Jalen Mills may have returned at just the right time.
Mills, LSU’s senior free safety who started 39 games in his first three seasons, played for the first time this year in Saturday’s game against Florida after missing five games because of a fractured ankle he suffered in mid-August.
His return came not a minute too soon considering fifth-ranked LSU, which has given up a number of explosive pass plays in the past two games, will face one of the nation’s most productive quarterbacks when the Tigers host Western Kentucky on Saturday night.
Western Kentucky sixth-year senior Brandon Doughty, who led the FBS with 4,830 passing yards and 49 touchdowns a year ago, will take aim at an LSU secondary that has allowed 205.0 passing yards per game to rank 45th nationally out of 127 teams.
While that’s respectable, the problem is some coverage busts by LSU have resulted in big gains and touchdowns the past two weeks.
The Tigers were hit for eight passes of 20 yards or longer in their wins over Florida and South Carolina; In its first four games, LSU gave up a total of seven pass plays of 20 yards or more.
“Jalen Mills being back certainly will help,” coach Les Miles said. “I think our guys know where they’re at and recognize with some adjustment and some improvement, that we can be a team that plays for the title.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “Defensively, I think we have to stop having those breakdowns. We’re good there. … I think we’ll do that.”
Invaluable experience is one of the things Mills brings to the table; he’s the lone senior among the nine players in the secondary who have received appreciable game snaps this season.
Then, there are his communication skills as a leader of the defense.
“Hopefully, a little more,” Mills said when asked how much he can help tighten up the defense. “Just me being here, just knowing the defense, just trying to help the defense out. Just help them being more comfortable.
“We just need to get better every week. We want to keep progressing … we don’t ever want to go backward.”
Two weeks ago, South Carolina stunned LSU with touchdowns of 36 and 43 yards to receivers who had shaken the Tigers’ coverage. On Saturday, a missed assignment helped Florida tight end Jake McGee get wide open for a 19-yard scoring grab.
Last week, Mills took a huge step toward helping. He entered the game in the second quarter and got his feet wet when he played some as the nickel back covering the slot receiver and some at his usual free safety spot. By the end of the game, Mills had played about 12-15 snaps.
He may be called on to play more this week, especially with Doughty, a classic dropback passer, cranking out some monster numbers in his team’s 6-1 start. That led Miles to say the 6-foot-3, 220-pound Doughty is “every bit” a Southeastern Conference quarterback with a big arm.
Doughty has completed 74.1 percent of his passes for 2,709 yards, averaging 387.0 yards per game to rank third in the FBS, with 24 touchdowns. He has 26 completions of 30 yards or more — including nine of 50 yards-plus.
The key to keeping that number down this week, Mills said, is extra film study and “knowing what’s coming before it comes … just knowing a lot of things.”
What they’re seeing on film are three Western Kentucky players — wide receivers Taywan Taylor and Jared Dangerfield and tight end Tyler Higbee — who have combined for 118 receptions, 1,748 yards and 21 touchdowns.
But Miles thinks his team, especially the secondary, will be up for the challenge.
“You eliminate some of those mistakes that are made in our secondary, then suddenly we’re really a dominant, dominant team,” Miles said. “Playing dominant football is what we want to do.”
Mills can help the Tigers do that, weakside linebacker Deion Jones said.
“We missed all aspects of Jalen Mills when he was out,” Jones said. “He’s a hard worker and a big-time player. A lot of times he knows what route is coming, so he’s a big asset for us.”
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.