On Saturday afternoon, Christian LaCouture spoke to a group of reporters about his intense summer training.
LSU's senior defensive lineman participated in four different workouts four times a week. He dropped 12 pounds. He improved his hand-eye coordination. He felt "great," he said; "prepared," he insisted; poised to lead LSU's deep, talented defensive line into the 2016 season.
After all, he led all linemen in starts at 23.
During practice Sunday, he suffered a significant knee injury and has been ruled out for the season, a source confirmed. The injury, suffered during a noncontact drill, could end a highly anticipated senior season before it even started and throws the Tigers defensive line into unexpected shuffling mode a month before the season opener.
More details emerged Tuesday morning about a pair of LSU defensive linemen who sustained injuries on Sunday.
Isaiah Washington, backup to Arden Key at the Buck position, suffered ligament damage, as well, and is out for the season, a source confirmed. The school confirmed only that LaCouture and Washington "suffered injuries" at practice.
The Buck is an outside linebacker/defensive end hybrid position in Dave Aranda's new 3-4 defense. Buck players practice with the defensive line and are considered part of that group.
To put it simply, LSU defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, potentially, lost two players in one day. How will they be replaced?
We look at options...
Let's first explain LaCouture's role in the Tigers' new 3-4 defense — or at least what we understand LaCouture's role to have been.
- LaCouture said Saturday that he plays the defensive end spot, opposite Lewis Neal, in LSU's base 3-4 defense. More specifically, he said, he plays the "4i-technique." The 4i-technique is between the tackle and guard, shading toward the tackle. Here's a shot:
- LaCouture doesn't play only the "4i," though. You'll soon learn that most players in LSU's "front five" (two defensive ends, nose tackle, Buck, F-linebacker) play multiple positions and line up in different locations. For instance, LaCouture also lines up in a defensive tackle-type spot in LSU's five-defensive back nickel formation, he said. "When we do nickel, (with) four down linemen, I’ll slide in," LaCouture said Saturday.
- LaCouture is capable of playing nose tackle, too. In fact, Aranda, upon starting at LSU in January, moved him to nose tackle. LaCouture played there until the coach swapped Davon Godchaux and LaCouture, moving Godchaux from end to nose and LaCouture from nose to end. Here's LSU's 3-4 base during the spring game (courtesy: SEC Network):
Aranda has options. LSU is deeper and more experienced on the defensive line than it's been in two to three years — and some might say longer. But LaCouture was a versatile guy, who, as discussed above, could play nose tackle, end and his old position of tackle.
- Davon Godchaux: He's the most natural and easy pick to replace LaCouture at end in the base 3-4, right? Just move Godchaux back out to the end position, where he began the spring. Already, Godchaux plays the end spot in certain sets, as we saw in the spring game. Of course, if you move Godchaux, that leaves a hole at nose tackle (we'll get to that later).
- Frank Herron: Herron already plays the position. In fact, he backed up LaCouture at the spot, and he saw plenty of time working at the position over spring. Herron is a four-year player, a redshirt junior who signed in 2013. He redshirted his first season, rarely played in 2014 and evolved last season into a rotating player at tackle, but is he ready for a starting role?
- Tashawn Bower: Some might say this makes the most sense. Bower moved from being a defensive end in the 4-3 to and outside linebacker after Aranda's installation of the 3-4. He's battling with senior Corey Thompson at the F-linebacker position, an outside linebacker spot similar to a strong-side linebacker in the 4-3. He also plays some Buck (we'll get to that later). Is it time for a switch back to his old spot? Possibly. It makes a lot of sense, especially if coaches trust Thompson and his backup, freshman Michael Divinity, at F-linebacker. But that does leave a hole behind Key (again, later).
- Rashard Lawrence: The freshman from Neville has impressed coaches and players through the first few days of preseason camp, but is the rookie ready to take over at end? Maybe midway through the season, but in the first game? It's a long shot, and remember, Lawrence might be an option at nose (as we'll get to below).
At the nose
If the Tigers do move Godchaux to end, Aranda has several (big but inexperienced) options at nose tackle. Remember, the coach planned to move Godchaux to end in some sets even before LaCouture's injury. Here's Aranda over the summer during an interview with us:
"I think there’s times we’re going to want Godchaux on edges as well," he said. "So who comes in? Who does that? That’s where I think there’s some room for some of these younger guys, but I think there’s time for that to play out."
- Travonte Valentine: The top-rated defensive tackle in the nation, Valentine, listed in junior college at 345 pounds, appears to be a perfect fit at nose in the 3-4. He's big, fast for his size and can plug the inside. Dismissed from LSU last summer, Valentine has been cleared to practice but needs one more class to reach eligibility for the season. If he does get eligible, how many plays a game can he play? Valentine, in two years out of high school, has participated in six college games — all last fall in junior college.
Travonte Valentine has, indeed, rejoined the LSU football team, but he has not met academic requirements to play this season — at least not yet.
- Ed Alexander: The rookie from St. Thomas Aquinas is listed at 330 pounds, but he might be larger. His sheer size has garnered attention during the first few days of camp, with Miles referring to him as a "big horse" and a "ready-made nose tackle." Ah, but he's a freshman.
- Greg Gilmore: The redshirt junior has been playing the position since Aranda arrived, backing up LaCouture and then Godchaux at nose tackle. He saw significant snaps, like Herron, in a rotating role last season at tackle. But his name isn't often mentioned by coaches. How close is he to being a starter? We don't really know, but Gilmore said Saturday during interviews that he's been almost exclusively playing nose tackle.
- Rashard Lawrence: Miles didn't just call Alexander a "ready-made nose tackle." He said the same thing when referring to Lawrence, the bell cow of the Tigers' No. 3-ranked 2016 signing class. Lawrence moved up to practice with the starters/veterans by Day 3 of camp. That could be a sign. Or it could be nothing. We don't really know.
A Key backup
Isaiah Washington has spent the past 16 months backing up Arden Key, since both arrived on campus last summer. First, he did it at defensive end last season. Then, during the spring and first days of camp, he did it at the Buck, a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end.
- Tashawn Bower: Back to Bower. He's playing the Buck, as well as the F-linebacker. It would seem to reason that, with Washington gone, Bower is the man to backup Key. He's a seasoned guy, a senior, whom Aranda will use at end as well in certain sets.
- Sci Martin: The freshman from McDonogh 35 was promoted from practicing with the freshmen and reserves to the starters by Day 3, like Lawrence. In drills, he flashed a quickness needed at the spot Key mans. But he is a freshman. LSU is young at this position.
- Ray Thornton: The chiseled rookie out of Texas moved into the Buck role at the start of camp. He's listed as "Ray" — and not Rahssan — on the team's official roster. He looks the part, sporting a similar build to former LSU star Danielle Hunter.
Changes are coming to Tiger Stadium — to the restrooms, concession stands and, at some point…