by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Next to safety, the linebacker position would be considered the Tigers' most fundamentally flawed area throughout 2020's defensive malaise, sporting panic rather than tackles...pre-snap confusion over unified aggression....dysfunction instead of organization...
Missed assignments left and right, busted coverages on the short passing routes, unspeakably bad gap control....disappointing veterans and unseen or injured youngsters.....
For any LSU linebacker, either present players participating or former Tigers watching, the truth was inescapable:
2020 became the first apocalyptic year in LBU's long history.
It wasn't that our linebackers missed tackles, couldn't cover or support the pass rush with anything even resembling consistency...what really disgusted every player, coach, fan or former Tiger was how soft 2020's linebacking unit was....quite possibly the worst criticism any football player (offense, special teams or defense) can receive.
"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 and during multiple interviews. He saw guys playing "with fear"....the whiff, blown assignment or missed tackle from before still embedded in their mind....
Once Baker said that, I knew Coach O had hired the perfect man to resurrect LBU to its rightful position at the top of the SEC and CFB lexicon of competitive brutality.
The former Miami man understood these weren't just kids making mistakes which needed to be "corrected" by any means possible: Baker studied how and why such highly prized Tigers as Damone Clark endured such a tough season.
The answer wasn't 100% down to the players themselves....remember, a straight up BAMF like Damone Clark is a Tiger #18 who absorbed as much as he could from senior LB Devin White during his freshman year before exploding throughout 2019: Damone lit up big time QBs Trevor Lawrence, Jake Fromm, Jalen Hurts as well as Tua Tagovaiola while he helped the Tigers hoist a National Championship, posting 50 tackles from the bench....
How could it be feasible for 2020 to have gone so wrong?
The truth is coaching & technique were the real problems.
Now under Blake Baker, LSU's linebackers will return to the 21st century for plenty of SEC bloodshed, continually preaching "pin the ears back aggression, speed, attack the ball, no fear of making mistakes...play fast...play hard....we'll correct the rest on film, later".
He understands this turnaround will be a process...although that journey is already well underway:
Baker has worked tirelessly at correcting the technique of our linebackers, hammering it home until it becomes a basic motor function of their every day lives. Often times, Baker is the most vocal coach out there on the practice field, wearing cleats to practice, rocking the shades, a backwards hat, showing tons of Kenny Powers flair and attitude (Coach Orgeron absolutely loves it).
Remember, this is a personable coach who still understands what it felt like to be a player, a reality which will go a long way towards endearing Baker to his players. He's younger...he loves being in Louisiana....and most of all, LSU possess an intriguing multi-dimensional roster for him to deploy....specimen he wasn't able to coach at Miami...and he's relishing the opportunity:
When you look at the Tigers who remain from last year (only the solid Jabril Cox departing to the NFL Draft) I can see one name after another oozing talent, promise, potential, iron-clad physique, SEC-ready measureables..........but will Blake Baker's mixed bag of veterans and youth be ready to step up to the plate for LSU's upcoming campaign, banishing any residue of 2020's defensive disarray????
When asked by former Tiger Jacob Hester "which position groups he was most worried about but had now turned the page", Coach Ed Orgeron didn't hesitate when answering: "the linebackers" ...
How did the transformation start?
Grinding, gritty, gruesome hard work and lots of it.
This group won't be perfect, but they'll knock the living shit right out of ya...and what we've seen already from the scrimmage and practice field has been a purifying baptism of fire after 2020's putrid defensive wasteland:
Damone Clark is still robust, yet he's much faster now...zapping from one side to the other, scaring quarterbacks (as he did the last two scrimmages with some effective pressures) while also becoming stronger in coverage, knocking down a few passes during one of the last scrimmages, breaking on the ball with confidence and anticipation.
Clark has been a leader on the practice field & in the meeting rooms....he's been an organizer...an example...and Blake Baker trusts him most of all.
"Damone...he's a coach's dream," Coach Baker said during his first press conference.
Then we have junior college transfer Navonteque "Bugg" Strong who comes blasting in from Mississippi Gulf Coast like a semi truck, poundcaking skill position guys or relentlessly flattening running backs during scrimmages. Bugg's hits always produce a "clack", a "thwack"....followed by the buzz and revving of a chainsaw.
Once again, the tree from which LSU plucked Joe Burrow, Jabril Cox, Cade York, Ali Gaye, Bugg Strong (among others) bears more promising fruit:
Clemson's Isaiah Simmons understudy Mike Jones Jr is sick of that Dabo Swinney typecasting and departed the program for the real Tigers / real Death Valley.
Entering through this year's transfer portal after two title game appearances (one championship ring against Alabama in 2018, one defeat to our LSU Tigers) followed by another CFP semifinal appearance vs Ohio State this past January, Jones holds much-needed experience and ability for Baker's unit.
Possessing these special hybridized safety/linebacker attributes, Jones Jr should be an elite player at LSU, displaying dextrous strength, frenetic pace in the secondary, vicious authority over the middle of the field, underrated pursuit, "taken for granted" tackling prowess, impressive aerial instincts...all during limited reps (including a CFP semifinal interception on Justin Fields).
Coach Orgeron has named Jones Jr on multiple occasions as a player he is counting on for the upcoming season, even months before the transfer's arrival...such was his capture's obvious importance heading into 2021.
Sophomore Josh White holds a lot of hope for the future at linebacker, proving to be a jack of all trades stat-stuffer of militant conquest as a high schooler in Texas. Those battlegrounds are areas Baker knows all too well and accordingly, he'll have first rate knowledge of the type of player White can be.
The Texas native is capable of sheer violence on the field, something we witnessed during his limited reps on special teams, constantly grabbing tackles from the third phase, even while failing to grab the defensive opportunities he deserved.
Toughing through an injury recently (he's fully recovered from the unnamed knock), White has shown strength and resolve to continue fighting for a spot among Baker's starting lineup, definitely contending for a major role. Since Josh has been mentioned multiple times by both Baker and Orgeron as a strong piece to the linebacker puzzle, it's no secret the young #10 is being watched with keen intrigue.
Freshman Zavier Carter is an awesome prospect, looming large over every linebacker within the unit while bringing edge rusher athleticism & height. Poised to play defensive end upon arrival, he's instead been practicing as a linebacker...and I have to say: a guy of his talents, sporting such long arms and weighty devastation top to bottom, is a huge asset for Baker's linebacker group.
Antoine Sampah is another highly interesting prospect, a young man who once grabbed an 80+ tackle season while playing through a knee injury as a Virginia high schooler; Hunter Faust could be a 2019 title-winner who's ready to step out of the shadows; Aaron Benfield continues to provide a solid presence which has steadily stockpiled strength throughout Spring; freshman walk-on Nick Demas has impressed Coach Orgeron on both sides of the ball (Demas was forced into some running back action); Jared Small is a Legacy Tiger, a long-time LSU cat who's been here since 2017. Small is also a friend & former high school / Tigers teammate of Clyde Edwards-Helaire....could this be his year to really push the envelope???
Elsewhere, super senior Micha Baskerville has to fix some academic issues before he can return to the team, although he is expected back after Spring.
Despite Bo Pelini obsessing over him, Micha hardly featured through the first few games of 2020 before finally starting in the last couple outings (missed Florida because of Covid).
Regardless of some criticism from others, Baskerville was perhaps LSU's most consistent & fundamentally sound linebacker of the entire season...and yes, I'm counting Jabril Cox in that equation.
Will Micha Baskerville have a high octane role to play?
It feels as if Micha Baskerville has been at LSU since the dawn of the previous century, however he has yet to make his desired stamp... save for some nasty tackles last year & a blocked punt return for a touchdown during 2019 (he almost returned an onside kick for an additional score within the same season, too).
Can Micha transcend his lack of height in the passing game?
Will he pack enough punching power in those high traffic running lanes?
I'm rooting for you, brother.
Despite these options, the one player I'm excited to see most within the linebacking corps may surprise you...he's not even on campus yet:
Freshman Greg Penn III....a steely renegade out of Maryland's DeMatha High School, joining fellow Terripin-state Tiger Jordan Toles on the roster.
If Penn had been an early enrollee, he would be an automatic starter for this defense...I have such a vibe about him. But even with the delay, I still feel as though Greg Penn could start 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 at 6'1 225 lbs right now...and just wait until he's on campus in May....
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.
Greg Penn III ranks high when stacked up against the entire lot of our linebackers...that's just how spectacular the DeMatha High senior flies off the tape.
If given the chance, this kid could be a 60-70 tackle freshman...he is built for the SEC.
In conclusion...what do we have here at linebacker?
I 100% believe in Coach Blake Baker.
I definitely feel Damone Clark will rebound in 2020.
I know if given a shot, our 2020 & 2021 linebackers (Josh White, Antoine Sampah, Zavier Carter or Greg Penn) will come good for LSU this season...they possess the most ability & are hungry after standing dormant on the sidelines during 2020.
However, some questions still remain:
Is Micha Baskerville that guy? Will he be given a starting spot due to seniority?
Could Mike Jones Jr come into LSU's squad with such ferocity he'd grab a starting spot upon arrival (ala Jabril Cox) and force everyone in America to never ask "who is Mike Jones?" ever again???
Will Bugg Strong keep the targeting penalties under 5 on the year? All in jest, but seriously...is Bugg Strong gonna have to cover someone's hospital bill this season? The dood is a testament of pain for every opponent to reckon with...and I expect nothing soft to emanate from LSU's defense due to this young man's presence.
Is 2021 going to be the breakthrough year for Josh White? Will 2021 be the season where the young Texan takes over a role within the corps that pushes him beyond just a mere contributor?
Six of those names are the six reasons why I'm actually feeling positive about our 2021 Baker's Dozen:
We have a gritty mix of athleticism and unpredictable playmaking from Jones Jr or Zavier Carter, the intimidating brute strength of Bugg Strong & Josh White....the complete package from Damone Clark as well as freshman understudy Greg Penn III.
The other 7 LBs could be hit, miss or both on and off throughout the year, although one thing is for damn certain: if they give even half of their abilities to the cause, this group can't be worse than last year's exposé into Pelini's savage, bloated heart of defensive darkness.
All around, from top to bottom, Clemson to Mississippi Gulf Coast, picking up top talent from Virginia, Maryland, Texas, Georgia and of course, a big ol' establishment of local Louisiana thunderdome warriors, there's far too much quality around this linebacking corps to see anything but a return to the great LBU traditions of yesteryear:
Is such a dramatic turnaround from a first year SEC coach even possible?
When it comes to the heavy hitting names on this linebacking crew, I have no doubts. Even the questions are far more exciting than worrisome...but if injuries (to use a realistic example) befall a few of those 6 guys, especially a focal point elder statesman such as Damone Clark, then I worry about how much Baker will be able to accomplish in year one.
Is this linebacking unit too young, too small potentially???
I've had my concerns...but photographs mean little other than a snapshot of existence...in football, moving pictures tell the tale:
Blake Baker's somewhat undersized, far too young, way inexperienced and largely unknown motley crew of linebackers have royally kicked ass and taken names thus far in Spring football.
Due to both willing players and an energetic coach working in unison, I expect the hot start to only increase right along with the rising temperatures outside.
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Copyright 2021 Uninterrupted Writings Inc LLC
SHOUTOUTS: Devin White...the greatest LSU linebacker to ever live.