When I spoke to Craig Loston at SEC Media Days last week he told me that he felt like he was the only “old guy left” in the secondary. He’s right. LSU allowed the last four quarterbacks on the schedule last year to throw for more than 300 yards. Maybe a shift in personnel will help. We’ll start a tour of the Tiger defense with the secondary and strong safety in particular. This is a spot where LSU returns three players, Loston the starter and veteran. We’ll hit free safety next where more talent looms. LSU is six deep at safety which is a good spot to be in.
The Departed: Rocky Duplessis- Graduation
They’re Back: Craig Loston (6’2”, 205, Sr.); Corey Thompson (6’2”, 210, Soph.); Jerqwinik Sandolph (6’2”, 190, Soph.)
Who’s New: None
What We Know: Last year I wrote in this space that it was time for Craig Loston to become the player he was supposed to be when national services dubbed him the No. 1 safety in the 2008 high school class. That entailed staying healthy and playing well, two things he hadn’t put together in his first three years at LSU. Last year was his best in both departments. He started 12 of the 13 games and amassed 55 tackles and three interceptions, good enough for second team all-SEC honors. There were times when Loston was beaten in man-to-man coverage, especially in the red zone. And there were times when he took poor angles on ball carriers. But everyone in the secondary was guilty of those at one time or another. What is indisputable is that Loston made improvements as the season went on, and it’s easy to forget that 2012 was his first year as a starter. Loston now returns as the veteran of the group, and he’ll have a first year starter playing beside him. Loston has to become better in coverage where he spent a good deal of time last year. John Chavis positioned him in centerfield a bunch last year when Eric Reid crept to the line of scrimmage. Loston has the raw ability to play NFL football, but he’ll have to be better this year than last.
There are players that you notice when you walk through the gates and attend a practice. Corey Thompson is one of those. In shoulder pads and a helmet, he’s as imposing a presence as anyone on the team. Last year Thompson got to stand beside Eric Reid and Craig Loston every day in practice, learning how to play the position. He also played a good amount of special teams. He made 11 tackles last season, three against both Mississippi State and Towson. That’s the general route of secondary players in the LSU system. With that year of seasoning, it’s now time for the 6-foot-2, 205 lb., Thompson to take the next step. No one will question his size or ability, we just haven’t seen much yet due to the depth at the position.
Jerqwinick Sandolph wasn’t a guy many LSU fans were familiar with when he pledged his commitment to Les Miles and the Tigers. The Hahnville product has very good size and more speed than maybe either of the first two guys in this piece. Physically, this kid is gifted. He arrived at LSU a very raw talent, but that skill set didn’t warrant a redshirt. His aggressive style of play earned him a spot on special teams where he made five tackles and recovered a fumble.
What To Expect: There is plenty on Loston’s plate this year. He’ll have to direct some traffic in the secondary with Reid gone and younger players around him. Plus, he’s got to play better football himself. Loston had a good season last year, but the LSU secondary scuffled down the stretch. It’s my contention that Loston has a really good chance to wear No. 18, and he’ll need to wear it the way Bradon Taylor did at the safety spot. I expect Loston to have a really good season this year, and I think Chavis will once again play him both around the line of scrimmage and in centerfield. He can play both and has the ability to play them well. If Loston can improve in the red zone, he can be an All-SEC safety. LSU needs that from him.
Thompson is going to play. Last season Chavis rotated three safeties in Loston, Reid and Ronald Martin. I expect that to continue, especially against spread teams that push the tempo and force Nickel and Dime looks. Thompson’s dad was a football player, so he’s got the pedigree and instincts to make plays. As we said, he’s also got the talent. I think you’ll see Thompson in there in every game this season for a drive or number of plays. He’ll also continue to play special teams where he made an impact last season. I think he’s still one season away from being a full-time player.
Sandolph looks like a special teamer to me, at least as we sit here today. There is a log jam in front of him, and the reviews on Rickey Jefferson are good right behind him. But teams need guys to play special teams. Look for Sandolph to contribute 10-15 tackles on special teams. I don’t see much significant time for him at safety this season.