BY LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
While LSU's 2020 secondary and D-line are stocked, locked and loaded with more frenetic vitriol and staccato intensity than the dialogue in a Guy Ritchie film, the linebacking corps is the area of the field in which the most concern should be aimed.
Many will sit and destroy the Tigers' D-line and say "where's the marquee pass-rusher? Where's the (fill in the blank of ridiculous desires while not even glancing at the roster)???"
But they seem to be forgetting the simple necessities of the defensive line:
it's all about a sizable rotation where you are able to deploy enough talented guys with the right mix of interior inertia and outside instinctual speed, keeping certain guys fresh for the right plays / match-ups.
As Orgeron ironed out recently, we have a plethora of fantastic, Grade A options along the defensive line: Shelvin, Logan, Ojulari, Roy, Farrell, Ika, Guillory, T.K McLendon, Andre Anthony, Justin Thomas, Jarell Cherry, Ali Gaye, Eric Taylor defecting from his home state of Alabama, even fellow freshman Phillip Webb can play both DE as well as LB...that's a robust amount of adaptable artillery for our 4 man front.
However the Tigers' depth at linebacker has begun to wear thin after the high profile transfer of 5-Star Marcel Brooks; regardless of where you may stand on the strength at the linebacking position, you cannot deny the lack of depth in comparison to the never-ending riches at DB or along the defensive line.
Outside of a core starting three, the rest of LSU's options in this position are very much unproven or unknown from a consistency standpoint....although when inspected more closely, the available players at linebacker possess a blistering will to play with toughness, physicality and speed.
Based on Pelini's previously spoken desires, we'd love to see a starting LB three of Damone Clark at MIC (middle LB calling the show), Jabril Cox at WILL (weak side, usually more of a play-maker role due to less run support) and a rotation of Phillip Webb & Devonta Lee at SAM (strong side LB traditionally a more run-stuffing spot).
#35 Damone Clark would be our most experienced leader among the LBs' group and only one of a few automatic starting choices on defense (Shelvin, Stingley, Stevens). Still, Damone has only one season featuring sufficient playing time, amassing a ridiculous 49 tackles, 3.5 sacks and hits on Trevor Lawrence, Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovaiola and Jake Fromm from the bench as LSU won the title last year in emphatic fashion.
Clark appeared across 14 of the 15 games including a start vs Alabama (Patrick Queen would steal the game out from under Damone thanks to his INT before half, forever inserting #8 into the starting XI over Clark).
Make no mistake, Damone's 49 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks last year was a Herculean effort: he grabbed those numbers while playing from the bench, out-sacking the entire defensive line sans Neil Farrell as they buried Clark within Aranda's 3-4 scheme (which didn't accentuate his best attributes).
Now a junior, Damone has traveled a long road at LSU: he played understudy to Devin White for a lengthy period of time as a freshman, he won a National Championship as a highly skilled, highly lethal sophomore contributor, and now his junior year could see all the stars aligning.
He was left behind for 2 seasons too many, although Clark was stacked behind four current NFL players and Tiger Legends Jacob Phillips (3rd round), Patrick Queen (1st Round Pick), K'Lavon Chaisson (1st Round Pick) and Michael Divinity (UDFA) on the depth chart, he only appeared in a single game during the 2018 season.
There's no sting like lost time...and when a Tiger has been aiming to make up for the lost time in recent memory (Joe, Clyde, Kristian, K'Lavon, Thad, Ja'Marr, Lloyd, Patrick Queen) the results have been interstellar....watch out for Damone Clark to kick that into overdrive.
"On Saturday mornings, he's in there (LSU HQ) watching game film, studyin," Coach O told Off The Bench with Jordy and T-Bob. Everyone around the team can feel Damone's passion, his work ethic, his ability to capture lightning in a bottle every time he played a down...we need to see what Damone Clark is fully capable of play after play, down after down, snap after snap, this kid could really and truly be the rightful heir to the Devin White throne these next two seasons.
As a stand-out freak at Southern Lab, much of Clark's duties revolved around playing as a MIC, organizing the defense, dissecting the protections and communicating his findings to the line.
And while facing the fallout from the Marcus Randall firing and resulting scandals and penalties, his teammates began following Damone's lead (including current LSU teammates 5 Star OG Kardell Thomas and RB Tyrion Davis-Price):
Under Clark's leadership and against the sanctions, this beleaguered defense still held opponents under 10 points on five occasions during that embattled 2017 season (featuring back to back shutouts), gutting through gritty victories or tough grueling losses...that 2017 Southern Lab team experienced the ultimate highs and lows of football.
Clark knows what it means to lead...he knows what it means to stay behind and fight... even when things aren't going well. He is someone, much like Coach O, who you want in the foxhole next to you, such is their fearlessness and success.
Because of these intangibles, the fact he had 49 tackles and 3.5 sacks while playing as a 5th option last year, If we can at least play 10 SEC games and 1 SEC title game, Damone Clark will grab 100+ tackles on the season, force 3 fumbles, devour the quarterback 5 times, grab 11.5+ tackles for loss and return one fumble for a touchdown.
He is ready for prime time...one of the most exciting players we're about to see take the stage throughout the upcoming college football season, Mr. Damone Clark, an absolute Prism of Pain for any opponent, a Deluge of Danger when he sneaks into the backfield and blows apart the play.
To be perfectly honest with my assessment, Damone Clark could very well be LSU's most obvious secret weapon: both master and commander, enforcer and disruptor, a violent hit unlike any you've seen in football when fully unleashed and a gleam in his eye when he plays that just says "CHAMPION!"
Backing up Damone Clark at MIC is LSU veteran Ray Thornton, a powerful hitter with a high caliber football IQ who will see playing time at other spots due to his versatility. Thornton's fumble recovery in the red zone during the first Alabama drive set the tone for LSU's aggressive charge to championship glory, stealing the hearts right outta Saban, Tua and all those sad Bama fans.
Will Thornton be able to unseat Damone Clark for the MIC spot? We're not sure, but if he's called upon, Thornton will give everything and be ready to steal a position within the starting linebacker core.
Next to him will most likely be North Dakota State transfer Jabril Cox at the WILL spot, hanging around, flying towards the ball on the ground in his brutal tackles, savage hits or his brilliant anticipation when it comes to intercepting passes, reading the little underneath / slant routes that shredded LSU for thousands of yards last year, breaking on routes with conviction and pace, not just reading and reacting...Jabril Cox is purely instinctual.
Cox had 7 interceptions during his time at North Dakota State, returning 2 back for touchdowns (it feels like he had more), although there was a rare occasion where the linebacker struggled to hinder FCS running backs or receivers from making silly yards after contact or catch plays in mano e mano situations. Even though his recovery on one of these more disappointing plays was laudable (after he was burned by a receiver, he ran 30 yards down the field and buried him with a destructive hit, knocking the ball loose inside the red zone), Cox will need to be at his optimum to gain the starting position;
Jabril can maintain the edge and intensity to deliver knockout hits at the SEC level.
People were saying "Can Jabril perform like this against Division I teams?"
I say this: He was courted by every team in the country as a high school senior...then, he tore his ACL and all those schools ran off ....he went to North Dakota State to pick up the pieces and happened to become a 3x FCS National Champion during 3 intense seasons and now he wants to finish his eligibility at the highest level to seal his NFL Draft status in purple and gold fairydust....Jabril Cox has always been good enough, the problem was nobody gave him a chance.
There may be unfair & annoying questions swirling around Jabril Cox's effectiveness or abilities, but no one can dispute he has a great shot of becoming a premium NFL talent...every collegiate coach in the nation knows this simple fact, including Nick Saban. Although when it comes to our SAM position, there are some valid questions concerning the spot up for grabs, although the two highest candidates in Pelini's eyes are tailor-made for the position:
Former high school safety and LSU receiver, sophomore Devonta Lee and long-time LSU grinder Micha Baskerville, a linebacker who Bo Pelini and Coach Ed Orgeron have continuously spoken highly of during the off-season.
Lee is a massive young man, built of lengthy, brick thick steel and concrete slabs for arms, Devonta is the definition of a Brickhouse Powerhouse; feast your eyes upon some of his nastiest, most devastating defensive atrocities throughout his high school years at Amite...the former 2019 wide out could very well become LSU's most surprising and stunning defensive player of 2020.
We know about his state title game heroics for Amite as the "best defensive player on that field" according to Coach Ed Orgeron who watched the Louisiana state title game at the Superdome from the sidelines, in awe over Lee's raging abilities from safety.
Now he may have found a new home at linebacker, and Devonta seems excited about these new changes:
Lee told Garland Gillen: “He talked to me, brought me outside on his balcony. Devonta, you’ll be a first-round pick, All-American. I was like yes sir, I truly believe that. You could be one of the best defensive players to come here. I love putting the bang on someone. There’s nothing like hitting em in the mouth. I like being physical. I’ve been physical since high school. I get to do it college now in front of a 100,000 people."
Contending against Lee is Micha Baskerville, another veteran who could make up for lost time by delivering a stunning 2020 season. At 6'1 228 and counting, Micha is thickening up and ready to break out...with a position open at linebacker for the first time in his LSU career, Baskerville must take this opportunity to seal his name on the starting roster, lest he stay on as a solid back-up contributor for yet another year.
I also feel there's an obligation to try Phillip Webb at SAM and see what the towering LB / DE can do:
When utilizing his length, we've witnessed him make up for any deficiencies in coverage; he shows a stout intensity against the run and he's always had buoyant athleticism and an iron will to recover on any play...Webb is a player from another planet LSU fans haven't even begun to mentally grasp, just like Ojulari, Roy, Guillory, McGlothern or Ricks...freshmen who are bound to explode.
Webb will become an enterprising player, filling in for spells at defensive end with high quality pass rushing and then taking a series at linebacker and deflecting a pass, dislodging another and making a hard hit on 3rd down to force a punt. With Webb or Baskerville rotating in, assumed starter Devonta Lee could then have a stage from which to really learn and grow within the game, able to take a step back at times and see the bigger picture.
Speaking of other young players, Texas's best 2019 linebacker Josh White #33 will disturb the SEC West as a fiery freshman contributor, blasting the best players on every team either on defense or special teams, giving 100% on every down until Bo Pelini has no choice but to play him regularly at linebacker.
White may be a year away from his prime, but that's an easy way of dismissing someone who could turn out to be one of LSU's great young players throughout 2020.
Josh is the real deal, ready for action, primed to take on all comers as a versatile, jack-of-all trades defensive force: White was a fully committed early signee, White amassed 188 solo tackles (350+ total), 7.5 sacks, 1 interception, 7 forced fumbles and 3 recoveries during his time at Cypress Creek High School.
Ever the stat stuffer with an all-encompassing, pure football player identity, Josh White even blocked a pair of punts in his senior season at Cypress Creek.
Another freshman, Antoine Sampah shows LSU's growing Polynesian culture within the football team and community.
Sampah, a former high school rock star in Virginia, arrives equipped with an unbelievable motor and hit, we just haven't seen Sampah at 100% for a sustained length of time since 2018, when the linebacker suffered a torn ACL.
Still, as he recovered from the nasty injury, the workhorse linebacker swam against the painful, daunting tide and cobbled up a crazy 140 combined tackles while only featuring in limited action. Heart....hunger and courage....Sampah fills every box and we're glad he's a Tiger.
After Sampah, the rest of the available starting candidates begins to dim with each passing name, Hunter Faust, Jared Small, we still don't know if Desmond Little will play DE or LB, but the newest addition, Terrebonne High School's Houma transplant Isaiah Oubre (Houma!!! Terrebonne Represent!) could well turn out to be a fantastic addition to the squad, especially if he's anything like former Terrebonne teammate and 2021 stunner Maason Smith.
What we have in totality from Pelini's unit is a group of somewhat scattered souls, vagrant wanderers, prodigal sons now called back home....guys who's skill sets were wasted the last few years under Dave Aranda's 3-4 system, players who needed a new direction for the safety of their own NFL-aspirations. In such little time, Pelini's arrival has already made a huge difference to the progress at linebacker. And it's also worth mentioning that LBU Legend Kelvin Sheppard's arrival as Director of Player Development will help immensely in readying our young linebackers. Much like our 2019 offensive line's transformation, solid coaching, hungry talent and mesmeric heart can overcome any concerns about depth or the loss of highly touted personnel at linebacker. What's on paper doesn't win games.
Heart & versatility are the only two ingredients you need to be a member of LBU... Can you adapt? Can you react? Will you overcome?"
Hell yeah you will.