July 22, 2011

Defense holds key to LSU title hopes

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HOOVER, Ala. - Down in Louisiana, the excitement is bubbling like a big pot of gumbo.

Coming off an 11-win season in 2010, LSU is seen as a contender for the national title this season. And a powerful LSU team gets Louisiana residents pumped up more than "Swamp People" star Troy Landry with a 10-foot gator on the line.

Some of that excitement is tempered by concerns over inconsistent senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson and the loss of three star players from the Tigers' 2010 defense, which ranked 12th nationally in total defense.

LSU will be without cornerback Patrick Peterson, linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and defensive tackle Drake Nevis, who were All-SEC selections. Each was taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft, with Peterson going fifth overall.

"We're going to miss Kelvin Sheppard, Drake Nevis. We're going to miss some guys that gave us great leadership like Patrick Peterson," LSU coach Les Miles said Friday at the SEC Media Days. "But there's a responsibility that the guy that steps in there understands his role and demonstrates the same characteristics."

Despite the personnel losses, no one would doubt the Tigers' defense will be formidable. Dating to his years at Tennessee, coordinator John Chavis typically puts a strong unit on the field. But whether it will be strong enough to overcome any offensive issues that may arise during a challenging schedule could mean the difference between another "good" year and a championship season.

"Hopefully, we can build on what we started last year and continue to do what we can," senior linebacker Ryan Baker said. "We'd like to handle our weight and be a consistent defense.

"Fortunately, we had a lot of leadership last year. A lot of guys are taking it upon themselves to implement the same leadership skills. It's more of a team effort now rather than the three heads of the defense."

A dominant defense is a common characteristic of almost all teams with national championship aspirations. Seven of the past eight teams that won the BCS national championship were ranked among the nation's top 10 in total defense. Last season, Auburn's defense ranked 60th, but the national champion Tigers had Heisman winner Cameron Newton.

Jefferson isn't going to win the Heisman.

Still, he expects to play well.

"This season is very important to me," he said. "I've put in a lot of hard work and dedication going into this season. Hopefully, this year is special."

It's the defense that will determine whether this season truly is special in Baton Rouge. The Tigers have good depth up front, so the line rotation will be sound. Sophomore ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery were named to the coaches' preseason All-SEC team.

"The defensive line, I think, will be a strength," Miles said. "[Defensive tackle Michael] Brockers inside might well give us the push in the front that we need. I think our defensive ends are as talented and athletic as I've been around."

Peterson will be missed as a cornerback and return specialist, but LSU's secondary still should be fine. Cornerback Morris Claiborne is a preseason All-SEC pick, and corner Tyrann Mathieu was a freshman All-America selection last season.

Linebacker is the biggest area of concern. Baker had 87 tackles at weakside linebacker in 2010, but Sheppard's loss in the middle is significant. He posted a team-leading 116 tackles last season and that production won't be matched. An active, productive middle linebacker will be critical with LSU facing some of the nation's premier running backs, including Oregon's LaMichael James, Arkansas' Knile Davis, Alabama's Trent Richardson, Auburn's Michael Dyer and Tennessee's Tauren Poole, among others.

Baker isn't worried. He said the defense has a chance to actually be better this fall if only because the players are in their third season in Chavis' system and understand it better.

"Last year, everybody was still kind of new to the defense," Baker said. "Nobody really understood the concepts. Kelvin was like a field general and was directing everyone. This year everybody really understands the defense."

They'd better, as it's widely understood that the defense has to play at a high level for the Tigers to reach their potential. Miles, for one, professes not to be worried.

"Really, we expect the defense will continue to have great production," Miles said.

If that's the case, stock up on gumbo because the BCS national championship game is in New Orleans and Tigers fans would be everywhere.

Olin Buchanan is a senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.


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