Christian LaCouture extended his hands, kept his pads low and played peek-a-boo.
LSU’s defensive tackle peeked over the left shoulder of Alabama guard Leon Brown and then over the right. All the while, LaCouture held his ground and resisted the 320-pounder’s efforts to shove him off of the line of scrimmage.
On his final peek, LaCouture got a glimpse of Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon cutting toward the outside in an effort to avoid a clogged middle.LaCouture swung past Brown and made the tackle.
This doesn’t happen often – a defensive tackle making a tackle – but the point of this one-play tale is that LSU’s defensive tackles are hitting their stride.
They’re getting their job done: clogging the middle, forcing tailbacks outside and, sometimes even, making tackles.
“I’ve seen a huge difference in them,” linebacker Lamar Louis said.
The improvement can be measured in the defense’s rushing numbers. Over the first five games against Football Bowl Subdivision teams, the Tigers allowed nine rushing touchdowns and 1,056 yards for a 5.5-yard per-carry average.
The last four: one touchdown and 437 yards for an average of 3.5 yards a run.
The latter four games didn’t include such teams as New Mexico State and Louisiana-Monroe. They were replaced by top-five squads like Alabama and Ole Miss.
“I think we’re growing as a unit,” LaCouture said. “Some things we weren’t doing at the beginning of the year. We’re fighters.”
They’ll be needed like never before this Saturday night at Arkansas (4-5, 0-5). Just 11 teams in college football average more yards per carry than the Hogs’ 5.74 clip.
Arkansas runs the ball 60 percent of the time and has an offensive line that weighs a total of 1,642 pounds.
At 328.4 pounds per player, the Razorbacks bigs are larger than any NFL starting offensive line.
You don’t have to tell that to LaCouture. He’s eating extra meals this week – no, really – in an effort to gain at least two to three pounds before facing Arkansas’ hefty O-line. He’ll primarily be up against right guard Denver Kirkland, who checks in at 6-foot-5, 340 pounds.
LaCouture is hoping to move from 301 to about 305 this week by piling more on his plate.
“No joking,” he said. “Couple of pounds might help.”
Following a 41-7 loss at Auburn on Oct. 4, LSU’s most criticized unit was easily discernible. It was the guys inside: starters LaCouture and freshman Davon Godchaux and rotating players Quentin Thomas and Maquedius Bain.
So what exactly changed? Outside of the personnel switch at middle linebacker – Kendell Beckwith replaced D.J. Welter– LSU’s defensive tackles didn’t suddenly go from bad to good.
They got more experience, players say.
“It’s just the confidence and the reps under their belts,” Louis said. “More reps you get, the more confidence you get, the better you get overall.”
There were specifics, though.
LaCouture gives a run down: “Communication, gap integrity, lining up, attacking the line,” he said. Godchaux was not made available for interviews.
“They load their pad level,” Mile said explaining the improvements. “They come off the football more aggressively, they’re using their hands to play leverage inside so much better, and they are some young guys who have grown up.”
Defensive tackle is a thankless job in many ways. If an opponent is gashing the middle with the run, it’s the fault of the DTs. If the defense is getting stops up the middle, it’s often because the linebackers are making tackles.
Tackles don’t get the tackles often. Their job is to plug the middle rushing lanes like LaCouture did continuously in the loss to Alabama on Saturday. They force running back to the outside where guys like Beckwith, Kwon Alexander and Lewis make their stats.
“You can’t be a selfish player down there,” said Beckwith, a former defensive lineman. “They do a real good job of holding up the blocks for us. Things like that.”
They’re finally overcoming the early-season rough patch and the wave of criticism – something LaCouture said they “weren’t focused on.”
The position lost its two starters from 2013 – Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson – and expected starter Quentin Thomas torn his biceps during fall camp. He’s playing through the injury.
Meanwhile, a pair of freshmen – Trey Lealaimatafao and Travonte Valentine – haven’t played. Lealaimatafao punched through a window during the summer and wasn’t cleared until midway through the season, and Valentine has yet to be cleared by the Southeastern Conference.
Meanwhile, the thankless defensive tackles like LaCouture trudge on to another stiff test.
“We’re excited for the challenge,” he said.