Playing special teams for most of his first three seasons at LSU, senior linebacker Deion Jones often dreamed about finally getting an opportunity to intercept a pass for the Tigers.
Thanks to LSU’s new and vastly improved pass rush, the New Orleans native has done what he always wanted to do — in back-to-back games.
With an assist from freshman defensive end Arden Key, Jones picked off passes in seventh-ranked LSU’s wins over Syracuse and Eastern Michigan.
Jones returned the second one 26 yards for a touchdown that capped a 44-22 victory Saturday night in Tiger Stadium.
“It was a dream come true,” Jones said of his pick-six that finally ended Eastern Michigan’s bid for a monumental upset. “I always hoped for those moments to happen the past three years, and it finally happened.”
Two days later, Jones made sure to credit Key and his fellow pass rushers, who are now under the direction of new defensive line coach Ed Orgeron and new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
LSU already has piled up 11 sacks — 9½ by defensive linemen — in four games. The Tigers had just 19 sacks in 13 games a year ago.
Even when they don’t get sacks, they’ve been successful at disrupting the quarterback as was the case the past two games with Key.
Against Syracuse, the sleek 6-foot-6, 231-pounder tipped a pass attempt into the air that a diving Jones collected for his first career interception.
On Saturday night, Key applied pressure to Eastern Michigan quarterback Brogan Roback, who was forced to try an ill-advised sidearm pass. Jones stepped in front of the receiver, made the easy pick and returned it for a touchdown.
“It’s a big difference; they’ve really been getting after it,” Jones said of the rush. “That’s big kudos to Coach O. He has those guys going 100 miles per hour every day. They’re constantly working on it, drill after drill after drill, and it’s paying off for them.”
When asked if he should buy Key lunch, Jones said, “Nah, I just say, ‘Thank you … I appreciate it.’”
He’s not the only one.
Jones and middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith, who rank 1-2 in tackles for the season, said the pass rush certainly helps them — and the secondary — do their jobs.
Starting ends Lewis Neal and Tashawn Bower, and tackles Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux have also come up big, along with backup tackles Greg Gilmore and Frank Herron.
Neal and Godchaux are tied for the team lead with three sacks each, while Key has four of LSU’s 11 quarterback hurries to lead that category.
“It helps a lot when you don’t have to worry about (offensive) linemen getting to you all the time,” Beckwith said. “Our guys are doing a good job holding linemen up and also putting pressure on the quarterback. That gives the linebackers and DBs opportunities for picks.”
Like Jones, Beckwith said it’s a big difference from LSU’s tepid rush in 2014.
“It’s an issue that’s been stressed day in and day out to the linemen. … They have to get pressure,” Beckwith said. “When they read that it’s a pass, they have to convert to being a pass-rusher and get to the quarterback.”
It can be effective even if you don’t get there, LaCouture said.
“I’ve been telling people if you don’t get the sack, you can still disrupt the play with pressure,” he said. “Whether you’re double-teamed or singled, we expect you to get back there. Yeah, it’s improved.”
Neal said there’s a big reason for that.
“We’re attacking more and playing relentless,” he said. “There are things we need to tighten up on and tune up to be great, but that’s the big thing: We’re playing loose and we’re going after the quarterback.”
“It doesn’t always show up (in the stats),” Godchaux said, “but (pass-rushing) is a ‘want-to.’ You have to want to do it.”
So far, they are.
Follow Sheldon Mickles on Twitter @MicklesAdvocate.