Even for a coach who’s been around the block as many times as John Chavis, the mass exodus of talent from LSU’s defense last season was jolting.
Gone are seven starters, and six of those were underclassmen. All six are projected to be selected later this month in the NFL draft.
Experience won’t be in abundance on LSU’s defense next season. Chavis, one of the best defensive coordinators in the business, glances at the depth chart on the wall in the Tigers’ defensive meeting room and points out that only three seniors are listed.
“That’s what happens when you lose as many good juniors as we have the last couple of years,” Chavis said.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne and tackle Michael Brockers both came out early a year ago and were drafted in the first round. Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu was also sent packing and didn’t play at all last season after failing too many drug tests.
Anybody thinking Chavis is sitting around mourning all the talent the Tigers lost on defense doesn’t really know him.
This is the kind of challenge he relishes and the kind he’s met head-on his entire career, going all the way back to his days as the defensive coordinator at Alabama State and Alabama A&M in the early 1980s.
Plus, it’s not like the Tigers are void of talent. It’s just young talent.
“Listen, it’s where we are right now, and nobody’s more excited about coaching this group than I am,” Chavis said. “We don’t have any choice but to grow up in a hurry. I can promise you we’re not going to fold up our tents and say, ‘Come get us.’
“We’re going to get there. It may not happen overnight, but we’re going to be a good defense.”
The Tigers have been better than just good defensively under Chavis. They’ve been dominant. Since he arrived in 2009, they’ve finished in the top 12 nationally in scoring defense all four seasons, and were in the top 10 nationally in total defense each of the past two seasons.
The year before he arrived, LSU had dipped to 56th nationally in scoring defense.
Without question, this will be his most daunting rebuilding job since that first season in Baton Rouge. But the standard has been set.
“There are a lot of guys on this defense who’ve just been waiting their turn,” said senior linebacker Lamin Barrow, who has been working both outside and in the middle this spring. “We know what people are saying about us because of the players we lost, but we can’t wait to get out there and let this beast out.”
The LSU offense put up big numbers against the defense in last Saturday’s scrimmage, but several starters on defense were out.
One of the biggest challenges will be finding finishers at end, although Jermauria Rasco had shown a lot of promise before having his spring cut short by shoulder surgery.
He also wouldn’t trade his young group of linebackers for anybody. Kwon Alexander was one of the best true freshman defenders in the league last season until he broke his ankle in the Florida game. He returned to play in the bowl game, which should help him mentally going into next season.
The Tigers also get senior Tahj Jones back at linebacker. Jones missed all of last season because of academic issues. The other senior who will play a big role next season on defense is safety Craig Loston.
Three sophomores who played last season as freshmen in the secondary -- cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins, and safety Corey Thompson -- are poised to take big steps in 2013. Mills started all season at cornerback.
Six defensive linemen were part of the Tigers’ 2013 signing class, and Chavis said it’s likely that several of those will have to play, particularly at end. Something says it won’t take long for talented incoming linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Melvin Jones to get on the field, either.
“When you sign great players, you do so knowing they may leave early,” Chavis said. “You go back and look, and we’ve always played a lot of freshmen. That’s for a reason. You’ve got to have those guys ready, and we will be.”