.3 rushing yards per game.
They have done an excellent job of shutting down drives in a hurry, too. Overall, LSU has forced 46 three-and-outs this season, which is tied for third in the FBS. Of those 46 three-and-outs, 18 came in the last four games – seven of which were by Alabama last week.
Defensive end Danielle Hunter (24 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss) was a key figure in that four-game stretch, as were weakside linebacker Kwon Alexander (31 tackles, 5 TFLs), middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith (30 tackles, 2 TFLs) and defensive end Jermauria Rasco (28 tackles, 2 TFLs).
In the last three games, LSU’s defense has allowed just two touchdowns in regulation: passes by Ole Miss and Alabama. The Tigers haven’t surrendered a rushing touchdown since the first quarter of the Florida game on Oct. 11.
Here is a recap of their performances against the Crimson Tide:
S Jamal Adams
What he did: With LSU opening in a nickel defense, Adams earned his first career start. He had a relatively quiet night, finishing with two tackles.
What it means: Regardless, Adams is already one of LSU’s most valuable special-teams players and is quickly developing into a defensive star. He was already playing a bigger role on defense prior to cornerback Rashard Robinson’s indefinite suspension, which LSU announced prior to kickoff. If Robinson remains sidelined, that might mean even more playing time for Adams.
WR Malachi Dupre
What he did: Dupre ended a two-game drought without a catch by hauling in a one-handed touchdown catch in the first quarter. The 14-yard grab was Dupre’s only catch of the night, although he was also the intended receiver on Anthony Jennings’ fourth-down incomplete pass in overtime.
What it means: The touchdown catch was one of LSU’s top offensive highlights, but Dupre and fellow freshman Trey Quinn also had some crucial drops on third down. Those missed opportunities came back to bite the Tigers when Alabama rallied to tie and then win in overtime.
RB Leonard Fournette
What he did: Fournette came off the bench for the first time in four games, but still finished as the Tigers’ leading rusher. He ran 21 times for 79 tough yards and also returned a pair of kickoffs for a total of 45 yards.
What it means: Fournette is up to 736 rushing yards for the season, so he should have an opportunity to crack the 1,000-yard mark as a true freshman. He has been the Tigers’ leading rusher in eight of the past nine games and has clearly established himself as the top option in the backfield.
DT Davon Godchaux
What he did: Godchaux started at defensive tackle for the sixth straight game and finished with three tackles and half a tackle for loss.
What it means: He was particularly effective in LSU’s dominant third quarter, when he and Kwon Alexander once combined to stop T.J. Yeldon for a short gain and later when he and Danielle Hunter stopped Yeldon for a 2-yard loss later in the quarter. On the same series, Godchaux pressured Alabama quarterback Blake Sims into an incomplete pass.
RB Darrel Williams
What he did: With Kenny Hilliard sidelined by a shoulder injury, Williams emerged as a third option out of the backfield during the second half. He ran five times for 14 yards and also caught a pass for an 8-yard gain.
What it means: Williams doesn’t get a ton of touches, but he frequently makes good things happen when the Tigers put the ball in his hands. He spelled Fournette and Terrence Magee nicely in the second half and kept a fourth-quarter drive alive by converting a third-and-short with a 5-yard run.
Let’s get even more specific and break down the good and bad for LSU (5-2, 1-2 SEC) now that the Tigers are halfway through the 14-week regular season.
Defensive MVP: Kwon Alexander. In his first season as the Tigers’ starting weakside linebacker, Alexander has been one of their most consistent tacklers. His 10-tackle performance last Saturday against Florida marked the fourth time he either led LSU in tackles or tied for the team lead (the others were eight against both Wisconsin and New Mexico State and 13 against Mississippi State). He stripped Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott early in the third quarter of that game, creating a fumble that defensive end Danielle Hunter returned for a touchdown and has a team-high two forced fumbles. Alexander leads the Tigers with 46 total tackles – his average of 7.7 tackles per game is tied for ninth in the SEC – and is second on the team in tackles for loss (3.5) and quarterback hurries (four).
Biggest surprise: Offensive line play. Last Saturday’s 30-27 win at Florida was probably the offensive line’s most consistent performance of the season, with the Tigers rushing 50 times for 195 yards – their best rushing output thus far against a Power 5 defense. Overall, though, LSU’s veteran offensive line has sometimes struggled to impose its will the way we might have expected prior to the season. They’re second-to-last in the SEC and tied for 73rd nationally by allowing 2.14 sacks per game (15 in seven games). And nine SEC teams have a better yards-per-carry average than LSU’s 4.4. The Tigers’ quarterbacks could take some heat off the line by throwing the ball more consistently, forcing defenders to reconsider loading the box, but that hasn’t happened much yet. Until it does, LSU’s line and running backs share the burden of carrying the Tigers’ offense.
Biggest disappointment: Run defense. Prior to this season, it has been highly unusual for opponents to successfully run it right up the middle against John Chavis’ LSU defenses. That has been a successful formula for several teams this year while the Tigers struggled to identify consistent performers at defensive tackle. Out of four Power 5 opponents this season, three (Wisconsin, Mississippi State and Auburn) have run for at least 260 yards against LSU, with State posting a season high against the Tigers with 302 yards on 49 attempts. Another bright spot from the Florida game was that LSU handled the run better than it had in previous games, with the Gators running 32 times for 123 yards. The Tigers are going to face several more teams with powerful rushing attacks, so this will remain a story line worth watching in the second half of the season.
Newcomer of the year: Leonard Fournette. Receiver Malachi Dupre deserves some attention for his outstanding play in a couple of games, but tailback Fournette is the obvious choice here. Fresh off a 27-carry, 140-yard performance against Florida, Fournette leads the team with 504 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 93 attempts (team-high 5.4 yards per carry and 72.0 yards per game). Fournette also handles kickoff returns and has 16 runbacks for 368 yards (23.0 ypr). His average of 136.9 all-purpose yards per game ranks third in the SEC. He got off to a quiet start against Wisconsin, but Fournette has been the Tigers’ leading rusher in each game since and seems poised for a big second half.
Game of the year: Tie, Wisconsin and Florida. Take your pick. The Tigers’ comeback for a 28-24 win against Wisconsin – after trailing 24-7 early in the third quarter – was a great way to start the season. The defense shut down the Badgers after their third-quarter touchdown and generated multiple turnovers to pave the way for a comeback. But the Florida win feels like a more important victory at this point of the season. The Tigers desperately needed to stop the bleeding after dropping their first two SEC games, and winning at The Swamp is almost always a challenge – even when the Gators aren’t the Eastern Division force that they were a few years back. The Tigers trailed 17-7 in this one before rallying behind three defensive takeaways and the power running from Fournette. They can achieve bowl eligibility and get back to .500 in SEC play by beating Kentucky on Saturday.
Biggest games of the second half: LSU vs. Ole Miss (Oct. 25) and LSU vs. Alabama (Nov. 8)
ULM beat No. 8 Arkansas early in the 2012 season that was anything but memorable for a Razorbacks program in post-Bobby Petrino turmoil. And the Warhawks toppled Alabama in 2007, Nick Saban's first season with the Crimson Tide.
As of Monday afternoon, LSU is favored by 31 points against ULM, but Miles said history shows that his team must be prepared for a challenge.
"We are so warned," Miles said at his Monday press luncheon. "We recognize and respect that opponent. We will prepare for their best efforts."
Injury updates: Several Tigers are nursing injuries after the first two games, although Miles offered positive news on that front.
Junior linebacker Kwon Alexander said he will be ready to play Saturday after playing only two defensive series in last Saturday's 56-0 win against Sam Houston State after reaggravating a right neck/shoulder stinger he first suffered in the opener against Wisconsin.
"It's just he was bruised up a little bit and we feel like with some quiet time he'll be fine," Miles said.
Miles said sophomore center Ethan Pocic should also be available Saturday after getting hurt against SHSU, although he added that senior Elliott Porter will be back in the starting lineup following a two-game suspension to start the season. Andy Dodd played most of the second half in Pocic's place on Saturday.
Senior fullback Connor Neighbors entered the SHSU game wearing a club cast covering his entire right hand and left the game with a foot injury, but Miles said he should also be good to go on Saturday.
"He had a very difficult time catching the ball with that club on his hand. So I would think that what that was was a little wrist sprain. That will be replaced by a very mobile and agile hand for this next Saturday," Miles said. "His injuries other than that are improved and we would expect him to play and start."
In addition, senior tight end Logan Stokes was wearing a walking boot on his foot when he arrived at LSU's practice facility on Monday.
Garrett will play: LSU has already played 16 true freshmen, but one of them isn't Clifton Garrett, ESPN's No. 31 overall prospect and No. 2 inside linebacker in the 2014 signing class.
Miles predicted that could change soon.
"We expect that he'll play a good portion of the remainder of the time. We think that he came in … [and] needed an adjustment period with the weather and the heat here," Miles said. "Once he got his feet underneath him, he's really improved and we would expect that he play not only this Saturday, but Saturdays as we go forward."
Alexander said Garrett is still learning what to do behind D.J. Welter and Kendell Beckwith at middle linebacker.
"He should be ready to get in," Alexander said. "He's just learning the plays right now. When he gets the plays down pat, I think he'll get in."
Ranking receivers: Miles included Travin Dural, freshman Trey Quinn and John Diarse among the Tigers' top three wide receivers and added that freshmen Malachi Dupre and D.J. Chark as players who could join that group.
Both Dupre and Chark made their college debuts against SHSU, with Dupre also catching a fourth-quarter touchdown after missing the Wisconsin game with an injury.
Miles predicted Dupre could have an expanded role moving forward.
"There's no question that his skillset fits in very well -- tall, athletic, explosive, great ball skills," Miles said. "We're going to have to get him onto the field and he feels much healthier than he's felt. He's not limited in any way."
Versatile Washington: Senior offensive lineman Evan Washington played right and left guard against SHSU after coming off the bench at right tackle against Wisconsin.
He's actually a backup at every offensive line position, which can make things confusing at times.
"I've got a lot more in my head," Washington said. "I've got like three positions in my head. Sometimes in practice Coach [Jeff] Grimes will be like, ‘Why did you do that?' and I'm like, ‘Oh I forgot, Coach. I thought I was at another position.' "
Predominantly a tackle early in his career, Washington said he started learning all of the line positions from teammate T-Bob Hebert as a freshman and picked up pointers from Trai Turner last season about playing guard.
It took time before he felt comfortable shifting from spot to spot.
"I couldn't have done it my first two years, but after a while I was comfortable enough knowing what everybody was doing," Washington said. "Then just the little technique stuff helped me out."
“I feel like if I dress good, I’ll feel good and I’ll play good,” Alexander said. “That’s my motto.”
The day before he won LSU’s defensive MVP honors by posting a team-high eight tackles and two tackles for a loss in a comeback win over Wisconsin, Alexander made a splash on social media last week when he tweeted pictures of his travel wardrobe. The highlight was a pair of Steve Madden leopard print shoes, along with a pair of navy slacks and a sport coat in ... what was that color anyway, salmon?
“It was like kind of peach a little bit,” Alexander chuckled. “You’ve got to bring it out. You’ve got to try something new that nobody’s done before."
That he did, at least among his LSU teammates. And that he will continue to do throughout the fall.
“I’m trying to come up with something new for every week,” Alexander said. “So be watching out for this week, too.”
In fact, the junior linebacker had his next ensemble packed and ready to go almost as soon as the Tigers returned home from Houston last weekend.
“I already got it packed up,” he said. “I always pack my bags on Sundays.”
LSU fans will be able to catch a glimpse of Alexander’s next foray into the fashion world prior to Saturday’s game against Sam Houston State. During the Tiger Walk, approximately two hours before kickoff, the players file down “Victory Hill” into Tiger Stadium wearing dress clothes before changing into their pads and uniforms in the locker room.
Alexander said this week’s outfit will be every bit as good as leopard shoes and a peach blazer.
“I’ve already got it planned out for a couple games,” Alexander said. “I got some nice suits for the bigger games, but for this game, it’s the first home game, so I had to come up with a little something something.”
Not that he was willing to offer any clues about what to expect next.
“You’ve just got to see it,” he said.
Since both teams have defensive fronts with questions to answer, that only makes this point more clear.
Both offenses return key pieces that will allow them to hammer most opponents into submission. It starts with four returning starters from two offensive lines that frequently had their way in 2013.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, opposing defenders didn’t make first contact with a Wisconsin ball carrier last season until he had already gained an average of 3.95 yards per carry -- an average that ranked fourth in the nation behind only Oregon (4.28), Ohio State (4.28) and Auburn (4.23). LSU finished 23 in that category, with Tiger runners averaging 3.03 yards before contact on each rush.
And with the star power either returning or added to the Badger and Tiger backfields, there is no reason to believe this season will be much different for either team. Freshman phenom Leonard Fournette joins the senior duo of Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard to give LSU what should become a phenomenal running game. And it will have to be exceptional to match what Melvin Gordon brings to Wisconsin’s backfield. The Heisman Trophy candidate ran for 1,609 yards, 12 touchdowns and averaged 7.8 yards per carry last fall.
The key, said LSU strongside linebacker Lamar Louis, is to respect Gordon’s explosive game, but not to be in awe of his abilities. After all, the Tigers have faced plenty of top-tier backs in SEC play and even in their own practices.
“He’s a good back, speedy back, makes good cuts, good decisions. I think he’s up for the Heisman Trophy, so he’s a good back,” Louis said. “I’ll say what [defensive coordinator John Chavis] tells us all the time, it’s not someone who we haven’t faced in these past years. It’s not someone who we don’t practice against in Terrence Magee, Leonard Fournette, Jeremy Hill. So we’ll be ready. But yeah, we’re not taking him lightly.”
The Tigers and Badgers have plenty to prove up front on defense, so they can’t afford to take any opponent lightly.
LSU must replace both starting defensive tackles and will break in new starters at two different linebacker positions after an offseason retooling. And Wisconsin’s roster turnover was even more severe, as it loses every starting defensive lineman and linebacker from a 2013 defense that ranked fifth nationally against the run, surrendering 102.5 yards per game.
That means focusing more on Wisconsin’s general defensive tendencies instead of on specific personnel during game preparation.
“It’s kind of weird not being able to have any film to really watch on guys that’s new to [starting], but the thing that we have to do is make sure that we prepare ourselves for the scheme that those guys run,” LSU offensive tackle La’el Collins said. “I think we’ve done a great job of that, and I think we’re still doing a great job with it. Just pretty much prepare, when you look at the program and the tradition of the team, nothing really changes.”
Wisconsin must also do the same thing when preparing for Chavis’ defense. The philosophy remains the same, but it’s more difficult for the Badgers to know much about Louis in his new spot at strongside linebacker or how Kwon Alexander fits at weakside linebacker after playing strongside in 2013. And it’s even tougher to know what to expect from the host of redshirt defensive tackles -- most notably Frank Herron -- who will make their college debuts on Saturday.
The possibilities probably excite Gordon if he hopes to build Heisman buzz, Louis admitted.
“I think it’s going to be more big for him than us,” Louis said. “If I’m a Heisman Trophy running back, and I play LSU for the opener, it doesn’t get any bigger than that. So we know what’s at stake for us and for him and what he can benefit from, so we’re going to have our head on a swivel, and we’re going to be ready.”
And it works the other way, as well. Wisconsin boasts what should be a great offensive line and one of the nation’s best backs. Shutting down a bunch like that would legitimize all of the preseason happy talk surrounding an LSU defense that is reportedly on the rise.
“We have great players on our defensive line, maybe guys that didn’t play last year, but I think we’re going to get a chance to see them on Saturday,” Stokes said. “Frank Herron and guys like that didn’t play last year and were redshirted and have been doing nothing but making plays since fall camp started. So we’re going to get a chance to see those guys. I’m looking forward to it.”
"And that has nothing to do with me as it does with the attitude of the guys, No. 1, but the amount of pressure John [Chavis, LSU's defensive coordinator] and his defense put on them. Any flaw a guy has is going to get exposed and get exposed in the first 30 minutes of practice."
LSU's assistant coaches, quarterbacks and freshmen spoke with reporters on Sunday for the first and possibly only time this preseason, so Jennings, Harris and Cameron were among the day's busiest participants.
Head coach Les Miles said he is not rushing yet to name a starter between sophomore Jennings and freshman Harris as he wants to allow a competitive environment to thrive.
"I think the naming of a starter will be when one separates himself from the other. And when it's a real advantage to name him as a starter because he needs to recognize as does the team that this is where we're going," Miles said. "We're not there."
"My job is to make this decision as tough on Les as possible," Cameron said. "What do you mean by that? Well, we've got two guys that we feel confident we can win with -- if not three, if not four. We're not coaching one guy more than the other hoping he's the guy."
Cameron might even find roles for both quarterbacks to fill.
He's best remembered for leading the game-winning touchdown drive against Arkansas after replacing injured Zach Mettenberger last season, but Jennings played in nine games -- including contests against TCU, Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and his first start in the bowl win against Iowa -- in 2013.
Using him in spot duty made more sense because the dual-threat Jennings possesses a different skill set from Mettenberger, a prototypical dropback passer. However, Jennings and Harris are much more similar players.
Regardless, Cameron expressed confidence that whoever wins the competition will be ready to be successful once the opener against Wisconsin arrives on Aug. 30.
"I would say this confidently: we're going to have more than one quality starter here at LSU," Cameron said. "That's what we're charged with and we'll get that done."
Linebacker rotation?: Defensive coordinator John Chavis has rarely enjoyed the luxury that a deep group of linebackers might provide this season. Beyond starters Kwon Alexander, D.J. Welter and Lamar Louis, Chavis' position group runs two and three deep with quality players across the board -- and that might help not only on defense, but on special teams.
"If they're ready to play, we're going to play them. There's no question about that," Chavis said. "They're not any different than anybody else on our field. In an ideal situation, you'd like to have six starting linebackers and then they all could go play special teams and we could rest them on defense. Unfortunately we haven't been that way with depth.
"Is this a year that we can reach that? We're closer than we've been in the past."
In addition to players such as Deion Jones, Duke Riley and Ronnie Feist, Chavis has talented sophomore Kendell Beckwith trying to surpass Welter as the starting middle linebacker and one of the Tigers' top 2014 signees, Clifton Garrett, behind them.
It might be difficult to juggle, as there are only so many snaps to go around between the three linebacker spots. But Chavis seems confident that everyone who deserves to play will be on the field in some capacity.
"If you can go two deep and you don't have a drop-off, then that just makes your special teams even better," Chavis said.
No decisions on return men: Speaking of special teams, coach Bradley Dale Peveto said he is considering six candidates for the punt return and kickoff return jobs, but wasn't ready to identify them yet.
Tre'Davious White and Travin Dural are among the players known to be working at punt returner and Terrence Magee is among the kickoff return men.
"We had four great days in evaluating a lot of our team, got it down to six guys at each spot," Peveto said. "I don't really want to talk about that yet because we've got a great competition going on, but I'm going to tell you we've got enough. We've got some really good guys, some really talented young men who might compete for those positions."
Miles said earlier that Trent Domingue has taken over as the Tigers' kickoff specialist.
Right guard competition: Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes chuckled when asked how the right guard competition is shaking out.
"It's still shaking," Grimes said. "We'll let it go until somebody lays claim to it."
Seniors Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington have battled for the starting job at right guard, the lone spot where the Tigers lost a starting offensive lineman from 2013.
Now he must somehow retain that honor once the full team begins practicing together later this week -- and that won't be easy with freshman quarterback Brandon Harris breathing down his neck.
"Anthony threw the ball real well. He knew the offense like the back of his hand," wide receiver Travin Dural said after working with Jennings and the first-team offense in Monday morning's practice. "I'm not sure how Brandon's going to do, but I have a lot of confidence that he's going to do real well in the afternoon. And then when we come together, it's going to be pretty good. They're going to show that ability and one of them's going to emerge as the starter."
LSU's team split into two groups on Monday, as it will for each of the first four days of practice, with one group composed largely of starters and a handful of freshmen working out in the morning, while a collection of mostly reserves and the remaining freshmen practices in the afternoon.
LSU coach Les Miles said on Sunday that LSU's two quarterback contenders, sophomore Jennings and early enrollee Harris, will practice with both groups in the first four days before the Friday's first full-squad practice.
Neither quarterback was available to speak to media members on Monday.
Harris practiced with the afternoon group on Monday -- as did several other blue-chip signees in the nation's No. 2 recruiting class like tailback Leonard Fournette and receiver Trey Quinn. Among the freshmen who practiced with the varsity group in the morning were safety Jamal Adams, linebacker Clifton Garrett and receiver Malachi Dupre.
"Once they come in and they do 7-on-7 [in summer workouts], they kind of get a feel for things, but this is really what's going to tell the tale," running back Terrence Magee said. "We're just as intrigued at seeing them play as the coaches are, and to get out there and teach them and help them because we had guys before us that were the same way, ready to see us play and bring [us] along. For me, when I leave, I want to be able to look back at some of those young guys and say, ‘I helped him get to where he's at.' "
New No. 18: With that attitude in mind, perhaps it should come as no surprise that Magee was wearing a new jersey number, 18, when he practiced with the varsity on Monday morning.
LSU made it official on Sunday night that the senior running back would be the next recipient of the coveted number, following a vote to determine the most deserving player. The Tigers have a tradition each year in which they select a leader who best represents the team on and off the field to wear No. 18, and this year, it will be Magee.
"The No. 18 really isn't significant of all the leaders that we have on this team, from every senior that we have on the team, from La'el Collins to Jermauria Rasco to even some of the younger guys like Kwon Alexander," Magee said. "They wear their number and they're still leaders on this team. It's not going to change my mindset or how I do."
Magee breaks a streak of three straight seasons where a defensive player had worn No. 18. Linebacker Lamin Barrow wore it last season, following defensive tackle Bennie Logan and safety Brandon Taylor in previous years.
"They really showed me what it means to wear the No. 18," Magee said. "They represented it well and laid the foundation for me to continue the tradition. It's a tremendous honor and I'm very excited that the coaches thought enough of me to pick me."
Fournette's debut: Believe it or not, Fournette didn't take his first handoff at LSU 99 yards for a touchdown -- although maybe it's just because that first handoff came in a simple position drill.
Seriously, though, the heavily-hyped tailback -- as well as the other members of the touted recruiting class -- had even the veterans curious about how they'd look in practice.
"I might go out there and peek when they practice this afternoon ... just see what I'm going to be going up against in a couple days," linebacker D.J. Welter said with a grin.
Thompson, Rasco back; Mills practices: Safety Corey Thompson and defensive end Jermauria Rasco both practiced Monday with the starting defense after missing spring practice while recovering from offseason surgeries.
Thompson wore a brace on his surgically-repaired left knee, but seems to have recovered most of his mobility.
"He looks good. He's doing better," safety Ronald Martin said. "Hopefully he gets back up to 100 percent sometime during camp, but today he looked great out there."
A surprise from the afternoon workout was safety Jalen Mills' presence on the practice field. Mills has been indefinitely suspended since June following an incident where he allegedly punched a woman. East Baton Rouge district attorney Hillar Moore informed the Baton Rouge Advocate early Monday that he plans to charge Mills with misdemeanor simple battery, which is punishable with up to six months in prison or up to a $1,000 fine.
An LSU spokesman said Miles will address the junior safety's status with the team when he meets with reporters Monday evening. Running back Jeremy Hill sat out the first five quarters of the 2013 season after pleading guilty to a simple battery charge prior to the season.
"We've just got to keep getting better, keep helping each other get better as a whole, keep trying to [be] cohesive and get better as a unit like we are," Martin said. "And once [Mills] comes back, if he comes back, I hope he does come back, he just steps back into what we were doing this spring and just continue to grind."
Returning starters: D.J. Welter (80 tackles, 4 tackles for loss in 2013), Kwon Alexander (65 tackles, 6.5 TFL). Defensive coordinator John Chavis complimented Welter’s performance from spring practice -- during which he won the team’s MVP award -- following a mediocre junior season. Meanwhile, Alexander shifted from strongside linebacker to weakside during the spring, which should allow him to become a key playmaker this fall.
Starters lost: Lamin Barrow (91 tackles, 5.5 TFL). Weakside linebacker Barrow led the team in tackles and was one of the more consistent performers on a rebuilding LSU defense in 2013.
Key newcomers: Clifton Garrett (No. 31 overall on the ESPN 300 and No. 2 inside linebacker) was the Tigers’ highest-rated linebacker signee, while outside linebacker Donnie Alexander (No. 261, No. 19 OLB) was also an ESPN 300 pick. Garrett is an immensely talented prospect, but he’s listed on the preseason depth chart as the third-team middle linebacker behind Welter and sophomore Kendell Beckwith (11 tackles). He’s got his work cut out to become a key contributor in 2014.
Player to watch: Kwon Alexander. Alexander and strongside linebacker Lamar Louis (25 tackles) both moved into new starting positions during the spring, and both jobs seem to suit the veterans’ respective skill sets. Alexander, seems to be the player who is poised for a breakout season, though. Taking over Barrow’s old role, he could become one of LSU’s top defensive performers this fall -- as evidenced by his interception return for a touchdown in the Tigers’ spring game.
Overall: This is one of LSU’s most exciting position groups, blessed with substantial athleticism, speed and depth. It’s only a matter of time until Beckwith is a star in the SEC, and he and fellow reserves Deion Jones (15 tackles in 2013, plus an interception return for a 67-yard touchdown in the spring game), Duke Riley (7 tackles) and Ronnie Feist (did not play) are all capable players. Chavis acknowledged after spring practice that he is considerably excited about what the group will add to the defense this fall -- and he should be. Chavis has plenty of weapons at his disposal, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see several of them emerge as reliable performers in 2014.
With the start of the 2014 season a little more than a month away, we are still trying to figure out who will be in position to capture the league title this fall. But there are a few teams we are still trying to get a good read on.
Today’s Take Two topic: What is the toughest SEC team to get a handle on in 2014 -- Missouri or LSU?
Take 1: Edward Aschoff
I do like that Mizzou has a confident, talented quarterback returning in Maty Mauk. He went 3-1 as a starter last season in place of an injured James Franklin. Mauk threw for more than 1,000 yards and had 11 touchdowns to just one interception. He lost almost nine pounds this summer because of a viral infection, but he thinks it has made him lighter, faster and quicker. He has a stacked backfield to work with and an experienced offensive line in front of him. The defense will again be anchored by a stout defensive line, starting with potential All-SEC defensive end Markus Golden.
But there are plenty of questions. Who is Mauk going to throw to? How will reshuffling affect the offensive line? Are there true playmakers at linebacker? How is an inexperienced secondary going to hold up this season? Who's going to replace all those proven leaders?
Receivers Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White have good field experience, but one of them is going to have to stand out as the guy for Mauk to rely on. Are any of them ready? Can any of them be dynamic enough playmakers to force defenses to adjust? Not having someone like Dorial Green-Beckham could really hurt this offense.
Two starters are gone at linebacker, and this unit dealt with injuries this spring. Not great. Mizzou’s secondary was one of the SEC’s worst last season, and three starters are gone. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? There is depth in the secondary, but not a lot of proven guys, and that concerns me.
The biggest thing might be finding new vocal leaders. Who can carry this team like Franklin, Michael Sam and L'Damian Washington did last season? Is Mauk up to the task? Golden? I don’t think we really know what the locker room scene is like for this team.
Take 2: Greg Ostendorf
Let’s start with the fact that LSU lost nine players to the NFL draft this past year, more than any other team in college football. The team’s starting quarterback, its top two running backs, top two wide receivers and its top offensive lineman have all moved on to the next level. Time to rebuild, right? Not in Baton Rouge. Not under Les Miles.
Since Miles took over in 2005, LSU has had 60 players taken in the NFL draft, yet the Tigers have managed to win at least 10 games in seven of Miles’ nine seasons as head coach.
So don’t expect this season’s LSU team to fall off completely, but with so many unknowns and a stacked SEC West, the Tigers could finish anywhere between first to sixth in their own division. They are talented enough to reach the inaugural College Football Playoff, but they could just as easily end up in the Music City Bowl.
Where this team goes will be dependent on its incoming recruiting class. Between Brandon Harris, Leonard Fournette and Malachi Dupre, LSU could have three true freshman starting on offense by the time the season opener rolls around.
Fournette might be the closest thing to a sure thing. The 6-foot-1, 224-pound running back was the No. 1 recruit in the country and has already drawn comparisons to Adrian Peterson. He was one of the top stories at SEC media days, and he has yet to record a carry. But can he handle the pressure and the rigors of a college football season? Can Harris and Dupre handle it? All three were playing high school football in Louisiana less than a year ago.
As for the defense, there are even more question marks. Linebacker Kwon Alexander and cornerback Tre'Davious White are good players, potentially All-SEC, but what is the status of Jalen Mills after his arrest this offseason? Who will fill the big shoes left by Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson on the defensive line? Who are the leaders going to be?
This might be the toughest coaching job yet for Miles, but don’t be surprised if LSU is in the playoff conversation when it travels to Texas A&M on Thanksgiving.
Here's the way we see them stacking up:
2. Leonard Floyd, So., Georgia: It's a deep and experienced group of linebackers that Georgia will put on the field this season, and the 6-4, 230-pound Floyd is the most talented of the group. He's a blur coming off the edge from his outside linebacker position in the Dawgs' 3-4 defense. He had a team-high 6.5 sacks last season and will be even better as a sophomore.
3. Curt Maggitt, RJr., Tennessee: There are a couple caveats with the 6-3, 240-pound Maggitt. He missed all of last season after recovering from a knee injury, and he's also likely to line up more at end than outside linebacker. Either way, he's a dynamic playmaker and primed for a big season. If Maggitt stays healthy, he's a good bet to be the Comeback Player of the Year in the league.
4. Trey DePriest, Sr., Alabama: The 6-2, 245-pound DePriest is a two-year starter at middle linebacker. He's not the fastest linebacker Alabama has produced and certainly not in C.J. Mosley's class, but he's a big hitter and loves the physical part of the game. He had 7.5 tackles for loss last season and will take on even more of a leadership role this season.
5. A.J. Johnson, Sr., Tennessee: A starter since his freshman season, the 6-2, 242-pound Johnson has racked up more than 100 tackles each of the last two seasons. His efforts have been overshadowed somewhat because the Volunteers have struggled on defense, but he has been a tackling machine on Rocky Top.
6. Serderius Bryant, Sr., Ole Miss: He might not have the prototypical size for an SEC linebacker, but the 5-9, 218-pound Bryant emerged last season as one of the league's top big-play performers on defense. He led Ole Miss with 12.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. His speed is what sets him apart.
7. Kwon Alexander, Jr., LSU: Making the move to weakside linebacker in LSU's defense, the 6-2, 218-pound Alexander should make even more big plays in 2014. He has tremendous speed and the versatility to play all three linebacker spots. But with Lamin Barrow departing, the Tigers need him most on the weak side.
8. Denzel Devall, Jr., Alabama: After recording three sacks last season in a part-time role, the 6-2, 250-pound Devall is poised to take off and have a breakout season in 2014. He's a natural as an outside linebacker in the Tide's 3-4 scheme and is a good bet to lead Alabama in sacks this season.
9. Jordan Jenkins, Jr., Georgia: The 6-3, 246-pound Jenkins has 10 sacks in his first two seasons and led the Bulldogs last season with 12 tackles for loss. With Jeremy Pruitt taking over as defensive coordinator, the Dawgs will look for more ways to free Jenkins up so he can do what he does best -- rush the passer. That could mean lining up at end in certain situations.
10. Ramik Wilson, Sr., Georgia: In his first season as a starter a year ago, the 6-2, 232-pound Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles from his inside linebacker position and garnered first-team All-SEC honors. He brings experience, instincts and leadership to a Georgia linebacker corps that returns everybody.
These are the guys who put up the big numbers and have the versatility to chase sideline to sideline, drop back into pass coverage, and rush the passer.
Here’s what we came up with as a group. Check back later today and we’ll rank the top 10 linebackers in the league.
2. LSU: Even with the loss of leading tackler Lamin Barrow, LSU is still brimming with talent at the linebacker. Senior D.J. Welter returns in the middle, but will be pushed by sophomore Kendell Beckwith. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is always going to give up size for speed at linebacker, and Kwon Alexander and Deion “Debo” Jones can fly. Alexander is moving from the strong side to the weak side to take Barrow’s spot. Look for him to make more plays there. Juniors Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist also return and will be in the rotation. The Tigers won’t lack for depth.
3. Georgia: First-year coordinator Jeremy Pruitt takes over a Georgia defense that returns everybody at linebacker. The Bulldogs might not be as talented as some around the league at linebacker, but are long on experience. Seniors Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera both return inside after each collecting more than 100 total tackles last season. The difference-maker of the group is sophomore outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, who led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks as a freshman. On the other side, junior Jordan Jenkins is back after racking up 12 tackles for loss a year ago. Nobody in the league returns more production at linebacker, but the Dawgs did finish tied for 10th in the league a year ago in scoring defense and were eighth in total defense.
4. Mississippi State: There’s a lot to be excited about in Starkville this fall, especially with nine starters returning on defense. Redshirt junior middle linebacker Benardrick McKinney thought about turning pro, but returns as one of the top defenders in the league. Senior Matthew Wells is one of the most versatile linebackers in the SEC, while sophomores Beniquez Brown and Richie Brown will both see their roles expand. This should be as good a linebacker corps as Dan Mullen has had at Mississippi State, and he’s had some good ones.
5. Florida: With so many players injured this spring, getting a read on Florida at linebacker was difficult. The key contributors from last season return, and there’s no shortage of talent. Antonio Morrison was up and down at middle linebacker before getting hurt. The Florida coaches expect him to come back strong. Michael Taylor is also back in the middle after leading the team in tackles last season. Jarrad Davis was forced into action last season as a freshman and was one of the most pleasant surprises on the team. If Alex Anzalone, Neiron Ball and Matt Rolin can all stay healthy, this has a chance to be one of the better linebacker groups in the league.
6. South Carolina: One of the reasons the Gamecocks are thinking about tinkering with a 3-4 is that they like this group of linebackers and want to get their best players on the field. Sophomore Skai Moore was outstanding as a freshman last season and is only going to get better. The best news for South Carolina is that there’s competition at all of the linebacker spots among players with experience. Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman are both back in the middle, and sophomore Jonathan Walton could be a dark horse. Sharrod Golightly was one of the team’s most improved players last season and is back at the hybrid “spur” position.
8. Ole Miss: The Rebels will be without junior linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche in the opener against Boise State following his offseason arrest. But once Nkemdiche returns, he and senior Serderius Bryant form one of the best one-two punches in the league at linebacker. Ole Miss should also be faster across the board at linebacker with the addition of junior college newcomer Christian Russell in the middle. Don’t forget about sixth-year senior Deterrian Shackelford, who’s weathered injuries and looked a lot faster this spring after two knee surgeries.
9. Auburn: Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson would like to see more consistency from his linebackers this season. Juniors Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are both back, and McKinzy is moving to middle linebacker. The Tigers would love to see junior Justin Garrett stay healthy after an injury-plagued 2013 season. He could help at weakside linebacker or the hybrid “star” position. True freshman Tre Williams, ranked by ESPN as the No. 4 inside linebacker prospect, has the size and speed to play right away.
10. Vanderbilt: With the Commodores moving to a base 3-4 scheme, that means Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann will shift from end to outside linebacker. Both are outstanding and combined for 16.5 tackles for loss last season. Junior Darreon Herring had a breakout season in 2013 and finished second on the team with 84 tackles. He will move from outside to inside linebacker. Redshirt freshman Nigel Bowden also has a big upside and is a prime candidate to be a breakout player this season.
11. Missouri: The Tigers have to replace two starters, including middle linebacker Andrew Wilson, who led the team in tackles in each of the past three seasons. Redshirt sophomore Michael Scherer’s development will be key. He started the spring at strongside linebacker but moved to middle linebacker after redshirt junior Kentrell Brothers underwent surgery for a torn labrum. The Tigers will need a healthy Brothers come fall.
12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks weren’t very healthy or productive a year ago at linebacker, but they’ve got just about everybody back. Sophomore Brooks Ellis has a chance to be really good in the middle, and junior Otha Peters looks like he’s finally healthy. A year after coming over from junior college, Martrell Spaight should be a much bigger factor his second time through the league. Seniors Braylon Mitchell and Daunte Carr also are back.
13. Kentucky: The Wildcats have had a stream of quality linebackers to come through Lexington the last few years. The latest was middle linebacker Avery Williamson, who was taken in the fifth round of the NFL draft. Heading into this season, it’s difficult to pinpoint who will follow in Williamson’s footsteps. Junior Khalid Henderson has a chance, and it’s likely that junior college newcomer Ryan Flannigan will have to step in and play immediately. Early enrollee true freshman Dorian Hendrix had a big spring.
14. Texas A&M: Sophomore Darian Claiborne was one of the few proven playmakers returning on Texas A&M’s defense, and now he’s gone after being dismissed from the team earlier this month. Sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni and senior Donnie Baggs are the only returnees with any experience. The Aggies are hopeful that TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard can provide immediate help. Either way, there are a lot more questions than answers at a position that didn’t need any casualties.
Recapping Florida Opening Regionals
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