Over the last two seasons, no team in all of college football has been pillaged by the NFL Draft more than the LSU Tigers.
18 draftees. That's the total number, with an even nine and nine players having been selected each of the two years from Louisiana State. Now, you could say that's the sign of a dynasty — and, given that Florida State shares the national lead for draftees over the last two years, you'd be the rightest Tomahawk Nation commenter ever if you said that — but the NCAA powerhouse system often works in thirds. Typically, you'll see two or, in some cases, three years of transcendent talent peaking at the right time, with redshirt sophomores and upperclassmen leading a great team, followed by a gap year between full-reload recruiting classes. That case can be made for LSU, but if you're keeping score at home, that leaves them in a vulnerable year this year after a stacked last three seasons.
The wording is key there: "Vulnerable", not "without talent."
In 2013, all but one (the last pick) of LSU's nine drafted players came from the defensive side of the ball, and what was left of such a talented squad was then drafted in 2014. So where does this leave LSU's famed defensive unit with no Barkevious Mingo, Eric Reid, Tyrann Mathieu or Kevin Minter? Has defensive coordinator John Chavis been forced to adjust a scheme and philosophy that just three seasons ago led he and Les Miles to a national championship game?
To understand what LSU's defense brings to The Swamp in 2014, we first have to look back and realize how different it looks from when they were upset on Florida Field in 2012. To do that, I recruited Billy Gomila of And The Valley Shook to teach me the perfect recipe for a grass smooth ... er, uh, LSU's defense.
LSU seems to be handling the spread offensive revolution in stride — even more so than Alabama — and has been yielding only 20 or so points against the likes of Auburn, Oregon, WVU, Texas A&M and a few other offense-heavy programs over the last few years. 'Bama, Florida, Georgia, and other top defensive SEC schools have all tried to contain these faster offenses by recruiting more athletic defensive players, but haven't had near the consistency of LSU. The difference is in LSU's motto and theme: Condense the field. That theme comes to life in layers.
Let's start with formation.
As mentioned before, teams such as Alabama and Florida run their defenses out of the 3-4. What they've tried to do is get their defensive linemen under 300 pounds, and use their linebackers both for gap control and coverage. LSU, on the other hand, runs their defense out of a traditional 4-3, with certain centerpieces at the linebacker and safety levels. LSU defensive ends will always be identified as down linemen, and LSU will split the linebacker responsibilities into thirds across the four-man front. It's actually pretty simple.
But that's simply the base formation. You can't cover all four or five wide receivers in a spread offense effectively with seven players in the box. This forces teams to create sub-packages for their defense (all defenses have these adjusted formations). Sub-packages can actually tell more of a tale than a team's base defense, because a great sub-package formation must adjust to counter the look of the offense and keep a team's best players on the field. LSU's go-to sub-package over the years has been the 4-2-5 (or, sometimes, a 3-2-6).
Here's what that looked like on the field vs. Manziel and A&M last year.
It almost appears as though LSU isn't playing any linebackers, but actually, the two extra players on the edge are the MIKE and WILL dropping down into their assignments; the one on the bottom as a rusher, the one at the top into coverage. This formation allows LSU to play in nickel with three corners and keep their starting strong and free safeties in deep coverage. And LSU always tries to keep two specific players on the field regardless of formation: The starting MIKE LB and the best safety.
But as brilliant as a certain defensive scheme may be, it can only work if every part of the formation is able to do its specific job to create coverage and confusion. This is where personnel comes in, and really where Les Miles and company have made their money when it comes to combatting both the run and the pass out of the spread.
Some teams are trying to focus more on a range of weight and body control as their focal point when building faster defensive fronts. For LSU, it's not weight or speed — it's actually length and height.
Of the 10 defensive players who were drafted from LSU the last two years, only three of them were from the defensive line, and only one of them was a defensive end (Mingo and Montgomery are technically LBs in a 3-4 look). A defense that has been so consistently dominant in college football being void of a star means they're not recruiting defensive ends for the NFL (initially), but for a specific purpose: Being long, and condensing the passing lanes with outstretched arms.
LSU's average height for its defensive ends is just over 6'4", and that's everyone listed at DE on the roster. A big boost for that is 6'6" starting DE Danielle Hunter. He's a player who's doing part of what he needs to on every play no matter the result. Disruption is the end goal for all defensive linemen, but sometimes that comes in the form of a sack to end the play ... and other times, it could just be forcing the quarterback out of his comfort zone. Sacks and QB hits aren't the only way to judge a defensive lineman.
Here's an example of what Hunter does so well.
Batted passes can sometimes be even more detrimental to an offense than a single sack. If a quarterback's pass gets deflected on a few drives in a row, it can go to a QB's head. And keeping that in mind forces passers to adjust either the trajectory they put on the ball or the decisiveness when the pocket collapses a certain way. It's a domino effect that can go unnoticed to the casual fan, and also produces 50-50 balls — opportunities for an athletic secondary (we're getting there).
Here's how Les Miles teaches his guys to get their hands up.
Next we move to the middle linebackers. Kevin Minter and Lamin Barrow were two players who had the necessary explosiveness to play damage control when the ball got out of the quarterback's hands; this was their role. They were used as a quick illusion in coverage, to assist the five defensive backs, or as the first line of defense if a runner advanced past the line of scrimmage.
So LSU tries to recruit hybrid MIKE and WILL linebackers, around 220 to 240 pounds with reliable instincts both in man coverage and with pursuit angles. They're not looking for their MLBs to be major pass rushers, or even their top coverage players. Simplicity and reliability serve their purpose here. This condenses short-yardage play calling and takes pressure off the five defensive backs — if they don't have to worry about run support, they can drop more confidently in cverage.
D.J. Welter and Kwon Alexander are the two men in the middle for LSU this season, and Billy explained their instincts aren't what LSU fans are used to seeing. If this is true, quick passes out of flats or overloading a certain side could prove to be successful, especially if they leave one of these two players confused. Alternatively, it also could leave big holes in the run game up the middle.
This run only happens because the interior linebackers weren't patient enough to watch Gordon. If you look, you'll see the MIKE LB engage a blocker who isn't even near the ball carrier. When LSU drops to just two LBs on the field, they can't afford to play without awareness. Certain things like that made Minter an asset. But he's not in the middle anymore.
Finally, we reach what brought LSU's defense its longevity: The secondary. With players like Morris Claiborne, Patrick Peterson, Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid, and Craig Loston all leaving their mark around the NFL, it's easy to see that LSU's philosophy has revolved around its greatest strength.
Let's assume LSU is going to run out of the nickel and 4-2-5 formation for most of their game versus Florida, to combat the Gators' frequent three-receiver sets. Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson have seen the most time on the outside, and the Tigers play their defensive backs man-to-man, often having the better athletes on their side of the field, so they'll likely match up against Florida's outside receivers. Jalen Collins, then, makes things interesting as the nickel corner or substitute man outside. He might be LSU's most skilled pure corner, but his youthfulness has shown this year, according to Billy. On the back end, we'll see Jalen Mills (a converted corner to FS) and Ronald Martin (the bigger run stopper). The wildcard to all of this is freshman five-star recruit Jamal Adams. He's listed at safety, but LSU's not afraid to put their talent anywhere it can, especially when it comes to the secondary.
If you've been keeping tab at home, you're noticing certain points of emphasis with each position. For the LSU DE, it's length. For the LB? Reliability. And for the DBs, the Tigers need range.
Condensing the field only works if each component does its job, but the secondary players have the most important role. Typically, LSU is recruiting its cornerbacks to be longer in body length, and quick with recovery speed. This condeses both catch radius and open field. If they're not able to out-man, out-smart or just out-play their matchup on each play, spread offenses can find ways to succeed, even with so many DBs on the field; cutting down on space to run helps starve those offenses.
LSU also loves to use its secondary's speed on the blitz. With two deep safeties, expect a heavy dose of corner blitzes. They're not afraid to bring four, five, six or even seven players on the blitz, even in a 4-2-5 or 3-2-6. The reason for that: It's easier to disguise who's on the attack when there are so many defensive backs close to the line.
LSU's current defensive backs aren't less talented than their predecessors, just less developed than we're used to seeing. And I don't expect them to be any less aggressive because of it. They've been unlucky so far this season in coverage, like when Auburn's Sammie Coates caught a touchdown pass between two defenders, or against Mississippi State, when they held the Bulldogs to just five conversions on 14 third downs ... but three of those conversions went for touchdowns.
If you recall, the glue that holds this defense together will be the performances of the MIKE and the best safety — D.J. Welter in the middle and Jalen Mills on the back end. These two positions were previously and most effectively held by Minter and Reid, and we saw that in 2012, when both played well against Florida. Mills's and Welter's instincts will go a long way in how many or how little yards Florida can eat up each drive.
Overall, I'm not too confident in Florida's abilities to pick apart such an athletic secondary. I expect Florida to counter LSU's 4-2-5 formation with power runs out of the wing formation, and I think the underlying theme to Florida's day will be how effectively it can run power out of the spread. Something I'd watch for Florida to capitalize on is LSU's youth and lack of dominance in the middle of the trench. Florida fans have seen Jeff Driskel bust a few big runs off up the middle on designed QB draw plays, and those could work come Saturday night, too. Dak Prescott proved that.
Despite Driskel's poor efforts through the air as of late, I'm not worried about the game plan becoming too conservative. Kurt Roper called a good game against Tennessee; Driskel just couldn't hit. And the thing is, I'm not sure Florida needs him to be anything more than a 2012 game manager to put up 20-plus points on this LSU team, given how young the Tigers are.
Tonight, Florida will likely succeed not by throwing it, but by Running The Damn Ball (#RTDB). And if the Gators' offense can do that, and the defense continues to force turnovers, Florida's got a decent shot to get to 5-1.