From afar, it would be easy to look at who all LSU lost on defense from last season and think the Tigers might be scrambling to fill a few holes in 2011.
Gone are the likes of Patrick Peterson, Kelvin Sheppard, Drake Nevis and Pep Levingston, but there’s not a team in the SEC, maybe even in the country, that will have more promising young defensive talent on its roster than LSU.
And to qualify what I mean by young talent, I’m talking about players who will be sophomores or freshmen next season.
There are 10 of those guys who will play prominent roles for the Tigers on defense in 2011, and just about all of them have star potential.
In a few cases, they’ve already played like stars.
Defensive end Sam Montgomery returns for his sophomore season after collecting six tackles for loss a year ago as a starter in five games. He tore up his knee in the fifth game and was lost for the season.
At the other end, LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis can’t wait to turn Barkevious Mingo loose. A third-year sophomore just like Montgomery, Mingo is a blur coming off the edge.
He has one of the great names in college football, and listening to Chavis, is also destined for greatness on the field.
Chavis said earlier this month that Mingo, before he’s done at LSU, would be “the premier pass-rusher in the SEC -- bar none.”
That’s strong talk coming from Chavis, who admittedly is ultra-conservative when it comes to building up his players publicly.
But, then, Chavis has as good a feel for this defense as any he’s coached at LSU.
That’s because he hand-picked most of these guys.
Chavis agreed to join the LSU staff in December 2008, and the Tigers immediately began recruiting to his style of defense.
Chavis, who's coached in the SEC for more than two decades, is always going to sacrifice size for speed, and there won’t be any lack of speed on the Tigers’ 2011 defense. Get ready to see a whole new array of blitz packages with defenders coming from every angle.
A big key to that will be LSU’s secondary, which features four talented sophomores who saw action a year ago - Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid, Tharold Simon and Craig Loston. Senior safety Brandon Taylor and junior cornerback Morris Claiborne also return. Claiborne will be one of the top cornerbacks in the SEC.
Chavis loves to play five and six defensive backs, and Mathieu is a perfect fit in Chavis’ scheme to play that nickel position where he roams and makes plays. As a freshman, Mathieu was the team’s fourth-leading tackler despite starting in just one game. He forced five fumbles, recovered three fumbles, intercepted two passes and had 8.5 tackles for loss.
Replacing Sheppard at middle linebacker will be the Tigers’ most daunting task on defense next season, especially when you consider everything Sheppard did for that defense. Sophomore Kevin Minter exited spring as the front-runner to step in for Sheppard.
The middle of the Tigers’ defensive line will also be dotted by younger players who were hard to miss this spring.
True freshman Anthony Johnson was the No. 1 tackle prospect in the country last year. He enrolled in school early, and at 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, quickly took on the “Freak” nickname. Physically, Chavis said Johnson looks like he’s been in a college program for three years.
Sophomore Michael Brockers (6-6, 300) returns after playing in all 13 games a year ago as a redshirt freshman.
Speaking of redshirt freshmen, Ego Ferguson figures to be one of those swing guys for the Tigers who can play inside at tackle and also slide outside and play some at end. The 6-3, 286-pound Ferguson had 26 quarterback sacks his final two seasons of high school.