BATON ROUGE, La. -- Along an LSU defensive front that faces its share of uncertainty, Christian LaCouture's return at least provides a steadying presence.
He served as an honorary assistant coach last season after tearing a knee ligament in preseason camp, an injury that forced him to sit the season. Now he's back in an on-field role, following an 11th-hour decision to remain a Tiger made just ahead of the NFL's early-entry deadline.
"Last year was just me trying to be an assistant coach with those guys out there. They're my buddies, but they knew when I went out there, I was just like a coach, and I had to help them out," LaCouture said. "Me now just being that senior leader, I'm not leading by voice, but by example and just helping those guys come along and make sure of their role and make sure that when one of us goes out that those other guys are ready to step up and there's no drop-off."
By sticking around Baton Rouge for another season, LaCouture prevented the defensive line from looking like a giant question mark once spring practice arrived. He started 23 games between 2014 and 2015, making him by far LSU's most experienced defensive starter entering the 2017 season. With LaCouture lining up side-by-side with senior nose guard Greg Gilmore, LSU's search for contributors up front does not feel like as much of a concern.
Both players are returning starters -- Gilmore started every game last season -- and both are entering their fifth season at LSU, as is Frank Herron, who has lined up as a starting end in both spring practices thus far when the Tigers ran one-on-one drills.
"I see myself as a veteran leader," Gilmore said during December bowl practice, before he and LaCouture decided to return. "We do have a lot of guys leaving next year, and if I came back next year, I'd be a great leader on the team, and I feel like one of the premier guys on our defense. Especially age-wise and knowledge-wise, it's going to be me and a couple guys in the backfield [senior safeties John Battle and Ed Paris] I'm pretty sure."
Even with the three seniors up front, the Tigers still must replace 2016 seniors Lewis Neal and Tashawn Bower on the edge and NFL early entry Davon Godchaux at end. And with junior edge-rusher Arden Key sitting out this spring while dealing with personal issues, the pass rush has to come from somebody new, too.
The next several weeks will begin to inform Tigers coaches Ed Orgeron and Dave Aranda as to which players might fill those roles. LSU has a group of youngsters -- led by sophomores Rashard Lawrence and Edwin Alexander, ESPN's No. 12 and 74 overall prospects last year -- jockeying for increased playing time.
"Those guys work so hard," LaCouture said of Lawrence and Alexander. "They listen to us and ask, 'Hey what do I need to do?' They always come to us for advice on whatever it may be. They've always done a great job of that. Those guys, I know they were highly ranked, but those guys weren't like, 'Hey look, I'm a five-star.' Those guys came in understanding, 'I need to get better. I need to do this or do that. What can I do?' You can always work with guys like that."
Perhaps the youngsters can help recharge an LSU pass rush that lost most of its key performers. Players who accounted for just 16 of LSU's 36 sacks last season remain on the Tigers' roster -- and 12 of those sacks came from Key, whom LSU officials say will rejoin the team this summer.
Will the new defensive line supply the same pressure that LSU got from Godchaux, Neal and Bower a year ago? Will youngsters Sci Martin, Andre Anthony or Ray Thornton be able to chase down quarterbacks off the edge in Key's absence? It's early in the year, and even LaCouture seems unsure what to predict at this point.
"That's what spring is all about," he said. "You get to see your packages and stuff like that before fall camp, because really when fall camp comes around, everything is ready to go. We're just preparing for the season. But when spring is here, you really get to focus on who's in what package, who's going to do this, who's going to do that for your team and just a lot of competing. So we'll see during spring ball and see who does better at what, and at that time when camp comes around, we'll be rolling."