Updated: Apr 3
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
2019 will forever be known in Baton Rouge as the perfect season in LSU history, where all the stars aligned, everything went our way, and it all ended in bountiful victory with an undefeated 15-0 record and a national championship, spearheaded by the supersonic Joe Burrow and his high-powered offense....and in the process of #9's stratospheric rise, the defense was firmly shoved to the rearview.
Defense wins championships: surely we wouldn't have captured the 2020 CFP National Championship without Aranda's defense stepping up and matching the offense's intensity, yet we knew this championship was on Joe Burrow's arm to win or lose, and no matter how well or how badly our defense could perform, #9's magic would always make up for it.
Now Joe is gone: he took his intangible greatness and mad-eyed quarterbacking eroticism with him...which begs the ultimate question:
Where does LSU go from here?
We're sure Steve Ensminger will do everything in his power to try and replicate last year's high octane aerial odyssey, this time driven by the arm of LSU's "Silver Fox" aka Burrow-student Myles Brennan...but...
We'll answer those burning offensive questions in Part II:
This piece centers on where LSU's defense finds themselves in 2020.
These aren't complete roster profiles yet, Orgeron's men are still in the process of taking stock of their team; the following is the guaranteed recruits and returnees who excite us most:
For many LSU fans, the image of one of our defensive backs picking off a Bama QB and taking it to the house was what attracted us to LSU in the first place...this traditional defensive mindset made Joe Burrow's godpunchery something so completely alien...but now, in 2020, there's a chance for both the past obsession of LSU's hard hitting, NFL-ready DBs to cross paths with the present and future of our scorched earth spread offense.
As Beaux Pelini re-takes his rightful place as our defensive coordinator, joined by renegade world class DBs coach and recruiting coordinator Corey Raymond, we now look to the future of the LSU defense and what obstacles, challenges or intriguing difficulties may arise in 2020...as well as their sick potential to be the #1 defense in college football...
After Dave Aranda's much-maligned 2019/20 defense finished the job, peaked at the perfect time, while riding nonstop criticism & injuries to an SEC title, our squad of LSU legends (now 1st or 2nd round NFL draft talent) battled and raged against the best opponents and under the brightest lights, stuffing Clemson's big-play offense and limiting Travis Etienne and Trevor Lawrence on our way to a national championship.
Many questioned whether this 2019 defense would be able to back Joe Burrow's legendary offense and deliver a
national title; Then, as November turned to December, the defense proceeded to gain in confidence, stature, and strength, sealing our national title push with a group that played like a good ol' fashioned LSU defense...as a legion of underclassmen and highly-sought recruits looked on, took part, and witnessed how a championship is won.
What could our past defense's clutch display in the national title run tell us about our present / future unit?
Many would say "nothing...stop talking about 2019"....
While I find it hard to resist discussing the legendary greatness of the 2019 LSU Tigers, what's currently exciting us all is the returning defenders who made crucial contributions to our national title victory and the influx of Grade A defensive talents such as B.J Ojulari, Phillip Webb, Elias Ricks (who is deciding his future post-shoulder surgery right now) and more.
Due to Burrow's evisceration of every opponent last year, our backups played more minutes than most 2nd string defenders in Division I, and the combination of stunning new specimen, sophomores with more big-game experience than most seniors, and a few returning veterans in key positions, we have a right to expect great things from this defense:
Make no mistake, this is a defense pushing for the top ranking in the country...and it won't be long until we come rampaging our way through the SEC, leaving each vanquished opponent marked in blood in our wake.
Coach Ed Orgeron and Scott Woodward have run the program beautifully, and with the high profile evolution of the offense, the consistency and strength of our defense, and the plentiful amount of high caliber prospects pouring into our beautiful campus, everything seems to indicate greatness on the horizon...and with certain guys returning, we know the blueprint on how it's supposed to be done...now let's geaux see what they're made of.
Sure, we lose LSU legends Grant Delpit, sack machine K'Lavon Chaisson, leading tackler Jacob Phillips, title game MVP Patrick Queen, robust senior linemen Rashard Lawrence and Michael Divinity Jr among others, but what many are forgetting is all the great talent LSU were able to plug into the lineup in crucial moments during that title run.
Due to the blowouts during Burrow's insurrection, or the myriad of complex coverage and pressure-leverage schemes Dave Aranda deployed, guys like Marcel Brooks, Damone Clark and Cordale Flott saw plenty of minutes on the field.
Unlike 2019's LSU legends and veterans pushing to seal their careers with glory, 2020 will show LSU's sophomores and freshmen young bloods growing into a new identity under Bo Pelini, aiming for even higher goals than their predecessors...it's nothing personal, that's just the LSU way.
Among our pack of stars, studs and statuesque athletes primed for Bo Pelini's motivational moulding, we have to start with our freshman phenom Derek Stingley Jr:
Sting has grown up into a big ol' sophomore, and as he resumes his role at corner, every QB on the schedule must get used to a very limited window to fit passes through. Not only will the two-way freak shut down the target zone (6 interceptions, 16 passes defended), his tackling ability in space improved by the opponent:
Stingley Jr made big tackles or assists setting the edge, preventing Oklahoma or Clemson's big plays (and grabbing a fumble recovery in the title game).
The young man is a true ball hawk: once the ball goes up in the air anywhere near #24, you better hope and pray he slips over if you're playing against us.
From there, we go to the other side where five different young men compete for the starting job: returning sophomores Jay Ward, Raydarius Jones, and Cordale Flott, or phenom freshmen Elias Ricks & Dwight McGlothern.
Flott actually received some significant minutes throughout the 2019 season, appearing in 9 games as a freshman, posting 5 tackles and 2 deflected passes in limited game time vs Alabama and Texas.
Behind him stands Jay Ward, another sophomore who appeared in 13 games, including both the semi-final and the final of the CFP Playoff. Ward impressed, though his meager 4 total tackles (3 solo), 3 pass deflections (inc. 2 on Jalen Hurts) don't tell the whole story: this bench player was an effective contributor to the national title-winning team.
Jay Ward is another rangey athlete with strength and pace, standing at 6'2...the exact height of the next two gentlemen we'll discuss. In recruiting, Corey Raymond and safeties coach / recruiting extraordinaire Bill Busch added superfreak Elias Ricks, the #1 ranked corner during his high school career in both California and Florida, while ranking #2 nationally.
Ricks must be licking his chops to become the next great corner at DBU; he's not just a hype, his talent transcends monikers.
Although he remains unproven in the SEC, Elias Ricks is here to win...on every play.... Elias is special, and the scary thing for enemy-bros like Nick Saban, Tom Herman at Texas, and Gus Malzahn at Auburn: Ricks will only get better under Raymond and Pelini's tutelage.
He has all the attributes of our greatest, putting them all into one fiery package. However, Ricks' talents could provide something LSU has only experienced once in the last two seasons: a defensive touchdown.
At Mater Dei High School in California, Elias Ricks won back to back national titles and grabbed 9 interceptions, returning 4 for touchdowns. He spent his senior year at IMG Academy in Florida and registered 3 more INTs, and was named the 14th ranked athlete in the entire country.
Though Ricks finds himself amongst a high octane class at DBU, his length, ranginess and considerable knowledge and ability to cover any route (and relative comfort with inside or outside technique) position him as a sure-fire bet to become yet another freshman starting at corner for LSU.
The one thing I would say from film study:
Ricks needs to calm down on the taunting and the post-play antics, especially when close SEC contests could be decided by a few stupid penalties, lest he be relegated to the bench.
Under Beaux and O, this'll be an increasingly fiery and irreverent defense, with athletes and playmakers all over the secondary displaying an aggressive assurance...but when it comes to stupid penalties, Coach Orgeron won't put up with it, and neither will his staff.
Also at DB, a safety / corner hybrid Mo Hampton Jr, the hard hitting, versatile sophomore who could very well steal a starting spot or see significant time in nickel, quarters or dime packages.
As a prominent LSU outfielder, Hampton has shown his freakish range, ultimate pace to make up ground, and a knack for sealing the perfect catch at the height of trajectory many times during baseball season...this versatility across sports will only help Mo Hampton as he seeks a starting safety nod.
There's also senior Todd Harris Jr, rarely seen since his ACL tear in the 1st quarter vs Northwestern State. However, when we did see Todd Harris, he was jacked...he'd been strengthening himself all throughout his lengthy injury layoff and will want to prove to Corey Raymond and Bill Busch just what he's made of.
Just like Ricks, LSU grabbed another stunning athlete in December when 6'2 Dwight McGlothern signed. Grabbing two picks in the All-America game (before making quite the announcement of his signature) live on NBC, returning one for a touchdown and snagging 15 across his high school career.
McGlothern, much like Stingley Jr. also went both ways, catching 66 passes for 1,307 yards and 18 touchdowns, hauling in 34 across his senior season at receiver. Dwight's 6'2 height and supernatural understanding of both sides of the ball provide an unsurpassed advantage in one on one situations.
The more experienced Cordale Flott may get the first looks as the corner opposite Stingley Jr, but he'll find himself under immense pressure from both McGlothern and Elias Ricks.
DBU didn't lose many to the NFL, and better yet, we've reloaded with singular, breathtaking talent and depth at corner, displaying versatility and athleticism to fit a litany of potential Pelini formations.
In behind, we'll definitely see the experience, side to side speed, and versatile athleticism of national title winning senior Kerry Vincent Jr at strong safety, while both sophomore Marcel Brooks or senior Jacoby Stevens will be stationed at free safety or outside linebacker....and since both could be used in either role, look for this Tigers defensive staff to confuse offenses by interchanging Brooks and Stevens given the scenario.
Yes, we possess a lot of depth at LB, however on the surface it appears our most talented and experienced guys have departed, leaving massive question marks around last year's backups Micha Baskerville, Hunter Faust, Soni Fonua (from my own home state), the highly gifted Damone Clark, and the indefinitely suspended Donte Starks.
#35 Damone Clark is without question, aside from Brooks or Stevens, the best returning linebacker of the bunch, totaling 49 tackles (17 solo) and 3.5 sacks (1 vs Auburn & A&M each) from the bench in 2019. Clark has it all: big-game experience, elastic size, recovery speed, clinical brutality in the hit, excellent contain awareness, closing pace in the tackle, and bullish strength.
Clark's physique and attributes in defense recalls the frenetic attack of safety LaRon Landry, especially in the way he attacks the line of scrimmage, while his finesse in pursuit and ability to wrap up the most slippery of runners reminds us of a Devin White and Darry Beckwith lovechild.
It's no coincidence: in his 2018 freshman season, Clark worked under Devin White to perfect his game...he's been waiting patiently ever since...but now's his time. In our defense, Damone Clark is versatile and intelligent enough to play every single down....most importantly, he's looked hungrier than the rest.
Elsewhere, out of necessity our boys on the recruiting trail went looking for inside LBing talent, and thanks to a Pelini recruiting connection, they found NDSU phenom Jabril Cox, a versatile linebacker capable of utilization from the inside and outside.
Cox is exciting many LSU fans, coaches (Esp. Pelini) and worrying many across the SEC with his unpredictably fast hands, fighting off blocks as if they're the Stay Puft Marshmellow man, undeniable in coverage (pulling off a ludicrous amount of pick-Six's at any level for a linebacker), quick in his decision-making on the contain, and has oodles of big play ability.
On the edge, much intrigue and interest surround our new Georgia edge rushers B.J Ojulari and Phillip Webb, Josh White out of Texas and Antoine Sampah from Virginia.
Though we should include Phillip Webb among the defensive linemen as well: at 6'4 and 210 pounds as a freshman, this dual threat philistine of vicious and mean is a large, massive ent in the trenches who can also drop in coverage: was it ever easy throwing a pass or layup over Mutumbo? Did anyone ever try to dunk on Dikembe?
Either way, the vibe from Phillip Webb is the same: we will see Webb wag his finger and say "No Mas!" many times from here on out. Even though wives and girlfriends will tell us otherwise, in the SEC at least, size matters....or well....size at least alters the flight or trajectory of a pass or whether the ball comes out at all...and Phillip Webb is sure to be a monster for any quarterback to deal with.
The Georgia native is a huge miss for UGA's terrific 2020 recruiting class, and is yet another example of Orgeron's recruiting reach in supposed "SEC strongholds". While Webb and Ojulari are prominent outside LB / DE hybrids, you gotta love some early signing recruits and we've grabbed one of the best linebackers in all of Texas: Josh White.
As a fully committed early signee, White amassed 188 solo tackles (350+ total), 7.5 sacks, 1 interception, 7 forced fumbles and 3 recoveries.
Ever the stat stuffer and jack-of-all-trades, Josh White even blocked a pair of punts in his senior season at Cypress Creek; White's enthusiastic LSU commitment (against the oil-rich resources of the major Texas programs) shows the expansive recruiting clout of Orgeron's Tigers.
Another interesting candidate for a role within the linebacking corps is Antoine Sampah.
The Virginia high school star has 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 Polynesian cobbled up 140 combined tackles while featuring in limited action.
To bolster the LB depth, Orgeron has also announced WR Devonta Lee is now moving to LB, a decision the massive talent made himself.
Receivers never move to LB, yet this rarity makes too much sense: Devonta Lee wasn't just one of the best receivers in Louisiana high school football, he was also one of the best defenders, with Orgeron highlighting Lee's performance in the 2018 state title game:
"There wasn't a better defender on the field than Lee..."
Our linebackers may have question marks up and down the roster, however we possess loads of guys returning with a national title, and our inexperienced recruits boast significant athletic pedigree.
In 2020, the battle in the trenches will be led by our young defensive line, and despite missing out on highly sought after prospect Jordan Burch, most of the new blood are either massively talented freshmen or underclassmen who've received plenty of reps in 2019's 3rd and 4th quarters.
Now that we're officially switching to a 4-3 defensive formation, the impetus on our defensive line becomes less, the demand on their physicality decreases, but still their importance builds:
As the speed of our freakshow linebackers race through running lanes, our king-size mountains in the middle will plug, clog and occupy offensive lines throughout the SEC for those speed merchants to plow through...and there's plenty to be excited about along that front.
Our four-man front will be anchored by a rotation of three weapons of mass production, Tyler Shelvin, Neil Farrell Jr, Jacobian Guillory, and the wild card Glen Logan, all fantastic options when clogging the opponent's running game or protection schemes.
While none of these four interior linemen are sack-machines (all three combining for 4.5 sacks and 1 forced fumble in 2019), nose tackle Tyler Shelvin is tailor made for his gap-plugging role and Glen Logan should evolve and transform into a beast of every rival's burden.
Logan, especially, has a lot to prove after slightly disappointing us in 2019, but it's no delusion to expect both to reap the rewards of LSU's switch to a 4-3: Without being too demanding, Logan and Shelvin should combine for 13.5+ sacks in 2020 at a minimum.
Outside of returning linemen Logan, Farrell and Shelvin, this is a young front for our newest D-line coach Bill Johnson to lead.. Most of the new blood coming in are either massively talented freshmen or underclassmen who've received plenty of reps in 2019's 3rd and 4th quarters, like Siaki Ika, the second East High commit by the Tigers out of Salt Lake City, Utah.
While unheralded outside of the die hard fanbase and the line coaches, the 375 pound potential of Siaki Ika as a wrecking ball (in the middle of our 4-3 front) is exciting; though he was only a freshman during our national title winning conquest, Siaki appeared in 13 games, completed 18 tackles as a solo artist and 1.5 TFL.
Before long, here come the new kids on the block:
Hulking interior freshman DT Jacobian Guillory will push Tyler Shelvin and Siaki Ika for minutes on the inside battleground, but fellow freshman Jacquelin Roy, an extremely quick lineman at 6'4 285, can be used anywhere along the line.
Roy is highly-skilled in his footwork, explosion at the line, his swim, his hands, and his imperious finishing of quarterbacks and running backs in the backfield. And those are just the big plays...
Roy actually affects the game on a play by play basis by his mere presence, and the University Lab rusher will look to impress and steal a lion's share of minutes along the line.
You only have to watch the tape to see what we're dealing with....but then Saban, Muschamp (if he still has a job) and Herman have to coach against him...
Regardless of how we missed out on the bizarre Jordan Burch or Georgia-bound Jalen Carter, lost the senior or junior leaders to the NFL, or our line coach Dennis Johnson following Dave Aranda to Baylor, our defensive line remains titanically dominant.
In fact, new line coach Bill Johnson has been de-facto coordinator for the last season already:
Due to Dennis Johnson's serious injuries and operations on both knees, Dennis was in the shadows as more of an analyst than the defensive line coaching title he was usually given.
Like many things with the 2019 LSU Tigers, there was something special brewing under Bill Johnson...now in 2020, fully reloaded and ready to rock and roll, the 2020 defensive line will surely outperform the 11 combined sacks the Tigers' defensive line notched last season.
ALL FOR ONE, ONE MORE TITLE FOR ALL
For those among the Tiger faithful who think of themselves as "defensive purists", for those who shuddered at the mere sight of 58-37 or 66-38 scorelines, the Bo Pelini-era is bound to soothe your worries.
The lack of aggression in Dave Aranda's blitz schemes and the subtle ways in which his defensive line wreaked havoc are no match for the novel, wicked intensity of Bo Pelini.
Dave Aranda meant a lot to LSU, BUT we always had the feeling we were enjoying his presence on borrowed time...that he was always needed elsewhere...that the pirate-faced, lost member of Hall And Oates needed far more than LSU...
As LSU superfan Eric Armstrong once said, "LSU is ALL about personality" ...
...this explains precisely why Bo Pelini's return to Baton Rouge is perfectly timed for the program, and for this new-look defense.
It's a great chance for Pelini to wipe the slate clean, evaluate the returning players, anchor the defense around the speed and versatility of Jacoby Stevens, Marcel Brooks, and Damone Clark, while also utilizing more frenetic blitz patterns and sending more guys in on the quarterback than the last few years.
Whereas Dave Aranda could be best described as "jazz" with his staccato subtleties, Bo Pelini is all rock and roll, smash mouth, pedal to the metal defense, and what better place to reconstitute this than his old stomping grounds in the SEC?
We have to remember....in his 3 seasons at LSU, every defense under Pelini ranked no lower than 3rd in the SEC and close to the same ranking nationally...we need to give Bo a chance to re-establish his brand of Tigers defense and finish what he began long ago.
Thanks to the versatile weapons on hand for Pelini to confuse and dismay many an offense, where Brooks, Stevens and Vincent Jr are all on the field, Elias Ricks and Stingley in coverage, lineman/ LB hybrid Phillip Webb's height and speed on the edge and LB Damone Clark's capability to shore up the middle or outside, we can use these adaptable players in almost any scenario: blitzing, spying or in coverage....though against the best of the best, I would be foolish to say Brooks or Stevens are 5 star cover guys: their strengths lie closer to the line of scrimmage.
However in 2019, Stevens picked off 3 passes and deflected 6 (4 vs top 10 teams)....and his development, especially as a leader, is far from over.
Yes, it's true Pelini Cynics...much like Aranda, Bo Pelini took a national title victory in his final year and elevated himself to the coveted position of head coach, leaving for Ndamukong Suh and a torrent of fan-driven vitriol in the desolation of Nebraska.
Even still, you knew it hurt him to leave these young men, this lifestyle, this program and the incredible state of Louisiana...and one act alone proves that beyond any doubt:
In the aftermath of the devastation, chaos and tragedy of 2005's Hurricane Katrina, Bo Pelini stayed until a title was brought back to Louisiana...and for that foxhole solidarity alone, the man's actions command respect...and upon his rehire, it was obvious how much he was admired in the Bayou.
Although he was an "outsider", just like fellow Ohio boy Joe Burrow, Beaux was always one of us...and this 2020 defense will be our favorite, our most savage and could just be the best yet. Defense isn't about schemes or matchups persay, it's about pure heart, hunger and motivation: whoever wants it more wins... Under Bo Pelini, our guys will always want it more, and they'll never be satisfied until they secure our title defense.
LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
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