Linebackers melding nicely

BATON ROUGE, La. -- When one of LSU's star-studded crop of freshman linebackers made a play in the Tigers' season-opening win over North Texas, junior Lamin Barrow was the first to stand and cheer.

"Deion Jones came in for me and on the first play of his college career, he gets a tackle for a seven-yard loss," said Barrow, the junior linebacker for the Tigers. "I was amazed."

Amazed, yes. Threatened by an up-and-comer who could be after Barrow's position? Barrow need not feel that way, not after his performance in the Tigers' 41-14 win, his first as the Tigers' newly minted starter at weakside linebacker.

The native of the New Orleans West Bank suburb of Marrero recorded a team-high eight tackles against the Mean Green and even registered a big block on Odell Beckham s Jr.'s 70-yard punt return for a touchdown. For his efforts, he was named defensive MVP of the game by his coaches.

If anything, his job looks more solid than ever heading into No. 3 LSU's Saturday showdown against Washington at Tiger Stadium.

"My attack on the ball was pretty good," Barrow said of his play against UNT. "I filled the gaps I was supposed to. I played the run pretty well."

In preseason discussions about new starters who might make an impact for LSU, Barrow was way down the list. Prep superstars like offensive guard La'el Collins and wide receiver Jarvis Landry were often at the top of the list. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger was perhaps the most talked about new starter in college football.

As for linebackers? More of that conversation seemed centered around returning starting middle linebacker Kevin Minter's role as a leader and the six-man freshman class coach Les Miles touted as the best group of linebackers he's brought into LSU.

For Barrow to be recognized by the coaches for his play in the opener was something he appreciated.

"It felt great," he said. "It felt like, I wouldn't say a long time coming, but to have the team recognize me and the coaches recognize me not only for my defense, but for my special teams play improving, to have the coaches recognize that in front of the team ... it was a great, great honor."

It was an honor that didn't seem guaranteed. He started two games in his first two seasons, both as a fill-in for regular starter Ryan Baker, and quietly registered 35 tackles in two seasons.

In the spring, Barrow was locked in a battle with Luke Muncie on the weakside while Minter, the only returning starter from last season, and Tahj Jones seemed to have the middle and strong side locked down in defensive coordinator John Chavis' 4-3 alignment.

Eventually, Muncie moved to the strong side after Jones was injured and the weak-side job was Barrow's. Jones eventually ran into academic issues, allowing Muncie to claim the strong-side spot.

While Barrow was battling for his playing future, the talk had already shifted away from their battles to the recently signed freshman class. One of the recruits, Lamar Louis, enrolled early in the spring and returned an interception for a touchdown in the spring game. He wasn't even the top linebacker in the class.

Kwon Alexander was considered by many to be not only the best linebacker in LSU's class, but the best player overall. Deion Jones got a lot of attention as well.

Veterans like Barrow started to be talked about like they were holding spots down until the young talent was ready.

That possibility is still real. Even after he was named defensive MVP for the game, Barrow couldn't help by rave about the freshmen.

"They're so far ahead of where I was when I was a freshman," he said. "I love having them here because they are going to make us a better defense."

He said Jones, a New Orleans native like Barrow, is "like a little brother to me," and noted that, at times, he "looked like the fastest player on the field" against North Texas.

Four true freshmen, playing as backups behind Minter, Barrow and Muncie, combined for four tackles against UNT. Jones had a tackle for loss. Alexander recovered a fumble. But the three veteran starters were more solid, combining for 18 tackles with a notable presence throughout the game.

On a team more noted in recent years for its play on the defensive line and the secondary, it was the linebackers who caught the eye of many.

Barrow said the talented freshmen have made him a better player.

"I think I'm extremely better because of them, to be honest," he said. "It made me get in my playbook and work on plays harder. It made me try to get here (to the practice facility) faster and get my workout harder."

After the North Texas game, his extra work was noted by his coaches.