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by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
LSU's 2021 linebackers enjoyed a mid to late season resurgence, veterans Damone Clark and Micah Baskerville becoming tackling machines & playmaking fiends, while former Clemson transfer Mike Jones Jr finally started receiving playing time & flashed remarkable versatility........then, once the regular season ended, Clark opted out of the Texas Bowl to prepare for his NFL Draft odyssey, Micah Baskerville was ineligible due to academics, and suddenly their absence exposed LSU's bone thin linebacking room heading into 2022.
"All hands on deck" during January's Texas Bowl meant we witnessed freshmen Greg Penn III and Zavier Carter racking up their first significant snap load (only 3 scholarship LBs on roster during the game)...
So, when Brian Kelly assumed control of LSU's football program, the Irish Tiger attacked our glaring LB problem with stunning haste, clever creativity & earnest effectiveness.
Bringing in transfer targets West Weeks & Kolbe Fields, a pair of high octane linebackers with plenty of eligibility remaining, Kelly also made sure he persuaded 2019 veteran Micah Baskerville to return for one final year, before finishing off a promising "LB-room coup" by securing 5 star powerhouse LB Harold Perkins from 2022's freshman class.
Now, as Defensive Coordinator & LBs Coach Matt House mobilizes his group for Spring ball, his resume decorated with NFL pedigree, strong development, and a Super Bowl title, LSU's linebackers unit appear in far more solid shape than anyone could've foreseen just 2 1/2 months ago....
Now in his third year at LSU carrying some rare snaps on defense, Antoine Sampah has been snake-bitten by a knee injury stemming from his senior year at Woodbridge High; since 2020, momentum is hard to find for the Virginia native.
Under a new position coach, Sampah's tackle-crazed, ball carrier-hunting instincts from his heralded high school days can be developed; if the young man can stay on the field, we will finally see his best football. A transfer elsewhere could be possible if he can't find the field; Antoine needs to play.
Also on the cusp of his third year at LSU, Josh White made solid plays on special teams throughout 2020, appearing in 10 games with 6 tackles, all before a fractured forearm kept him out for almost all of 2021.
White possesses versatile attributes, doing it all at Cy Creek High....stripping the ball, catching interceptions, blocking punts or kicks, sacking quarterbacks, racking up 332 tackles over his three varsity years. Viewed as a smart future project, Josh is an intelligent footballer....but will Matt House agree with our evaluation or the analysis of LSU's former regime?
Jared Small's 2021 off-season rise began to write its own special story, from senior walk-on to scholarship Tiger.
Among my sources last spring, Jared's name started to circulate as a Tiger to watch; then, during a powerful Spring Game performance, Small made a claim for a starting spot when he packed on 15 tackles, caught an interception & stood out as LSU's best overall linebacker on the day.
....my my my how quickly things can change....
Only days before LSU kicked off 2021 against UCLA, Small tore his ACL during a run through at NRG Stadium, the team's adopted practice field in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
Small was devastated, but so were his teammates....his coaches.......they watched him climb all the way up from a walk-on to a scholarship linebacker, nearly reaching the summit....only to fall back to square one...now carrying a major injury.
We could be talking about Jared's potential Draft stock.....instead, following an off-season on crutches or dealing with physical therapy & intense rehabilitation, Small is back to full fitness, 100% and ready to do it all over again as an LSU Tiger next Tuesday.....
Still.....I have one realistic, maddening question:
How much will his ACL injury slow down his explosion between the tackles or off the edge???????
Now, on to LSU's duo of transfer arrivals: Virginia transfer West Weeks & South Carolina want-away defender Kolbe Fields.
Oconee High's former bristling talent was fantastic throughout his freshman year at Virginia, assembling 31 tackles (including an 8 tackle game), 5 pass breakups, 1 sack vs Virginia Tech, 1 fumble recovery vs Illinois, and 1 TFL during a strong debut, curtailed by a broken leg in Virginia's final game of 2021.
Discovered by VU's now former Head Coach Bronco Mendenhall, Weeks drew a profile likeness to a raw version of Mendenhall's Hall of Fame pupil: Brian Urlacher....a do-it-all, do-anything LB capable of stuffing running backs, providing solid passing game coverage, disrupting backfields or sacking quarterbacks....Weeks is a one stop shop of all encompassing defensive prowess.
Weeks played 6 different positions during his time at Oconee High, taking snaps at quarterback before Max Johnson's two year run, then switching to WR, helping out at safety, running back, even returning kicks or punts (Weeks caught 2 TDs and rushed for another pair as a senior).
Sure, maybe Weeks doesn't start his first year at LSU.....he doesn't have to play a lead role in order for me to feel he could be a dynamic contributor:
Weeks' 5 PBUs during 2021's limited freshman reps equals LSU's team-leading total, achieved by Arkansas transfer Dwight McGlothern, the only Tiger to reach at least 4 PBUs last season.
Right now, the field is wide open at linebacker and Weeks' involvement will make the room far more competitive & energetic.
Kolbe Fields is a playmaker around or off the ball, influencing play at the high school level with impressive showmanship.
A native son of New Orleans & former Rummel High Raider teammate of Ja'marr Chase and current Tiger Quinton "Pig" Cage, Fields could become a force to be reckoned with at LSU, but will he need time to adjust at a new program, led by a less familiar staff?
Because of his straight up cinematic skill set, Kolbe may just be at the top of Matt House's depth chart, or at least a lead supporting role within his rotation....though after just one year of experience at South Carolina, featuring on special teams mostly, I know patience will pay off concerning LSU's new transfer.
Let's reverse back to early 2021 when former Head Coach Ed Orgeron pulled off a fine piece of transfer business, securing Mike Jones Jr from Clemson (a slice of news this author & site broke).
Jones Jr was a highly anticipated transfer, penciled in as an immediate starter for Blake Baker's linebackers crew by many analysts, sportswriters and talking heads, however he was left waiting on the sidelines for nearly half of the season....why???
It was mystifying to many Tiger fans, then, once former Defensive Coordinator Daronte Jones regained control of his defense from Orgeron, Mike's early season benching became even more infuriating:
Once the 2018 National Champion began receiving repeated reps, beginning with his 6 tackles in rotation vs Mississippi State, Jones Jr produced mightily for LSU's strong 2021 finish.
While playing only the backend of his debut LSU campaign, Mike Jones Jr still recorded 34 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1 sack and another PBU, also adding 8 pressures & 3 QB hits.
Entering 2022 with an ambitious hunger, a year of experience culminating in his pivotal starting role vs Kansas State, & a habit of making the biggest plays on the biggest stages (his sack on Young & plays vs Alabama, A&M, his red zone INT vs Justin Fields during 2020's CFP Semifinal) Jones Jr should start for LSU's 2022 defense.
Another expected starter is 6th year senior Micah Baskerville, a madman ball-carrier turbine over his past 2 seasons specifically, accumulating 138 tackles, 13.5 TFL, 2 sacks and an INT (83 stops, 9 TFLs, 2 sacks and his first career pick stemming from last year).
Only one major question mark arises for Baskerville: can he stay academically eligible?
I believe LSU's 2019 veteran can and will amid Brian Kelly's new environment. Evidently, Micah gave up a shot at the NFL Draft in order to play one more season in Death Valley.....he knows how to recognize a winning model.
Now, moving on to some of Matt House's younger Tigers:
Second year Tiger Greg Penn III is another debutant starter from our bowl game loss to Kansas State, starting by necessity and diving head first into the deep end.
Sure, he whiffed on a few tackles, picked wrong gaps at times, but after breathlessly competing his ass off for the Tigers during a total "backs against the wall" scenario, win or lose, Houston was a great experience for Penn (recording 7 tackles, 4 as a solo artist).
2022 may be a season where Penn III is either an odd man out in the pecking order or he'll spend a season learning through rotational snaps, developing behind more game-ready linebackers (Baskerville, Jones Jr, Small). The Maryland-native might also just usurp one of our penciled-in starters, instigating a bloodbath of competition during Spring & Summer camps.
Penn III is an enigma....
Equally fascinating, LSU's pair of freshmen linebackers:
Out of Orlando-area high school Dr Phillips, Blake Baker's only commitment during his 10 month LSU stint arrived when DeMario Tolan signed on emphatically.
Tolan is already beloved by die hard fans, many admiring his hunger to play for LSU, a desire which only increased while Scott Woodward searched for a new Head Coach.
Rated as a 4 star, DeMario was a highly coveted gem among the 2022 class, underrated, overlooked, but he commands real attention....laying on vicious hits, playing football with reckless abandon, he is at an early, raw stage of development, yet the future is very bright.
Harold Perkins is an elite level playmaker, a natural born athletic machine, yet I believe it may take a bit of time for House to deploy the raw New Orleans-native, mostly due to the kind of special project Perkins is at LSU.
Harold could no doubt become a future great, with his abilities, you could argue he should be a potential 1st Round pick; due to these factors, the Tigers will likely take their time developing Perkins....learning on the run as his ultimate athleticism will afford his development that extra advantage.
Compiling 7 sacks, 6 pressures, 2 strip-sacks from 3 forced fumbles, and 23.5 TFL across 20 games for Cy Park, not only does Harold work beautifully off the outside hips of edge rushers, there's even that one time he ghosted through blockers into the backfield and literally took the ball from an opposing quarterback, rambling down the field 50 yards for a touchdown....yes, that's right....he stole the damn ball.
For the record, I will say this: as long as Harold is on the field, he's good enough to make anything happen.....even as a freshman.
Tolan and Perkins should both receive opportunities to play early in their Tiger careers, but I will say........don't worry if their moment doesn't arrive in 2022....they have plenty of time.
At first, LSU's 2022 linebackers made you worried in January....big time....we were so thin....but thanks to Brian Kelly, JR Belton, Frank Wilson, and Brian Polian, by March we are now wondering which super-talent may transfer because he can't find a snap....
There is depth, there is untapped talent, there is uncertainty, but.....the one common denominator I detect from every LB inside Matt House's group?
SPRING LBs DEPTH CHART
MIKE JONES JR
GREG PENN III
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
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