LSU Tigers: devin voorhies
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.
Indeed, the competition between junior Jennings (1,611 passing yards, 11 TDs, 7 INTs in 2014) and sophomore Harris (452 yards, 6 TDs, 2 INTs) might determine whether the Tigers re-emerge as legitimate contenders in the SEC West or remain in the middle of the pack like last season’s 8-5 club.
But there are plenty of spring stories to follow at LSU beyond Jennings-Harris. Here are five more that deserve some attention.
What will Kevin Steele’s defense look like? The public likely won’t gain a full understanding of Steele’s defensive modifications until the regular season starts in September, as LSU’s spring practices are open only for short periods of time and the Tigers will probably play it close to the vest in their spring game.
How will the secondary take shape? The Tigers have a ton of good options at defensive back, so this is hardly a nightmare for Corey Raymond’s crew. It’s a matter of figuring out which pieces fit best at which positions.
The biggest position of interest is the cornerback spot opposite two-year starter Tre'Davious White. With the departures of Jalen Collins and Rashard Robinson, the Tigers lack a proven second option -- assuming that senior Jalen Mills remains at safety. Mills started for two seasons at corner and could move back, but will that be necessary? LSU has numerous options to fill the spot -- including heavily recruited early enrollee Kevin Toliver, sophomore Ed Paris and junior Dwayne Thomas, who is coming off season-ending knee surgery. And other alternatives will arrive this summer in signees Donte Jackson and Xavier Lewis.
Safety is also an interesting position, particularly if Mills works at corner. Sophomore Jamal Adams seems likely to grab a starting spot, but who else claims the top spots in the rotation out of Rickey Jefferson, Corey Thompson, John Battle and Devin Voorhies? Raymond will have his work cut out in distributing the PT to so many capable players.
Will Cam Cameron open up the offense? This is a corollary to the decision on the starting quarterback. LSU’s passing game was woefully unproductive last season, mostly because of underwhelming play at quarterback. How much will offensive coordinator Cameron be able to open up his playbook in 2015 after playing it so conservatively a season ago?
With Leonard Fournette in the backfield, LSU still figures to be a run-heavy offense. But the Tigers might not be able to beat the high-scoring teams on the schedule without getting the ball downfield more effectively. Cameron understands this reality.
Either way, expect him to throw more wrinkles at opposing defenses than he did for most of the 2014 season. Perhaps the regular-season finale against Texas A&M was a template. Cameron mixed things up against the Aggies and a stagnant offense came to life with 491 yards of total offense. Between that game and the bowl loss against Notre Dame, Cameron handed the ball to speedy receiver Travin Dural -- mostly on jet sweeps -- a total of eight times for 110 yards.
Getting more out of the quarterbacks would greatly help Cameron make better use of his skill talent, but it seems likely that he will be more ambitious this season regardless, out of necessity.
What impact will the new assistant coaches have on their positions? We’ve already discussed Steele and how he might juggle different defensive looks. Any shuffling would likely impact how he uses the players at his new position group, linebacker, as well. When the Tigers open spring practice on Saturday, it will be interesting to see where Steele has the various linebackers lining up.
LSU’s other new assistants, defensive line coach Ed Orgeron and receivers coach Tony Ball, both have young groups to develop. They both have obvious candidates for playing time (tackles Davon Godchaux and Christian LaCouture for Orgeron and wideouts Dural, Malachi Dupre, John Diarse and Trey Quinn for Ball), but building depth will be an objective for both coaches.
The Tigers have a boatload of unproven youngsters at both position groups, and LSU would benefit greatly if the new assistants could get some production out of them starting this spring.
Who grabs the last two starting spots on the offensive line? The positions for LSU’s three returning starters on the offensive line -- Vadal Alexander, Jerald Hawkins and Ethan Pocic -- aren’t set in stone, but it’s almost a certainty that all three will start somewhere.
Jeff Grimes’ job this spring will be figuring out where they fit best and which players to slide into the other two openings along his offensive line. Grimes lost two senior starters (left tackle La’el Collins and center Elliott Porter) and two top reserves (seniors Evan Washington and Fehoko Fanaika) from last season, so the Tigers will be young in spots.
Most likely that will be on the interior line, although Alexander could play either guard or tackle and Pocic is capable of playing every position on the line. Guard/tackle Josh Boutte, center Andy Dodd, center/guard William Clapp, tackle K.J. Malone and guard Garrett Brumfield are all players who might get some consideration from Grimes this spring.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- When a school advertises itself as "Defensive Back University," something special is obviously going down there.
Even while it has been a couple of years since LSU had a DB who jumped off the screen like Tyrann Mathieu, the Tigers still could make a case as the nation's top secondary. That shouldn't change in 2015.
"The tradition of DBU is going to still be here," rising senior defensive back Jalen Mills said. "We're looking forward to next year and not just being a dominant defense as a whole, but a dominant, just us as a whole secondary."
Any conversation about the secondary starts with cornerback Tre'Davious White and three-year starter Mills, who is capable of playing either safety or corner. But the Tigers' next superstar-in-waiting at DB might be Jamal Adams, who made a big impression last fall as a true freshman.
"He probably might not know what to do, but he's going to give tremendous effort as a freshman," Martin said while assessing Adams' rookie season. "You don't see too many guys come in as a freshman and give tremendous effort like that. That's what I give him the most. He has a lot of potential, very athletic and I think that's what stood him apart from a lot of the freshmen."
The Tigers should also get Dwayne Thomas and Corey Thompson back from injury, plus junior Rickey Jefferson, whom teammates point to as one of the group's vocal leaders after his role expanded as a sophomore in 2014.
"I already put it in my head that I'm going to be hard on the guys coming in and I'm going to be hard on the guys that were in because I see what we've got here," Jefferson said. "I know we've got a great opportunity to be amongst the best, and DBU, and we're going to bring that tradition back and keep it alive. So that's really my focus and what I'm planning to do next year."
Speaking of the guys coming in, LSU is in position to clean up at defensive back on national signing day. Cornerback Kevin Tolliver -- ESPN's No. 10 overall prospect -- is already on campus as an early enrollee and could immediately help address LSU's slight depth concerns at the position. The Tigers also landed commitments from four-star DBs Xavier Lewis, Donte Jackson and Jeremy Cutrer.
And they also return underclassmen Ed Paris, Devin Voorhies, Russell Gage and John Battle, who could compete for bigger roles after getting limited playing time in 2014.
Overall, there will be a few youngsters filling key roles and some depth-chart questions to answer at cornerback, but 2015 looks to be another potential-packed season for LSU's secondary. Take it from departing senior Martin.
"Those young guys, those guys have got to prepare and be stepped up for the spring," Martin said. "I think those guys are going to have a pretty good spring because they'll learn from the fall. Especially Jamal. I think he's going to step up and be a leader for those guys next year, him and [Tre'Davious White]. Basically I think Jamal and Tre'Davious and Corey Thompson coming back, I think those guys are going to be great."
Returning players: CB Tre'Davious White (33 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 1 interceptions), DB Jalen Mills (62 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT), S Jamal Adams (66 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack), S Rickey Jefferson (23 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 INT), DB Dwayne Thomas (24 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT), CB Ed Paris (3 tackles), CB Russell Gage (2 tackles), S Devin Voorhies (5 tackles), DB John Battle (0 tackles), S Corey Thompson (DNP).
Departed players: CB Jalen Collins (38 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT), S Ronald Martin (73 tackles, 2 INT), CB Rashard Robinson (17 tackles, 1 TFL).
Committed prospects: Kevin Tolliver (No. 10 overall prospect, No. 2 CB, five stars, early enrollee), Xavier Lewis (No. 150 overall, No. 13 CB, four stars), Donte Jackson (No. 176 overall, No. 15 athlete, four stars), Jeremy Cutrer (No. 26 on ESPN JC 50, No. 2 S).
Outlook: Despite the losses of Martin, Collins and Robinson -- who combined to start 26 games in 2014 -- the secondary is still in good shape. The Tigers will be short on experience at cornerback behind White and potentially Mills, but adding several future stars on signing day -- led by five-star early enrollee Kevin Tolliver -- is an outstanding answer to those concerns. This group looks more than capable of continuing the DBU tradition this fall.
Here is how Fournette and LSU’s other true freshmen fared in the 23-17 victory over the Aggies:
S Jamal Adams
What he did: Adams started for the second time in the past three games and tied for the team lead with eight tackles, plus he made a tackle for loss.
What it means: The freshman safety was all over the place against the Aggies, including on an impressive third-down stop to force a punt in the second quarter. Adams is one of the most exciting young defensive players on LSU’s roster. He’ll be an All-SEC candidate next season once he enters the starting lineup full-time.
WR Malachi Dupre
What he did: Dupre made one catch for a 41-yard gain deep into Texas A&M territory in the fourth quarter on Thursday.
What it means: Dupre hasn’t made many catches lately (three receptions for 28 yards in the previous five games), but he’s made a couple of them count. He made highlight reels with a one-handed touchdown catch against Alabama, and his catch against A&M extended a late drive while the Tigers were trying to hold onto the lead.
RB Leonard Fournette
What he did: Starting for the fifth time in the past six games, Fournette posted a new career high with 146 rushing yards on 19 carries. He also returned two kickoffs for a total of 34 yards.
What it means: This was Fournette’s fourth game with at least 100 rushing yards, and he produced one of the SEC’s most memorable runs of the season by plowing over A&M safety Howard Matthews on a 22-yard touchdown in the second quarter. Fournette hasn’t lived up to preseason Heisman hype, but he has been LSU’s best running back with 891 rushing yards and eight touchdowns.
DT Davon Godchaux
What he did: Godchaux started for the eighth consecutive game at defensive tackle and finished with one tackle.
What it means: Clearly Godchaux is one of LSU’s top options in the middle, as he has become a fixture in the starting lineup. Perhaps some of the Tigers’ redshirt freshmen will create more of a rotation at tackle next season, but Godchaux and Christian LaCouture appear to have the top spots locked down. Thanks to their improved play, the position is no longer the liability that it was early in the season.
S Devin Voorhies
What he did: Working on LSU’s kickoff coverage unit, Voorhies stripped A&M return man Speedy Noil on a kickoff just before halftime, with LSU’s Duke Riley recovering at the Aggies’ 19-yard line. It was the little-used Voorhies’ first career forced fumble.
What it means: It would not be a surprise to see Voorhies play more on scrimmage downs next season after contributing almost exclusively on special teams this fall. He appeared in seven games and made two tackles this season. To date, Thursday’s forced fumble, which led to a field goal and a 17-7 halftime lead, was easily his biggest play as a Tiger.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Saturday’s blowout win over Sam Houston State provided LSU with an opportunity to empty the bench -- and Tigers coach Les Miles took advantage by letting 16 players make their college debuts.
That included seven true freshmen -- John Battle, D.J. Chark, Malachi Dupre, Russell Gage, Sione Teuhema, Devin Voorhies and Darrel Williams -- to go along with the nine who played in last weekend’s opener against Wisconsin. Through two games, LSU has played 16 of the 23 freshmen in its 2014 signing class, plus junior college transfer Colin Jeter.
Let’s take a quick look at some of the highlights from the freshmen in the Tigers’ 56-0 win.
WR Malachi Dupre
What he did: After an injury kept him out of the opener, Dupre got into the end zone in his college debut. His diving 8-yard touchdown catch in the back corner of the end zone gave LSU a 49-0 lead in the fourth quarter. Dupre finished with two catches for 23 yards.
What it means: Travin Dural has established himself as LSU’s go-to receiver, but the Tigers need to figure out who the second and third options will be. Dupre looked good on Saturday, so he might be ready to join fellow freshman Trey Quinn among the Tigers’ top receiving options.
RB Leonard Fournette
What he did: After playing a minor role against Wisconsin, Fournette led LSU in rushing with 92 yards on 13 carries and also made two leaping catches for a total of 32 yards. Fournette scored his first career touchdown with a 4-yard run in the first quarter -- then drew the ire of Miles by striking the Heisman pose after the score.
What it means: This was more like what we expected to see from Fournette. Now let’s see him do that against an FBS opponent. He still needs to get moving north and south more decisively on his runs, but he broke a couple nice runs and flashed impressive hands Saturday.
QB Brandon Harris
What he did: Harris also played a tiny role in the opener but made things interesting against SHSU. Harris finished 4-for-5 for 62 yards and a touchdown and also ran five times for 53 yards, including a spinning, tackle-breaking 46-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
What it means: Harris had some sloppy moments in his first big dose of playing time, like his two-fumble scramble in the fourth quarter where he eventually lost a turnover. Anthony Jennings played his most efficient game yet, but Harris also showed the playmaking ability that excites LSU’s coaches.
DE Sione Teuhema
What he did: Teuhema led LSU’s seven-sack performance by posting two in his college debut -- including a brutal blind-side hit on Don King III for a nine-yard loss in the fourth quarter. Teuhema also totaled four tackles off the bench.
What it means: LSU needs to develop a more consistent pass rush this season, and Teuhema flashed some ability in that department. We don’t expect him to steal playing time from starters Jermauria Rasco or Danielle Hunter any time soon, but Teuhema’s is a name to file away for the future.
RB Darrel Williams
What he did: In his college debut, Williams led the team in carries (14) and rushed for 65 yards. He also scored his first career touchdown on a 1-yard plunge in the third quarter.
What it means: Williams is clearly the fourth option in LSU’s four-man tailback rotation, but he looked good running the ball against SHSU. He looks to be another capable runner if the Tigers need him to spell Fournette or one of the senior tailbacks.
LSU sports information director Michael Bonnette confirmed that Thomas had suffered an injury after the fourth-year junior missed practice on Thursday and Friday, but the Baton Rouge Advocate reported that he is expected to miss the season.
"With him going down, he's a great friend of mine [and] I felt terrible when I heard about it," sophomore defensive tackle Christian LaCouture said after Friday morning's practice. "Somebody's got to step up."
LaCouture and Thomas were listed as starting tackles on LSU's preseason depth chart, although they have only one start between them. Thomas started in place of Ego Ferguson in last season's Outback Bowl when Ferguson did not play in the game. He finished last season with nine tackles in 11 games.
Thomas redshirted in 2011 and contributed in a minimal role in 2012. He finally saw the field a bit last season and said earlier this week that he was excited to have a chance to truly make an impact.
"Redshirting and not playing as much for the past few years has helped me learn my plays and put me in a better position for when they do give me my chance, I'll be able to perform well," Thomas said after Monday's first preseason practice.
Now it looks like it will be a while before Thomas gets that chance, which his coach at Breaux Bridge (La.) High School, Paul Broussard, admitted would be a major disappointment for his former player.
"He had worked hard, waited his turn and bided his time and finally had his chance to start," said Broussard, who had not yet spoken to Thomas a couple of hours after the news broke Friday. "I know it has to be devastating for him."
The Tigers now must lean more heavily on a trio of defensive tackles: Frank Herron (LSU coach Les Miles described as "a beast" earlier this week), Greg Gilmore and Maquedius Bain . All three redshirted last season after arriving at LSU as ESPN 300 honorees in 2013.
Additionally, LSU might get some good news about 2014 signee Travonte Valentine soon. Champagnat Catholic (Fla.) coach Mike Tunsil told TigerSportsDigest.com that he expects the NCAA Clearinghouse to permit Valentine to enroll at LSU next Tuesday. Valentine was ESPN's No. 164 overall prospect in the 2014 class and the No. 11 defensive tackle.
Regardless of whether Valentine contributes this fall, the interior line will still feature mostly inexperienced players. The next several weeks of practice will help determine which players figure heavily into defensive line coach Brick Haley's plans.
"Even though I'm a sophomore, I'm trying to be an upperclassman and trying to help with the young guys. A lot of them have to play," LaCouture said. "With everything going on, we're just trying to figure out who's ready to play. I thought we had a great day today."
Thompson playing it smart: Safety Corey Thompson said his surgically repaired knee is completely healthy, but he's still trying to be smart in his return to the field.
"I took limited reps today, but the first few practices, I got them all, I got it in," Thompson said after Friday's first practice in full pads. "So just trying to get back in shape is my main thing."
Thompson missed spring practice following surgery to repair the ACL he tore last season against Texas A&M. He's in the mix to return to the starting lineup this fall -- he had started five of the last six games last season when he went down against the Aggies -- although LSU lists him behind Rickey Jefferson on the preseason depth chart.
Thompson said he expects all of the returning veterans -- a group that also includes Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin -- to contribute this season, as could freshmen Jamal Adams, John Battle and Devin Voorhies.
"We're just trying to teach the freshmen, make sure they understand, because they're going to get some play, too," Thompson said. "So we know that everybody's going to play, everybody's good enough to play, so we're all rotating."
Absences and graduations: Center Elliott Porter was among the Tigers who were absent from Friday's practice periods that were open to the media. The senior sport administration major participated in summer commencement exercises Friday morning at LSU's Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Porter was one of three current players -- along with fullback Connor Neighbors and Justin Maclin -- to graduate Friday, as did former Tigers Rob Bolden, Richard Murphy and Karnell Hatcher.
Among the other Tigers who were not present during Friday's practice periods that were open to the media: receiver Malachi Dupre, linebacker Clifton Garrett and cornerback Rashard Robinson.
Let’s take a glance at five positions that should feature considerable competition this month.
Quarterback: This one will attract the most attention, just as it did during spring practice. Sophomore Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris will be the starter. That was all but certain during the spring and is guaranteed now that backups Stephen Rivers, Hayden Rettig and Rob Bolden have all transferred from the program since the end of last season. But which of the youngsters will it be?
Harris, meanwhile, overcame a sloppy start that day to show off a strong arm and impressive wheels. The day belonged to him, but the competition isn’t over. Jennings will still have a chance this month to convince offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to let him start against Wisconsin, but Harris is going to be tough to hold off.
Wide receiver: This is going to be a fun position to watch over the next couple of seasons since LSU signed arguably the top class of receivers in the country in February. It started with the No. 1 and 3 prospects at the position, Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn, and continued with two more ESPN 300 honorees in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.
Since the Tigers lost two extremely productive wideouts from last season -- Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry -- the receiver spots are wide open entering camp. Sophomore Travin Dural and senior Quantavius Leslie are the only LSU receivers with any game experience, and they occupy the starting spots on the preseason depth chart. But the Tigers probably need several of the true and redshirt freshmen -- John Diarse appears to be the most likely contributor out of that group -- to prove themselves in August and beyond for this to be a productive season for the receiving corps.
Safety: This was one of the team’s bigger question marks in the spring and it’s still a question now in part because of Jalen Mills’ uncertain status following an offseason arrest.
Injuries hit the Tigers hard at safety last season, forcing starters Corey Thompson and Ronald Martin out of the lineup and eventually clearing the way for Mills to shift from cornerback to safety for the Iowa game. The good news now is that all those injuries helped plenty of LSU safeties get on-field tryouts, and now Thompson, Martin, Mills, Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas are all back in the mix.
Freshmen Jamal Adams and Devin Voorhies are in the picture, too, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a freshman -- particularly the heavily recruited Adams -- participating in some capacity early in the season.
Defensive tackle: Like running back, where freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams will join seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, this is a spot where a group of players should have an opportunity to contribute.
Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas are the closest things the Tigers have to seasoned veterans, having played behind Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson last season. They’ll be joined this season by redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron -- all of whom earned a mention from position coach Brick Haley last week on local radio for having strong summers in LSU’s conditioning program.
Signee Travonte Valentine was once thought to have a chance to contribute immediately as well, but the NCAA has yet to clear him to enroll at LSU, meaning he also missed out on the Tigers’ valuable summer workouts. If he makes it to Baton Rouge sometime this month, he might still make it onto the field in 2014, but it appears Valentine is behind the 8-ball for now.
Right guard: The offensive line should be an area of strength in 2014 since it must replace only one starter, right guard Trai Turner. Unlike some of the other open jobs, this one won’t go to a freshman since both of the leading candidates to take over the job are seniors: Fehoko Fanaika and Evan Washington. This is another battle that started in the spring, but if new line coach Jeff Grimes has made a decision, he hasn’t made it publicly. Fanaika and Washington are listed as co-No. 1s on LSU’s preseason depth chart.
Returning starters: Jalen Mills (67 tackles, four tackles for a loss, three sacks, three interceptions). We’re making two assumptions here about Mills, who shifted from starting cornerback to safety and started there in the bowl win against Iowa. One, that he will return to active participation following an offseason arrest that resulted in his indefinite suspension. And two, that he will remain at safety once he clears up his legal issues. Mills was poised to be a steadying force at the back end of the defense during spring practice, so his presence will be valuable should he return to the lineup.
Starters lost: Craig Loston (57 tackles, four tackles for a loss, three interceptions) was one of a small handful of seniors on LSU’s 2013 defense and one of its more valuable leaders. The safety spot opposite Loston was a revolving door where multiple players started at least once, so the position is much more uncertain entering 2014 in his absence.
Key newcomers: Jamal Adams -- ESPN’s No. 18 overall prospect for 2014 and No. 2 safety -- was one of the biggest names in LSU’s highly regarded signing class. He could be in the mix to make an immediate impact, although he’s listed as a third-team safety behind Ronald Martin (38 tackles, one interception) and the versatile Dwayne Thomas (10 tackles, four tackles for a loss, three sacks) on LSU’s preseason depth chart. ESPN 300 athlete Devin Voorhies is also listed as a third-team safety behind Corey Thompson (40 tackles) and Rickey Jefferson (six tackles).
Player to watch: Thompson. Since we just mentioned Adams -- and to be sure, he’ll be a player to watch in August -- let’s mention Thompson here. The junior had started five out of the last six games before suffering a season-ending injury against Texas A&M that forced him to miss spring practice. He’s listed as Jefferson’s backup on the preseason depth chart, and the battles for both safety spots should be competitive.
Overall: Who opens the Wisconsin game at safety is anyone’s guess at this point. Martin seems like a solid option at strong safety after starting seven of the first nine games there in 2013 before a foot fracture forced him to miss four of the last five games. But assuming Mills returns to the lineup, when will the return occur? Who will emerge as a more consistent performer between Thompson and Jefferson? And how will Adams and Voorhies figure into the Tigers’ defensive plans? It’s difficult to answer any of those questions with much confidence today, which is why August will be an especially important month for LSU’s safeties.
Since several open spots on the depth chart make this arguably the most important freshman class in Les Miles’ decade as the Tigers’ coach, we thought it might be a good time to offer a refresher on Miles’ thoughts about each signee once they officially became Tigers on national signing day.
Keep in mind that this is before two junior college prospects -- offensive lineman Jevonte Domond and tight end Colin Jeter -- joined the class as summer additions, so they are not included in this rundown.
Here’s what Miles had to say on what the newcomers might bring to LSU's roster:
No. 1 overall prospect on ESPN 300/No. 1 RB
Miles said: Not surprisingly, the nation’s top overall prospect was a hot topic on signing day. Discussing him publicly for the first time, Miles said, “The inhibitor for a running back, generally speaking, is if he’s got great speed, he’s not very big. And if he’s very, very big, he doesn’t have great speed. And so basically you take a big back and you trim him up and you get him faster and you take the small back and you build him up and hope that you don’t get him slower. But for Leonard Fournette, it’s size and speed and ball skills and great vision. He’s a guy that will step in and play.”
No. 17 on ESPN 300/No. 1 WR
Miles said: One of three No. 1 players at a position to sign with the Tigers, wide receiver Dupre “can jump out of this gym,” Miles said. “He’s a guy that not only has size and height and ball skills and speed, but he has explosiveness that’s just different. Those quarterbacks that could miss him would have to throw it low, not high.”
No. 18 on ESPN 300/No. 2 S
Miles said: Clearly excited about the Texan’s potential, Miles brought up former first-round NFL draft pick Eric Reid as a comparison to Adams. “A multi-dimensional athlete. Played offense, defense, special teams return man,” he said. “Very tough, physical player. Ran track. Just reminds you of Eric Reid, maybe a little bit better ball skills, maybe a little bit more explosive.”
No. 29 on ESPN 300/No. 3 WR
Miles said: One of the most statistically prolific high school receivers in history, Quinn is a “tremendously capable athlete, a guy that can make plays after he catches the ball,” Miles said. “His run after catch will be significant.”
No. 31 on ESPN 300/No. 2 ILB
Miles said: The No. 1 player in Illinois, the middle linebacker is “big, physical, fast -- forced fumbles, sacks, going to give us a tremendous presence inside,” Miles said.
No. 37 on ESPN 300/No. 2 dual-threat QB
Miles said: The coach said early enrollee Harris “may well be as natural a passer as we’ve been around” and added that he has “got great arm velocity, great speed. Will really challenge defenses vertically down the field and have the ability to move his feet to extend plays.”
No. 50 on ESPN 300/No. 4 S
Miles said: The early enrollee, who played cornerback during the spring, has great coverage skills, Miles said. “Again, I say that he is already on campus and has an opportunity to compete this spring for playing time.”
No. 54 on ESPN 300/No. 1 OG
Miles said: The third No. 1 player at his position, Baton Rouge native Brumfield is an “extremely athletic offensive lineman,” Miles said. “Great versatility will give him a chance to play multiple positions.”
No. 134 on ESPN 300/No. 16 ATH
Miles said: Miles said Mississippi’s Gatorade Player of the Year, who is slated to play safety. is “just a very versatile athlete with good size. We’ll enjoy him in our secondary, as well.”
No. 164 on ESPN 300/No. 11 DT
Miles said: The massive four-star prospect “is one of the premier tackles out of Florida. … Big body, really will clog up the middle and push the pocket.”
No. 169 on ESPN 300/No. 5 TE (H)
Miles said: The four-star tight end is “a guy that really is a receiving tight end, can really stretch the field vertically. Again very talented,” Miles said. “He went to the Under Armour All-America Game in Orlando and he won the skills competition.”
No. 213 on ESPN 300/No. 22 DE
Miles said: The four-star prospect, who will start out at defensive tackle at LSU, “had a major knee injury that he recovered from in his senior year,” Miles said. “But he has a very high motor, very athletic and we look forward to him playing with us in the middle.”
No. 261 on ESPN 300/No. 19 OLB
Miles said: Miles called the New Orleans native “one of the top linebackers in the state. … He will fit into our package very comfortably. He’ll be great in space and he is a very vicious tackler.”
No. 271 on ESPN 300/No. 38 WR
Miles said: Miles has frequently mentioned the speedy Chark as a future contender for a kick returner job. On signing day, he said Chark is “really a tremendous prospect at the wide receiver spot.”
No. 273 on ESPN 300/No. 24 DE
Miles said: With severe winter weather in his native Oklahoma delaying the process, Clark didn’t officially sign with LSU until several days after national signing day. But in a release announcing his signing, Miles said Clark “is a very athletic and versatile player who was a standout on both sides of the ball in high school. … He fills a need for us at defensive end. He’ll be able to come in and compete for playing time right away.”
No. 283 on ESPN 300/No. 42 WR
Miles said: He contributed at multiple positions in high school, but the big-bodied Upchurch will play receiver at LSU, leading Miles to say he’s “a very strong, physical [player] that can catch the ball and will give us a great opportunity to use his size and skill set.”
No. 27 DT
Miles said: Although he recently suffered a serious arm injury and jeopardized his 2014 season when he punched through a window, the four-star defensive lineman reminds Miles of a previous LSU standout. “What he would remind you of is Drake Nevis,” Miles said. “He is a little taller, maybe a little wider, maybe a little faster, but he has a very high motor and a real acceleration on the field.”
No. 22 OG
Miles said: LSU likes versatility in its offensive linemen and Miles said LSU gets that with Clapp, noting also that he “comes with an LSU background. His father played defensive line at LSU. … Again, very athletic, has good size and mobility that will allow him to play a number of spots.”
No. 26 S
Miles said: Although he’s listed at cornerback on LSU’s preseason depth chart, Miles said at the time that Battle is “one of the rising safety prospects in this class, a four-star recruit. A very bright guy … a very high-character man, a track athlete and a four-point student. Very hard-hitting safety, a very talented guy that we look forward to him lining up in our secondary.”
No. 41 DE
Miles said: A tweener who could contribute as a defensive end or outside linebacker, Teuhema “has an unbelievably high motor and will play with his hands on the ground or play standing up and just to me is a tremendous prospect,” Miles said.
No. 57 ATH
Miles said: A late addition to LSU’s class, Gage was “a multi-sport athlete, displayed toughness and physicality and speed, was very competitive in our camp and we knew of him best and he’ll be with us as a corner,” Miles said.
No. 6 KTS
Miles said: Although LSU seems set at placekicker with Colby Delahoussaye, Miles has mentioned Gamble several times as a candidate for the kickoff job in 2014, including on signing day. “Big leg. Nineteen kickoffs went into the end zone as a senior.”
No. 77 RB
Miles said: Fournette gets most of the attention, but Miles said of 2,200-yard rusher Williams that “he’s a tough, physical running back, runs behind his pads, punishes defenders, displays great balance and vision.”
Safety already ranked among the most unproven positions on LSU’s roster. Jalen Mills' arrest and indefinite suspension on Wednesday only adds to the uncertainty.
Mills was arrested early Wednesday and charged with second-degree battery in connection with an incident last month in which he allegedly punched a woman in the mouth at a Baton Rouge apartment complex. Certainly, Tigers coach Les Miles will allow the legal process to play out before determining Mills’ long-term punishment -- if punishment is necessary once all the facts are in -- but this summer just became enormously important for LSU’s crop of young safeties.
Even during spring practice, Miles was unwilling to name a starter at the position because of the talent who had yet to join the roster.
“I don’t think that decision will be made until the freshman class comes in. We’ll be in two-a-days and kind of decide who the best guys are,” Miles said in March.
Mills led LSU’s defensive backs with 67 tackles and three interceptions last season and has started all 26 games of his college career. The rising junior shifted to safety at the end of the 2013 season to address depth issues that arose when the Tigers suffered a spate of injuries at the position.
The good news for LSU is that those injured safeties -- senior Ronald Martin (38 tackles, one INT) and junior Corey Thompson (23 tackles) -- should be back when the Tigers open camp in August.
Martin started seven games last season and seemed to be in line to reclaim a starting job during spring practice. Thompson -- who started five of his last six games before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Texas A&M -- missed the spring while recovering from the injury.
Sophomore Rickey Jefferson (six tackles) will also figure into the competition after getting a crash course at the position late last fall.
Everyone expected Mills to provide some stability at safety after 2013 senior Craig Loston left the roster. Perhaps Mills will still do that, depending on what happens with his legal case. But since his future remains cloudy for now, veterans like Martin and Thompson have to take charge and be prepared to possibly take over starting jobs while the freshmen settle into their new surroundings.
“It’ll be interesting to see the young guys come in, make a name for themselves,” Thompson said during the spring. “It’ll be fine. We’ll all get together and work out, do some drills together and get into fall camp, teach the young guys how to do it and they’ll be good from there.”
1. QB race is on: If the spring game made anything clear, it’s that the quarterback race between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris was much closer than we might have anticipated prior to spring practice. Jennings followed a subpar performance in his first start -- LSU’s Outback Bowl win over Iowa -- with a disappointing effort in the spring game, where he threw two interceptions that linebackers returned for touchdowns. Meanwhile, Harris didn’t have a perfect performance, but he flashed a ton of potential and playmaking ability. Their competition will remain as the leading storyline of preseason camp.
2. Defense is on the upswing: LSU’s defense started slowly last fall -- a disappointing shift after ranking among the nation’s best over the previous few seasons -- but was back in fine form by the end of the season. It looks like John Chavis’ athletic bunch was heading back toward that style of physical, fast defense that LSU is known for. The starting defense surrendered just 179 yards, one touchdown and 3.9 yards per play in the spring game -- and that was without key players Jermauria Rasco, Ronald Martin and signees Jamal Adams and Clifton Garrett participating.
3. Not working with a full deck: Speaking of non-participants, it was a fairly ho-hum spring in Baton Rouge because of the number of absent players who will almost certainly play key roles in the fall. Only two of the 23 signees -- Harris and cornerback Ed Paris -- participated in spring drills, leaving LSU with barely more than 50 scholarship players taking part in the practices. Without players such as Adams, Garrett, tailback Leonard Fournette, receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn practicing, we simply haven’t seen what the 2014 Tigers will truly look like yet.
Three questions for the fall:
1. Who fills spots at safety? Apparently converted cornerback Jalen Mills has found a home at safety. But if he holds onto one of the starting spots, who gets the nod at the second safety position? Martin seemed like the favorite during the spring, but he was not healthy for the entirety and Rickey Jefferson took over in his absence. Corey Thompson also sat out while recovering from injury. And then you have Adams and fellow signees Devin Voorhies and John Battle, who will join the team this summer. It’s clear LSU’s coaches plan to fully weigh their options in the secondary once preseason camp opens and all of the candidates are on hand.
2. Can young players handle business early? This will probably be the determining factor in whether LSU contends alongside division heavyweights Alabama and Auburn in 2014 or whether this will be a transitional season ahead of potential title-contending teams in 2015 and 2016. It’s a lot to ask of freshmen to step into the SEC and perform competently right away, but LSU will almost certainly do that with several members of its star-studded signing class. There aren’t a ton of holes in LSU’s roster, but it needs the youngsters to fill a couple of them -- namely at receiver, tailback, defensive tackle and quarterback -- by playing with composure right out of the gate.
3. Who supplies the pass rush? One of the disappointing issues on defense last fall was LSU’s lack of a consistent pass rush. The Tigers finished the season with just 27 sacks in 13 games, which might have seemed like an even bigger drop-off since players like Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo had been such dominant pass rushers in the recent past. LSU operated without one of its top edge rushers (Rasco, who led the team with four sacks last season) during the spring, although Danielle Hunter notched a couple of sacks in the spring game. Hunter seems like the odds-on favorite to become LSU’s next great pass rusher, but he’ll need some help from a largely unproven group of linemen.
One way-too-early prediction:
Honestly it’s difficult to tell whether this is actually going out on a limb, but we believe Harris will become the Tigers’ starting quarterback by midseason if not sooner. Coaches Les Miles and Cam Cameron both said the quarterback competition will carry over into preseason practice, but Harris certainly made his case in the spring game. Although everyone insisted that Jennings performed better during other spring practices than he had in the lone scrimmage that was open for public viewing, he simply didn’t spark the offense the way that Harris did that day. Harris certainly struggled at points and made plenty of bad decisions himself, but he was far and away the more explosive playmaker that afternoon. That has to factor into the coaches’ decision-making process.
An obvious point this spring was that Les Miles’ coaching staff was working with an incomplete roster. Seven underclassmen jumped ship to enter the NFL draft and only two of the Tigers’ 23 signees -- quarterback Brandon Harris and defensive back Edward Paris -- enrolled early to participate in spring practice.
That leaves plenty of questions as the team moves into the offseason -- five of which we’ll address now:
5. Do the Tigers have adequate depth in the backfield?
But even when freshmen Leonard Fournette and Darrel Williams arrive this summer, will that be enough? An injury here or there could cause major problems. For example, look what happened at Georgia last season. When the season opened, it appeared as though the Bulldogs had one of the nation’s top backfields with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall leading the way and freshmen J.J. Green, Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman serving as backups. But then Gurley suffered a minor injury in the opener against Clemson followed by a serious ankle injury in Game 4 against LSU. The next week, Marshall suffered a season-ending knee injury.
All of a sudden, Georgia was down to a bunch of freshmen -- all of whom were mid-level prospects -- by the first week of October. It’s no mystery why the Bulldogs went 1-2, and very nearly 0-3, in that October stretch before Gurley returned to the lineup. A lack of backfield depth in the SEC can be a season killer when you make a living on the ground like Georgia and LSU typically do.
4. How many players will figure into the Tigers’ plans on the defensive line? And how good can they be this season?
Aside from quarterback play, this might be the most important factor for the 2014 Tigers. Brick Haley’s bunch was a bit erratic last season, and now it must function with youngsters replacing departed juniors Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson in the middle.
The good news is that there is plenty of talent on hand along the interior line. Christian LaCouture and Quentin Thomas worked as first-teamers, with redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain, Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron chipping in as reserves. There is an extremely high ceiling with that group, but they’re about as green as it gets. It will also bear watching during preseason camp to see whether a signee like Travonte Valentine can crack Haley’s rotation, too.
The end spots are also a bit of a mystery. Jermauria Rasco -- who missed the spring while returning from offseason surgery -- and Danielle Hunter seem locked in as starters, but will they improve upon middling results in 2013? And who fills in the depth chart behind them? Tashawn Bower seems like a safe bet, but who else? We’ll see.
3. Who will start at safety?
Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin seemed to have these jobs locked down during the spring, but Rickey Jefferson and Corey Thompson -- another player who missed spring practice due to injury -- will be in the mix in August.
Keep in mind that nearly every time this position came up in one of his post-practice press gatherings, Miles mentioned how the Tigers’ safety signees -- Jamal Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle -- will be part of the preseason competition, too.
2. Will this offense be productive enough to win a championship?
It probably was last season, but for once it was LSU’s defense that was in the middle of a retooling effort. John Chavis’ defense appears to be on the rise now, but Cam Cameron must replace nearly every significant skill player from last season’s offense.
Freshmen like Fournette, Harris and receiver Malachi Dupre don’t just look like serviceable college players, they look like superstars in the making. But it’s a lot to ask of true freshmen to be superstars immediately.
Cameron’s dilemma is that he will almost certainly rely on at least a half-dozen newcomers to make an impact this fall. It’s a tricky proposition, but his getting reliable production out of that group might mean the difference between LSU contending for the SEC West title this fall or having to wait another year or two until they mature and bring the Tigers back to national championship contention.
1. Will Harris overtake Anthony Jennings at quarterback?
We can’t post this list and fail to address the biggest question surrounding the Tigers this spring. After a month of practice, there doesn’t seem to be an answer, although Harris clearly outperformed his sophomore counterpart in the spring game.
LSU’s coaches understandably see no need to declare a starter five months before the season starts. They’ll battle it out this summer in passing sessions and then again in August. Harris looks to be the contender with higher upside, but he must prove he can avoid the decision-making problems that most freshman quarterbacks encounter when the pressure of the season arrives.
He had been an all-state safety and certainly has athletic genes -- both of his parents were college athletes -- but the speed of the players around him, the increased complexity of the playbook and the intricacies of playing safety in college initially made life rough for Thompson.
He eventually made the transition in fine fashion. Thompson played in all 13 games in 2012 as a true freshman, mostly covering kicks on special teams, and had claimed a starting spot by the midway point of his second season.
He had started five of the last six games in 2013 when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Texas A&M -- an ailment that has kept him out of the Tigers’ spring practice while he recovers from offseason surgery.
Now Thompson and his fellow veterans must help a new class of freshman safeties overcome the natural frustration and self-doubt that almost always accompanies their first taste of life in the SEC. That group, which includes ESPN’s No. 2 safety and No. 18 overall prospect for 2014, Jamal Adams, along with Devin Voorhies and John Battle, is one of the nation’s top collection of safety signees and will almost certainly compete for playing time in 2014.
Les Miles confirmed as much after Saturday’s scrimmage, when a reporter asked whether any safeties had earned a starting spot yet.
“I don’t think that decision will be made until the freshman class comes in. We’ll be in two-a-days and kind of decide who the best guys are,” Miles said.
Competition suits Thompson fine, and LSU’s coaching staff will have plenty of options since Jalen Mills, Ronald Martin and Rickey Jefferson also started at safety at least once last fall.
“It’ll be interesting to see the young guys come in, make a name for themselves,” Thompson said. “It’ll be fine. We’ll all get together and work out, do some drills together and get into fall camp, teach the young guys how to do it and they’ll be good from there.”
Martin intercepted two passes in Saturday’s scrimmage and Jefferson had one, causing Miles to remark afterward that he thinks the safeties are playing better. If that’s the case, that would be a good sign -- since safety was a fairly inconsistent position for the Tigers in 2013. Senior Craig Loston was an old hand at safety by then, but Martin was the only other experienced starter -- and he had started just once prior to last fall.
It was a rocky learning experience for all involved, which was part of the reason that Mills finally shifted from cornerback to fill in at safety against Arkansas and then start there in the Outback Bowl against Iowa.
“It was a curve, just trying to be more of a vocal leader and stepping up in a position, trying to be a first-time starter and getting to know the defense more from changing positions,” Martin said. “Because when I first got here, I was playing strong and I mixed in free safety. So it’s all about knowing the defense.”
That last part will probably be the biggest hurdle for the newcomers once they arrive this summer. Adams is LSU’s highest-rated safety signee in the ESPN prospect rankings since Loston (the No. 1 safety in 2009), so clearly he has the physical tools to excel in college. It might be only a matter of time until he cashes in on that star potential, but it’s no simple task catching on to the job that awaits him at LSU.
“One thing is the speed of the game, but the next is really just knowing your plays, knowing how to mix in different calls and stuff like that because you’re the quarterback of the defense at safety,” Thompson said. “I’m making calls every play, so I have to know what’s going on, where people are lining up at and give them different calls and stuff.”
The veterans plan to help teach the newcomers from the moment they arrive on campus. Once they learn the intricacies of the position, that’s when the competition will truly begin -- and there will be plenty of that.
“That’s what football is all about,” Mills said. “It’s about that competitive area, the competitive nature. You have to be competitive whether it’s on the field, off the field, in practice, wherever you are.”
On some level, every big-time college football coaching staff deals with the dilemma that Miles currently faces, but a spate of NFL early entries in recent seasons has made predicting the future an even more vital element in LSU’s success. Specifically, Miles and his staff must lead an incomplete 2014 squad through 15 spring practices while also attempting to project whether players who aren’t yet on campus will be ready to play key roles this fall.
“I think the skill players on offense are going to be musts and I think the skill players on defense, with the safeties stepping in there and being able to play -- I just think the recruiting class will hit us just where we need to be hit.”
At some positions, LSU’s needs are great. At others, it’s simply that the caliber of athlete is high enough that Miles’ staff knows to include him in its 2014 plans. In some cases, both scenarios are in play.
Take receiver and running back, for example.
When 2014 signees Malachi Dupre -- the nation’s No. 1 receiver prospect -- and tailback Darrel Williams showed up to observe the Tigers’ first spring practice, Miles joked afterward that he wished the two players could have participated in the team’s workout.
The Tigers are short on proven performers at receiver -- and thanks to several recent injuries at the position, they’ve been short on warm bodies to even run through drills -- and have only two scholarship tailbacks available this spring.
Those depth shortages are a direct result of several NFL draft early entries in the last couple of seasons. LSU lost two tailbacks to the draft after the 2012 season and two more this year when Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue both turned pro. It's a similar story at wideout, where the only two accomplished players on the roster, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, opted to skip their senior seasons.
Miles’ staff addressed those issues in phenomenal fashion on signing day, adding Williams and the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect, Leonard Fournette, at tailback, plus arguably the top collection of receivers that any program signed in 2014 -- a group that also includes No. 3 wideout Trey Quinn and two more ESPN 300 recruits in D.J. Chark and Tony Upchurch.
The problem is that no member of that group is on campus yet, forcing LSU’s coaches to both evaluate what they have at present and how the signees’ summer arrival will affect the group dynamic.
“I just think that some of those guys are going to get first-[team] snaps,” Miles said of the receiver signees. “They’re going to be advantages for us and we’ve got to use them well.”
As Miles mentioned, a high-quality group of safety signees could dent the depth chart in similar fashion. The Tigers have a few returning veterans and have moved Jalen Mills over from cornerback to shore up their needs at safety, but signees such as No. 2 safety Jamal Adams, ESPN 300 prospect Devin Voorhies and John Battle could shake up the competition in August.
It’s not that those players’ absences have made this spring useless for LSU. But Miles and his staff must function this spring with the knowledge that they’re coaching an incomplete roster.
That’s not much different from Alabama or Texas A&M or Auburn, which also lost players to the draft and have key signees who haven't arrived, but the situation is more extreme in Baton Rouge. If Miles balances the magician part of his job correctly, perhaps he can pull a rabbit out of his famous hat by the end of August, when the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin in Houston.
“Here’s what you get out of 15 practices in the spring of the year: You practice the team that you have with you and you advance them and get them taught and get them improved. You teach technique and whatever you can get to, you get to with that team,” Miles said recently.
“Before the next team, that next part of your team, shows up, you anticipate where your direction goes. You anticipate that, ‘That guy goes here and that guy goes here’ and you fit it. Then in the first game, you hope that you prepared them well enough to win and play well in the first game. If you win and play well in the first game, you’re all on track.”
He views himself as both -- which is coming in handy for LSU’s defense these days.
“When you come in, you call yourself a defensive back,” said Mills, a rising junior who started at safety for the first time in the Tigers’ Outback Bowl win against Iowa. “That means you can play corner to nickel to safety to dime. You want to be able to play all positions. You don’t want to be a single-position type of guy if you’re a defensive back.”
The Tigers need him most at safety for the time being, which was the message that defensive backs coach Corey Raymond imparted prior to spring practice.
“Him and Chief [defensive coordinator John Chavis], they kind of talked to me or whatever and they were like, ‘Right now we need help at safety. You played a pretty good job those last two games of the season. Can you play it for us?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ ” Mills said. “And he said, ‘But we’re still going to need you at corner and you’re still going to be our starting nickel when we go Mustang package.’ ”
With Thompson on the shelf and a group of talented safety signees -- led by ESPN’s No. 18 overall prospect and No. 2 safety Jamal Adams -- not yet on campus, the Tigers are primarily using Mills and Ronald Martin with the first-team defense.
Rickey Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas are also working at safety, and thus far the foursome is pleased with what it has accomplished.
“Rickey, if he keeps coming along, he’s going to help us out a lot. Jalen Mills is doing a good job back there, also. And Dwayne Thomas, he’s doing a good job,” Martin said. “That’s the only other ones that we’ve got working in right now in the spring, just us four. Us guys, we’re doing a pretty good job so far, so we’re just trying to keep it going.”
Perhaps that’s a good sign, as safety was a problem area for much of 2013. Loston was the one constant when healthy, but the starting spot opposite him was a revolving door partially because of inconsistency. The Tigers used seven different starting combinations at safety, with Martin, Thompson, Mills and Jefferson all starting at least once.
Once Adams, Devin Voorhies and John Battle IV arrive on campus this summer, Raymond will have even more safety options from which to choose. And Tigers coach Les Miles said the newcomers will indeed get a long look from the coaching staff.
“We’ll have guys back, but I think we’ll be looking at some of these young guys that are coming in,” Miles said.
Thompson will also be back by then. The rising junior missed the final two games of 2013 after injuring his left knee against Texas A&M and undergoing surgery in December. He said after Tuesday’s practice that the knee is back to about 80 percent, but he will not attempt to test it during spring practice.
“I aim to be 100 by May,” Thompson said. “I don’t want to rush it, get back too early. But then I feel like May is a good time to be 100 and do everything to get in shape and be ready for the season.”
So for now, the Tigers will continue to function with the four available safeties -- a group attempting to prove that last season’s lapses were only a temporary hiccup for a program known for solid defensive back play. LSU’s pass defense totals actually improved slightly (from 206.0 ypg in 2012 to 197.5 last season), but the Tigers’ overall defensive slide continued, with Chavis’ group dropping from second nationally in total defense in its 2011 SEC championship run (261.5 ypg) to eighth in 2012 (307.6) to 15th last fall (340.7).
That’s an 80-yard increase in just a two-year span, and the safeties know they must perform more consistently in order to improve those numbers.
“We’ve just got to show that we can be leaders out there -- show that we can lead the defense just like those guys in the past like Eric [Reid], Brandon [Taylor], LaRon [Landry] and so on and keep the pedigree going,” Martin said.
Continued progress from Mills at the position would offer a big boost, just as he did in his first-ever attempt at playing safety when he intercepted a pass during a comeback win against Arkansas.
Mills still has nuances of the position to learn, such as how to make new reads that are different at safety from those at cornerback, but he believes he is making the transition smoothly.
“I really didn’t have a problem with [shifting positions],” Mills said. “Just coming from corner, you know where you want your safety to be sometimes in different types of checks. So just going from cornerback to safety, I know what the corner wants, so I just try to do it.”
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