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LSU'S 2024 LB ROOM: BLAKE BAKER'S BEST POSITION GROUP?

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By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN

@LonnPhillips


While fans, analysts, and even studying future opponents will all have reservations about the depth & pedigree of LSU's 2024 defense, the Tigers' linebacker room remains their strongest & deepest defensive position group on paper.

Questions about Bo Davis' bare bones defensive line or Corey Raymond's mostly unproven secondary will continue to percolate clear until Week 1 kickoff, however this offseason, much of Tiger Nation developed a steadfast belief in their upcoming linebacker unit.

Led by the most talented, impactful and skilled defender in America, Harold Perkins, featuring steely veteran Greg Penn III, elite rising sophomore star Whit Weeks, his versatile brother West, backed by a lengthy list of bristling youth talents, Davhon Keys, Tylen Singleton, Kolaj Cobbins, and tackling machine Deebo Atkins....LSU's 2024 linebacker unit is loaded to the brim with ballers.

Inching ever closer towards his first spring camp as LSU's Defensive Coordinator (second stint as the program's LBs Coach), former Mizzou shotcaller Blake Baker arrives in Baton Rouge blessed with a room full of prodigious talent, yet coaching top tier, future NFL studs also has its risks, rewards and endless responsibility to get it right:

Especially when it concerns the utilization of Harold Perkins....

Brian Kelly likely only has one season left with the NFL-bound superfreak, and despite Perkins' otherworldly showcases over his freshman and sophomore campaigns, Matt House failed to get the best out of Harold's skill set, mostly due to a position move inside to middle linebacker....a change reportedly instigated by the player himself.

On paper, Perkins is listed officially as a linebacker, although his game and ability to impact every defensive phase of play screams anything but a static, traditional position.

His greatest on field exploits all underline the simple fact that he is best (and so is LSU) when deployed in a free roaming, unidentifiable, anticipation & instinct-driven role.

To achieve that, Blake Baker needs two linebackers he can trust to possess the athleticism, stamina and discipline to hold it down over the middle, allowing Perkins the opportunity to attack the backfield or secondary at will.

Instead, Head Coach Brian Kelly recently announced their plan for Harold would remain the same: the junior superstar would be playing middle linebacker for the second season in a row....all with Kelly's concern for his NFL development at the core of the decision.

"...I think we owe that to him..." Kelly said to the Advocate about his decision to keep the middle linebacker experiment alive, in hopes it will help Harold's undersized athletic profile translate better at the next level.

...but Harold will have no problems when it comes to his professional future....

...on the other hand, LSU's 2023 defense were one of the worst in program history....the main concern on my mind is making sure that never happens again.

Failing to utilize our once in a generation talent to the maximum of his potential would be an overwhelming waste....one that could not only haunt the Tigers in 2024, it would provide plenty of ammo for negative recruiting against Brian Kelly in the future ahead.

Kelly and Baker must get this right with #4....our coaches simply can't be held hostage by the demands of a single player, even one as singularly special as the New Orleans native....but failure to do what is best for the player and the team, failure to maximize his potential out of transfer fears.....that would be unacceptable.

Simply put, the epicenter of LSU's linebacking corps, nay, their entire defense, is Harold Perkins....his big time playmaking fuels this entire group, becoming a contagious phenomenon.

We've seen it throughout 2022 when he was a freshman....he took over the most important games of the season, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Auburn, Georgia....as the face of LSU's defensive unit....and he didn't do it as a middle linebacker, he did it as a rogue, freewheeling leader of pain.

Watch for Kelly to tread this line carefully, appeasing Perkins while also trying to strike a balance....

Another worry.....

.....Will Blake Baker place his trust in Whit Weeks, or is he sticking with a 4-2-5 set up, which would likely feature only Perkins & Penn? Or, could Baker utilize all three, with Harold in a nickel / SAM / edge role?

Either way you line them up, I believe Whit Weeks must be on the field.

As a freshman, Weeks rose from the bench by Week 3 and appeared to lock up a starting spot following tenacious performances @ Mississippi State and vs Arkansas (17 tackles across his first two starts), greatly assisting the two strongest defensive outings of 2023 for Matt House's unit.

But once original starter Omar Speights recovered from his ankle injury, Weeks went back to the sidelines....coinciding with LSU's inevitable defensive collapse vs Ole Miss, Mizzou & Alabama among others.

Without Weeks' fiery athleticism, Perkins and Penn were forced to put out far too many fires, becoming exhausted shells of themselves by the 3rd and 4th quarters, with constant questions swirling about Harold's positioning, a poor defensive scheme, as well as Weeks' lack of playing time.

Over his three years wearing purple and gold, Greg Penn III has proven himself on the gridiron (89 tackles in 2023, 2nd on the team), ranking at or near the top in tackles over consecutive seasons, producing big time plays in the backfield, as well as forcing turnovers, Penn is evolving into a big game player for Kelly's Tigers.

Still, his lack of pace was caught out when tasked with marking opponents in coverage (allowing 4 TD catches during 2023, according to Pro Football Focus).

Regardless, Penn is highly reliable as a tackler, run stuffer, random playmaker, and veteran example for LSU's younger defenders.

Elsewhere, the youngest linebackers in the room may lack experience, but what they don't hold in collegiate game time, these young Tigers make up for in pure high octane talent.

Davhon Keys arrived as an undersized "project", just around 200 pounds and standing 6 feet tall. Within a few weeks of his January enrollment, Keys already gained 222 pounds, and currently is right under 230....quite the evolution, achieved without losing a step speed-wise, clocking at 21 mph during winter workouts.

Tylen Singleton is a homegrown prospect, a pure linebacking menace in both profile & athletic skill. He should be playing sooner rather than later, but a rotational spot at best is probably all that will be possible in year one, that is unless injuries or massive departures clear a path. In time, Singleton could be a juggernaut at LSU.

Tylen Singleton
Tylen Singleton

Kolaj Cobbins may have some key measurables that could vault him ahead of his fellow freshmen, standing tallest at 6'2, replete with lengthy wingspan and a keen eye for the ball, turning into one of Louisiana high school football's most impressive playmaking defenders during his Destrehan career, often seen returning interceptions for touchdowns, racking up tackles, making plays in the backfield, headlined by a junior year where he forced 8 fumbles.

Freshman Deebo Atkins might turn out to become the most talented & productive of them all....he's the only LSU linebacker with a 200 tackle season to his name (218 tackles and 28 TFLs in 2022).

Performing among the best linebackers in Louisiana as a freshman, sophomore and junior at Jonesboro, Atkins also took over Texas as a senior (102 tackles, 7 TFLs, 3 FFs, 2 sacks and 2 INTs), leading Summer Creek to the 6A title game.

LSU's 2024 linebacker room contains a wide range of veterans, proven difference makers, ambitious youth, and the right mixture of returning starters, physically gifted debutants, all fighting for 2-4 prime rotational spots within Blake Baker's starting linebacker set up.

Who has what it takes???

Could Penn III be usurped by a younger linebacker on the depth chart???

Right now, if I had to pick the starting three linebackers, it's Perkins and Weeks either side of middle linebacker Greg Penn III.

But if Baker sticks mostly with a two man line-up, it could be an intense battle between Weeks and Penn for that single spot, plus a slew of ruthless contributors all pushing for game time.


A SPECIAL SURPRISE FOR TIGER FANS AWAITS IN THE COMING DAYS...

By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN

©️ 2024 Uninterrupted Writings Inc

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