STARKVILLE, Miss.—Les Miles protects his freshmen from the media.
His policy is, and has been, that true freshmen do not talk to the media. Of course, those same kids are just months removed from being harassed weekly by recruiting services who are tracking their progress in the recruiting process.
For a semester, they’re provided an oasis from public comment. They’re given no such respite from the bright lights of college football.
Saturday night Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson took to the field in the first quarter and played almost every meaningful snap at Mississippi State.
It’s their time now.
Following a merciless assault courtesy of the Georgia offense, the LSU secondary passed the torch last week. Jalen Collins and Micah Eugene, third year players, moved aside for Robinson and White.
The rookies might combine to match Fehoko Fanaika on a scale, but they’re fast, athletic and have a feel for playing the football.
Are they going to get beat? You bet.
White yielded a touchdown at Georgia and found a seat on the bench as a result. This week he was beaten again for a long score, but he was in position to make a play on the ball before a gentle nudge from De’Runnya Smith created enough space for him to De’run to De’endzone.
But White regrouped and finished the night with a pair of pass breakups and his first career interception which he almost took to the house.
Robinson chipped in with a pass breakup of his own and three tackles, one of which came on a perfectly designed screen pass that he sniffed out, slipped by a blocker and cut down Joe Morrow to stall a State drive and force a field goal.
White and Robinson improved as the game progressed Saturday, and they’re going to improve as the season progresses this fall.
“We wanted to get them comfortable on the field,” Miles said. “We feel like those guys can play, and it’s just a matter of time before they get ready, they get their sea legs if you will.”
They’ll need those sea legs before hopping on the boat with quarterbacks like A.J. McCarron and Johnny Manziel.
But there is no doubt that White and Robinson, along with sophomore Jalen Mills, gives LSU its best chance to cover wide receivers in the SEC.
It won’t look anything like Mathieu, Peterson and Claiborne out there. Offenses are still going to have success against LSU because there are still a myriad of problems on the Tiger defense. One of them, pass coverage, will get better over time with Robinson and White in there.
Those guys were joined Saturday night in the secondary by sophomore Corey Thompson who stood in for the injured Craig Loston.
Thompson, like White, gave up an early touchdown, but he finished with a team-high six tackles, four coming in the open field.
“I feel like I’m growing up,” Thompson said. “I feel like Rashard and Shaq (White) are growing up.”
It’ll be a process. But it’s hard to look at the ledger in the second half and infer that there wasn’t some improvement.
After being gauged for 274 first half yards and 23 points, the LSU defense held State to 196 yards and three points in the second half. LSU also forced a pair of turnovers and brought pressure.
After a sackless, hurryless effort in Athens, LSU dropped State quarterbacks three times and forced a couple of early throws. It’s amazing how much better cornerbacks and safeties look when the quarterback isn’t surveying the defense like a buffet line.
“Honestly, we got going a little slow, but we came in at halftime and said, ‘You know what, it stops here,’” said junior defensive tackle Anthony Johnson. “Coach Chavis came in and made some corrections.”
Johnson knows what it’s like to play in the SEC as a true freshman. He, too, had his coming out party on the Davis-Wade Stadium turf. In 2011, he made two tackles for loss and tallied a sack at Mississippi State.
Johnson had the luxury of lining up with Michael Brockers, Bennie Logan a host of other proven commodities around him that year. Robinson and White don’t have that going for them. They’re the guys on the front line.
That much was clear in practice last week.
“The young defensive backs, we’ve been pressuring them all week about getting better, communicating. They played great for us,” Johnson said.
Johnson, a leader on the group, told me he gave the young players advice this week on how to play in the SEC.
“Honestly it’s just getting the heeby-jeebies off your back,” he said. “Just loosen up a little bit. My freshman year I played a little tight, but I loosened up as the season went on. Rashard Robinson has only been here a month, and he’s playing good football.”
Three of the final five SEC games on the LSU schedule will present stiffer offensive challenges than Mississippi State, and tackling, covering and rushing like the Tigers did in the first half Saturday will result in more point pile ups.
Through six quarters against multiple Bulldogs, the LSU defense looked as bad as it has in maybe 15 years. But Miles and Chavis didn’t stand pat. They made a move, and it’s going to help.
Georgia had wide receivers running unattended on its big plays. Saturday night the young Tiger defenders were in the right place, they just failed to make a play on the ball at times. With time, those will become breakups and interceptions.
It’s unfortunate for LSU that the desperation level has reach the point where true freshmen are being asked to play one of the toughest spots on the field, but LSU recruits well enough to make that a viable option.
Moving forward 16 and 21 are going to be out there. They’re going to line it up that way in Bryant-Denny, and they’re going to line it up that way when Johnny Football comes to town.
There’s no protecting them now.