Better or worse? Previewing LSU's defense in 2019
Editor’s note: After previewing every SEC East defense last week, this is the 4th in a series on the SEC West. Coming Friday: Mississippi State.
LSU historically has been known more for its defense than its offense.
That has been especially true since Dave Aranda took over as defensive coordinator before the 2016 season.
And it likely will be the case again in 2019, even though the defense was sub-par in some regards last season and the offense has the potential to be more productive this season.
The Tigers did lose All-America linebacker and Butkus Award winner Devin White, one of the most productive defenders in school history, as well as talented cornerback Greedy Williams. Oft-injured nose tackle Ed Alexander also left early, but the Tigers return 8 starters.
A return to health of several key players who missed time last season as well as the arrival of another top-flight recruiting class gives Aranda the tools necessary for LSU to field an elite defense.
Each of Aranda’s defenses with the Tigers has finished in the top 30 in the country in scoring. Last season LSU allowed 339 yards and 22 points per game, so even with the injuries it was a good year that contributed significantly to a 10-3 season.
The Tigers are deep in all three areas and versatile players allow Aranda plenty of flexibility based on down and distance.
Will they be better? Let’s take a look:
Pressuring the quarterback: Better
LSU tied for 32nd in the country last season with 34 sacks, fewer than preseason expectations would have suggested. But injuries to Rashard Lawrence and Breiden Fehoko weakened the Tigers up front. Both are expected to be healthy after undergoing surgery, and the return of end Glenn Logan and Neil Farrell also is significant.
Fehoko’s ability to play end as well as the interior depth provided by Tyler Shelvin and newcomer Apu Ika should lead to a healthy rotation on the line. The athleticism of the interior linemen allows Aranda to use them as playmakers and not just space eaters.
At times last year, the Tigers didn’t have enough healthy linemen they could count on to have an adequate rotation. As a result, fatigue occasionally became an issue.
The expectation of improved depth on the line is only part of the pass-rush equation as Aranda routinely brings pressure from the back end as well.
The return of K’Lavon Chaisson, a potentially elite pass rusher who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener last season, and Michael Divinity Jr., who emerged as a top-flight defender last season, at linebacker as well as safety Grant Delpit, a unanimous All-American who led the team with 5.0 sacks, gives the Tigers the ability to pressure the quarterback from all angles.
The numbers are there for Aranda to be able to bring consistent pressure from a variety of fresh players.
Run defense: Worse
The departure of White, who was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the No. 5 overall pick, means the absence of some 100-plus tackles that the Tigers could count on each season. It will take a group effort to replicate his production, and LSU has the talent and depth to mitigate his loss if not completely replace him.
Jacob Phillips, who lined up next to White on the interior last season, and Patrick Queen, who backed up White, are prime candidates to lead the way against the run, along with Divinity, who can play inside and outside.
Ray Thornton and Andre Anthony as well as Damone Clark and highly regarded freshmen Donte Starks and Kendall McCallum comprise a deep unit.
A healthier and deeper front should allow more tackling opportunities closer to the line of scrimmage with plenty of reinforcements from the linebackers and defensive backs.
The Tigers were solid against the run last season, ranking 34th in the country, but they gave up more than 200 yards on the ground to Alabama, Florida and Mississippi State, and LSU is used to being exceptional. That will be difficult to achieve without White, but the Tigers have enough run stoppers at all three levels to still make things difficult for offenses.
Passing defense: Better
Williams wasn’t the ballhawk as a sophomore that he was as a redshirt freshman in 2017, but still he’s not easily replaced.
Nonetheless LSU does like to be called DBU and as usual there’s lots of talent returning and arriving in the secondary. Delpit should be a strong candidate for all national awards for which he is eligible and freshman Derek Stingley Jr. is the marquee player in a highly regarded freshman class.
Cornerbacks Kristian Fulton and Kelvin Joseph, safety JaCoby Stevens, nickelback Kary Vincent Jr. and freshman safety Marcel Brooks provide talent and versatility to the unit.
If the pass rush improves as is expected, opportunities will be there for big plays in the secondary and there are plenty of Tigers capable of making them.
LSU ranked 38th in the country in passing yards allowed but it tied for 11th with 17 interceptions and that’s a ranking that could be surpassed with the potential for an improved pass rush and coverage.
Special teams: Better
The Tigers ranked 22nd in punt-return yards allowed but just a tie for 72nd in kickoff return yards allowed. That comes with a huge caveat, however. The Tigers only had 6 of their 79 kickoffs returned. They led the nation in fewest kickoff return yards allowed, just 126. Even better, kickoff specialist Avery Atkins did all of that as a freshman last season.
With the depth on the defense, if LSU gets luckier with injuries than it did last season it should have the ability to improve on its punt coverage.
It’s difficult to lose a player of White’s caliber and get better, but that’s exactly what LSU is poised to do.
The losses to the NFL was fewer than normal, the incoming class looks to be outstanding and the return to health of significant veterans to join youngsters who got expanded playing time in the vets’ absence last season provides LSU with an opportunity to field an outstanding defense.
The Tigers ranked 25th in total defense last season and a lot of teams would see that as a very good season and an admirable goal for the upcoming season.
But LSU sets its defensive sights higher than that and it appears capable of reaching higher in 2019.
The Tigers are hopeful of breaking into the Playoff this season and they’ll need an elite defense to get there.