Next Level: Mills’ return should be big boost for LSU secondary

You probably think Jalen Mills’ return to LSU’s secondary will help boost the Tigers because of his experience and skills as a defensive back.

You’d be correct. But let’s look deeper into how exactly Mills’ addition significantly improves LSU’s secondary.

In short, Mills’ return means less playing time for players like Dwayne Thomas, who has struggled at times this season, and Donte Jackson, an unproven freshman who LSU has been forced into playing.

This is only good news for the Tigers, who play more defensive backs than any other position players by far. LSU plays the five-defensive-back nickel set more than 80 percent of the time and uses a six-defensive-back dime more than it plays the regular 4-3-4 defense.

The Tigers need as much depth as they can get at defensive back, and Mills certainly helps. How much remains to be seen, but we saw a few changes because of Mills’ addition last week against Florida.

Mills rotated with Thomas as the third cornerback (nickel back) in both the five-DB nickel and the six-DB dime formations. Thomas also rotated with Kevin Toliver as the No. 2 cornerback in both sets. With Mills gone during the first five games, Jackson was rotating with Thomas at nickel. Mills is an upgrade. Toliver wasn’t rotating at all, playing nearly every snap. Again, it’s a plus that Thomas is at least giving him a breather.

Lastly, LSU has played the six-DB dime sparingly. And it’s probably because coaches didn’t feel entirely comfortable with the six healthy defensive backs they had. With Mills back and the Tigers playing pass-happy Western Kentucky, expect that dime — also known as the Mustang formation — to come out more.

Vroom. Vroom.

Four Downs

1. Life in the passing lane

Western Kentucky throws for 407.1 ypg, LSU for only 135.3, so this would hardly seem like an aerial dogfight. But the Tigers have posted back-to-back 200-yard passing games, and despite Leonard Fournette’s talent at tailback, expect to see LSU continue to try to refine this part of the offense with a showdown at Bama two weeks away.

2. Get your kicks

LSU is last in the SEC in net punting and kickoff coverage, having allowed TDs in both areas. Les Miles said he liked the special-teams work his team put in this week, but WKU presents another big challenge — ninth nationally averaging 27.5 ypr on kickoffs (LSU allows 36.7). LSU needs to improve these SEC-worst numbers in the worst way.

3. Avoid the trap

The Tigers are coming off a showdown win over then-No. 8 Florida and next play at Alabama in two weeks in another SEC showdown game. That makes Western Kentucky the textbook definition of a trap game for LSU. The Tigers need to come out with the kind of start they had against EMU (14-0) but keep up the pressure this time.

4. Record watch

WKU ranks 76th nationally allowing 172.7 ypg rushing, so this is another chance for Leonard Fournette to smash Alley Broussard’s single-game school rushing record of 250 yards against Ole Miss in 2004. If Fournette hits his 200 ypg average, he would have LSU’s second-best rushing season with five games left.