by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
In 2022, LSU's Defensive Line will be led by its fourth different coach in the past 4 seasons, former Oklahoma DL impresario Jamar Cain taking the place of outgoing DL leader Andre Carter.
There's a buzz growing around Cain's arrival in Baton Rouge, not only in his X's & O's prowess concerning LSU's defensive line, but how his overall philosophy influences a defensive front collectively.
Look at his title: DL Coach / Run Game Coordinator....
...at both Oklahoma and Arizona State, two schools far from regarded as "defensive institutions", Cain found a recipe which worked, geared towards shutting down the run, maximizing every member of a front seven: utilizing LBs and DL together through innovative formations, blitz packages, etc....almost as one complete unit unto itself....
We just have to check out the rise of DL Ronnie Perkins, Isaiah Thomas, or Perrion Winfrey, as well as LB Nick Bonnito for full proof of Cain's credentials.... then, take notice of OU's consecutive 30 sack seasons during his tenure, or how his Sooners' front was by far the best performing group of Alex Grinch's defense.
We know what Jamar can do when supplied with a less than adequate defensive framework....
Now that Cain is in Baton Rouge, coaching for the purple & gold, he must be licking his chops when he walks into work every morning, salivating at the mere prospects of deploying & developing Ali Gaye, B.J Ojulari, Maason Smith, Jaquelin Roy, Mekhi Wingo, Saivion Jones, Phillip Webb, Zavier Carter, Jacobian Guillory....
The talent is unquestioned for the Tigers' probable defensive line starters, although while strong in ability, our unit is a little short on ultimate depth.
Leading the unit's edges, B.J Ojulari and Ali Gaye are All-American level talents (as well as expected high NFL Draft picks in 2023);
Last year, Ojulari flashed early and often as a pass rushing colossus, before transitioning into a more subtle, deeper-lying 3-4 OLB role over LSU's final 6 games (coinciding with the Tigers' defensive resurgence);
B.J progressed amid team turmoil, emerging as a reliable leader and defensive pillar following Andre Anthony & Ali Gaye's season-ending injuries, building upon his strong freshman season (16 tackles, 5 TFLs, 4 Sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR) with a whopping 54 tackles, 29 pressures, 14 QB hits, 12 TFLs, 7 sacks, as well as 1 batted down pass, becoming a more complete defender by season's end.
Gaye returns after a powerful 2020 and an injury-hampered 2021, only appearing across 4 games last season due to a fractured hand (posting 19 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks and 1 PBU).
Despite his lack of appearances, Gaye's second year production was stunning when you watch the tape:
Across 6 fewer outings (compared to 2020's 10), LSU's former junior college transfer amassed more than half of his 2020 tackle total and eclipsed his sack numbers after just 6 fewer outings.
Still, the most remarkable and efficient element to Ali's game has to be his relentless passing game disruption, all thanks to his towering height and abominable arm length.
Batting down 7 passes over his 2 seasons wearing purple & gold, Gaye is only second to Jay Ward's 10 broken up passes during that same timeframe, surpassing elite cornerbacks Derek Stingley Jr and Eli Ricks' production over two seasons.
Gaye and Ojulari will likely flank Jaquelin Roy and Maason Smith, the two DTs who I feel should hold court through LSU's interior....but this is LSU Football....our inner-squad competition eliminates position certainty.
I wonder how much playing time Joseph Evans, Jacobian Guillory, Mekhi Wingo and Phillip Webb will be able to grab...
Could Missouri transfer DL Mekhi Wingo take one of LSU's starting spots this summer?
At 27 tackles, 1 INT returned for a TD, 2 TFLs and a sack from limited snaps, without question Wingo is one of the more anticipated defensive linemen on roster, transferring after his freshman All-SEC season.
LSU's young, yet experienced mastermind is about to embark upon an adventurous sophomore campaign, vying for snaps vs two of the best DEs in college football, all while sharpening his own elite skill set in the process.
Concerning LSU's interior DTs, will Roy and Maason become Cain's two firm interior starters?
At this moment, I feel these two are the best candidates & right blend for each starting spot:
Jaquelin Roy continues to progress each year as an aggressive, ball-hunting, play-making interior hellhound, his DT performance grades ranking only behind Neil Farrell Jr according to Pro Football Focus College; his 2021 strip & recovery vs McNeese (in the same diving motion) was one of the plays of the year.
Maason Smith is a dual threat at either DT or DE, named as a freshman All-American by numerous ranking bodies when he packed on 4.5 sacks, including his historic sack-trick vs QB Cody Orgeron & McNeese.
"When I got the snaps, all I could see was #0 coming at me..." Cody told his father, then-LSU Head Coach Ed Orgeron.
Alongside Ojulari & Gaye, Maason is LSU's most athletically gifted DL, possessing a very high ceiling for both his future as a Tiger and beyond.
Elsewhere at DT, how hungry will Jacobian Guillory become during his third year (counting 2020), knowing his freshman injuries and lack of consistent reps throughout 2021 leave him needing to "up the ante" big time in 2022?
Guillory is an absolute wrecking ball up front when fully active, showing off solid play disruption abilities vs Alabama, Ole Miss, K-State, CMU and McNeese....but will it be enough this spring?
Another immediate defensive line question which intrigues me greatly?
Rocking #81, will Bryce Langston deliver on Orgeron's "one of the best DL I've recruited at LSU" hype?
Would he transfer after Spring if his status remains unclear?
If Bryce stays, which I hope he does, should he be utilized on the inside or will the Ocala-born DL stay at his prior defensive end location?
I feel Langston has the attributes and physical characteristics of a defensive tackle, one who could find himself in a leading role if a few injuries occur.
Receiving no playing time on record throughout 2021, Langston was likely frustrated after his freshman debut; However, with a new staff, a year of experience, and a clean slate, Langston could be an X Factor for LSU from the bench, plugging holes at both DE or DT if his mind & body can catch up to the speed of SEC football.
On the edge, backing up Gaye and Ojulari, I am interested to learn just how much a few specific Tigers will impact Cain's unit:
Phillip Webb is one of LSU's more freakish athletes, wearing a profile of haunting measurables which send his potential right to the top.
Regardless of prophecy's estimated future promise, throughout 2 seasons we've seen very little from Webb, mostly due to circumstances out of control. Riding the sidelines because of injuries & inexperience (2020) & finding himself behind preeminent LSU talents at his position (2021).
Although when you watch his film (McNeese and CMU), Webb's play screams out high octane brilliance, issuing 3 pressures and 2 QB hits via intense agility, overwhelming pace, and unstoppable movements during rare snaps vs McNeese.
Right now, Webb must forge a path to a supporting role at least, or his future could become increasingly uncertain, all as his boundless potential remains untapped at the collegiate level....until an SEC rival, perhaps his native Georgia, come knocking around May?
Can LSU's young talent afford a 3rd year behind on the depth chart, regardless of his extra Covid season red shirt?
All I know is this: LSU can't afford to lose such a talent.
What about LSU's only 2022 freshmen DL?
Overlooked freshman DT Tygee Hill may not provide a big impact this year, but he is undoubtedly a gifted player who's on field importance may only grow with time.
As one of the country's most dynamic overall freshmen DL, and, in my opinion, the #1 DE of 2022, Quency Wiggins' effect on Jamar Cain's defensive line unit is much like Harold Perkins for LSU's previously depleted linebacker room:
A young, hungry, physically stout, mentally tough thoroughbred who may need his raw skills fine-tuned before primal starting opportunities may arise, I can see him receiving chances to play from the bench for much of 2022.
Although one factor provides the edge rusher with an advantage:
Quency is already on campus as an early enrollee, learning from Ojulari, Gaye and Maason.
Second year edge man Saivion Jones is a hell of a sight to behold, packing on necessary weight as he heads into Spring football. Pulling off 5 pressures, 3 tackles and 2 QB hits over 3 games, Jones experienced a solid, abbreviated debut showing as a Tiger.
Cast as a major project player, LSU's defensive staff are remaining patient with Saivion as he aims to turn a corner as a sophomore, hopefully gaining repeated opportunities to shine.
Zavier Carter is an edge man who was bounced from linebacker to defensive end a few times last spring, summer & fall, never really finding a home among Blake Baker's linebacking corps or obtaining many available snaps at DE.
Where will Carter's versatility, speed and length be required most?
Linebacker or defensive end?
Entering his third year as a Tiger, Desmond Little recorded a personal best 2.5 sacks & 3 TFLs, most stemming from garbage time reps.
While his top heavy athleticism may supply outside pace, Little's lack of robust, fundamental run game response between the tackles could be a telling flaw if not worked on this Spring.
There won't be enough reps to go around for everyone, even if Jamar Cain happens to become the greatest rotational DL coach ever seen....
On paper, Cain has two reliable starters for each slot, backed by another tier of strong pieces pushing up the ladder...yet after that, LSU's defensive line room turns uncertain, uneven....unproven.
Still, the truth remains: at the top, LSU's core DL are among the best of their conference, maybe the country; due to LSU's elite talent pool, at least 3-4 highly recruited defensive linemen will stand on the sidelines for most snaps...
....While that sad reality can become a problem at times, it's a good problem to have and a manageable one at that.
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Copyright 2022 Uninterrupted Writings Inc
SHOUTOUTS: WELCOME COACH CAIN & MEKHI! LET'S GEAUX!!! TIGERS D-LINE ABOUT TO EAT!