by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Now we continue with the LSU defense, led by first year coordinator Daronte Jones, a former protégé of Mike Zimmer in Cincinnati, before following the DB specialist head coach to the Minnesota Vikings; This will be his first coordinator gig since his time at Maryland's Bowie State, back in 2005.
His first division I coordinator job, his first time in the SEC....can Daronte Jones erase the horrors from Bo Pelini's 4th to last "defensive" disgrace?
2020's squad played the worst defensive football in LSU history, all while boasting future NFL players across their entire roster.
While almost all of the same players return from 2020, surviving the humiliation and vulnerability of Pelini's historically horrendous defensive setup, this unit appear rejuvenated and energized, fully repping a near 180 turnaround vibe:
Shutting down or at least hampering LSU's skill position threats during nearly every scrimmage, Daronte Jones' defense are announcing themselves as a swaggering, violent group of hard-charging street fighters ready for their revenge....
Will we see defensive justice committed this year?
Yes....I am buying in.
Daronte Jones isn't afraid to make adjustments, he is orchestrating LSU's defensive staff in the best way possible, utilizing the greatest attributes of DBU impresario Corey Raymond, LBs Coach Blake Baker, DL sergeant Andre Carter to improve their players.
No one on that defensive set up looks afraid of their destiny....
There doesn't seem to be much in the way of hesitation or anymore fear of making mistakes....
While this unit is aggressive in its 4-2-5 base (sometimes eschewing a true nickel for a 3 safety look, or shifting to a typical 4-3-2-2 formation depending on the opponent), the defense's true power will lie in how much they can restrain themselves, play smart, take far better angles than last year, actually communicate pre-snap, and avoiding a circus-like confusion across the board.
Every Tigers defender has indicated that Daronte Jones "can relate to them" and has "made them into better players", repeating those slogans ad nauseum....and while these Tigers may feel 100% confident in those beliefs, appearing far more comfortable around Jones than Pelini, we still need to see all of this progress come together on the gridiron, starting on Saturday, September 4th at the Rose Bowl.
Let's dissect this defense, baby:
Andre Carter's unit are America's premier defensive line, battling Clemson or Ohio State for the #1 spot and looking like they could end up as winners:
The depth is outrageous, top to bottom, not to mention there are names on this list who grabbed sacks in National Championship Games (Glen Logan), 3 guys who've collected multiple sacks in a single game (Ojulari, Anthony and Roy), our last two leading DL sack artists return (Anthony and Farrell Jr), plus there exists a litany of primal athletes alongside the interior and edge....more than enough powerhouse pass-rushing, QB-disrupting, ball carrier-busting pack of whoop ass.
STRONG SIDE DE
WEAK SIDE DE
Our defensive end room contains surgical destroyers of pass-rushing pilgrimage, led of course by twin powers Andre Anthony and Ali Gaye, two DEs who wouldn't shock me if they grabbed 6+ sacks a piece, as well as All-American honors....but both may be a stretch: however, at least one of the duo will be a household name by December, especially in the homes of NFL scouts looking for pure aggression or a special physical profile off the edge.
My bet is on Gaye making the bigger plays, while Anthony grabs the most sacks between the pair.
Make no mistake, unless injuries befall these two close friends, Gaye and Anthony will be starting week 1.
But the pair should have a hell of a time keeping B.J Ojulari off the field....
4.5 sacks as a freshman, 3 stemming from the Georgia-native's bludgeoning display against South Carolina, Ojulari is only getting bigger, faster, smarter and stronger. You don't need to see his latest size to understand how singular of an athlete he is, even within LSU's roster.
The most dominant athlete on Andre Carter's defensive line, it's bizarre that Ojulari is kept from the starting lineup; however, it will also fuel him, ensuring he always delivers his best reps every time he takes the field.
My only question about B.J Ojulari?
How many sacks? We predicted his 2021 season here.
Behind those guys are two surprising names I'll place at the 2nd & 3rd string slots:
I believe (former LB) Zavier Carter's length and current production will catapult him slightly ahead of Soni Fonua for the strong side back-up role, leading to incredible competition and thus....each player improving.
As for Fonua, I could see him making a few huge plays, a forced fumble against a top opponent, a colossal tackle for loss on 3rd and 4, a batted pass....I have a significant feeling, whether he's playing a bit part role or if he were to take on Gaye's spot due to injury or Covid absence, I just have this vibe about Fonua.....he's going to get his hands in the cookie jar and steal a few for himself.
Phillip Webb is one of this DL's most unbridled enigmas...
We never watched him play as a freshman:
On the other hand, he possesses the same type of versatility, singular physical presence, and otherworldly athleticism of fellow Georgian B.J Ojulari.
Webb reminds me of Ojulari, but with a different skill set:
For an edge-attacking, line of scrimmage master like Webb, it's very strange when you watch #39 drop into coverage with precision and panache, able to use his long arms and instincts to bash away passes....even as his back is turned to the ball, a true rarity for most defenders over 235 pounds.
At 6'4 241, Webb is still climbing in weight, aiming for an even 250....but I know he could be a true kingslayer in 2021; Despite a few injuries last year, Webb is ready to turn the page on a lost red shirt season, watching from the sidelines throughout the stat-less duration.
I know Andre Carter, Coach O and Daronte Jones will have cooked up some great surprises with #39 in mind, waiting for Tiger fans to geaux completely nuts....
If you ever wanted to see how good Marcel Brooks could've become....don't worry, Phillip Webb resurrects the premature ending to that story: the biography of a live wire, fire starting pass rusher at LSU with only one mission in mind: attack.
Although freshman Landon Jackson and junior Jarell Cherry are both fighting off injuries, their cautious recoveries have gone smoothly thus far:
Landon's recovery plan has been followed to the letter since his arrival on campus in January, and I don't expect any deviation from Jack Marucci & the training staff's intentions.
That may mean Tiger fans won't see Jackson wearing purple & gold on the field this year, that could indicate Landon might only receive rare reps, potentially just in garbage time at the end of blowouts.
However....Landon is a long-term project for a reason:
He sports the most unreal combination of length and thickness on the D-line, even as a freshman!!!
The Texarkana specimen is frankly a sight to behold.
As for Jarell Cherry, the fringe member of LSU's 2019 team is still carrying bricks in his backpack to each class, adding to the 50 pounds of weight he's put on since joining the Tigers back in 2018. Only appearing in 6 games throughout his past 3 seasons as a Tiger, Cherry enters his fourth year in a "money year" scenario:
With just 1 tackle to his name coming on Halloween vs Auburn last year, Cherry will be hoping he can get rid of these nagging injuries in order to play a big part on Andre Carter's D-Line.
Could the Dallas, Texas native's versatility get him on the field?
Since #55 does have the physique and football IQ to switch from DE to DT, he remains an option for both defensive line positions....potentially sending him ahead of a few other names in the pecking order.
Much like Jarell Cherry, Desmond Little is another 2019 title-winning returner (his debut redshirt campaign), but he's a player who hasn't been able to find a consistent home, whether as an OLB within Dave Aranda's 3-4 setup or as a DE along Pelini's 4-3 "self-sabotage" front...
Comments about Little have been few and far between......maybe I've heard Orgeron throw his name in there? I'm not sure...
One of the most under the radar players on LSU's entire roster, Desmond Little is actually no slouch, especially in the measurable department: standing 6'5 and thick enough at 231, Little's speed is what catches my eye:
If harnessed in the correct manner, Desmond could be a mismatch on damn near every play, but the fact remains: he lacks the aggression and drive to beat NFL-grade tackles.
If he can put it all together at once, plus LSU receive a few injuries at defensive end, then perhaps Little is called upon.
But when you look at these two freshmen, the other fringe names seem to melt away:
Louisianimal Saivion Jones & Florida-native Bryce Langston.
"Hey guys, look! Arden Key's long lost twin is standing over there wearing #35! Oh wait, no that's just Saivion Jones!"
Packing on nearly 45 pounds since his arrival in June, Jones is making a tyrannical transformation, turning his body from QB predator into QB cannibal.
The safe bet would be placed on Jones receiving less reps and being more of a second year breakout star; Regardless, I believe Saivion will foster 2.5 sacks & a created turnover as a freshman, earning 10-15 snaps a game at first, before ending the season with at least 20.
As for Bryce Langston, the former Vanguard High superfreak is already a dual threat on the interior or edge at 6'3 and 282. In fact, placing him as a defensive end purely is a little naive....I really think Langston is a player who will find a home at DT as his career goes on.
Amassing 94 total tackles, 24 TFLs, and 5.5 sacks from DE & DT, it's obvious Langston's best attributes aren't purely rushing the passer...he's a more aggressive influencer along the lines of Kyle Williams or Tyler Shelvin....Bryce is not really some blitzkrieg-bopping DE such as K'Lavon Chaisson, flying off the edge like a supernova.
He's the big, demolition anchor coming right for your jaw.
Neil Farrell Jr
Glen Logan (out w/ broken foot bone)
Alongside WR, LSU's defensive tackle spot is Coach Ed Orgeron's deepest room in the building, harboring a litany of multi-faceted talents.....but who are the dual ring leaders?
Ask 100 LSU Tigers fans, hear 95 different answers.....
Joe Evans and Jaquelin Roy must start...it's unavoidable.
Our interior DT pairings must consist of one Tiger who has a veteran presence, capable of making unselfish / influential decisions, then the second should always be one of LSU's many assorted young destroyers.....
From the list above, Joe Evans and Jaquelin Roy fit the bill better than any other pairing available to us.....and I'll tell ya'll why:
One of the worst things you can do as a DL Coach is not exploiting mismatches at all times...which is why we should never see a pairing of Neil Farrell Jr and Glen Logan.
We have many top DL, every profile at our fingertips, so why would we ever use two slower veterans or even a tandem of inexperienced freshmen?
The second string tandem, basically 1B, would consist of veteran Neil Farrell Jr (highlighted for his greatest season yet by Coach Ed Orgeron, among others) and young buck Maason Smith, each complimenting the other precisely.
Inserting two defensive tackles with the same strengths and weaknesses isn't a game plan for success: you want complimentary forces playing off each other.
I feel Jaquelin Roy is LSU's top Tiger, ripping Kyle Trask to the ground for 2 sacks in a high profile, high octane showcase of his all-encompassing abilities....as a freshman.
But what stood out most when judging Roy's early progress???
He improved big time over the off-season, appearing quicker off the line, more aggressive with first contact, and showing off relentless pressure. For example, during the spring game, Jaquelin Roy grabbed 3 touch sacks from 7 total pressures!
Whether he holds the #1 DT role or not, I think he's the best on our roster; Regardless of the few youthful deficiencies in his game, Roy is a mercenary of majestic disruption and destruction.
Coach Orgeron's favorite man on earth, "Mean" Joe Evans, is pegged by LSU Odyssey to be the veteran leader of this unit, alongside Neil Farrell Jr. Check out our predictions for Joe here.
Farrell Jr is quite the story:
The leading DL sacker on LSU's 2019 championship squad, Neil was listed among the frontrunners for a huge 2020...then, he found himself leaving the team during late off-season preparations to be by his Covid-stricken grandmother's bedside, only to return and play a marginally influential role during the Miss St, Ole Miss & Alabama contests.
Finishing with 2 PDs (nearly an interception vs Miss St), one brilliant sack vs Matt Corral (a moment where Farrell fell down, got back up and made up about 30 yards of ground to finally bury the Rebels' quarterback), and 3 outings of 4+ tackles, Farrell Jr tried to lead during a "leaderless" campaign.
However, I see his 2021 geauxing a far different path....one of increased production, attention and plaudits as the super senior finishes off his illustrious LSU career on a high.
Neil's ideal partner would be Maason Smith, one of the freakiest athletes playing defensive line I've ever seen. We projected and predicted Smith's highly anticipated debut campaign, and I'm sure he'll not only live up to the hype....he'll most likely supersede expectations, but only if injuries and opportunities allow.
As freshmen DTs arriving in 2020, Jacobian "Cobe" Guillory was supposed to lineup next to close friend Jaquelin Roy and wreak havoc from first snap to last...although Andre Carter's potential "Bash Brothers" unit may enjoy a rebirth now in 2021.
Guillory seems to be one of LSU's stronger interior lineman, dragging a monster truck tire like it was a glazed doughnut, impressing Tommy Moffitt throughout the conditioning process.
After a frustrating freshman year, filled with ankle injuries and only a couple opportunities, Guillory will be aiming for 2021 to be his "take no prisoners" judgement day.
I think Guillory won't pull off the numbers he's hoping for, but I think his influence and savagery will be an increasingly valuable piece of the LSU defensive line.
Often paired with Neil Farrell Jr, due to their age, friendship and shared positions, Glen "The Joker" Logan is starting off his last chance saloon at LSU "on the wrong foot", pun very much intended sadly.
Entering fall camp, Logan aggravated a previous foot problem that had hampered his spring practices, initially requiring a protective boot. Now, it looks like we won't be seeing #97 until early October at the earliest.
Despite a lot of praise, his high profile name being more widely included in media reports than some other key LSU DL, Logan actually hasn't produced "the ultimate" over his LSU career.
Through 20 appearances over four seasons, Logan has 99 total tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 6 sacks and 3 batted passes; in fact, the reason he's so talked about amongst LSU's fanbase is due to his three wondrous 2019 postseason performances:
First, he hunted Georgia's Jake Fromm like a rabbit thrown into a Tiger cage, registering 3 pressures and 2 QB hits (though no official statistics); secondly, against Oklahoma, "The Joker" repeatedly tore up current Eagles' QB Jalen Hurts; and finally, vs Clemson inside New Orleans' Superdome, Glen roasted Trevor Lawrence alongside Tiger Legend Grant Delpit.
Mike Jones Jr
Greg Penn III
My my my....
LSU's linebackers were easily the Tigers' most out of shape, out of place and out of their depth instigator of 2020's defensive debacle.
Sure, that awful Tampa 2 high safety look was so easy for opponents to rip apart, yet the lethargic, lazy and lackadaisical play from veterans like Damone Clark or last year's transfer Jabril Cox became our true undoing.
Every drive, every series (until the Arkansas game), Damone Clark stood on the field and sadly failed, continuously sent out there to be eaten alive by faster players......
These offensive coordinators didn't even need to outsmart Bo Pelini or his hapless "defensive coordination".......all they had to do was wait two seconds for the LSU linebackers to shit their pants and lose the plot.
"I saw guys who were afraid to make mistakes out there," newly appointed LBs Coach Blake Baker has said on the record at the Coaches Caravan.
Now, he's dead set on finding the right mix of personnel to kill off any of 2020's footballing madness; accordingly, when looking at the above list, you can see some juicy candidates:
Our first is Micah Baskerville, the most in-form linebacker on roster right now, picking off two passes in the last two weeks (returning one for a touchdown), as well as flying all over the field, pulling off acute angle sideline to sideline stops.
We forecasted his statistical output and performance levels for this season here.
Can Damone Clark, LSU's #18, rebound in 2021???
We analyzed his spring game struggles (though he wasn't playing the position he will occupy during the season); LSU Odyssey also predicted his junior year in an article you may have missed, right here.
Regardless of his struggles, Damone possesses one of the most striking physical visages on roster, he is the definition of a leader, even at his young age he's a community pillar (#18 has selflessly volunteered with youth football camps during the summer) and because of all these high character, high quality ingredients, coupled alongside his Devin White discipleship or excellent 2019 season (49 tackles and 3.5 sacks from the bench), it will be hard for Blake Baker to keep #18 from the field.
Clemson transfer Mike Jones Jr is tapped for greatness at LSU, but before he grabs the SEC by the face and tears away at the skin, he must first figure out if he will be a MIC linebacker or an outside linebacker.
Coach Ed Orgeron said "we're giving him the chance to be a middle linebacker in the SEC", which is great, but that's not necessarily where Jones Jr's strengths lie.
He's an outside guy, adept at making breathtaking plays on the edges....moving from the nickel to the center in order to stuff a run isn't tough for Mike; expecting him to fly around from the center to either flank??????
Now that's tricky.
LSU are moving away from the original reason for bringing Jones Jr to Baton Rouge: allowing the former Clemson champion to play the game of football, untethered....no one ahead of him on the ladder rungs....so......why would you put him at MIC?
For me, Baskerville is our middle LB.
Jones Jr must switch positions before we can accurately project or predict anything, but guessing away, I'll log him down for 41 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1 sack and 1 interception.
If used appropriately, Jones Jr could be the most dynamic LB among Blake Baker's unit.
Former walk-on Jared Small earned his scholarship last fall, given to him personally by Coach Ed Orgeron; after 3 years of paying for school, all while barely receiving anything more than special teams reps, the former Catholic High prospect stood on the sidelines for 99% of the 2018, 2019 and 2020 seasons.
Jared was always a hard worker, he consistently pushed himself to the utmost of his abilities.....but pre-2021, he was frequently left frustrated...disappointed...sometimes even lost.
Then, this past Spring....something changed.
He was at the facility before everyone else, listening to his music and working out like a man on a mission, catching the coaching staff's attention....especially new linebackers coach Blake Baker, a man who's arrival would change everything for Small.
Loving Small's vibe and underdog mentality, Baker gave Jared as many reps as he could handle during a spring situational practice, watching on as #58 repeatedly blasted the offense with pyrotechnic hits and smart, fundamentally strong tackling.
Small was exactly what LSU needed...the fundamentals......and he showed out not long after, ripping 14 tackles, deflecting passes, and hauling in an interception from QB Garrett Nussmeier, Jared grabbed redemption.....but he's not playing to be the defensive MVP of a spring game....he's giving everything he has to be the defensive MVP of a title game.
Expect Jared to play a lot in 2021 (even whilst sharing reps), picking up 50+ tackles, sacking two different quarterbacks, and punching out a pair of forced fumbles.
After Jared, we have a duo of second year linebackers Virginia-native Antoine Sampah and Texas prospect Josh White:
Sampah fought through injuries at Woodbridge High in Virginia, averaging 10 tackles a game as a senior as he played through a nasty ACL tear. Because of these circumstances, his arrival at LSU was met with the same precautionary and long-term recovery schedule as Landon Jackson.........but now is the time for Antoine to rise up.
Following a strong display in the spring game (6 tackles, 4 solo stops and 1 sick interception), Antoine made Coach Baker very happy with his sterling play throughout the afternoon, sending his name high up Blake Baker's "trusted list".
White appeared across 10 games, all reps on special teams, and registered stats over 3 appearances, resulting in 6 tackles (4 solo) through 2020.
He's a jack-of-all-trades that could do it all as a high schooler, creating turnovers, racking up the tackles, blocking punts, stuffing the run, he was adept in coverage....he did it all.
Will we be able to see Josh's talents in year two, or will we be forced to wait until the cusp of White's junior season for his true development to begin?
The new-comers are all exciting though:
Navonteque Strong provides energy and a kick-ass mindset that was woefully lacking during last year's embarrassing 492 yards per game average.
As a 100 tackle performer for Mississippi Gulf Coast, the JUCO transfer will light up the screen for most of 2021, mark my words.
I have a feeling Strong will be on the outside looking in, with regards to the starting lineup, but as LSU's season goes on, I think he'll crack the top 2 or 3.
De Matha High freshman Greg Penn III is receiving some credit from Coach O & Jacob Hester (among others), and his name has found its way into some fall camp reporting....but is he another hype, or a solid hope?
If Penn had been an early enrollee, he would be in contention for a starting spot...I have such a vibe about him. But even with the delay, I still feel as though Greg Penn could play serious snaps as a freshman, such are his "ahead of the curve" capabilities:
First, Penn's boundless vision (able to detect the rusher's direction through a swarm of bodies), his pacy burst (always lurching out at ball-carriers with driven intensity), his raw but potentially elite coverage abilities, and on top of it all, Greg sports a powerful stature.
While he may be a freshman and could possibly go without heavy reps throughout 2021, I believe Blake Baker will start the three / two best linebackers, no matter what their age or experience.
That means Penn, an East Coast linebacker who's built for the SEC, stands a chance of making Baker's list. We even named him above our two 2020 freshmen, such is his untamed fury.
Sage Ryan (out w/ injury)
Derrick Davis Jr
To start the off-season, 2020 break out Jay Ward went from cornerback to safety and in the process became the perfect amalgamation of DC/safeties coach Daronte Jones' vision:
This season, LSU's safeties won't be identifiably split as a strong / free twosome anymore....under Jones, both would be coverage guys who possessed enough athleticism to cover the run, make up ground over the top, or blitz the quarterback, all in one package.
And in LSU's Jay Ward and Major Burns, the Tigers have their two starting safeties, with Jordan Toles and Todd Harris right on the outside looking in.
Major Burns is making one handed interceptions, punching the ball out of his teammates' grasp, and besides freshman RB Corey Kiner leaping over his head, Burns has been an irreplaceable force in Daronte Jones' secondary.
Burns' profile piece will be coming in the next days.
This leaves Jordan Toles and Todd Harris in a lurch....Toles, the more athletic, physical specimen of the two and Harris cast as an LSU veteran with years of Tiger status.
What can they do to get on the field???
Make no mistake, LSU won't just be using 2 safeties no matter what, either:
Jones will utilize 3 safety sets and even place one of his more traditional safeties in the nickel spot if he can find mismatches....otherwise, Burns and Ward will deservedly record the majority of the reps.
Freshman wunderkind Sage Ryan should be an explosive future candidate for the job when he fully recovers from his latest injury spell, pushing the veterans to their utmost abilities;
Another Lafayette-based freshman, Matthew Langlois, is a devastating speed demon with the football IQ of a "face-masked Einstein"; a project of "future Craig Steltz reflections".
Then there's Derrick Davis Jr, a young man who can be either very hot or cold out there this off-season, a perfect example being these two sequences during Spring:
Davis Jr punched the ball out of the hands of Jontre Kirklin, a receiver who caught 213 yards on the day; a few plays later, he was caught out of position and Max Johnson uncorked a long laser-guided missile towards the end zone, Kirklin catching the ball over Davis Jr's head.
He will figure it out, he's too good not to....but will 2021 be the time?
I don't think so.
Sage Ryan (out w/ injury)
Out of all the nickels on this team, Quinton "Pig" Cage is the man I trust most for this difficult job.
Cordale Flott allowed 11 touchdowns himself last year, Sage Ryan is still hurt, Cam Lewis is an interesting option that I've only seen play 13 nickel snaps throughout fall camp, and above everyone else, no one has shown more dexterity, ball skills or instincts like "Pig" Cage has, breaking up 12 passes from three different quarterbacks throughout the reps I've witnessed.
Although a walk-on from Nicholls St, I would trust his hunger over Flott's mental anguish from 2020....just think how will Cordale react if his first play of 2021 is allowing yet another long touchdown bomb....
Can we afford to lose Flott, at least mentally, by Week 1?
Or, why don't we give "Pig" Cage an honest run-out, considering he's earned it, and sprinkle Flott into the scenarios and matchups which make sense?
Sounds perfect to me until Sage returns.
This is very straightforward....
The #1 CB group in America just need health, recovery, & rest before Week 1.....if they can get all three, they'll be fine.
Remember, Eli Ricks once re-injured himself vs Florida, came back out on the field and ripped off a pick six vs a Heisman candidate....
Also, you only have to read this to see just how much Derek Stingley Jr played hurt throughout 2020.
LSU need to get Dwight McGlothern back, too, the Houston-native becoming a strong candidate to back-up either Ricks or Stingley, should they be absent.
Raydarious Jones is an improving option, a 2019 title-winner who saw very few reps, cast to the outskirts of Corey Raymond's CBs unit.....as one of the few DBs on the team under 6 feet.
Jones responded this last Spring, picking off starting QB Max Johnson near the sidelines in a spring game and putting his name up in lights when rejecting two other passes his way.
Also coming off an injury, Raydarious Jones could seize upon an opportunity with both hands, if one of Stingley or Ricks and McGlothern were still out. If he doesn't take that chance, he'll never get another one in purple & gold....another reason why his latest injury is such a big blow to his chances, considering the first three corners were somehow all banged up and missed the latest scrimmage.
It should've been his chance to shine....
Instead, due to injuries, it passed him by....
Freshman Damarius McGhee was getting toasted during the last two scrimmages, getting found out on a few humiliating routes....however, he never stopped playing the ball and later, he grabbed his just rewards by way of a batted pass that led to an interception.
It all starts with one positive choice, one thing going your way, one domino falling....then who the hell knows what can happen next.....still, I can tell you respectfully: McGhee won&