It’s both surprising and beyond debate; the linebacker position is the deepest on the LSU defense entering the 2012 season. Proven veterans and that mammoth haul of 2012 have created a wealth of talent for the Chief, and it’s a good thing because the other levels of the defense have some growing up to do. Just about everyone is back on the outside, and that’s where we’ll start. What a blend of youth and experience this group boasts.
The Departed: Luke Muncie
They’re Back: Lamin Barrow (6’2”, 232, Sr.); Tahj Jones (6’2”, 205, Sr.); Kwon Alexander (6’2”, 215, Soph); Deion Jones (6’2”, 202, Soph); Lorenzo Phillips (6’2”, 215, rFr)
Who’s New: Duke Riley (6’1”, 205, Fr.)
What We Know: Kevin Minter was the lead last year, but Lamin Barrow was certainly in the running for best supporting actor. He was phenomenal all season long on the weak side, racking up 104 tackles, 7.5 for loss. He had double digit tackles four times. Barrow has added 25 lbs. since he arrived at LSU, so when you look at the other weights on this list that are hovering around 205, you understand that those will rise with time. He still runs exceptionally well and last year finally became a sure tackler. He had been a guy who missed tackles as a younger player, but he was steady last year for all 13 games. Barrow is a soft-spoken leader, not unlike Minter. The young guys will look to him this season with Minter in the NFL.
You know how much the staff thinks of Tahj Jones when he missed the first 12 games of the season last year and started the bowl game. Jones never did put on the weight many hoped he would, but being slender has never hindered his ability to make tackles. He just puts people on the ground. Jones fits the mold of the Chavis speed linebacker, and that’s why Chief likes him so much. Entering his final season Jones is fully eligible, and I count him as a returning starter.
Kwon Alexander was just coming into his own when he broke his ankle at Florida last year. It was becoming very obvious that LSU got a steal in taking Alexander late after everyone quit on him in high school. That knee healed up perfectly, and he was ready to play immediately. Alexander always seems to be in the right place, and that’s rare for a freshman. He’s got better than average speed and is putting on weight to get stronger. In a loaded linebacker class, he was the best of the bunch as a freshman.
Deion Jones was pretty good, too. More than the other guys, he showed those “flashes” of what he can be. He shot across the line of scrimmage like a rocket in the opener against North Texas. That play resulted in a seven yard loss. To get to a ball carrier for a seven yard loss shows some serious explosion. Jones had three tackles for losses last year and made a huge impact on special teams. I’d like to see him and Lamar Louis in a footrace, but I think Jones may be a smidge faster. After playing sparingly as a freshman, Jones is primed for an impact season.
Lorenzo Phillips found himself the odd man out, well one of the odd men out along with Trey Granier. The staff decided to throw a redshirt on the Patterson product. Phillips has a great frame and adequate speed. He’s a weak side player who had a year to sit behind Barrow and watch him work. In fact, those two have very similar builds and athleticism. Not having seen Phillips in action on the collegiate level, it’s tough to know whether or not he’s a sure tackler just yet, but he made a ton of plays at Patterson. Being that he redshirted, it’s rather easy to deduce that he’s a little bit behind his classmates. Now he’s a year behind them eligibility-wise.
Duke Riley was the feel-good story of the 2013 recruiting year. After a brilliant senior season at John Curtis, Riley earned the offer from the LSU staff. This kid has really good speed and plays with that cliché’ high motor. He’s just an energy guy. Riley was the unquestioned leader of the Curtis defense, and he’s wanted to be a Tiger his whole life. That leads me to believe he’s going to have a great attitude and demeanor around in program.
What To Expect: I was in the camp that wanted Barrow to move inside so that LSU could get its best three backers on the field at once. To me that was Jones, Barrow and Alexander. The staff went the other way, and they’ll leave Barrow at the weak side. He’s not going to be a “rah-rah” guy, but he’ll be the leader of the linebacking corps. He’ll be one of the best linebackers in the SEC, and I’d fully expect another 100 tackle season from him, especially since Kevin Minter won’t be there to gobble up insane numbers right next to him. After a couple of seasons as an inconsistent reserve, Barrow has made the leap to a dominant player.
I believe Tahj Jones will be the starter on the other side, but he’ll have to fight Alexander off. Both guys are going to play, and I’d expect incredibly steady play from Jones. He’s one of those guys who you don’t notice for four hours and then the stat sheet says he had nine tackles. He won’t deliver the huge hit. He may not make a play in the backfield, but he just a great fundamental tackler who has range and speed to stay with speedy running backs. After a tough year on the practice squad due to academics, it’s good to see Jones back in the fold.
Though he may not start every game, Alexander will be in there plenty. I fully expect a rotation at linebacker to keep fresh bodies in there. That’s not a luxury Chavis has had over the last few years. Alexander’s biggest question mark is his health. I hate the term “injury-prone”, but that’s two in two years. The good news is they were different injuries (knee and ankle). If healthy, Alexander will make a ton of plays. The numbers may not be gaudy because of the depth at the position, but you’ll know No. 25 is out there.
Deion Jones looks like a highlight guy to me. His speed and aggression put him in the backfield and near kick returners often. That creates big plays. There just aren’t many linebackers who can run like that. I’ll be curious to see Jones in fall camp to see if he’s put on any weight. He’ll be another guy who rotates in for series at a time. I’d watch for Jones against some of the spread teams because he can run with running backs and cover ground against the misdirection. Expect Jones to play, but substantial time will only come with an injury or two.
Phillips may be watching more football than he plays this year. There are just too many good players in front of him. I can see Phillips chasing kicks a little bit and potentially getting some snaps at linebacker, especially in mop up time. With Tahj Jones and Lamin Barrow gone after this year, there will be more snaps for Phillips down the line.
Riley looks like a redshirt candidate to me. It’s a log jam up there. The good news is that I think Riley would welcome the redshirt and understand that it’s best for him and the program. Riley would appear to be a great special teamer in time, and he may do that this year. Who knows? My guess is that he’s a redshirt.