BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU's defense seemed easy to figure out coming into the season.
The Tigers were dominant because of a defensive line loaded with NFL prospects and a secondary with a Heisman Trophy candidate in Tyrann Mathieu who was going to harass opponents into turnovers and create touchdowns for the sometimes stagnant offense. The linebackers, unspectacular a season ago, were sort of along for the ride.
It didn't quite work out that way.
Mathieu was dismissed from the team before the season started and the defensive line, despite having three potential first-round NFL draft picks, was good but not great. The Tigers finished the regular season with 30 sacks, 10 off the SEC lead and a distant fifth overall in the conference. The ringleader, Sam Montgomery, had seven sacks -- good numbers, but well behind Jadaveon Clowney's league-leading 13 sacks.
Yet LSU remained an elite defense, finishing third in an SEC flush with some of the nation's most dominant defenses. The Tigers allowed 296.2 yards a game, behind only Alabama and Florida in the SEC and ahead of South Carolina and Georgia.
How were the Tigers able to maintain a high level?
Those linebackers were hardly just along for the ride this season.
On a team full of established stars, middle linebacker Kevin Minter emerged as the most productive and, arguably, the best player among Tigers defenders. With 111 tackles, he's third in the SEC, notable on an LSU defense where production is normally spread out.
With six tackles in whatever bowl games LSU winds up playing in, his tackle total will surpass Kelvin Sheppard's 116-tackle 2010 season as the most prolific single-season tackle total in the Les Miles era.
For that reason, we picked Minter at the top of the final LSU 10 of the regular season. On a team full of more established stars, Minter had the best season.
Don't think those were generic tackles at the end of five-yard runs. Minter stuffed the stat sheet in other categories. Notably, on a team full of penetrating, play-disrupting defensive linemen, it was Minter who led the team in tackles for loss (13.5). He led the Tigers' front seven in passes defended (six, including an interception) and was tied for the lead among non-defensive linemen in quarterback sacks (3).
His 20-tackle game against Florida, which included 17 solo tackles, was one short of a single-game school record for tackles.
"He is just what we needed at that position," Miles said. Also notable was the production of weakside linebacker Lamin Barrow, who finished the regular season with 92 tackles and could reach triple digits with a productive bowl game.
It wasn't always that way for the linebackers. A redshirt junior, Minter played sparingly as a redshirt freshman while backing up Sheppard, then saw Karnell Hatcher win the right to be Sheppard's successor for the 2011 season.
Minter passed Hatcher on the depth chart after three games and started 11 games during 2011, finishing with 61 tackles -- numbers that paled in comparison to what he would do this season as a veteran whose understanding of the defense often led him to being in the right place at the right time. His numbers led LSU linebackers last year, but both Minter and Barrow have significantly more production this season than any LSU linebacker a year ago.
"Kevin Minter was not ready to play as much early in his career," Miles said. "Yet with experience, he continues to play big in every game."
People took notice. Mel Kiper has him as the No. 2 junior inside linebacker in this year's draft class. While he's still behind several of his defensive teammates on Scouts Inc.'s Top 32 -- Montgomery, defensive end Barkevious Mingo and defensive tackle Bennie Logan are all still projected first-rounders -- he has probably played himself into a good draft position.
Which means next August, we'll probably have LSU's defense figured out in a different way from this past August: The Tigers will be talented, but how will they replace the production at middle linebacker?