BATON ROUGE, La. -- He’s not a native-born Louisianan -- in fact, he’s 900 miles from his Illinois home -- but LSU freshman Clifton Garrett said he gets chills when he thinks about his first Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
“It’s going to be heart throbbing for me,” Garrett said. “I’m going to be extremely excited and adrenaline is going to be rushing. I can’t wait for it. I get a chill just thinking about it. I watch the hype videos and everything and it’s crazy.”
As ESPN’s No. 2 inside linebacker and No. 31 overall prospect in the 2014 recruiting class, Garrett seems bound for college stardom. That might not happen immediately, however. Not with veterans D.J. Welter and Kendell Beckwith ahead of him on the depth chart and not with the bulk of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ scheme still to learn.
“There’s positions that are easier to play when you take into consideration athletic ability, experience,” Chavis said. “It’s a lot tougher to walk in and play tougher than it is to, say, play corner from an experience standpoint. Those guys don’t have as much to learn, but obviously they have to be better athletes. It’s a lot easier to get a freshman corner ready to play than it is to get a freshman linebacker, or as far as that goes because of the physicality, a freshman defensive lineman.”
Garrett himself seems ready to accept a season as a contributor on special teams, with occasional spot duty at linebacker, while he learns behind the veterans. But there are still several freshmen who have a chance to contribute immediately on Chavis’ defense. And as the Tigers’ veteran coordinator indicated, some of them -- a group that includes cornerback Ed Paris and safeties Jamal Adams and John Battle -- reside in the secondary.
Paris, ESPN’s No. 50 overall prospect, got a head start on the others by enrolling at LSU in January and participating in spring practice. He was listed as a second-team cornerback behind Rashard Robinson on the Tigers’ preseason depth chart.
“It helped me a lot. I learned it all in like a major way,” Paris said of his spring experience. “Because learning the playbook is extremely hard [as are] just learning [defensive backs coach Corey] Raymond’s terminology and seeing things and just trying to stay key on my techniques.”
Adams -- LSU’s highest-rated defensive signee at No. 18 overall and the No. 2 safety on the ESPN 300 -- might be on the field in multiple capacities. He’s in the mix for one of the Tigers’ kick return jobs, plus he could contribute in the base defense or in the Tigers’ nickel or dime packages.
“I feel like I can fit in with those guys,” Adams said of the veterans in the secondary. “I feel like I can help that group of guys, but I’m definitely not going to rush anything. I’m just going to keep working hard and my playing time is going to speak for myself on the field.”
And Battle’s versatility will someday come in handy. Sophomore Dwayne Thomas said he and Jalen Mills have been encouraging Battle to learn every position in the secondary, just as they have. That might not happen immediately, but Battle said he and the other freshman safeties should carve out a niche once they figure out their positions.
“It’s going to be fun,” Battle said. “Once we learn the plays, that’s going to be the deciding factor.”
That was a common theme among LSU’s defensive newcomers, who all seemed to recognize they still have a lot to learn. Many of them were sought-after recruits who are unaccustomed to sitting on the bench, but they know they must prove themselves worthy of playing time beyond special teams.
“It’s definitely a humbling aspect, but it’s definitely a motivational thing, as well,” Garrett said. “Being one of the young guys, the underdog, you have to come in and kind of prove yourself to all the older guys.”
Most of LSU’s freshmen seem to have that attitude, sophomore safety Rickey Jefferson said, which has impressed the veterans.
“Most of the class, honestly, had their head on straight. I don’t really recall one guy that’s like a knucklehead or anything like that,” Jefferson said. “Most of them handle their business. They’ve really got it going on, so I have to give that to them.”
Nonetheless, this probably will not be a season where LSU’s freshman defenders dominate the headlines. Its offensive newcomers are getting much of the attention right now, and for good reason. The Tigers must replace 76 percent of their offensive production from last season, after all, and it’s entirely possible that freshmen will pick up some of that slack.
But quarterback Brandon Harris, running back Leonard Fournette, and receivers Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn aren’t the only LSU freshmen set to make their mark in 2014. Several freshmen on defense, particularly those in the secondary, could play roles on scrimmage downs this season.
“These guys are pretty good,” said Mills, a former Freshman All-American. “They kind of remind me of the defensive back class that came in when I was a freshman. We were hungry and we wanted to go out there and get the starting job that next day, so it’s just good competition.”