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LSU freshman defensive backs working to carve out roles

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Cracking LSU's depth chart as a freshman is rarely an easy task, especially when you play in the secondary. Kevin Toliver has done that, and he might have some company from two other 2015 signees -- particularly after Wednesday's news that senior safety Jalen Mills will miss time with an ankle injury.

Toliver, an early enrollee and the only five-star recruit in LSU's 2015 signing class, believes he will split time at one cornerback spot with Ed Paris.

"I'm really not worried about who starts," Toliver said. "I believe both of us will get the same amount of playing time on the field and we're both going to make big plays because we're both good players."

But what about Mills' replacements as a starting safety and nickelback? Rickey Jefferson slid into the safety spot after Mills went down and Dwayne Thomas is among the top options at nickel, but freshmen Donte Jackson and Xavier Lewis are also working to be included in position coach Corey Raymond's plans in a deep secondary.

With Tre'Davious White manning the position on one side, the Paris-Toliver pairing on the other and Thomas contributing in multiple ways, LSU's cornerback depth chart is well stocked. Raymond has given Jackson opportunities to work against the Tigers' better receivers this preseason and he has held his own, although Jackson acknowledges he still has a lot to learn.

"I think I fared pretty well," Jackson said of his performance in LSU's first preseason scrimmage last Saturday. "I think I had a lot of missed assignments, but those are things I can clear up with my coach. We talked about it and stuff. He just wanted to get me out there."

Meanwhile, Lewis has worked behind Mills to this point at both safety and nickelback.

"Xavier Lewis sits by me every meeting," Mills said on Tuesday. "He's always asking me questions. Even out on the field or in the meeting room, he's always asking me questions. He always wants to know why I did a certain thing or why I moved a certain way, so he's learning."

The transition from high school is not easy. Mills recalled this week that as a freshman, he sometimes frustrated older teammates by consistently jotting down notes during practices. That's what helped him digest the playbook – and it must have worked since Mills has started every game since he arrived at LSU.

He inherited the nickelback job as a freshman when Coach Les Miles dismissed Tyrann Mathieu prior to the 2012 season. He remained there until now, when Thomas, White and Lewis will serve as temporary replacements.

"I'm pretty sure a lot of other people could play nickel," Jefferson said. "They'd just have to be taught it."

Mills said the key to contributing early is learning the defense and adapting to a quicker pace than high school, which is something most freshmen struggle with initially. Toliver eventually cleared that hurdle during spring practice.

"I wasn't really expecting it to be that fast, the tempo of the practices and how fast receivers are moving and the different calls and checks that our defense has," Toliver said. "It was real fast, but it took time. I just started taking it slow and it got real slow, eventually."

That's the obstacle that summer enrollees Jackson and Lewis are contending with, although Jackson's speed helps his cause. A Louisiana state champion in both the 100- and 200-meter dash, Jackson's wheels caused Miles to hint that he might someday contribute on offense as well as on special teams.

Jackson said Sunday that he hasn't worked on offense during camp -- "We're really not getting into it all that much. We're just really trying to get me caught up on the defense," he said -- but that he has practiced as a kickoff and punt returner.

Plus, he and Lewis continue to prepare themselves to play on scrimmage downs, which Lewis called "a work in progress."

"You still have that desire to play, but you know if you're not ready, you're not ready," said Lewis, who played quarterback among other positions in high school. "But I'll learn as much as I can and if my number is called, I'm going to produce."

With Mills out and the season opener approaching, Raymond is likely still sorting through how much, or if, he will need the freshmen. The top of the depth chart is fairly settled, although there still might be a place for the youngsters to contribute.

That would fall in line with a longstanding LSU tradition.

"I have faith in all those young guys," Jefferson said. "At LSU, we play young guys. I played as a freshman, Jamal [Adams] played as a freshman, so it's not anything brand new. We're just looking for who that guy's going to be. It's up to them."