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LSU linebackers coach Blake Baker, left, provides instruction to LSU linebacker Mike Jones Jr. (18), LSU linebacker Greg Penn III (30), LSU linebacker Jared Small (58) and LSU linebacker Josh White (10) in a drill Friday, August 6, 2021, on the Tigers' first day of fall practice on LSU's campus in Baton Rouge, La.

First it was Damone Clark. Then Jared Small.

Earlier this week, these two linebackers with completely different career paths expressed similar sentiments about how much the connections — and as a result, communication — have improved between LSU’s players and coaches.

They first recognized the change during spring practice. With LSU allowed to lift some coronavirus restrictions, Clark and Small often sat down alongside the assistants. The meetings deepened their understanding of the new defensive scheme as they learned from coordinator Daronte Jones and linebackers coach Blake Baker.

Small, a former walk-on, developed a connection with the new staff that he said helped him “branch out,” and he got a chance to play more. Clark, still wearing No. 18 but coming off a rocky season, felt renewed confidence as he watched film with the coaches.

"Last year with COVID going on, we had restrictions and stuff," Clark said. "I'm pretty sure I can speak for everyone. It feels way better. You can ask questions. You sit down in person rather than being on Zoom."

Of course, Clark spoke over Zoom to a group of reporters scattered across Louisiana behind their own computer screens. As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to increase in the state, LSU has conducted virtual interviews during preseason practice in an attempt to prevent exposure.

But inside the football operations building, where all but two players were fully vaccinated as of last week, the team can relax many pandemic protocols, according to Southeastern Conference guidelines.

Players and coaches must still wear masks inside because of Gov. John Bel Edwards’ recent mandate, but they can meet, eat and train together again, leading to deeper bonds and increased communication.

“That’s what we lacked,” sixth-year senior defensive end Andre Anthony said. “Last year, everybody was on different pages. Now, I feel we're definitely on the same page. Communication is definitely there. That's why a lot of situations happened, was lack of communication.”

That word — communication — plagued LSU throughout the 2020 season, particularly on the defensive side. As the Tigers tried to replace eight starters, the pandemic hit, forcing new coordinator Bo Pelini to install his scheme over video conferences.

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It never took hold. Linebackers played on their heels. Defensive backs missed assignments. The Tigers finished with the worst pass defense in the country. Pelini lasted one season.

Coach Ed Orgeron tried to fix the problems during the offseason, in part by hiring six new assistant coaches. He believed Jones, who has a background coaching defensive backs, addressed the schematic issues by implementing a simpler defense that will use more zone coverage.

The new coaches also lowered the average age of LSU’s staff by 20 years. Since the beginning of preseason practice, players have often publicly discussed how comfortable they feel talking to the coaches about anything, from schemes to topics unrelated to football. Anthony compared them to "brothers."

“They make you feel like you're at home,” Small said. “Whenever you have a coach that feels more like a friend, but you know that it's your coach, you're able to get the best out of yourself and everyone around you.”

And they can do all of that without as many restrictions.

For so long, the coronavirus pandemic isolated players from one another and from their coaches, making it difficult to build meaningful connections. This summer, the players came to the football operations building for individual workouts on Saturday mornings and helped coach LSU’s youth football camp. The defensive backs watched movies and played basketball. Even running up and down the stadium steps helped because the players could train together for a common goal.

How much LSU improves remains to be seen. The team still has another two-and-a-half weeks of preseason camp before it turns to game prep, and feeling connected won’t fix all the issues that affected the team last season.

But the players think those bonds have already helped. They see how as they call out formations on the practice fields and trust their teammates to make plays. They feel confident, a byproduct of their communication, and believe that feeling will continue to grow.

“We've got some of the best players in the country,” Clark said. “As long as we're all on the same page, we'll be unstoppable.”

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com

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