Editor’s note: This week we continue to break down each of LSU’s position groups as we prepare for the Tigers to open preseason practice in early August. After examining the offensive positions last week, today we shift to the other side of the ball with the defensive line.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- There are two significant questions when it comes to LSU’s defensive line: pass rush off the edge and depth up the middle.
By far the biggest area of uncertainty is the Tigers’ pass rush. After LSU generated just 19 sacks last season and 27 in 2013 -- a steep drop from their sack totals in 2011 (39) and 2012 (35) -- one of the defense’s objectives during spring practice was to find ways to pressure opposing quarterbacks more consistently.
New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and first-year defensive line coach Ed Orgeron likely have some tricks up their sleeves that will allow that to happen, but who will provide this added pressure? The Tigers lost both starting defensive ends -- Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter -- and while the candidates to take over those jobs have potential, we haven’t seen enough of any of them to proclaim players like Lewis Neal, Tashawn Bower, Deondre Clark, Sione Teuhema or Maquedius Bain as sure things. Freshman Arden Key could be another name to watch, as LSU’s coaches identified him as a possible instant-impact signee when he joined the Tigers’ recruiting class in February.
Of course, a pass rush isn’t dependent solely on the ends. Strong defensive tackles can help collapse the pocket, and returning starters Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux should again form a solid tandem. Steele also has a number of quick linebackers and defensive backs at his disposal to create additional quarterback pressure, taking some of that responsibility off the shoulders of the ends.
At least two or three ends need to emerge as reliable performers, however, if LSU’s sack total is to rise beyond its mediocre levels of the last two seasons. Ranking 102nd nationally in sacks, as happened last season, is not where anyone expects to see an LSU defense.
The second question for the line -- interior depth -- isn’t as much of a concern as the first, largely because of LaCouture and Godchaux’s presence. As the 2014 season progressed, the two tackles developed a rapport that allowed the LSU defense to improve significantly. They don’t attract a lot of attention, but LSU’s defense is stout up the middle with those two in the lineup.
However, the depth chart is a bit shaky behind them. Quentin Thomas will be back after an injury-plagued 2014, but redshirt sophomore tackles Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron have been unable to make much of an impact to date. Both players were ESPN 300 recruits in 2013, so it’s not as if talent is an issue. They simply need to produce when Orgeron calls their numbers.
And he might have to do that. The offseason departures of Travonte Valentine and Trey Lealaimatafao leaves Orgeron with few alternatives should one of the veterans go down with an injury.
Barring injury, though, tackle should not be a problem. The pass rush will be the determining element in whether Year 1 under Orgeron is a success for LSU’s defensive line.
Newcomers: Arden Key (Fr., Lithonia, Ga./Hapeville Charter, ESPN four-star prospect, No. 6 DE, No. 24 overall prospect); Isaiah Washington (Fr., New Orleans, La./Edna Karr, ESPN three-star prospect, No. 72 defensive end).
Keep your eye on: Key and the ends. Without a proven starter, don’t be surprised if LSU’s coaches give Key -- the No. 24 overall prospect in the 2015 ESPN 300 -- a long look in August. The Tigers have some promising candidates to play more in Rasco and Hunter’s absences, but Key might have the most potential of them all. We wrote about Neal’s push to become a reliable rusher during the spring, and Bower and Bain should have a good chance to become starters, but questions surround this bunch for now.
Confidence meter: Not bad. It’s not that this group will be a liability. It will absolutely not be that. LaCouture and Godchaux form a solid core to anchor the line. Whoever grabs the starting spots at end will, at minimum, be decent -- with the potential to be much better than that. The question is whether this overall group will be better than average or some more positive descriptor. LSU’s line hasn’t dominated consistently in a couple years now.