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LSU position breakdown: Linebacker

1/31/2015

Editor’s note: We broke down LSU’s need to improve at quarterback as part of our SEC blog’s positional series three weeks ago. Now we continue our position-by-position look at the 2015 Tigers.

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.

“This will probably be my defense next year,” Beckwith said during bowl practice. “Yeah, I plan on it being that way.”

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.

BREAKDOWN

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.