Updated: Mar 24, 2021
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Next to LSU's offensive line, our safeties are empirically crucial for 2021 success...just look at what happened last year.
LSU's defense allowed 9.98 passing yards per play last year, a disgusting allowance no one is used to in or around the program, player, coach or fan. Largely it was due to quarterbacks finding one or two weaknesses in our passing game and ruthlessly, easily exploiting them....and without equivocation, most of these big plays came from the pre-snap structure / post-snap actions of our safeties.
Our safeties were constantly too deep when they needed to be more shallow...other times, they were far too wide leaving a mountain of space over the middle; Responding poorly to the bad scenario and turning it into an impossible situation, our guys used the worst tackling angles possible, they bit on head / pump fakes while getting ripped apart over the top many times, and remained mired in a never-ending confusion / lack of confidence.
Due to these disappointing performances well below the LSU Standard of Performance, Safeties Coach Bill Busch had to go. Only a year after winning a National Championship with the Tigers... only a season after an LSU safety won the Jim Thorpe Award...just a few months after securing two top 5 safeties for the 2021 recruiting class (including the #1 overall Sage Ryan) Busch was out... that's just how integral his role had to be in the Tigers' calamitous 2020 campaign.
Even more, Busch's relationship with DBU creator Corey Raymond soured immensely, leading to a large amount of the sideline ego-tripping which resulted in the humiliation of a few talented Tiger safeties. The confidence of these elite, National Champion Tigers was shattered by the way 2020 went down...
Enter: DARONTE JONES, LSU's new defensive coordinator and safeties coach.
Jones will be a massive upgrade for this safety room, bringing the communicative humanism, flexibility and teaching skills Bill Busch suddenly lacked...
While Busch may be a great coach and recruiter, I was told by an LSUHQ source that Busch "had to go" due to the way "the kids saw him disregard anything Corey Raymond had to say".
In stark contrast, both current DBs coaches are familiar with each other (Raymond and Daronte Jones working clinics back in Jones' LHSAA football days), they dug working together and they're hungry....having a safeties room such as this would make you extra intent on SEC dominion:
LSU boasts average depth at the safety spot following the 2021 recruiting cycle and the transfer of junior Mo Hampton: they'll rely heavily upon double seniors Todd Harris (2 INTs, 1 FF in 2020), sophomore Jordan Toles & Cam Lewis (28 tackles in 2019 & 2020) rounded out by sophomore Zaven Fountain & bruising freshman Matthew Langlois; but a really interesting boost stems from those top 5 freshmen safeties Orgeron's staff grabbed out of the last class, Gateway's Pennsylvania-native Derrick Davis Jr and Lafayette Legend Sage "Flash" Ryan.
Together, Jones has a really nice mix of veteran leadership and hard nosed grit through his seniors, coupled with less upperclass experience than he'd prefer (in the wake of Hampton's transfer), yet the fast lane confidence from Jordan Toles, Derrick Davis Jr, Matthew Langlois or Sage Ryan could propel this unit forward.
Before his ACL tear vs Northwestern State, Todd Harris Jr played sloppy but tough during the first 3 games of LSU's 2019 National Championship run; due to the harsh severity of the injury, most fans were willing to be patient with Todd's 2020 comeback campaign.
Many expected Harris to be a high impact bench option, most likely grabbing the exact stats he procured throughout 2020...instead, Harris appeared at free safety the most of any player by far...and the results weren't always satisfying for Todd, though he definitely improved by season's end.
Harris wasn't fully practicing until deep into August and due to the previous injury, his explosion was limited when launching into tackles; this created a split second hesitation that caused many whiffs after horrific gap assignment by LSU's front seven. Often times, Derek Stingley Jr, Jacoby Stevens or Harris himself made touchdown-saving tackles, yet every single one of these same DBs were guilty of allowing uncharacteristic huge plays themselves (Nix's stiff arm on Stevens for example).
Todd played like a leader at the backend of 2018 into early 2019 and for most 2020, forcing 3 turnovers across the season (1 FF, 2 INTs), only to endure more frustration than deliverance in his first comeback year; but when looking at his mindset heading into 2021, I'm betting all the chips on Todd being a 5 star Tiger this year.
It was a frustrating 2020 return for Todd, although luckily for him & Tigers fans, he gets a second chance this year to prove to everyone exactly how his 2020 should've gone down. If Harris is finally freed of the ACL tear's physical limitations, he could make a push for the starting spot once again...it's just all about what Daronte Jones is looking for most in a safety.
His LSU legacy means a lot to him and he wants to finish this off the right way....and he's geauxing to...I have a feeling something full circle is about to geaux down.
It's suggested Defensive Coordinator Daronte Jones & CBs Coach Corey Raymond are checking out moving Jay Ward to free safety (if needed) and LSU Odyssey reported their conversation with the cornerback earlier this offseason.
That's very interesting to me, because if you watch many of the plays he's made in coverage (batting down back to back red zone passes from Kyle Trask, his 2 batted passes vs Jalen Hurts' Oklahoma during the 2019 Peach Bowl CFP semifinal, 2 INTs vs Miss State and especially his blocked field goal in the final seconds against Arkansas) those plays specifically detail his acrobatic awareness... often plundering major plays before they occurred utilizing expert timing...safety-like???
Yes, Ward missed tackles vs Miss State as he found himself playing only a few weeks after having surgery on a torn meniscus, without practice......and still, Ward led the game in passes defended with 3. His injury was picked on by K.J Costello and though allowing a few touchdowns, Ward still covered better than most Tigers on the day.
Regardless, the corner grew at the backend of the year, amassing 11 solo tackles (14 total), forcing 3 INTs (one he returned for a score) in the final two games of the season...he showed significant range, stamina and most of all: the intelligence of a safety...in addition, you have to find a way to get such a skilled playmaker and adept cover man like Jay Ward on the field.
Instead of moving a corner to free safety, what about #21?
Is Jordan Toles ready now?
Heading into his sophomore year, Toles received very little action over the course of his 2020 freshman debut. Due to LSU's typical lack of defensive communication last year, Toles was burned on a long bomb against Auburn after just entering the game...yes, even freshmen had their confidence blown to bits in one play by Bo Pelini's hubris.
Toles hasn't been given a fair shot... accordingly, this Spring may be his time. He's been tight with Daronte Jones thus far and seems to be a favorite of the new defensive coordinator / safeties coach.
And why wouldn't he be excited by the prospects of the Maryland-native?
Toles rings the bells which toll for thee...how deep will he push for the free safety spot in Spring? That's up to debate, although if Daronte shows a lot of double free safety looks in his repertoire, we could see Toles grabbing more minutes during the season, especially if he can deliver some instinctual playmaking during Spring ball.
Moving to the three top freshmen on board Coach O's squad: Matthew Langlois, Sage Ryan and Derrick Davis Jr.
Maybe Sage Ryan takes a spot, displaying defensive versatility most fans haven't seen yet. Most of Flash's highlights come from rampant offensive / return game theatrics he pulled off on a regular basis for Lafayette Christian; still, his all-world attributes will be developed beautifully by Daronte Jones. After LSU Odyssey broke the news about Daronte Jones calling Sage (the Lafayette Christian Academy champ described Jones as "down to earth"), you can't help but wonder if he has an opportunity to play a key role this year.
Is he a year away? Will he be used more as a special teams showman and offensive weapon during 2021, before making the transition to safety in 2022 (when Harris & potentially Hampton will be headed to the NFL)???
Sage Ryan is incredible, a true talent and I actually think he's being underrated and there should be more LSU fans talking about his illustrious capabilities in the secondary. That could also be due to his headline-grabbing offensive / special teams plays taking the spotlight away from his gritty work at safety, but either way, expect Sage to come in and hit the ground running.
Derrick Davis Jr is also showing flashes as a freshman, impressing all the coaches with his hulking strength, potential Mathieu smarts and Stevens' professionalism to the point Coach Orgeron has continuously raved about him already. In fact, it may be a smart bet to tip him for the starting nickel spot considering his size, speed, coverage abilities against receivers or elite tight ends. I felt Sage could be the guy, but once you read or hear about the way Coach O wants to deploy him in this defense, you have no choice but to believe that...who else has a similar profile except Mike Jones Jr?
So...the battle for nickel in the 4-2-5 will come down to Davis Jr and Jones Jr....who can cover better...who's more versatile...iron sharpens iron, baby...
If you dare to scoff at me for suggesting he could have a major chance to start there, just ask yourself who at LSU was doing this better in 2020? Flott?
Davis Jr is the perfect hybrid guy and you only need to watch him running down plays from one side of the field to the other with hawkish brutality and reckless abandon. Just like Devin White or Patrick Queen, Coach Orgeron has found another diamond who plays defense like he plays running back.
Matthew Langlois is much the same as Davis with his running back / defender role, although the lifelong Tigers fan lacks the same girth and chesty savagery that Davis possesses; however, Langlois still plays the safety position in the same way LSU want it played, thanks to his highly productive, battering ram skills at running back.
Still a year away from major starting contention, Langlois remains a key Tiger who's role will only grow each season; he reminds me of a freshman Craig Steltz...we'll see if he can finish up with the two titles, Thorpe Award candidacy and legendary status Steltz has. Just like the legendary 2003 & 2007 National Champion, Langlois delivers punishing hits, charging down skill position players like a roadrunner.
All in all, there are a flurry of options at safety heading into the Spring: it will all come down to which two guys fit Daronte Jones' vision & which two guys have the better all around game. This will be one of four key positions LSU must get right in order to win a National Championship, accompanied by linebacker, offensive line and quarterback.
Perhaps a better question is: will this be decided by the end of Spring or take as long as July to figure out? Or....maybe Daronte Jones already knows who his two safeties will be...
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Copyright 2021 Uninterrupted Writings Inc LLC
SHOUTOUTS: A.D you know why! Also, just because I'm writing about football doesn't mean I'm forgetting what happened on Friday or the last decade in the shadows of LSU's athletic department. We won't stop following this story... not because we want to ....but because we have to.