BATON ROUGE, La. -- The comparisons were inevitable between Deion Jones and Duke Riley, even if springtime questions about whether Riley wanted to follow in his departed teammate’s shoes were a bit silly.
"Of course I do," Riley said of Jones, who became a Butkus Award finalist last year in his lone season as an LSU starter and went to the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the 2016 NFL draft. "Look at the things Deion did when he was here. Look at the things he’s doing now. Who wouldn’t want to make plays like he is, and who wouldn’t want to be the guy he’s being on and off the field -- no off-the-field issues and handling things and everything the right way?"
Now in his own first season as a starter, Riley is doing his best Jones impression. The comparison does not stem solely from their similar paths to becoming senior starters, going from special teams standout to speedy undersized starters, but also from their abilities to be defensive playmakers.
Jones led the team with 100 tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss last season, and Riley has been shooting up the team’s tackles list of late. After registering nine tackles and two tackles for loss -- one of which dumped quarterback Jalen Hurts in the backfield on fourth-and-goal -- in last Saturday’s slugfest against Alabama, Riley is second on the team and sixth in the SEC with 8.5 tackles per game (68 total).
A game earlier, Riley set a career high with 15 tackles against Ole Miss and also baited quarterback Chad Kelly into a third-quarter interception deep in Rebels territory. The Ole Miss game marked the third time in a four-game stretch where Riley notched at least 11 tackles in a game. Not bad for a guy who, like Jones, failed to make much of an impact on defense in his first three seasons on campus.
"Deion is a perfect example -- that’s why everybody brings him up -- because he had to wait," said Riley, whose No. 24 LSU team visits No. 25 Arkansas on Saturday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). "[My goal was] everyday just being a leader off the field, if it’s in workouts or telling people to go to class or just getting everybody ready for practice or anything like that. Just never being complacent."
Complacent is not a word that teammates would use to describe Riley.
"He’s a fiery guy. He’s going to play hard," said center Ethan Pocic, who was a member of LSU’s 2013 signing class along with Riley and most of LSU’s other defensive starters. "It’s just one of those things where he’s a good player. He’s just had to sit behind Kwon Alexander, Debo Jones, so now that he’s gotten a shot, he’s taken advantage of it."
Jones’ patience paying off was a good example for Riley, but it’s not like he seriously weighed other options while waiting to earn more playing time. He has at least two LSU-related tattoos and wanted nothing other than to play for the flagship school in his home state.
"I really live this. I really bleed and live purple and gold," he said. "This is where I always wanted to be, and I wasn’t going to leave. I knew my time would come and I just had to step up to the plate when it came."
Riley and fellow 2013 senior Kendell Beckwith have done more than step up to the plate as seniors. They have developed into tackling machines in first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s scheme. Beckwith was a standout last season, but has developed into one of the nation’s top linebackers with an SEC-high 10.6 tackles per game (85 total).
Beckwith and Riley rank among the nation’s top tackling tandems with 19.1 combined tackles per game -- New Mexico State’s Rodney Butler and Dalton Herrington are the top duo with 22.9 per game -- and Beckwith and Riley have also combined for 13 tackles for loss.
They have worked in tandem with an improved defensive line to give LSU one of the most formidable front sevens in college football -- a group that will be tested Saturday by a jumbo Arkansas offensive line and standout running back Rawleigh Williams III.
Based on how things have been going lately for the duo, another game with double-digit tackles seems likely for both seniors.
"We love Duke Riley, love Kendell Beckwith. They’re two different players, but they’re playing lights-out," LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron said. "One of the two best linebackers in the SEC, and I think it’s a tribute to the front. The front did a great job of causing the double teams, posting those guys up, giving them holes.
"Give Dave Aranda a lot of credit. He’s a great linebacker coach, great coordinator. But most of all, give those young men credit. Both of those guys are seniors. They want to win for the Tigers. They love it."