Spring Practice Preview: Defensive Backs

Running Back
Wide Receiver

Offensive Line
Defensive Line

Eric Reid and Tyrann Mathieu

Since we’re already a couple of days into spring practice, we have a decent idea of what to expect.  LSU returns three high quality players in the secondary in Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon, and Eric Reid.  Craig Loston looks to be the clear starter at the other safety spot heading into spring.  However, LSU will undoubtedly utilize a lot of nickel and dime formations just like they did a year ago.  This enables Tyrann Mathieu to work on the inside, pressure the quarterback, and make a ton of plays.    But in order for the coaching staff to feel comfortable going to nickel, some young guys have to step up.   When Mathieu leaves his outside cornerback position, someone has to play there.  A year ago, Tharold Simon was that guy, but now he’s Mo Claiborne’s permanent replacement.  

So who are the candidates for that role this year?

Sophomore Ronnie Vinson looks to have the inside track.  He has been running with the first team at cornerback through the first two days of spring ball (only because Mathieu was at a Maxwell Award ceremony).   But logic says that he’s currently next in line and would therefore get the nod when LSU goes to nickel or dime.   Vinson came to LSU very highly rated and with a ton of potential.  He definitely has athleticism and the ability to change directions quickly.  He’s a little on the small side.  LSU lists him at 5’11”, and that’s probably a little generous, but he is put together well.  He did not play a whole lot last year, recording just one tackle in seven games of work.  But with the depth in LSU’s secondary last year, I see no shame in that.   It looks like Vinson will get the first crack at that third cornerback position, and he will have to prove to the coaches that he deserves to stay there.  

A pair of redshirt freshmen will compete with Vinson for that spot.  

Jalen Collins and David Jenkins both impressed during their redshirt season.  They also both have ideal size, listed at 6’1″.  Jenkins has blazing speed while Collins has more of the overall package.  Both guys will jockey for position on the depth chart, with Vinson and with each other.  Both are also candidates to win the dime back spot which Ron Brooks occupied last year.   These two guys are a big part of LSU’s future in the secondary and will help continue the tradition that has been established at LSU for producing outstanding defensive backs.  

At safety, Eric Reid and Craig Loston appear pretty entrenched at this point.  Reid will be one of the leaders of the defense this season.  The only real question about Reid this spring concerns his health.  He was reportedly dealing with a back issue through the first couple of practices, but appears to be OK.  

Even though Loston has been unable to win a full-time job up to this point, he has always played fairly well when on the field.  His challenge has always been the mental side of the game.  I see nothing wrong with his physical talent.   Loston has also battled injuries consistently throughout his career.   Should Loston falter or suffer another injury, then sophomore Ronald Martin may be next in line.  Martin’s redshirt was burned late last year, and he played very well in extensive time against Ole Miss.  

Sophomore Sam Gibson and redshirt freshman Micah Eugene will also compete for time. Eugene is a candidate to compete for the dime spot as well.  Eugene is a tad on the short side at 5’10” or 5’11”, but he is very well put together and reminds me a bit of Brandon Taylor.  Junior Rocky Duplessis also returns but will likely continue to be a mainstay on special teams and not truly threaten for significant playing time on the defense. 

In the fall, Dwayne Thomas, Derrick Raymond, and Jalen Mills show up to compete for time at corner.  Corey Thompson and Jerquinick Sandolph will compete at safety. 

All in all, LSU’s secondary is loaded with talent though probably not as much as in 2011.  A position group typically does not get better when they lose three guys that will probably get drafted.  But this remains one of the strengths of the team and one of the best secondaries in the nation.  

Big Questions
1)  Will Craig Loston hold down the strong safety spot and finally fulfill his enormous potential?
2)  Who will emerge between Ronnie Vinson, Jalen Collins, and David Jenkins for the #3 corner spot?
3)  Will any of the young safeties make a serious push for playing time?

Spring Practice Preview: Defensive Backs

LSU lost only senior safety Curtis Taylor off last year’s squad, but we may see a whole lot of change in the defensive secondary. That change starts with new secondary coach Ron Cooper who comes to LSU with a hell of a resume from South Carolina. He’s made his mark by consistently putting defensive backs into the NFL and by playing a role in some of the SEC’s best defenses over the last several years. Two more of his pupils, Captain Munnerlyn and Emanuel Cook, are expected to be high draft picks next month. In truth, LSU’s secondary was a mess last year. DB coach Doug Mallory was also the defensive coordinator, and the lack of attention spent on coaching the defensive backs was evident in their subpar play on the field. I’m also not sure that the most talented players were on the field and to top it off, LSU had a screwy substitution pattern that seemed to confuse all 11 players on defense while simultaneously frustrating all 92,000 people in the stands. I expect all of that to change with Ron Cooper running the show.

Replacing Taylor at free safety is going to be junior Chad Jones. After a very promising freshman season where Jones made a number of big plays, the coaches asked him to do too much last year. Jones played some at safety, some as the nickel back, and some as the dime back. Jones is probably good enough to play any of those positions, but it’s difficult for a player to learn the nuances of three different spots. It’s just too much to learn, especially for a guy who was trying to play college baseball. What we got was a player who performed adequately but didn’t excel at any one of those positions. To be kind, it was a wasted year for Jones. One of the first things the new defensive staff did was anoint Jones as the #1 guy at free safety. It’s his position to lose. No more nickel and dime. He’ll be on the field for every snap. Jones is a very rare talent. He’s 6’3″ 220 pounds yet one of the fastest players on the entire team. During his freshman season, he showed that he’s a pretty good blitzer so the coaches can get very creative with how they use him. I’ll be tentative with my expectations for Jones, but I’ll just say that I won’t be surprised if he ends up on some All-SEC teams this year.

So who will play the other safety? The guy who will get the first look will be senior Harry Coleman who started a year ago. Coleman struggled through most of the 2008 season, like most of LSU’s defenders did. He did lead the team in tackles, but he had trouble in coverage and he really struggled with his tackling. Coleman does have some ability, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if he holds off the others and opens 2009 as a starter. As I mentioned in yesterday’s update, he could be a candidate to get a look as a linebacker but nothing has happened yet.

Coleman’s stiffest competition may come from senior Danny McCray who, much like Jones, was mis-used in 2008. McCray is a safety. He’s a good safety. Yet, the coaches kept playing McCray as the nickel back and asking him to cover receivers one-on-one when he proved over and over that he just couldn’t do it. Because he was routinely getting toasted, he became the scapegoat for a lot of fans upset with the play of the defense. I don’t blame McCray. I blame last year’s coaching staff for putting him in the wrong position. Later in the year when McCray played safety, he played well. He won’t get the big hit like Harry Coleman and he’s not as good a blitzer, but he’s a lot more reliable. I’m expecting he’ll practice and play exclusively as a safety this year, but it remains to be seen.

One of the surprises this spring could be sophomore safety Karnell Hatcher, who played sparingly last year. He did play though, which means he caught the eye of the coaches. Hatcher has good size at 6’1″ 195 pounds and showed good speed and range last year. I definitely wouldn’t be surprised to see him make a move and maybe even win a starting position this year. Hatcher will almost certainly make an impact on special teams.

True freshman Rocky Duplessis is participating in spring practice and trying to make an impression. Duplessis looks an awful lot like Craig Steltz on his highlight films and we’ll see what he can do.

Sophomore Stefoin Francois is unfortunately injured and it sounds like a pretty serious injury. He won’t be practicing at all this spring and he could be out for the entire 2009 season. Francois was highly recruited out of high school and was looking to this year as one to make a statement. He’ll have to wait for now.

In the fall the nation’s #1 high school safety, Craig Loston, will join the mix and I think he’ll see the field. Loston is a serious ball player. While I don’t see him taking over one of the starting positions at any time in 2009, I do think he’ll make an impact. LSU also welcomes Josh Johns.

At cornerback, LSU has an embarrassing amount of talented players…more than any team in the SEC. I’m curious to see how it all shakes out.

Locking down one corner position is sophomore Patrick Peterson. Peterson earned a starting job about halfway through last season, his true freshman season. Now, he’s ready to take the next step and become a star. Peterson has everything you could want in a lockdown cornerback. He’s 6’1″ 200 pounds. He’s plenty fast and plenty strong. And he can stick to receivers like glue. I fully expect Peterson to establish himself as one of the top corners in the SEC this year, which should set him up for All-SEC and All-American honors in 2010. While LSU has lots of talent, I can’t see anyone starting ahead of Peterson.

The big question is who will start on the other side of Peterson? The smart money is on either senior Chris Hawkins or junior Jai Eugene who were both starters last year. Eugene was ultimately repalced in the starting lineup by Peterson while Hawkins remained a starter for the entire season. Both guys played OK last year but not great. They both made some good plays and both got beat as well. Eugene, in my opinion, showed a lot more toughness and willingness to tackle. Both Hawkins and Eugene are feverishly trying to hold off a number of younger players, including 3 very talented sophomores.

Brandon Taylor, Phelon Jones, and Ron Brooks have all shown a whole lot of promise in limited playing time last year. Taylor and Brooks also made their mark on special teams. The competition is going to be very intense, not only in battling Hawkins and Eugene for a starting position, but to win the nickel and dime positions as the 5th and 6th defensive backs in passing situations. Brooks is a fan favorite for the enthusiasm he shows on kickoff coverage teams. He’s also a candidate to return kickoffs. Phelon Jones is a very solid, very reliable player who could potentially play some safety too. That makes him a good candidate to play nickel or dime. Lastly, the coaches think Brandon Taylor could be another lockdown corner similar to Peterson. They’re very excited about him, and he may be the most likely to see the field this year.

Sophomore Derrick Bryant is another player who will try to impress the coaches. Bryant impressed enough last year as a true freshman to win himself a spot on special teams. He also played some in the secondary in mop up duty. Bryant is a versatile player that practices at both cornerback and safety. We’ll keep an eye on where he’s practicing this spring.

Redshirt freshman Ryan St. Julien is yet another very talented guy who’ll try to get on the field this year. St. Julien is still very thin and needs to add some bulk before he’s ready for the field. He’s 6’1″ 175 pounds right now, so he’s heading in the right direction because he was in the 160s for most of last year. With all of the players in front of him, St. Julien will likely have to be patient in his career before seeing the field later down the line. He reminds a lot of people around the program of Jonathon Zenon.

LSU didn’t sign any true cornerbacks in this class but it’s very possible that Morris Claiborne will practice at corner. He was recruited as an athlete and could play either receiver or DB.

All in all, the talent is entirely too plentiful in the secondary for LSU to play as poorly as they did in 2008. I’m expecting tons of improvement next year, and that starts this spring.