Substantial position changes have happened within an LSU defense that will look substantially different when spring football practice begins Saturday.
The Tigers are switching to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, and a lack of depth at linebacker required LSU coach Ed Orgeron and his staff to convert safety Marcel Brooks and wide receiver Devonta Lee to the position.
Starting center was going to be one of the major position battles once LSU's spring football practices began Saturday, and Tigers coach Ed Org…
LSU lost all four of its consistent starting linebackers — K'Lavon Chaisson, Michael Divinity, Jacob Phillips and Patrick Queen — to the NFL draft, and both Brooks and Lee were natural fits since they both were star defenders in high school.
Brooks, a 6-foot-2, 194-pound sophomore, is a former five-star recruit who played outside linebacker, safety and wide receiver at Marcus High. Orgeron initially thought he'd be a Grant Delpit-type of safety for LSU, but Brooks mostly found time on the field in 2019 as a pass-rusher in former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's blitz packages.
Brooks recorded eight tackles, 1½ tackles for loss and 1½ sacks last season.
Orgeron said the move was inevitable, although Brooks is a "little undersized" at "about 205 pounds." Orgeron would like Brooks to reach 215 pounds.
"We didn't have any linebackers," Orgeron said in a news conference Wednesday. "We had no choice but to put (Brooks) at linebacker and he's done phenomenal. As we all know, he's very fast and once he catches onto the scheme, I think he's going to be an excellent linebacker."
Lee was also a two-way player at Amite High, where the former four-star helped lead the Warriors to a Class 2A state championship in 2018 while recording 55 tackles and seven interceptions that season.
Orgeron and his staff attended the 2018 state championship game against Welsh High in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, and he said "Devonta Lee was the best player on defense on that field."
Even though Lee started out as a wide receiver with the Tigers, Orgeron said his staff always saw him contributing more on defense, a "JaCoby Stevens type of guy" who could be a versatile weapon, much like Stevens, a returning senior safety, has been throughout his career.
Plus, wide receiver is a position still crowded with elite talent like reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase, and in 13 games, Lee only caught two passes for 27 yards in 2019.
"(Lee) wanted to move to defense," Orgeron said. "He talked to me about it, so we moved him."
Brooks and Lee join a thin linebacker corps that includes returning contributors Damone Clark and Micah Baskerville.
The unit diminished after the indefinite suspension of Donte Starks, who was arrested in February on counts of illegally possessing a concealed handgun and attempting to run away from law enforcement. In October, freshman Kendall McCallum entered the NCAA transfer portal. Former linebacker Tyler Taylor, who started in five games as a true freshman in 2017, left the team himself after he was arrested in 2018 for serving as the getaway driver in a Georgia burglary.
The compounded losses, paired with the NFL departures, left Clark and Baskerville as the only two returning scholarship inside linebackers on LSU's roster.
Former outside linebacker Ray Thornton has also moved inside, Orgeron said. The 6-foot-3, 227-pound senior played in 14 games in 2019 and recorded nine tackles.
Continuing our projection of the LSU Tigers' two-deep for the 2020 season, we move to defense.
The moves are the first major position changes of the offseason for LSU, which is coming off its fourth national championship in school history.
Orgeron announced minor moves: Glen Logan and Neil Farrell, defensive ends in Aranda's 3-4, have moved inside to defensive tackle — a move that is a more physical fit for the two 6-foot-4 players who each hover around 300 pounds.
The two defensive ends in Pelini's 4-3 scheme need to be nimbler, quicker, like junior college transfer TK McLendon, a 6-foot-5, 263-pound former tight end who enters the spring as LSU's starting left end.
Justin Thomas, whom Orgeron said "is about 300 pounds," needs to cut down to about 285 pounds until he's at a playing weight Orgeron would be satisfied for the position.
Orgeron spoke comfortably and confidently about these defensive moves.
This is the defense he's familiar with, the front he used as he became one of the nation's most respected defensive line coaches at Miami and Southern Cal.
Just as Orgeron said last year that offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and former passing game coordinator Joe Brady created the spread offense he always envisioned at LSU, these defensive changes seem to be creating the defense he's always envisioned.
Each year, Orgeron has preached the need for more sacks, more tackles for loss, more fumbles, more havoc in opposing backfields.
Nearly every time Orgeron was asked to define what the new LSU defense would look like, he seemed to always use the word "attacking."
Pelini and Orgeron both share Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll as a mentor, a coach who passed on similar defensive philosophies.
Pelini was a defensive backs and linebackers coach under Carroll with the San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots in the 1990s. It's where Pelini adopted the use of two-high safeties, or what's typically called "Cover 2," where two defensive backs essentially split the field in halves and cover their portion of the field.
Expect to see that look more "than you ever did here," Orgeron said, but it's a defensive philosophy that will require LSU to defend the opponent's run game with its defensive linemen.
Think more Auburn's defensive line last season, how Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson dominated on a rush defense that ranked 25th in the country.
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele ran a similar scheme when he coached LSU's defense in 2015. So did Pelini, during his first stint in Baton Rouge in the late 2000s.
Defensive line is LSU's strength. It's perhaps the deepest portion of the team's roster with returning nose tackles like Tyler Shelvin and Siaki "Apu" Ika, plus incoming four-star tackles Jacobian Guillory, Jaquelin Roy and Eric Taylor, who are expected to push for playing time.
It's so much depth, Pelini can get plenty creative. It won't be "straight Miami," Orgeron said, where the defense will line up a whopping nose tackle over one guard, a nimbler tackle over another, and two tight ends on either side of the tackles for the whole game.
Expect flexible defensive packages, some that could even put Shelvin and Ika — who both hover around 350 pounds — side-by-side as defensive tackles at the same time.
"I do believe this is one of the most talented defenses we've had since we've been there," Orgeron said. "There's a lot of speed out there, a lot of new faces. But I do believe that this 4-3, attacking defense fits our personnel as good as we've ever been."