Les Miles faced a dilemma after winning the National Championship in 2008. He had to replace defensive coordinator Bo Pellini who left to take the reins at Nebraska.
By naming co-coordinators on the defense from the existing staff, Miles made the easiest decision for him personally, but it was not the right one for LSU. While LSU struggled offensively, trying to replace a former misfit quarterback, the defense constantly looked confused and out of position.
Miles is now trying to rectify his 2008 decision by hiring John Chavis, the former defensive coordinator for Tennessee, to run the defense for the Bayou Bengals.
Chavis brought in Brick Haley (Chicago Bears) and Ron Cooper (South Carolina) to run the defensive line and secondary respectively. He brings a track record of success from his years with Phil Fulmer, and expectations are riding high in the capital city.
The spring is always filled with optimism and hope. Every SEC team is undefeated, the fans are turning up the hyperbole, and the recruiting process is a distant memory (except for the Bryce Brown fiasco).
Let’s take a look at the key areas in which the Tigers defense that must improve in 2009 in order for LSU to reclaim their spot as top gun in the SEC West.
The key to success in 2009 rests with the defensive side of the football. LSU has a plethora of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball (to be discussed in the next posting), but can they return to the defensive dominance that was the hallmark of the last two National Championship teams?
This group should be solid and deep next year. Rahim Alem was the true bright light for this unit in 2008 despite only starting a few games. He led the team with eight sacks in a part-time role and was the only true pass rusher on the team.
For a unit that did not seem to have a leader last year, Alem needs to emerge as the senior spark, and I am confident that he will.
Defensive tackle Charles Alexander had a very disappointing season last year because of injuries, however, the NCAA granted the senior another year of eligibility, giving the Tigers a nice surprise in February. If healthy, Alexander should regain the form that made him one of the most dominant defensive ends in the SEC.
Junior defensive tackle Drake Nevis is somewhat of an enigma.
After a very promising freshman campaign, Nevis played sparingly in 2008. I am a Drake Nevis fan and predict a breakout year in 2009.
Junior defensive end Pep Levingston rounds out the starters. Pep played well in the bowl win against Georgia Tech, and should be solid.
Senior defensive tackle Al Woods has never reached the high expectations of the Tiger faithful. He will battle Alexander for playing time and adds needed depth.
What will Chavis do about the linebacking corps in 2009? He has stated on several occasions that he needs speed at this position. Speed will help to limit substitutions and can confuse offenses as to whether the Tigers are in a base defense or a nickel package.
The big question is this: Will Chavis move one of the strong safeties to linebacker to improve the pass coverage scheme that was so weak in 2008?
Seniors Jacob Cutrera and Perry Riley will occupy the middle and outside linebacker positions respectively. The third starting spot is still a question mark.
Personally, I think senior strong safety Harry Coleman will be the starter next year. Fan favorite and special teams demon Ryan Baker, a sophomore, will push hard for playing time. Kevin Minter, a true freshman recruit and early enrollee, will provide back-up at the middle linebacker slot.
The most glaring weakness last year was in the secondary. I feel the reason for this was purely in the scheme. The coordinators tried to do too much and the secondary was constantly confused. In 2009 Chavis will utilize the athletic ability in the secondary in a more simplified manner and will let the talent take over.
Patrick Peterson, the much-heralded freshman from last year, played his way into a starting role and was the star on an under-performing group. He is expected to become a true shut-down corner. He will be allowed to cover on both sides of the field this year.
Senior Chris Hawkins, who played well in 2008 (other than the last play in the Arkansas game), should be the other starting cornerback.
Junior Chad Jones is probably the most gifted athlete on the field. He is expected to move to free safety next year, although many fans want him at linebacker.
Will Jones become the next LeRon Landry or will he continue to underperform? I think that Jones will thrive at free safety, which allows him to use his speed and hides some of his coverage weaknesses.
Competition will be intense for the strong safety position. Danny McCray, a three-year letterman senior, seems to be the obvious starter going into the spring, however, Craig Loston, the phenom recruit from Texas, is expected to make a strong push come August.
Loston was the No. 1 safety in the nation last year according to most recruiting services and looks to have all of the tools.
The question is: Does Chavis believe in seniority, or will he put the best 11 on the field? That question cannot be answered until the end of the dog days.
The nickel back or dime, depending on how you look at it, should be held by Phelon Jones, a sophomore out of Mobile. Look for competition from another special teams player in Ron Brooks, another kid out of Texas, who is a true fan favorite.
LSU underperformed in 2008 without question. Whether this was caused by the offense constantly giving the opponent a short field (or touchdown), coaching scheme, or lack of motivation is unknown. But the cupboard is not bare and the talent is abundant.
Will Chavis be able to return LSU to its proud heritage of in-your-face defense, or am I just drinking the Kool-Aid? Since I am really more of a realist and prefer soda, I think the answer is, “It depends.”
An attitude adjustment is needed on the defense. The swagger was gone last year and it needs to return. Chavis needs to instill a confidence in his troops. They need to think that they are the baddest in the land and they need to go out and show it on Saturdays. Stay tuned.