Donte Jackson wants to be clear about one thing: LSU remains “DBU.”
The school’s secondary endured one of its worst statistical seasons in years in 2015, rife with busted coverages and communication breakdowns, full of freshman miscues and veteran coverage problems.
All that said, the DBU label — the one pasted on the program for its lineage of superstar defensive backs — isn’t going anywhere.
“We’re not out to compete with nobody. People out to compete with us,” said Jackson, LSU’s sophomore starting cornerback. “We’re DBU strictly off talent. The numbers and the stats matter, but they’re chasing us. We’re not chasing nobody.”
Corey Raymond’s group of defensive backs this year — from fifth-year seniors to first-year rookies — is one of the most highly touted ever. Of the 14 scholarship defensive backs, seven were ranked in the top five at their position — safety or cornerback — out of high school.
All but one of the 14 (John Battle) was at least a four star-rated product in 247Sports’ composite rankings, and three were five-star prospects (Kevin Toliver, Jamal Adams and Kristian Fulton).
The message here: They’re a talented group, and they’re looking to wipe away an embarrassing showing a season ago.
“We always have a chip on our shoulder because we are DBU,” said Battle, a junior safety. “We always feel like everybody’s going to give us their best every time we step out on the field. Sometimes we have coverage busts, where we just have a mental lapse, but every secondary has that here and there. The great ones find ways to get through those.”
That test begins in a week, fifth-ranked LSU meets Wisconsin at Lambeau Field for a season-opening showdown in one of football’s legendary venues. The Tigers' secondary will be playing against a first-time starter in Bart Houston, a redshirt senior who Wisconsin named Thursday as its starting quarterback.
Call it a year of revenge — just don’t tell them that — for a crew of defensive backs that stumbled last year for a variety of reasons.
Why did LSU have eight busted coverages, six that went for touchdowns?
First-year defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s system was an NFL-oriented defense, players say, a cumbersome scheme with a thick playbook — loads of pre-snap checks and calls — built for a 25-year old professional player, not a 19-year old juggling school and football.
Why did the Tigers finish ranked 65th nationally in pass defense, allowing 224 yards per game (the worst mark since 2008)?
By the end of the season, LSU started two true freshmen, Jackson and Toliver, and coached had yanked two veterans, Ricky Jefferson and Dwayne Thomas, from the regular rotation because of bloops in coverage.
Why did LSU DBs allow 19 catches of more than 30 yards (the most since at least 2010) and 112 receptions for more than 10 yards (that’s 20 more than the team allowed, on average, over the previous five seasons)?
For the first half of the season, the group missed Jalen Mills, last year’s season leader and a talented athlete who made waves at the Eagles’ training camp earlier this month.
“I don’t really focus on that,” Toliver said of the disappointing stats of 2015. “I just worry about my game and getting better and the stats will come.”
They’ll come this year, players say, the good stats, that is, the ones of 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014 — four seasons in which LSU ranked inside the top 15 in pass defense.
It’s a tradition around here, really, one that took a break last season with a coordinator who spent less than 12 full months in Baton Rouge. Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s scheme is more simple, players say, and easier to understand.
That’s a start in returning the so-called DBU tradition to Baton Rouge.
“It’s simpler. It’s easier,” Toliver said of Aranda’s new 3-4 defense, which, for the secondary, doesn’t include so many new adjustments compared to LSU’s defensive front.
“It’s more understandable,” he continued. “Steele’s was, like, an NFL defense. Coach Aranda, he’s more simple.”
Players have indicated in the past that Steele’s defense held more zone coverage principals and included more pre-snap communications than previous LSU defenses. Battle points to miscommunication and a loss of focus for the coverage busts last season.
These were sometimes obvious in the six busts that went for touchdowns: two against Western Kentucky (39 and 9 yards), a 19-yarder against Florida, a 36-yard TD against South Carolina, that 40-yard doozy at Syracuse and a 52-yarder against Arkansas.
The one against the Hogs is a perfect example of a communication breakdown.
Arkansas receiver Dominique Reed got 7 yards open immediately off the line of scrimmage when Thomas darted to cover the slot receiver. Mills, lined up on the slot receiver at the snap, came on a corner blitz.
Someone didn’t get the correct check, and Reed, lined up on Thomas at the snap, was left uncovered.
“Just maintaining focus with 100,000 people out there screaming,” Battle said about no play in particular. “Sometimes you may get distracted. You just got to lock in.”
“It wasn’t on the scheme,” Toliver said. “It was on us. We just weren’t communicating. Right plays were called. We just weren’t in the right places.”
The struggles last year resulted in midseason secondary shuffling. Mills, who missed the first five games of the season after fracturing his leg during preseason camp, replaced Thomas as the nickelback covering the slot receiver.
Thompson, hampered by injury earlier in the year, usurped Jefferson at safety, and Battle took over as the Tigers’ sixth defensive back in the dime package. Toliver and Jackson, then a pair of rookies, rotated at the cornerback spot opposite White.
LSU isn’t expected to need to use true freshmen this season. Eight of the 10 players are upperclassmen in a projected two-deep depth chart for each of the two safety and cornerback spots and the nickelback position.
“I feel like this is going to be a better year than we had last year,” Toliver said. “We’ve got more older guys now. We don’t have as many younger guys.”
Does that mean the return of DBU?
It never left, Jackson contends.
“We,” Jackson said, “have got a lot of playmakers.”
LSU's 14 scholarship defensive backs ranked among the best in the nation upon leaving high school.
- Ranked in top 3 at their position: 6
- Ranked in top 10 at their position: 8
- Ranked in top 15 at their position: 10
- Five stars: 3
- Four stars: 10
- Three stars: 1