LSU's DBU would have barely been bowl eligible last season.
The Tigers finished a respectable fourth in the SEC in pass defense. But those numbers are skewed heavily, thanks to a soft non-conference schedule. The Tigers were seventh in conference play, allowing 229 yards per game through the air. The best quarterbacks not named Johnny Manziel threw all over them.
LSU was average in 2012, as well in the secondary, allowing 219 yards per game in game through the air. While the numbers are far from awful, it is below the standard that has been set.
LSU has earned the reputation of "Defensive Back University," better known as DBU, in the years prior. The Tigers only allowed 150 yards per game in the SEC in 2011 and just under 160 in 2010.
A mediocre pass rush and a conference quarterback surge is partly to blame. Nevertheless, LSU is looking to get back to the DBU of old in 2014.
LSU seemed to find the right pair of cornerbacks. Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson eventually became the starters as true freshmen last season. The sophomores could be the best young duo in the country.
Yet there is no LSU position battle this spring quite as fascinating as safety.
LSU lost its best safety in the offseason in Craig Loston. While Loston was the experienced leader of the group, he was far from spectacular.
The Tigers started seven different safety combinations in 2013, according to ESPN.com's David Ching. Defensive coordinator John Chavis needs to find the best pair for next season. And it will be a long and difficult process.
The Current Starters
Ross Dellenger of The Advocate reports Jalen Mills and Ronald Martin have been running with the first group in spring practice. This does not mean Mills and Martin will finish as the starters in the season opener against Wisconsin.
Martin is the most experienced returnee at safety. He was serviceable in eight games last season, starting in seven. But in LSU's best defensive performances of the year against Florida and Texas A&M, he did not play.
Mills returns as LSU's most experienced defensive back. The junior has started in all 26 games in his career, but mostly at cornerback. He made a position switch in the offseason to safety after starting there in the Outback Bowl against Iowa.
Martin and Mills are being helped heavily by seniority. As the other safeties begin to gain more experience, expect the competition to heat up.
Corey Thompson appeared in more games at safety than Martin last season, but had fewer starts. Thompson finished with 40 tackles on limited snaps. Unfortunately for Chavis, the 6'2'', 212-pounder is currently sitting out of practice as he recovers from knee surgery, according to Jim Kleinpeter of The Times-Picayune.
Rickey Jefferson earned himself a start against Arkansas as a true freshman and appeared in seven games overall. Jefferson has great ball skills and could eventually be a solid player.
Finding the right mix at safety will be tough for defensive back coach Corey Raymond. The Tigers have plenty of players to choose from, but defined roles can be hard to distinguish.
The last dominant pair LSU had at safety was Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor in 2011. Reid was the free, while Taylor played strong. They could interchange, but both understood each other and the game exceptionally. Taylor, like Mills, made the switch from corner to safety.
It would come to no surprise if Mills and Martin are the starters for the season opener. Thompson's knee recovery will be important to follow. He is faster and stronger than Martin, yet does not possess ball skills as good as his.
But one of Chavis' personnel staples since being at LSU has been to play talented younger defensive backs more as the season progresses. White, Robinson, Reid and Patrick Peterson are a few examples. Paris and Adams will more than likely get some playing time next season.
The player to key on is Mills. His coverage skills at corner began to deteriorate last season. He played admirably at safety in the Outback Bowl, but Iowa's quarterback play was below average.
The best aspect of Mills' game is his blitzing. He was superb at getting after the quarterback when given the chance, raking in three sacks.
Mills could be an excellent safety, but could be used better elsewhere. Defensive coordinator John Chavis loves using "Nickel" and "Dime" packages, which calls for extra defensive backs on the field. Mills sometimes moved inside to play the role of a nickelback or dimeback and performed spectacularly. His play against Florida to help close out the game was nothing short of phenomenal.
LSU's Dwayne Thomas, like Mills, finished 2013 with three sacks, reaping the benefits of playing in the Nickel and Dime last season. Thomas and Mills could play the role much like Tyrann Mathieu and Ron Brooks in 2011. "The Mustang" defense created by John Chavis can turn Thomas and Mills into stars.
Mills could play safety in LSU's base 4-3 and then shift to a Nickel or Dime back for those packages. Mathieu made the same shift, except from cornerback, in 2011.
How It Will Play Out
The starters in the secondary will be Robinson, White, Mills and either Martin or Thompson for the season opener against Wisconsin. Jefferson will be next in line. If they struggle, LSU could shift towards a youth movement with Paris and Adams. Les Miles said he will be looking at some of the young players coming in, via Dellenger.
Chavis and Raymond want to limit the sporadic changes in the secondary. Finding cohesiveness at any position is always difficult, and patience could be hard to come by with all the talent at their disposal. And there will be more elite defensive backs coming in next season.
Safeties are the quarterbacks of the secondary. They make all the calls, making sure all the defensive backs are on the same page. Communication breakdowns were far too common in 2013.
Safety might not only be the most interesting development on the defense to follow, but the most important.
**Who do you think will start at safety? Let me know on Twitter @CarterthePower or in the comment section below.
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