Ed Orgeron said it before and he said it again Saturday: LSU’s secondary was the most improved area of his team during spring drills following a troubling 2020 season.
While few outside the program got to see it in the first 14 practices this spring, the defensive backs put their work on display during the spring game in Tiger Stadium.
Even though wide receivers Kayshon Boutte and Jontre Kirklin had monster days, several veterans and a couple of relative newcomers made plays in the secondary for both sides in the White team’s 23-14 victory over the Purple squad.
All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. had an interception — one of three for the secondary — and his teammates in the back end of the defense had two other picks and combined to break up 11 passes.
“I’ve said I think the secondary is the most improved part of the team and we’ll have Eli Ricks coming at corner,” Orgeron said. “Then, we have some talented young (freshman) safeties coming.”
Ricks, a freshman All-American last season, missed the entire spring with an undisclosed injury.
But rising juniors Jay Ward and Cordale Flott and sophomores Dwight McGlothern, Raydarious Jones and Jordan Toles opened some eyes in his absence.
Along with Stingley, each was active and aggressive Saturday in getting ample work against an offense that lofted 81 passes their way.
It was good practice for a defense that gave up 323.0 yards passing a game last season, which was dead last among 127 FBS teams.
Boutte caught 11 balls for 162 yards and a touchdown and Kirklin finished with 10 receptions for 166 yards and two scores, but the secondary still had its moments under new defensive coordinator Daronte Jones and position coach Corey Raymond.
“I think Daronte Jones and Corey Raymond have done a tremendous job of playing more zone coverage and the guys knowing they have to switch some stuff off,” Orgeron said.
In addition to Stingley, Ward and Jones had interceptions to go with picks by linebackers Jared Small and Antoine Sampah.
McGlothern would have had a pick had Orgeron not blown the play dead when linebacker BJ Ojulari got a hand on the shoulder of quarterback Max Johnson as he tried to get a pass off.
McGlothern was credited with a team-high four pass breakups to go with four tackles, while Toles, a safety, knocked down two passes.
“Dwight had a great day today; I blew the whistle early because I didn’t want one of the receivers to get hurt,” Orgeron said. “That guy (McGlothern) has had a great spring. He played cornerback because Eli Ricks wasn’t there, and Derek Stingley’s had a tremendous spring.
“You look at Jay Ward, they moved him to free safety and I think he’s going to be a force there. He’s a good blitzer and I think Derek is the best corner in America.”
Boutte, who set a school record with 308 yards receiving on 14 receptions in a 53-48 win over Ole Miss in the 2020 season finale, said he saw the strides the defensive backs made in the competitive spring drills.
“It’s been like that every day … all day, every practice,” he said. “Everybody talks; they know us and it’s all about the one-on-ones. You got to win yours.”
Linebacker Damone Clark said he was proud of Jones and McGlothern — two youngsters who may have earned valuable time in the fall with their play this spring.
Clark said Jones, who was with the White team, told him Friday he was ready to play.
Jones’ interception and 39-yard return off TJ Finley in the first quarter set the tone for the defense and touched off an impromptu celebration that included Clark, who was playing for the Purple team.
“He told me he was just going to do his thing in the spring game,” Clark said. “When I saw him catch it, even though he was on the White team, at the end of the day it’s still defense.
“I’m proud of Dwight because he grew up every day,” he said. “He’s going against Kayshon, Jaray (Jenkins), Koy (Moore), guys like that. Those guys are going to get him ready. … He just put it all together today.”