The questions being asked about LSU’s defense are a lot different than they were just a few weeks ago.
During preseason camp, the most frequent questions were:
How can the Tigers replace All-America cornerback Patrick Peterson?
Where’s the leadership with the departure of linebacker Kelvin Sheppard?
How can the interior of the line handle the absence of Drake Nevis and Pep Levingston?
Then there were the endless questions about Oregon’s fast-paced, high-scoring offense leading up to the season opener against the then-No. 3 Ducks. Remember them, the speedy, snap-the-ball-before-you-can-catch-your breath group that averaged nearly 50 points a game year ago?
Well, the Tigers slowed them to 335 yards and 27 points in a relatively easy 13-point victory. Then came a 49-3 manhandling of Northwestern State and a 19-6 shutdown of Mississippi State and the Southeastern Conference’s top-rated offense.
Now, the most common questions are these:
Is this defense better than last season’s?
Is this the best defense in the country?
Is this the best LSU defense in recent memory?
Here’s part of an exchange between a reporter and defensive tackle Michael Brockers shortly after the Tigers’ victory against the Bulldogs last Thursday.
Reporter: “How much better can you get?”
Brockers: “A lot better, but we have to wait and see.”
Reporter: “Isn’t it scary to think you guys can get a lot better than what you did tonight?”
Brockers: “It’s very scary. It’s almost amazing what we could do if we run stuff right and play with the better technique.”
Apparently, they’re running stuff pretty well and with pretty good technique already. The Tigers are limiting opponents to 12.0 points per game, 1.6 yards per rush, 4.4 yards per pass and 207.7 yards per game.
They’re on pace to pretty much match last year’s defense in interceptions, pass breakups and fumbles caused and recovered. They’re behind schedule on sacks as they are on pace to average 20, 14 fewer than last season, but they’re on pace to have 120 tackles for loss, compared to 88 last season.
Defensive coordinator John Chavis, whose job is to point out imperfections as much as acknowledge near-perfection, was guarded in his praise after the State game.
“This group has a chance to get better, and we can do better,” he said. “That’s got to be our focus. We’ve got to keep playing hard. playing with the intensity we’ve been playing with, and if we can eliminate the mistakes, we have a chance to be a really fine defense.
“We’ve got some playmakers up front, and we’ve got some in the secondary.”
During the preseason, Chavis took a half-full approach to the departures.
“What that does is it creates opportunities for other guys to make their mark in LSU football,” Chavis said. “Tradition never graduates. We have players that go on to the NFL. … They were good quality men for us, but now it’s time for a different era. It’s time for some different guys to step forward.”
Brockers, Bennie Logan, Josh Downs, and Anthony Johnson have enabled the line to withstand the loss of Nevis and Levingston. The play of ends Sam Montgomery, Kendrick Adams, Barkevious Mingo and Lavar Edwards has made running wide no more attractive than running inside against LSU.
A deep and talented secondary featuring essentially five starters in cornerbacks Morris Claiborne, Tyrann Mathieu, and Tharold Simon; safeties Brandon Taylor and Eric Reid, and key backups in Craig Loston, Ron Brooks and Derrick Bryant, makes passing no more enticing than running.
Chavis has said this secondary has more depth than any other he has been around in his 33 years of coaching.
The linebackers — primarily Kevin Minter, Ryan Baker, Luke Muncie, and Lamin Barrow — have also contributed even though the group sometimes has a more limited role because of the depth on the front and back ends.
On top of everything else this unit has, the preparation for Oregon’s offense might have added another dimension. The Tigers practiced hours on end to get their conditioning and ability to read and react on the fly sharp enough to keep up with the Ducks.
“That certainly made us ready,” Chavis said. “They know and understand how you have to play against an up-tempo offense. Offseason, spring practice and what we did in fall practice — sometimes it wasn’t pretty but they had to suck it up and gut it out, and they did that. They understand that, and it has made us better.”