The three crown jewels of LSU’s defense last season are gone.
John Chavis, the Tigers’ defensive coordinator, doesn’t sugarcoat how difficult it will be to replace the likes of Patrick Peterson, Kelvin Sheppard and Drake Nevis. They were a big reason the Tigers finished the season ranked 11th nationally in scoring defense and 12th nationally in total defense.
But Chavis isn’t playing possum, either. He knows as well as anybody how much young defensive talent the Tigers have coming back next season.
The process of putting that talent in the right spots and getting some of those guys who haven’t played a lot of meaningful snaps ready starts next Friday (March 11) when LSU opens spring practice.
“We’re going to be young inside on the defensive line, and we need some guys at linebacker to come through, but we’re not lacking for talent,” Chavis said. “I think we’re all anxious to get out there and see what we’ve got.”
Without a doubt, one of the guys everybody on the Bayou can’t wait to see in purple and gold is true freshman defensive tackle Anthony Johnson.
The 6-foot-3, 294-pound Johnson was ranked as the No. 1 defensive tackle prospect in the country by ESPN. He enrolled in school early and has been participating in the offseason program, where he’s already turned some heads. He’s sure to turn some more heads during spring practice.
“Physically, he looks like a senior in college,” Chavis said.
Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Ego Ferguson has also been the talk of LSU’s offseason program, and he looks as physically imposing, if not more so, as Johnson.
But as Chavis warns, “We haven’t put the pads on yet.”
Chavis plans to keep Ryan Baker at weakside linebacker, but don’t be surprised if Karnell Hatcher ends up moving from safety to strongside linebacker.
During Chavis’ first year at LSU, he made a similar move with Harry Coleman and prefers outside linebackers who can run, cover and do a little bit of everything. Chavis isn’t one of those coaches who thinks you have to be 230 pounds to play linebacker in his system.
Solidifying the middle linebacker position will be important this spring, and a guy to watch is redshirt freshman D.J. Welter. It’s also a big spring for a trio of sophomore linebackers -- Kevin Minter, Luke Muncie and Lamin Barrow.
The Tigers will be smart with how much they allow sophomore defensive end Sam Montgomery to do this spring. A season-ending knee injury sidelined Montgomery in the fifth week a year ago, and Chavis isn’t sure the Tigers were ever the same defensively after losing Montgomery.
The same goes for rising senior safety Brandon Taylor, who was lost for the season in the Alabama game with a foot injury. His absence was glaring in the 31-23 loss to Arkansas to end the regular season.
“Getting those two guys back will be like getting two starters back,” Chavis said.
And one of the things that lessens the blow of losing Peterson is the returning nucleus of talent in the Tigers’ secondary. Cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and safety Eric Reid both played extensively last season as true freshmen, and junior cornerback Morris Claiborne intercepted five passes in his first season as a starter.