- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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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 focus on the linebackers.
BATON ROUGE, La. – Because of a shallow depth chart, linebacker will be one of LSU’s more unsettled position groups in 2015. But that’s nothing compared to the intrigue that will surround the position this time next year.
The Tigers are in fine shape atop the depth chart with middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith returning along with starting strongside linebacker Lamar Louis. Sure it hurt losing weakside starter Kwon Alexander to the NFL draft after leading the team with 90 tackles as a junior, but the Tigers have senior Deion Jones set to fill Alexander’s spot and Duke Riley able to play multiple positions if necessary.
That’s the good news. If they avoid injuries at the position, the Tigers have four veteran linebackers – all of whom started at least once last season – forming the core of a seriously athletic, speedy position group. Without question, new defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Kevin Steele can work with that.
The questions arise upon examination of the reserve spots on the depth chart. Although recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson insisted this summer that LSU’s numbers at linebacker are not a concern, there is not much experience among the Tigers’ backups. That’s largely because of recruiting misses and attrition – and we’re not just talking about Alexander’s early departure for the NFL.
The Tigers lost two of the six linebackers they signed in 2012 (Lorenzo Phillips and Trey Granier) and they signed just two in both 2013 (Beckwith and Riley) and 2014 (Donnie Alexander and Clifton Garrett, who has already left LSU). The Tigers did not sign a single linebacker in their 2015 recruiting class.
That puts the onus on less experienced players like Alexander and Ronnie Feist to prepare themselves, and it also opens the door for possible position changes. Former safety Devin Voorhies shifted to outside linebacker in the spring and the move apparently stuck. Defensive end M.J. Patterson and safety Corey Thompson also have been rumored as candidates to join the linebackers if necessary.
Steele would likely feel more comfortable heading into next spring if he manages to develop some depth within his position group this fall. Louis and Jones are both seniors and junior Beckwith – recently voted as a second-team preseason All-SEC choice – will be eligible to enter the draft after the season. That’s not an immediate concern, but it will make for a wide-open position battle next year.
For now, though, we can comfortably say that the Tigers’ linebackers will be a strong group so long as the top four remain healthy. The depth chart behind Beckwith, Louis, Jones and Riley is less certain as August approaches, although the situation is hardly dire.
Steele will have his work cut out to ensure that things don’t become dire between now and this time in 2016, but the group appears to be in OK shape for the upcoming season.
Keep your eye on: Possible position moves. When Garrett – the No. 31 overall prospect and No. 2 inside linebacker in the 2014 recruiting class – left the program over the summer, LSU’s positional depth grew into an even bigger question. Now it may be that Steele needs to nab some players who fit better at linebacker – or who are simply capable of playing the position – in his revamped defensive scheme. Voorhies already made the move. Will others such as Patterson, Thompson or somebody else join him?
Confidence meter: Not bad. The depth isn’t perfect and we still don’t know exactly how much Steele will alter the way the linebackers were deployed under predecessor John Chavis. And yet the linebacker group is still positioned well, particularly with ascending star Beckwith back to anchor the unit. This ranks among the more uncertain position groups on the team, but its ceiling is awfully high. So long as everyone remains available, Steele has more than enough to work with in order to have an effective set of linebackers.