Better or worse? Previewing LSU’s defense in 2022
LSU didn’t do many things well last season.
But one bright spot was that the defense was much improved and actually pretty good during the final third of the season.
The Tigers allowed an average of 32.8 points during their first 5 SEC games. In their final 3 SEC games, they allowed their 3 lowest point totals in conference play for an average of 20.0. That included 20 against No. 3 Alabama, 16 against Arkansas (including overtime) and 24 against No. 24 Texas A&M.
LSU did give up 42 points in its Texas Bowl loss to Kansas State, but it barely had enough players available to field a team for that game.
Additionally, the defense allowed 295.7 yards in the final 3 SEC games after allowing 474.4 during the first 5.
Normally the Tigers might have taken some momentum from the late-season improvement into the offseason and potentially the 2022 season.
But the head coach (Ed Orgeron), defensive coordinator (Daronte Jones), the rest of the defensive staff and many of the key players involved in the turnaround are no longer around.
LSU does have an accomplished head coach (Brian Kelly), a new coordinator (Matt House) and other assistants with impressive resumes, as well as a talented roster.
Will the new defense, playing a new scheme that won’t be fully installed until preseason camp, be better worse than last year’s defense overall?
Here’s what you can expect:
Pressuring the QB: Worse
The Tigers did a good job of getting to quarterbacks last season, finishing 5th in the SEC with 38 sacks.
That happened even though the talented and deep line fell short of expectations, due at least in part to an inordinate number of injuries. It also happened because of a simplified and more aggressive approach that LSU took coming out of its open date in early November.
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The Tigers had 7 sacks in their first 5 SEC games and 11 in the final 3 after the open date.
A similarly aggressive approach that turns loose Ali Gaye (7 sacks last season) and BJ Ojulari (2.5 sacks in 4 games before being injured) from the outside while versatile Maason Smith and tackles Jaquelin Roy, Jacobian Guillory and Mekhi Wingo lead a push at the point of attack will produce a solid pass rush, just not quite as productive as last season.
LSU lost some experience on the line in Neil Farrell Jr. and Glen Logan, but their productivity last season was relatively insignificant.
Run defense: Better
The Tigers’ run defense was average last season, ranking 7th in the SEC with an average of 142.5 yards allowed per game.
But like the defense as a whole, the run defense was much improved late in the season. The Tigers allowed an average of 202.2 rushing yards in their first 5 SEC games, but a mere 67.0 in the final 3.
They do have to replace linebacker Damone Clark, the leading tackler from 2021 who has moved on to the NFL.
LSU has several linebackers – especially rising sophomore Greg Penn III, who was a standout during spring practice – capable of filling the void left by Clark’s departure as well as ensuring the ’22 run defense performs more like the late ’21 run defense than the early ’21 run defense.
Pass defense: Better
LSU’s pass defense was among the worst in the SEC last season, ranking 11th with an average of 236.8, despite the late-season improvement in the pass rush and the defense overall.
They also allowed 29 TD passes, tied with Vanderbilt for most in the SEC and tied for 5th-most in the country.
The statistical improvement in the pass defense late in the season wasn’t as dramatic as that of the run defense or the total defense. That can be attributed partly to the run defense being so bad early on that opponents didn’t turn to the pass as frequently as they would have otherwise, and the run defense was so much better late that opponents did turn to the pass more frequently.
LSU allowed an average of 272.2 passing yards in its first 5 SEC games and 228.7 in its last 3.
Even with a pretty good pass rush, the Tigers weren’t able to prevent quarterbacks from operating efficiently. Generally even when they were under duress, quarterbacks were able to find open receivers.
The 64.2% completion rate that opponents enjoyed was the 4th-highest in the SEC.
LSU will have to adjust to the loss of its top 2 defensive backs – Derek Stingley Jr. (NFL) and Eli Ricks (Alabama) – but they have a head-start on getting accustomed to playing without them. Injuries limited Stingley to 3 games and Ricks to 6 games last season.
Kelly leaned heavily on the transfer portal to upgrade the secondary and the arrival of Greg Brooks and Joe Foucha (Arkansas), Jarrick Bernard-Converse (Oklahoma State) and Mehki Garner (Louisiana-Lafayette) join returnees such as Jay Ward, Sage Ryan and Major Burns to form a group that has experience and depth.
LSU also was last in the SEC in interceptions (8) and tied for last in takeaways (12) last season.
Both numbers will increase because the Tigers will have more playmakers in coverage this season.
Special teams: Better
LSU’s punting game was mundane last season, averaging 38.7 net yards (9th in the SEC.)
Avery Atkins opted for the NFL and the Tigers have two strong candidates to succeed him in Notre Dame transfer Jay Bramblett and redshirt freshman Peyton Todd, who was the No. 1 recruit among punters 2 years ago.
LSU is having a fresh start under a new coaching staff.
It has talent, experience and depth at all three levels of the defense.
And as a practical matter the Tigers are due for better luck in terms of injuries and defections.
That will all add up to perhaps not a great defense, but one that will be better than the 2021 defense.