Kevin Minter plays for John Chavis, LSU’s defensive coordinator and linebackers coach.

The man they call “Chief” can be gruff and stern, chewing out players one moment and hugging them around the neck the next.

But not even The Chief is Minter’s toughest critic.

That’s a role he reserves for himself.

“You’ve got to be,” Minter said. “I feel if I’m not doing my job, I’m letting people down. I can’t let that happen.”

Few if any LSU players walked into as pressure-filled a situation as Minter going into the 2011 season.

Spencer Ware? He had to replace 1,000-yard rusher Stevan Ridley at tailback, but he had Michael Ford and others to help him fill the yards.

Tyrann Mathieu? The Tigers’ brash sophomore cornerback went so far as to replace his old No. 14 with former All-American Patrick Peterson’s No. 7. But like Peterson, Mathieu had Morris Claiborne to tackle many of the tough assignments.

Minter had Karnell Hatcher to help him replace Kelvin Sheppard, LSU’s All-Southeastern Conference middle linebacker and leading tackler in 2010. But Hatcher was still learning the ropes as a converted safety.

Minter, who answers questions with a serious, measured, thoughtful tone, felt the bulk of the job of replacing Sheppard’s leadership, and Sheppard’s team-leading 116 tackles fell on Minter’s shoulder pads.

“He (Sheppard) was the heart of this defense last year,” said Minter, slated to make his eighth start when No. 1-ranked LSU plays Saturday at Ole Miss (6 p.m., ESPN). “I knew I had to fill that role. Everyone was looking for me to do that.”

Only a sophomore, Minter (6-foot-2, 242 pounds) has gradually grown into Sheppard’s old footprints, like a sapling taking root in the shadow of an older tree.

Saturday, against Western Kentucky, he had his best game yet. Minter led the Tigers with a career-high 11 tackles - only the second time this season he has led the team in that category - as a slow-starting LSU defense revved up to hold the Hilltoppers to one offensive score in a 42-9 victory.

For the season, Minter ranks fifth on the team with 44 tackles, behind Eric Reid and Brandon Taylor (57 each), Mathieu (54) and senior weakside linebacker Ryan Baker (50).

“I thought Kevin Minter played one of his better games,” LSU coach Les Miles said.

“He’s a physical linebacker and understands our calls. He gives us a very capable and talented guy in the middle of that defense.”

Minter the critic is finally starting to give Minter the linebacker some credit as well.

He remembers what Sheppard once told him and takes comfort from those words.

“He told me to have success in this conference it’s all about confidence,” Minter said. “(He said) I always had all the tools. He said it would come with experience.”

It takes confidence, even a certain amount of ego to play middle linebacker.

At LSU, the defensive formation comes down from Chavis in the press box to defensive line coach Brick Haley on the sideline. Haley signals in the call to Minter, whose job it is to relay it to the defense. He then makes adjustments based on what the offense looks like.

“It took me awhile,” Minter said, “but being here three years, I have a pretty good grasp on it.”

Minter is happier to talk about team goals. He wants a shutout - LSU hasn’t had one since blanking Louisiana-Monroe 51-0 last November.

“It’s a huge goal,” Minter said. “We thought sure we’d get one this game (against Western Kentucky).

“We have to get at least one this season.”

Then there’s the goal a couple of games down the road of reaching the Southeastern Conference Championship game, a key step in LSU’s ultimate target of playing in the BCS National Championship game in New Orleans.

The SEC Championship game will be Dec. 3 in Atlanta, Minter’s hometown (he actually hails from suburban Suwanee). That will be Minter’s 21st birthday, and having the chance to celebrate in Georgia is much on his mind.

“They’re messing with me all the time, asking me if we’re going to go there,” Minter said. “I can’t say. I have to keep looking at Ole Miss. I’m really excited for that game.

“Hopefully we’ll do our job, and take care of these next two teams, and we’ll be able to get there.”

Maybe then Minter will take a moment to congratulate himself for helping the Tigers to get there.