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NSU quarterback Bryce Rivers (7) is tackled for a loss as the LSU defense consisting of, from left, LSU linebacker Damone Clark (35), LSU safety Cameron Lewis (31), LSU linebacker Andre Anthony (46) and LSU defensive end Travez Moore (49) converge on him during the second half of LSU's football game against Northwestern State at Tiger Stadium Saturday Sept. 14, 2019, in Baton Rouge, La. LSU won 65-14.

Ed Orgeron answered a question Tuesday about which side of the ball has played better during LSU’s preseason scrimmages. He said the defense controlled the first game and the offense took the second game. Then he added:

“We're so much better on defense right now than any part of the season last year.”

Orgeron thought LSU didn’t play well on defense at times during its undefeated national championship run — the Tigers ranked 31st nationally in points allowed per game (21.9) and yards allowed per game (343.5) — so when defensive coordinator Dave Aranda left for Baylor, Orgeron looked for someone with a defensive philosophy similar to his own.

Orgeron hired Bo Pelini, who brought a 4-3 scheme. The strategy, Orgeron said, generates chaos through speed and aggression. It relies on blitzes. Defenders “attack” opposing teams, Orgeron has said, and he believes LSU now has a defense better equipped to use its players. In its first preseason scrimmage, LSU registered more sacks than half of last season.

“We’ve got every blitz known to man,” Orgeron said. “We’re playing base, but we’re coming. We’re bringing our linebackers. We’re bringing our corners. They’re going to have to account for everybody.”

LSU’s defense will look much different, both in scheme and personnel. The Tigers lost seven starters and four key rotational players from last year’s championship team, and now, defensive linemen Neil Farrell Jr. and Nelson Jenkins III have opted back into the season.

Though LSU hasn’t released its official depth chart for the season-opener next week against Mississippi State, here’s what the defense and special teams might look like, based on Orgeron’s comments during weekly press conferences. Find the offensive projections here.

Defensive end

  1. Andre Anthony and Travez Moore
  2. Ali Gaye, BJ Ojulari and Phillip Webb

Defensive ends shifted further outside in the new scheme, making them primary pass rushers. LSU needs production from the position, and it will rely on newcomers and inexperienced upperclassmen. The room lost depth when once-projected starters Justin Thomas and TK McLendon left the team.

Anthony, an outside linebacker in LSU’s old defense, changed positions during the offseason after appearing in nine games as a backup. Anthony will play on the right side opposite Moore, who has made four tackles in five games since he transferred from a junior college in 2018.

Moore lost 27 pounds this summer because of the novel coronavirus, but Orgeron said he has recovered and played well during preseason camp. Both seniors, they have to hold off Gaye, Ojulari and Webb to retain their spots.

Gaye, a 6-foot-6 and 262-pound junior with long arms, transferred from Garden City Community College. In his only season there, Gaye registered 44 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble as he became the No. 2 rated junior college defensive end in the country.

“Thank God we got Ali from junior college,” Orgeron said. 

Ojulari and Webb arrived as four-star prospects both considered top-100 recruits. Orgeron called the true freshmen “two of the best young pass rushers that I’ve ever been around.” He projected Ojulari, who had four or five sacks at one practice, as a future All-American. Ojulari has already carved out a role on third down.

“We got some young defensive ends that are going to play a lot,” Orgeron said. “They're going to have to play. We have to get better as the season goes on.”

Defensive tackle

  1. Siaki Ika and Glen Logan or Joseph Evans
  2. Jacobian Guillory, Neil Farrell Jr. and Jaquelin Roy

Ika became the starting nose tackle after junior Tyler Shelvin opted out. Orgeron said LSU heard “rumblings” Shelvin may return, but the coach hadn’t spoken to Shelvin as of Tuesday morning.

Without Shelvin, Ika could have a breakout season as a starter. Ika arrived this fall at 6-foot-4 and 340 pounds, and while he can easily fill space, LSU expects its defensive tackles to create more pressure this season. Ika played in 13 games as a true freshman, recording 17 tackles and 1½ tackles for loss.

The most proven option is Logan, a senior with 23 career starts. Evans, once a contender for playing time on the offensive side, returned to the defensive line — his position last season — after Shelvin’s decision. LSU moved Evans to add depth. Orgeron now considers him a starter alongside Ika and Logan. He described Evans as "a wrecking ball."

Regardless of who plays the first snap, LSU will use a rotation at defensive tackle. The true freshmen Guillory and Roy have impressed during preseason practice. Farrell, who’s return bolstered a thinning defensive line, has to work his way up the depth chart after missing five weeks. Farrell recorded three sacks and seven tackles for loss last year.

“The defensive line is solid,” Orgeron said. “Not great yet, but I think we can be.”

Linebacker

  1. Jabril Cox, Damone Clark and Micah Baskerville
  2. Josh White, Antoine Sampah and Devonta Lee

Unable to visit campuses because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Cox, a graduate transfer from North Dakota State, picked LSU without ever seeing the school. He has since become a starter who Orgeron called “one of the best players on our football team.”

A two-time FCS All-American, Cox had 258 tackles, 32 tackles for loss and 14 sacks at North Dakota State. He also intercepted six passes and scored two defensive touchdowns. Orgeron called Cox a “complete” linebacker, one who can diagnose offenses, shed blocks, rush the passer and drop into coverage.

“I think this guy is going to have an excellent year at LSU,” Orgeron said. “Obviously, he was overlooked in recruiting, but here's his shot.”

Clark started the first game last year before spending most of the 2019 season as a backup to three future NFL linebackers. At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Clark looks like a traditional middle linebacker, but he has the speed to play sideline-to-sideline. Clark finished sixth on the team last season with 50 tackles.

Baskerville has waited for his chance. He started one game his freshman year, but he became more of a special teams player as a sophomore, finishing with 15 tackles, four tackles for loss and a blocked punt. Orgeron believes the 4-3 defense helped Baskerville.

White, Sampah and Lee have shown potential, Orgeron said, but they’re still learning how to play linebacker at the college level. LSU’s starters will receive the majority of the snaps unless they suffer injuries.

“We have nice depth right there at linebacker,” Orgeron said. “We have some youth, but those first three we feel are excellent linebackers.”

Cornerback

  1. Derek Stingley Jr. and Cordale Flott
  2. Elias Ricks and Jay Ward or Darren Evans

LSU will play nickel “80-90%” of the time because of opposing spread offenses, Orgeron said, often bringing three defensive backs onto the field at once.

Stingley will occupy one spot. A consensus All-American as a true freshman who garnered preseason Heisman Trophy buzz this year, he returned as one of the best cornerbacks in the country.

LSU hasn’t settled on a starter at the other cornerback positions, but Flott solidified himself as an option early in preseason camp. He will start at either outside cornerback or nickel cornerback.

“Cordale has always been a guy we’ve depended on,” senior safety JaCoby Stevens said. “It’s nothing new for him. Now he’s the clear starter. We’re going to be expecting a lot from Cordale.”

Ricks, Ward and now Evans, a graduate transfer from Nicholls State who joined the team last week, will compete for the third cornerback position. Ward has played well during preseason practice, but Orgeron said he’ll miss “a week or two” with a minor injury. Ricks, a five-star recruit, signed with LSU as the No. 1 cornerback in the country.

“You will see a lot of Elias this year, as a starter, maybe not as a starter, but definitely in the rotation playing a lot,” Orgeron said. “We feel he will be an outstanding player for us.”

Safety

  1. JaCoby Stevens and Maurice Hampton Jr. or Todd Harris
  2. Jordan Toles and Cameron Lewis

Stevens, a senior, returned as an undoubted starter after his most productive season at LSU. Though the 4-3 scheme will use two high safeties, meaning Stevens won’t play as close to the line of scrimmage, LSU wants him around the football.

Next to Stevens, LSU considers Hampton and Harris co-starters. Hampton established himself at the position during preseason camp, and while Harris hasn’t reached full speed, he started before a knee injury early last season.

“He's not 100% healthy, but he's getting close,” Orgeron said Aug. 8. “We feel with JaCoby Stevens and the development of Mo Hampton that we have three guys that are starters there.”

LSU views Toles and Lewis as backups. A 6-foot, 218-pound freshman, Toles signed as the No. 5 safety recruit in the country. Orgeron described him as a “thumper.” Lewis, a senior, has played well during practice.

“I think we're really good at safety,” Orgeron said.

Kicker

  1. Cade York
  2. Avery Atkins

York needs to show more consistency after he finished 21 of 27 on field goal attempts and 89 of 93 on extra points as a true freshman, but he has a lead on the starting job over Atkins, a kickoff specialist.

“He’s got to have a good year,” Orgeron said of York. “He’s got some guys right behind him who are competing with him. It’s an open competition. Right now, he’s our starting kicker, but he has to prove it in preseason games.”

Punter

  1. Zach Von Rosenberg

Von Rosenberg took over punting duties full-time last season, and he has a career average of 44.0 yards per punt, fourth best on LSU’s all-time list. LSU doesn’t have another punter listed on the roster.

Long snapper

  1. Quentin Skinner, Fr.
  2. Max Peterson, Fr.

Skinner took over after waiting a year behind Blake Ferguson, who now snaps for the Miami Dolphins. The nation’s premier snapping service named Skinner the best long snapper in the country coming out of high school. Peterson provides depth.

Punt returner

  1. Derek Stingley Jr.
  2. Trey Palmer

Stingley was the primary punt returner last season, returning 17 punts for 163 yards, and he’ll handle the duty again. LSU hopes to open more lanes for Stingley after he appeared close to scoring a few touchdowns on punt returns in 2019. Palmer received three returns last year.

Kick returner

  1. John Emery
  2. Derek Stingley Jr.
  3. Kayshon Boutte

Emery didn’t return kicks in 2019, but he has taken over the role since the departure of Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Orgeron described Emery, who will also see playing time at running back, as “explosive.”

“We want to be more explosive on special teams,” Orgeron said. “With guys like Derek Stingley and John Emery and Trey Palmer, we should have some home run hitters and make stuff happen.”


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Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com