The LSU football team was in an unusual predicament this offseason after former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele left for the same position at Auburn.
After a messy divorce with John Chavis followed by Steele’s sudden departure the following offseason, a program that’s built a reputation for championship-caliber defense was suddenly looking for its third defensive coordinator in as many years.
Fast forward a few short months to spring practice, and the Tiger defense set to take the field in 2016 has garnered lofty expectations, led by eight returning starters and first year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.
Aranda’s hire was considered a home run by LSU fans and media pundits alike based on his track record at Wisconsin. His badgers were first in the country in scoring defense in 2015, giving up just 13.1 points per game, were third in passing defense, giving up 268 yards per game and were fourth in rushing defense with an average of 95.4 yards allowed.
Now, Aranda’s trying his hand in the Southeastern Conference. He’s less than two weeks away from his first spring game as the leader of LSU’s defense and has Tiger fans curious as to how the unit will look on April 16th in Tiger Stadium.
Senior safety Rickey Jefferson is still getting to know his new coach this spring, along with the rest of the defense, who is adapting to Aranda’s new 3-4 scheme and all the changes that come with it. However, Jefferson said LSU’s continuity and experience is making the transition easier.
“It’s more convenient when you have that experience on defense,” Jefferson said. “You’ve got guys like me, Jamal Adams, Kendall Beckwith. We [have] a deep defensive line and good linebackers. Once you learn any skill, you can master it with experience. And we just know. We’ve been through two defenses, and now we’re getting into another one. So, it’s just a different language, but we’re prepared.”
The turnover at defensive coordinator wasn’t the only rarity for LSU this offseason. A program whose been ravaged by early departures to the NFL kept two critical pieces that passed up on the NFL draft to return to LSU.
Cornerback Tre’Davious White and linebacker Kendell Beckwith both elected to forego the draft and return to LSU for their senior seasons. They were both projected as second round picks by CBSsports.com.
LSU has lost 23 upperclassmen to the draft over the last four years when they could’ve came back for another year. That mark leads the country during that time frame.
Beckwith, a semifinalist for the Butkus award in 2016 for the nation’s best linebacker, hasn’t practiced this spring as he’s dealt with a knee injury. However, his presence hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.
“Even though he’s not practicing, he’s out here every day watching the young linebackers and helping them do what they need to do,” junior defensive lineman Davon Godchaux said. “That speaks to his leadership right there. He’s a big part of our defense, but he’s also out here mentoring these young guys.”
Freshman linebackers Michael Divinity and Devin White have drawn praise from LSU’s coaching staff this spring, and their extra reps combined with Beckwith’s advice could benefit them going forward.
White was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe award in 2015 as the nation’s best defensive back. His return bolsters a secondary featuring junior safety Jamal Adams, along with a plethora of other defensive backs that also have big-game experience.
Defensive lineman Greg Gilmore plays a different position on the field, but said that the leadership of both White and Beckwith is critical to the defense a whole as they adjust to Aranda and his coaching tendencies this spring, especially when it comes to communication.
“They came back for a reason,” Gilmore said. “Money’s not a factor just because of the fact that they could’ve left. They’re focused on other things. We’re really glad they’re still here. They’re both always there to help us be where we need to be and make sure we’re doing the right things. Communication is key on defense, and it’s good to have those veteran guys.”
Speaking of veterans, LSU’s defensive line returned all four of its starters and could threaten to be one of the nation’s best in 2016 in under position coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron is in his second spring with LSU after the Tigers racked up 34 sacks in his first season, up from 19 in 2014.
Along with Godchaux, the Tigers will bring back defensive end Lewis Neal, who finished fifth in the SEC with a team-leading eight sacks this past season. Defensive tackle Christian LaCouture returned for his senior season to provide more experience, and LSU fans are anxious to see a potential breakout year from sophomore Arden Key after flashes of greatness during his freshman campaign.
“We’re loaded [on defense],” Godchaux said. “We’ve been loaded the last two years. We just have to pull it together and like coach Miles said, be consistent. Every play, every down. By the time the season gets here, I think it will all just be about execution.”
Jefferson went as far as to say that this defense is the most confident unit he’s been a part of during any spring while he’s been at LSU.
He’s one of many defensive players taking one last chance at the goals they’ve missed out on at LSU, including defeating Alabama and/or taking a trip to the college football playoff. Jefferson said spring practice could play a large role in those feats, and the veterans try to instill that mentality every day leading up to the spring game.
“We’re very confident, but as seniors’ we feel it’s all on us.” Jefferson said. “We’re going to try to do it this year. We have so many players on this defense who’ve been through it all and understands what it takes to win. We’ve been pretty good as of late during spring [practice]. The intensity level, even at practice is high. Tempers flare, but we’re competing. Every day we’re getting better. That’s what it’s all about right now.”
Photo courtesy of LSU Sports Information.