Each week, we'll examine the offense, defense and special teams capabilities of Washington's upcoming opponent. Yesterday, we looked at the Tiger's offensive weapons; tomorrow's update will focus on special teams.
First, though, a quick personnel update. As Bob reported yesterday evening, Chris Faulk, LSU's starting left tackle and a potential first-round pick in next year's NFL draft, suffered an undisclosed injury during practice on Wednesday and will be held out of Saturday's game. Junior Chris Davenport is listed as Faulk's backup, but LSU head coach Les Miles indicated that he will likely shuffle the line's starting five in order to find the best fit going into this weekend's matchup. In more positive injury news for the Tigers, Miles mentioned that running back Spencer Ware has participated in each of this week's practices, and will likely be available to play against the Huskies.LSU, like any self-respecting SEC program, prides itself on the superior play of its smash-mouth defenders. Last year, they delivered that type of performance in spades, surrendering a No. 2-ranked 11.3 points per game and holding opponent rushing and passing attacks to 90 and 171 yards per game, respectively, numbers that both ranked in the top 10 in the NCAA. Those statistics bore out against elite competition, too: LSU allowed eventual national champion Alabama to score exactly one touchdown in two games, and held Oregon, a team that averaged nearly 300 rushing yards per game, to less than 100. It's a cliché, but LSU is unquestionably one of America's elite programs, and is truly in a position to reload rather than rebuild. That mentality and quality of depth explain how they can send five players from last year's defense to the NFL in the draft's first four rounds, and still enter 2012 as a top-ranked defensive team.
Defensive Line: Arguably the most impressive unit of an unquestionably outstanding defense, LSU's defensive line depth chart reads like a Who's Who of players you can expect to see playing on Sundays within the next couple of years. At defensive end, LSU boasts two All American-caliber players in Sam Montgomery and the wonderfully named Barkevious Mingo, pictured above; the duo currently occupy spots Nos. 5 and 3 of Mel Kiper's 2013 Big Board. They are both ferocious pass rushers who home in on opposing quarterbacks like heat-seeking missiles, and are a threat to create about as much destructive power when they score a direct hit. Last year, Montgomery recorded 9.0 sacks, while Mingo notched 8.0, numbers that ranked both players among the nation's top 50 (interestingly, they both failed to record any sacks against North Texas in their first game of the 2012 season, probably due to the Mean Green's offense spending most of its time in a max protect offensive formation). The line's interior must compensate for the loss of 14th overall pick Michael Brockers, but returns junior Bennie Logan, who last year recorded 57 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks.
Linebacker: LSU's linebacking corps welcomes back returning starter Kevin Minter at the Mike position, where he recorded 21 solo and 61 total tackles last year. Flanking Minter are juniors Luke Muncie, who will be on the strong side position, and Lamin Barrow, playing Will. Muncie saw action in all 14 of LSU's games in the 2011 season, while Barrow missed just one. And while both new starters are inexperienced compared to their MLB counterpart, the performance of Miles' defensive players in recent years has certainly earned him the benefit of the doubt (in my mind, at least) from any potential skeptics. Looking further down the depth chart, LSU looks to play multiple true freshman at the LB positions this year, but don't feel too badly for the Bayou Bengals, as their 2012 recruiting class included four four-star linebackers.
Cornerback: No doubt, the Tiger's biggest rebuilding job comes in the form of replacing two outstanding cornerbacks, who left the team under very different circumstances. Morris Claiborne, the the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft, was never expected to stay at LSU beyond his requisite third year, especially after being named a unanimous All-American and winning the 2011 Jim Thorpe Award, which recognizes the nation's best defensive back. Conversely, not even Nostradamus could have foreseen the curious case of Tyrann Mathieu, who finished the 2011 season by winning the Chuck Bednarik Award as college football's best defensive player and being honored as the first defensive back to be invited to New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy since Charles Woodson won it in 1997. As we all know, Mathieu's career took a stunning turn when he was dismissed from the team last month, reportedly for repeatedly failing to comply with the university's substance abuse policies.
If any position on LSU's defense proves to be its Achilles heel, it will likely be this one (Who could have imagined saying that just six weeks ago?). Of the five cornerbacks listed on LSU's depth chart, three are true freshman, which is very rarely a good omen. Headlining the unit are true freshman Jalen Mills, the nation's 34th-ranked cornerback recruit in 2012, and junior Tharold Simon, who grabbed two picks, tackled 42 ball carriers and broke up 10 passes in 13 games last season. Undoubtedly, it's a unit that will have to grow up quickly if LSU wants to run the table this season.
Safety: The secondary is a bit steadier in the middle than it is on the edges, even with having to replace third-round draft pick Brandon Taylor. Starting at strong safety is junior Craig Loston, who recorded 14 tackles in 11 games last year; he will be backed up by redshirt freshman Micah Eugene, a three-star recruit from the Tigers' 2011 class. At free safety, expect to see more of the same from junior Eric Reid, who picked two passes and matched the Honey Badger's 76 tackles in 2011 for most on the team. This is another top-heavy defensive unit for the Tigers, though, as backing up the two juniors are a true frosh, a RS frosh and a sophomore. Keeping this unit healthy, especially its top-two players, will be a vital component of the team's success in 2012.