Less than 24 hours after chasing Georgia wide receivers all over the Sanford Stadium turf, sophomore cornerback Jalen Mills ambled into the LSU Football Operations Building.
His head coach called him over and broke the news that adjustments were imminent.
“He told me that he wanted me to go back to the nickel role that I played last year,” Mills said. “I made a lot of great plays there last year, so I really wasn’t surprised when he told me he wanted me to go back.
“I was kind of happy that he did tell me, because I like to play nickel a lot, cover those inside guys who have a lot more speed and a lot more quickness.”
Mills started all 13 games last year for the Tigers as the cornerback opposite junior Tharold Simon. When LSU played nickel defense Mills slid inside as fellow freshman Jalen Collins assumed outside responsibilities.
A pair of interceptions in the first three games of the season kick started Mills’ solid freshman campaign that featured plenty of peaks and valleys. A blown assignment late in the Alabama game haunted him for an entire summer.
Emotional swings like that are commonplace for a freshman defensive back in the SEC. Mills’ move inside made way for a pair of rookies, Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson, to form the edges of the Tiger defense.
After seven quarters of suspect play, LSU’s secondary underwent a makeover.
White’s insertion was predictable as the freshman had seen significant action in the prior three games. It was Robinson’s that really registered. The Pampano Beach native missed all of fall camp while the NCAA Clearinghouse surveyed his academic paperwork.
Just two days prior to the Tigers’ opener with TCU, Robinson joined the team and began taking classes. Five weeks later, he’s on the field at Mississippi State.
“Rashard's a really exceptional guy in the fact that he's really ready for football,” said LSU head coach Les Miles. “There's a guy that can step on the campus and say, ‘okay, football I understand.’ We've got to make sure he gets ready academically and understands his role. But he's one of those guys that understands football. You put him aside that 100‑yard spot, and he's ready.”
Robinson responded by making a key third down tackle early in the game and demonstrating from start to finish that he could play man to man coverage in the SEC.
While work remains to be done in the weight room, Robinson’s long arms and rangy speed allow him to compete. So does his confidence.
Mills knows about that.
“(Robinson) kind of reminds me of myself when I was a freshman,” Mills said. “He’s not afraid to go out there and go against anybody. If he could, he’d line up against the best receiver in the nation, I feel. That’s his competitive edge and his ability to press guys.”
Miles and his defensive coordinator John Chavis didn’t stop the shakeup there, although injury forced their hand a little bit. Senior safety Craig Loston missed the Mississippi State game with a leg injury, allowing sophomore Corey Thompson to start his first collegiate game.
Thompson was beaten on a 20-yard touchdown strike from Tyler Russell to Jameon Lewis in the second quarter, but it wasn’t for lack of understanding. Thompson positioned himself to make the play but didn’t identify the ball in time to bat it down.
“I have a short-term memory,” Thompson said of responding to the touchdown. “DBs have to have a short-term memory. It happens. That’s my first time as a starter. I wasn’t worried about it. I just had to keep playing.”
Thompson led the Tigers in tackles and pass breakups Saturday night, giving Miles and Chavis a decision to make.
After a week of preaching communication and assignments, the LSU secondary appeared to be in the correct spot more often than not against Mississippi State. How much does LSU lose without Loston in the game?
Miles wouldn’t answer that exact question Monday, but he took the opportunity to praise Thompson.
“I like Corey Thompson. I thought that he handled the position extremely well,” Miles said. “I thought he communicated with the secondary, made the calls. He made some tackles. Now there were some times that I didn't like his angle to the tackle, but you know what? He's really playing in his first starting role. So I'm going to accept that he'll continue to improve. I think you can win with Corey Thompson.”
The way the LSU offense continues to roll, LSU can win with Thompson and the defense that allowed just three Mississippi State points after halftime last week.
The Tiger defense hopes that rock bottom came at halftime, and that the upward trend holds this weekend. Miles said Monday that Loston should be able to play, but he and the Tiger defenders believe in Thompson.
Any time a fifth-year player gives way to a younger player without a single start to his name, the comfort level would figure to dip. But other than Loston, no one in the secondary has played more than two and a half years.
Maybe the youth prefers being surrounded by youth?
“Corey came in and did a great job,” Mills said. “Corey just has to calm down and play his football. It’s a learning experience, but any time anyone has questions, they come to me or Craig.”
At this point, Miles and Chavis appear content to live with the inevitable mistakes by the young players with the understanding that highlights will follow quickly.
“At this point, they can play every coverage we have,” Mills said.