Standing in a semicircle inside LSU’s indoor practice facility, the Tigers’ defensive backs quietly waited as squares of black duct tape were peeled off the walls.
Lowering the helmets, an assistant carefully affixed the patches to the sides of their face masks — literally narrowing their vision — ahead of basic footwork and ball drills Tuesday during the final week of spring workouts.
Any metaphor or cliché can be as easily applied to safeties Ronald Martin and Corey Thompson.
The duo’s duel to replace the early departing All-American Eric Reid and slide in next to Craig Loston may induce nervous perspiration among the anxious hordes of LSU fans filing into Tiger Stadium for Saturday’s spring game. Sifting for clues, though, is akin to hunting for a fortune in flecks of gold among silt.
As in time consuming and not reached quickly.
“It’s a day where you can make a statement,” said Thompson, a 6-feet-3, 210-pound sophomore. “But you do have the whole summer and fall. We’re out here right now, though. So why not do it?”
Thompson’s notion is best viewed as measured pragmatism than bravado, though.
Any firm evaluation or conclusions are on hold, considering Martin, a 6-1, 202-pound junior from White Castle, joined projected starters in defensive end Jermauria Rasco and cornerback Jalen Mills in sitting out LSU’s third spring scrimmage.
And Martin was nowhere to be seen Tuesday while defensive backs coach Corey Raymond tutored his pupils.
Even if he was absent in body, Martin can make a solid case for succeeding Reid, who was an All-SEC selection and racked up 91 tackles to rank third on the roster.
Working as a backup last season, Martin ably filled in at strong safety when Craig Loston sat out a 63-14 victory against Idaho with a toe injury. Martin came up with two interceptions, including one he returned 45 yards for a touchdown after cornerback Jalen Collins tipped a throw that landed in Martin’s mitts to set up a dash down the left sideline.
In the past, coach Les Miles has made it clear that Martin was ready to see quality reps from the day he arrived — if not for Loston and Reid’s presence. And Martin’s 35 tackles and a forced fumble at Texas A&M buffet his credentials.
Yet the gap might be closer than imagined, at least according to veteran linebacker Lamin Barrow’s observations.
“It’s very close,” Barrow said. “It’s two athletic guys. It’s two physical guys. It’s two smart guys. So, it’s going to be close. I couldn’t tell who is going to start, but those guys are going to play a lot. We need them to play a lot.”
Similar to Martin, Miles applied a dollop of praise to Thompson, a native of Missouri City, Texas, in August when he arrived on campus with the right size, a nose for the football, decent ball skills, and the range to play underneath.
Barrow can see flashes of these traits.
“Corey Thompson is going to be a hell of a player, and people are going to see that,” Barrow said. “He’s a big hitter, but also a steady guy you can rely on.”
Stuck behind Loston and sophomore Micah Eugene, however, Thompson notched 11 tackles as one of a nation-leading 15 true freshmen to play for LSU. It might not match up to Martin’s profile, but his absence and Miles’ edict on putting the best 11 on the field offer optimism.
“There’s always a chance, but things happen beyond your control,” Thompson said. “I just have to step in and play my role, do what I supposed to do and make sure I can continue to get better. That’s all you can ever focus on.”
And mimicking an ascent in the mold of Reid’s own emergence during his sophomore season — in which he was second with 76 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles — is clearly ideal for Thompson.
“Eric was a good role model, and I really watched what he did from technique to film study,” Thompson said. “Last year was more about watching and learning from him about the approach and taking advantages of my chances when I got time in games.”
Just how clearly he can stake a claim might have to wait until Martin is back, and the humid crucible of August workouts forge a consensus.
“It’s always competition, and it’s never going to change,” Thompson said. “It’s not just me and him alone. It’s all the DBs. Chief (defensive coordinator John Chavis) always says, ‘No spot is solidified.’ It’s good for us. For me, right now, I’m focused on making myself the best I can be.”