The Tigers were scrimmaging one day earlier this month, having just flipped the switch from full contact to “thudding” in which players don’t tackle each other to the ground.

A long pass flew deep into the LSU secondary and freshman wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was in hot pursuit. Intent to find the ball, he perhaps forgot for a moment that he was venturing into Craig Loston territory.

Were it a game or another time in the scrimmage, Loston, arguably LSU’s heaviest-hitting defensive back since All-American Craig Steltz left after the 2007 season, might well have laid Beckham out.

He thought better of it, certainly much to Beckham’s relief.

“I pretty much let him go because I knew we were in thud,” Loston explained.

“We’re going to need him.”

The Tigers are going to need Loston, too, whose career by all accounts is on the verge of turning a significant corner as he begins his junior campaign with No. 4-ranked LSU on Saturday in Arlington, Texas against No. 3 Oregon (7 p.m., ABC).

“Way improved,” coach Les Miles said. “Perhaps the most improved player on LSU’s defense this offseason,” added defensive coordinator John Chavis.

“He’s a guy that’s getting more comfortable back there with each practice,” Miles said. “I think he’ll be able to make the calls, understand the adjustments and anticipate making big plays. He has a big smile on his face a lot back there.”

Loston’s first two years at LSU generally produced a grimace of frustration.

A Parade All-American, Loston was rated as the nation’s No. 1 safety prospect in 2009 by Rivals, Scout and ESPNU when he was coming out of Eisenhower high school in Houston. He committed to LSU amid much fanfare live on ESPNU during a workout at Walt Disney World for the Under Armour All-American Game.

But while his famous cousin, Russell Shepard, flourished instantly, Loston found his dreams didn’t immediately come true.

As a true freshman in 2009 he played just two games - at Washington in the season opener and two games later at home against Louisiana-Lafayette, both on special teams. Against the Ragin’ Cajuns his season came to an end with a wrist injury, prompting a medical redshirt.

Loston began to make a significant contribution in 2010. He played in every game, starting early against Vanderbilt and in the Cotton Bowl against Texas A&M when he recorded a personal-best five tackles. He snared an interception against Louisiana-Monroe and broke up a pass, and made his first tackle for loss against Ole Miss.

As for his slow growth as a college player, Loston is philosophical.

“Some people come in and start fast, but for others sometimes it takes a little longer,” said Loston (6-foot-2, 200 pounds). “It’s been a humbling experience for me to slow down and understand what I really have to do to get to where I want to be.

“I’m looking forward to getting better every year.”

When LSU’s media guide was released in July, Loston was listed as the Tigers’ starting free safety.

While the school won’t officially release another depth chart until Saturday, Loston is definitely working within a tight three-man rotation at the top of LSU’s depth chart at the safety spots with senior Brandon Taylor and sophomore Eric Reid.

All of LSU’s safeties have been learning both strong and free safety assignments to help them better deal with Oregon’s fast-break offense.

“At first we thought it would be kind of challenging but it’s turned out to be very easy,” Loston explained. “By us working on it in practice it’ll come like second nature in the game. It’s going to help us big time.”

Heaven help an Oregon receiver if Loston is able to time his hit just right and launch into them.

He explained where the drive for his powerful blows comes from.

“I think it all comes from me being a triple jumper and a long jumper in high school,” Loston said. “Doing things like that helped build up more power in my legs.

“I don’t really try to hurt people or knock them out. It’s just all about being explosive. It’s all about the lower body.”

What Loston is aiming for, though, is to get into the minds of opposing receivers.

“Having the other teams know there’s a safety back there who’s going to hit you when they go to catch a deep ball,” he said, “it’s always going to be in the back of their head.”

There will be no thudding Saturday. It’ll be live action, and a chance for Loston to show how he’s progressed - and perhaps what opposing receivers have to fear.