John Chavis knows what a championship defense looks like.
He’s coached a few in his two decades as a defensive coordinator in the SEC, both at LSU and Tennessee.
He’d be the first to tell you that the defense LSU put on the field to start this season wasn’t championship caliber, which wasn’t all that surprising considering the amount of talent (six starters) the Tigers lost last season to the NFL draft.
Chavis knew back in the offseason that it was going to be a work in progress with this group, and that some choppy waters were ahead. But seeing his defense shredded the way it was for eight quarters starting with the second half of the Auburn game, extending through the entire Georgia fiasco and then the first half of the Mississippi State game, was nauseating.
“It was difficult, but I always say, ‘We’re going to live in our hopes, not our fears,” Chavis said.
Those hopes have been rekindled thanks to the promise the No. 6 Tigers have shown defensively in their last six quarters of play. And just like that -- with some youngsters growing up in the secondary, some depth developing up front and Chavis making a few tweaks with his combinations -- LSU heads to Ole Miss on Saturday riding the kind of defensive momentum that has been a staple of this program since Chavis took over the defensive reins in 2009.
“But we can’t think that we’ve arrived,” Chavis said.
He’s been around this league long enough to know that it can change in a flash.
He’s also been around long enough to know that playing rock-solid defense and winning championships go hand-in-hand.
Granted, this hasn’t been your typical year in the SEC with so many veteran quarterbacks playing at a high level and 10 of the 14 teams in the league averaging more than 30 points per game.
But somewhere along the way, it always gets down to making key stops at key moments.
The Tigers look a lot more equipped to do that on a consistent basis as they plunge into the second half of the season. They’re coming off their most complete defensive performance of the season in a 17-6 win over Florida and have now gone six straight quarters without allowing a touchdown.
“I feel like the intensity level now is something that it hasn’t been all season, and all 11 guys are on the same page,” junior defensive tackle Ego Ferguson said. “When we’re there, it’s a special unit.”
The 44-41 loss to Georgia was undoubtedly the low point. The Bulldogs had receivers running free all game, and the Tigers just looked out of sorts defensively. They then went out the next week and gave up 23 points in the first half to Mississippi State.
“We just weren’t playing to our potential,” Ferguson said.
They also weren’t playing as many players, particularly up front. So Chavis made it a point to beef up the rotation in the defensive line, and also made some changes in the secondary.
Sophomore Jalen Mills has moved to the nickel position, which has given the Tigers more flexibility on passing downs. True freshmen Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson are now the two cornerbacks outside when Mills moves inside to the nickel, and sophomore Corey Thompson has started at safety the last two games.
Chavis said following the win over Florida that it was the best the Tigers had played at safety all season, and getting back a healthy Craig Loston was also a big part of that.
Robinson probably would have played even more earlier in the season had he not missed preseason camp while waiting to be cleared academically. He has the skill set to be the next great LSU cornerback.
And LSU coach Les Miles really likes what he sees athletically from this defense.
“I think our defense has always been a confident unit,” Miles said. “They just needed to get some things in place. This will be a team that athletically will eventually be one of the more talented defenses that we’ve had.”
Chavis, whose raw emotion is one of the things that endears him to his players, didn’t hold back last week when challenging them to get back to playing LSU football.
This is a team that had finished in the top 12 nationally in total defense and scoring defense each of the last three seasons but gave up 962 yards and 70 points in that two-week stretch leading up to the Florida game.
“Guys are really playing with the attitude and swagger that’s been played here in past years,” Collins said. “Guys are really stepping up and playing their role. We always preach that we haven’t played our best game yet.”
Judging from the way the Tigers have played on defense the last six quarters, they might be just getting started.