Better or worse? Previewing LSU’s defense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of every SEC team’s defense continues with LSU. Coming Thursday: Mississippi State.
LSU’s defense was bad in 2020.
It was really bad, even historically bad on occasion.
It was marginally better against the run than it was against the pass, but still bad enough to give up a boatload of points on a weekly basis on the team’s way to a 5-5 record.
Most of the defensive coaches from last season are gone and most of the defensive players from last season are back.
A highly regarded recruiting class and a few notable transfers have bolstered the defensive depth chart.
The LSU defense will look much different in 2021 than it did in 2020. The Tigers will have their third defensive coordinator in 3 seasons.
Head coach Ed Orgeron believes that will lead to improvement, but he thought the arrival of Bo Pelini last season would mitigate the loss of Dave Aranda, and that didn’t happen.
New coordinator Daronte Jones will have to be a better fit than Pelini was if Orgeron is going to have the type of defense he wants and needs.
Will the Tigers be better? Let’s take a look.
LSU lost 2 starters – and 2 of its best defensive players – from last season in LB Jabril Cox and S JaCoby Stevens. But there is plenty of talent and depth on hand for Jones to mold a much better unit than last season.
Maurice Hampton, one of the more experienced safeties from last season, has entered the transfer portal, but the Tigers have plenty of candidates to take his snaps.
Pressuring the QB: Better
The Tigers were average in pass pressure – 5th in the SEC and 52nd in the country (2.4 sacks per game) – but that made that element one of the strengths of the defense last season.
That’s not close to the type of production that LSU expects from its past rush, but there is reason to expect significant improvement this season.
Jones will operate out of a 4-man front, as Pelini did, but he’ll mix things up with edge rushers that are sometimes in a down position and sometimes an upright position, utilizing more variety than Pelini did.
Neither approach figures to inherently make much of a difference, but Jones and new defensive line coach Andre Carter seem to have more talented players with which to scheme – including all 4 starters from last season.
The Tigers have 3 key rushers back from a year ago in Andre Anthony, who returns for a 6th season after leading the team with 5.5 sacks, B.J. Ojulari (4 sacks, 3 QB pressures as a freshman) and senior Ali Gaye (2 sacks and 5 hurries).
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Powerful junior Jarell Cherry, athletic redshirt freshman Desmond Little and a trio of 4-star recruits – Saivion Jones, Landon Jackson and Bryce Langston – will help provide a deep rotation of rushers.
The interior of the line also features a promising blend of experience and youth that should produce a lot of quality depth.
The starting tandem of seniors Neil Farrell and Glen Logan should anchor the line, though 3rd-year sophomore Joseph Evans is making a push to possibly start. A third senior – Soni Fonua – provides versatility in reserve.
Jaquelin Roy and Jacobian Guillory appear ready to take on bigger roles after learning on the fly as freshmen who missed out on spring practice last season because of COVID. Eric Taylor redshirted last season and could see snaps this season.
Maason Smith is a 5-star recruit who has the talent to contribute right away and the luxury of not being rushed into a bigger role than he is ready for because of the presence of so many experienced linemen. Expect to hear his name more in late October and November than in September and early October.
Pass defense: Better
The Tigers tied for second in the SEC and for 13th in the country with 13 interceptions, but they also allowed the most passing yards in the country (323.0 per game).
That’s a reflection of the OK, but not great pass rush as well as a secondary that was talented but inexperienced and plagued by constant mental breakdowns.
The defensive backs are more experienced, deep and extremely talented. They should be a strength this season if Jones and secondary coach Corey Raymond, the only holdover on the defensive staff, can get them to cut way back on the breakdowns.
The starting cornerback tandem of Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks should be outstanding. Stingley was an All-American as a freshman 2 years ago and despite an inconsistent, injury-plagued sophomore season he is still generally considered as good a cover corner as there is in college football.
Ricks had a pair of pick-6s as a true freshman last season and figures to earn lofty accolades this season.
Cordale Flott has matured during the past 2 seasons and should be a major contributor this season as should sophomore Raydarious Jones.
Dwight McGlothern started slowly as a freshman last season and played better down the stretch. Damarius McGhee is a 4-star signee who was a big playmaker in high school.
The safeties should also have improved depth even with the departure of Hampton.
Junior Jay Ward had an impressive spring at free safety after playing cornerback his first 2 seasons. He will also see work at strong safety and nickel in preseason camp with the expectation that he will become one of LSU’s most versatile defensive backs.
Georgia transfer Major Burns figures to find a role immediately and incoming 5-star recruit Sage Ryan figures to get a look at nickel, safety and perhaps even corner in search of the best spot for him to have an immediate impact.
Todd Harris has been limited by injury but is the Tigers’ most experienced returning safety.
Highly touted safety recruit Derrick Davis Jr. should be a factor against the run and in pass coverage.
Freshman Matthew Langlois has a chance to get snaps depending on how quickly he adapts mentally.
Jordan Toles played in 3 games as a true freshman last season and late-bloomer Cameron Lewis started to produce as a junior when he made 33 tackles last season.
Run defense: Better
The Tigers ranked 9th in the SEC and 67th in the country (169.0 rushing yards per game) last season.
Orgeron has talked openly about the need for the linebacking corps to improve significantly over last season, and new linebackers coach Blake Baker has a lot of candidates for playing time to work with.
Damone Clark was the leading tackler last season and his lateral-pursuit ability should enable him to maintain a prominent role.
Two newcomers in top-ranked JUCO recruit Navonteque Strong, a very productive tackler, and Mike Jones, a versatile defender who played in 28 games at Clemson before leaving, are expected to have prominent roles.
Micah Baskerville sat out spring practice to focus on academics after starting all 10 games last season.
Josh White, Phillip Webb and Antoine Sampah are explosive players that saw limited playing time as true freshmen last season and could be ready for bigger roles.
Greg Penn III is a physical player and Zavier Cartier is an early enrollee who has the speed to be effective off the edge, but will need to add strength.
Special teams: Worse
True freshman Peyton Todd is a highly regarded punter, but he will be hard-pressed to match the performance of Zach Von Rosenberg. LSU ranked 2nd in the SEC and 19th in the country in net punting (41.97) last season.
The Tigers have plenty of room for improvement on kickoff coverage after ranking last in the SEC and second to last (126th) in the country in kickoff-return yards allowed (34.4).
Granted, the bar for being better is pretty low.
The Tigers were 13th in the SEC and 124th (4th-to-last) in the country last season in yards allowed (492.0 per game).
They were tied for 10th in the SEC and were 98th in the country in points allowed (34.9 per game).
So LSU will be better on defense.
But that alone isn’t enough. The Tigers must be much, much better on defense, and that’s a realistic possibility.
LSU has the experience, the infusion of new talent, the depth and the energy of a new, younger coaching staff to breathe new life into what was a moribund defense last season.