Ed Orgeron and Dave Aranda were on a recruiting trip late last fall when LSU’s defensive coordinator turned to the head coach.
“Do you know,” he started, “that we have more kickers on scholarship than inside linebackers?”
“Shhh!” Orgeron replied. “Don’t tell anyone that, Dave!”
Eight months and a signing class later, LSU’s inside linebacker situation is much improved. First off, the program now has more inside linebackers on scholarship (five) than kickers and punters (three).
Secondly, the team’s trio of freshman linebackers is shining brightly and receiving a lot of snaps through the first week of preseason camp. Jacob Phillips, Tyler Taylor and Patrick Queen arrived in June, and they’ve made a splash early in drills.
That is, at least, what Orgeron and players have said. Reporters are not allowed to view practice until Aug. 21.
“They’re very athletic, very good,” said projected linebacker starter Devin White, a sophomore. “Probably got three of the best (freshman linebackers) in the country.”
That’s what the recruiting rankings said. Phillips, a Tennessee native, was ranked the No. 1 inside linebacker in the 2017 class, according to 247Sports’ composite list. Tyler, from Georgia, was the 11th-best inside linebacker. Queen, from Livonia High, was the No. 16 outside linebacker.
That they’re all here is something.
LSU coaches needed to flip Phillips from his commitment to Oklahoma, and most recruiting experts thought Tyler was bound for Georgia or Auburn.
Now, here they all are at LSU’s camp, backing up presumed starters White and Donnie Alexander.
The relationship between a quarterback and his center has to be close.
According to interviews and school-released practice footage, Phillips and Taylor are working behind Alexander at the Mack position, the one Kendell Beckwith played. Queen is behind White at Rover, the spot vacated by Duke Riley.
Aranda is teaching the trio both positions, White said, “because you never know what’s going to happen.” The coach is giving them plenty of practice snaps, too.
White took just 19 snaps in Saturday’s first camp scrimmage. The freshmen got “in the 20s and 30s,” he said.
That wasn’t the case in March and April. It was an exhausting spring for White and Alexander, the only two scholarship inside linebackers Aranda had. The situation was so dire that a pair of walk-ons, Layton Garnett and Jonathan Rucker, received some first-string snaps, and coaches moved Michael Divinity from outside to an inside linebacker spot to supply depth.
“Thank goodness for the walk-ons we had,” Aranda said in May. “They were our 2s and subbed in a lot of times with our 1s.”
Things have changed now. The walk-ons are third- and fourth-string as the trio of rookies is stacked behind the projected starters.
“We’ve got a lot of rotation now,” White said. “Helps us and saves us in practice.”
Divinity has returned to his original position. Its depth has increased, too. Divinity is one of a handful of guys rotating at the F-outside linebacker spot, including redshirt freshman Ray Thornton and seniors Corey Thompson, M.J. Patterson and Devin Voorhies.
Thornton, a chiseled Texas product who redshirted last year, seems to have surged into the lead at that spot, but he also has been playing the hybrid Buck position with Arden Key sidelined while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Either way, the depth at LSU’s linebacker positions — inside and out — is back, more or less, to normal.
“It’s very deep, have a lot of young guys,” Divinity said. “A lot of them are going to have a lot of chance to play. We’re looking forward to them to step up and play.”
A third former NFL assistant coach has joined LSU’s staff.
That’s what coaches say, too. Aranda and Orgeron have not been shy about it: They expect Phillips, Queen and Taylor to compete for playing time, possibly working into the inside linebacker rotation.
Asked specifically about Taylor in February, Aranda said, “I think we helped our depth with this recruiting class. He’s going to have a crack to play and start, much like the other two.”
There have been hiccups early. That’s natural with 17- and 18-year-olds moving from high school to college.
“If they do mess up, they mess up full-speed and still make plays,” Divinity said. “That’s a good thing about it.”
They each provide something different.
Taylor, at 6-foot-2 and 240 pounds, is built in the same way as Beckwith. He reminds Orgeron and Aranda of the current Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker.
The 6-3, 235-pound Phillips is a combination of size and speed, a prototypical inside linebacker in a fast, speedy defense. Queen, at 6-1 and 220, is slighter of build, a more rangy player.
All of them, though, can tackle, White pointed out. He saw their grading sheet from coaches.
“All I know is they all fly to the ball,” White said. “They offer speed. I know every one of them can tackle. If you look at the grades — we get graded after the scrimmage — they all had tackles on their grades.”