Every team in the country emphasizes the importance of not giving away the football and taking it away from the opposition.
But few teams have translated that to the field as well as No. 1-ranked LSU has during the first month of the season.
The Tigers, who play Kentucky on Saturday in Tiger Stadium, have committed just three turnovers and taken the ball away from opponents 11 times. Their average of plus-2 turnover margin per game is fourth best in the country.
“We work on it every day,” LSU running back Spencer Ware said. “Every day we have 15 to 20 minutes of practice time to work on ball security and with our defense being that good at taking the ball away, that also makes us better because I don’t think any other team can take the ball or strip the ball like our defense.”
Ware said the Tigers run a variety of ball security drills. Scout team players and coaches take turns trying to strip the ball from ball carriers, and a series of drills involve the ball being tugged at in a variety of ways.
“The one thing you don’t do is put the ball on the ground,” Ware said.
In addition to one Jarrett Lee interception, LSU has lost two fumbles - an errant snap in shotgun formation against Oregon and a more conventional fumble by running back Jakhari Gore against Northwestern State.
“We strip at it, we try to knock it out,” defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “Those guys like Spencer and (running back) Michael Ford cover the ball real well so when it comes to the games and defenses try to do it to them and strip the ball out, the ball never comes out because those guys are very worried about holding on to that ball.”
Even when LSU ball carriers don’t lose the football, defensive players are working on recovering loose footballs.
“We don’t stop running until we hear the last whistle,” safety Brandon Taylor said. “The offense has a whistle and we have our own whistle. We don’t stop when the offense blows their whistle. If it’s an incomplete pass we still have to run and pick the ball up and return it like it’s a fumble so we’re running all day.”
Despite all of the emphasis on knocking the ball loose, LSU has more interceptions (six) than fumble recoveries (five). Twice cornerback Tyrann Mathieu has taken the ball away - once from an Oregon punt returner and once from a West Virginia receiver - and Eric Reid, Lavar Edwards and Ron Brooks each have one recovery. Morris Claiborne has two interceptions and Mathieu, Taylor, Tharold Simon and Michael Brockers have one each.
The pressure from the defensive line - they have 11.5 tackles for loss and have spearheaded an aggressive pass rush - has provided opportunities for interceptions.
“They’re big guys and they can move around,” Claiborne said of the linemen, “and they make the quarterback do things he doesn’t want to do.”
Just as the defensive backs expect the line to disrupt quarterbacks’ rhythm, the linemen know the slightest disruption can be all the defensive backs need.
“If we can do our part as the D-line and get even a little pressure and force the quarterback to rush a throw, we know those guys can get to the pass,” tackle Bennie Logan said.
Logan said the emphasis that defensive coordinator John Chavis puts on getting takeaways is year-round.
“The defensive backs and linebackers really focus on getting the ball out,” he said. “They go after the ball like it’s their ball. That’s their mind-set They focus on that all summer long. That’s why they’re so successful with it.”
Brockers said the turnovers are a byproduct of Chavis’ scheme and the players participating in it.
“The scheme of the defense is good,” he said, “but when you have playmakers like Mo Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu, those guys just make the defense better. When those guys are in the game they’re hungry for the ball, they want it out, and that’s what they’re going to do.”
Chavis emphasizes speed to the ball, hoping to get all 11 defenders to the ball carrier.
“When you get 11 people to the ball at the same time, you’re going to cause more turnovers, because more people are getting their hands on the ball,” Taylor said. “Coach Chavis preaches that a lot that we have to get the ball and put it in the offense’s hands, so they can get more points on the board.”
With the offense taking care of the ball as well as it has, it’s going to lead to more possessions that end in points.
“I think that we have great speed, get to the ball violent, understand that the ball is the issue and then you have to take the ball away,” coach Les Miles said. “It happens on defense. There are good players there.”
Miles credited the offensive staff for the way it teaches ball security, including first-year quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe improving Lee’s decision-making.