The nervous chatter about LSU’s defense leading up to this season has constantly been of loss, the lack of experience here and the untested depth there brought about by the departure of seven starters (plus dismissed cornerback Tyrann Mathieu) to the NFL draft.
On the edges of the Tigers’ linebacker corps, there are two calm pools of confidence where concerns evaporate in the face of talent and years of service to the cause of the LSU program.
Barring a late and unexpected shift to middle linebacker in the final days before LSU’s Aug. 31 opener against TCU, senior Lamin Barrow will occupy the weakside linebacker spot. On the other side, senior Tahj Jones works the strongside linebacker position after nearly an entire season in academic exile.
Barrow (6-foot-2, 232-pounds) has assumed the mantle of leadership within LSU’s defense — and to a large extent the entire team — in the wake of the departure of players line middle linebacker Kevin Minter and free safety Eric Reid.
Earlier this month Barrow, a former Class 5A all-stater from John Ehret, slipped off his old No. 57 jersey number for the coveted No. 18. It’s a number that has become a symbol of leadership on the LSU team most of the past decade, handed down among such players as Matt Mauck, Jacob Hester, Richard Dickson, Richard Murphy and Brandon Taylor.
Traditionally, the role of quarterback on defense comes from the middle linebacker position.
With LSU coach Les Miles deeming this a month of experimentation for the Tigers, with players essentially getting tryouts at nontraditional positions, there was a significant chance that Barrow could be shifted to Minter’s former spot at middle linebacker.
But with the emergence of D.J. Welter and Lamar Louis there, Barrow is likely to stay put.
Besides, Barrow said, he can run and monitor things quite effectively from the outside.
“Absolutely,” said Barrow, LSU’s top returning tackler with 104 stops in 2012. “It’s just about making sure you echo the call correctly to rest of the defense and the line. I’ve always done that, even when they haven’t had me at middle linebacker.
“Even if Kevin was getting the call, it was still my job to echo it and make sure we were aligned right. It’s knowing where I need to be lined up and making sure other guys on the field are, too. It’s about trying to provide help. If I see anything wrong, I have the option to voice an opinion and get us lined up.”
Though Barrow said he can play anywhere if needed, he feels he is best suited to playing on the weakside.
“I can be interchangeable,” he said. “But I’ve always been really comfortable on that weakside, and I think my season last year was productive and showed that. I still think there are a lot of things I need to learn and grow at that position. The weakside is always a big deal for me, because I feel I can get better and make a difference.”
Perhaps no one on LSU’s defense is more motivated to make a difference in 2013 than Jones. His entire 2012 regular season was turned to ashes by his academic ineligibility, leading LSU to start a parade of players in his place: Luke Muncie, Kwon Alexander and Louis.
Jones regained his eligibility for the Chick-fil-A Bowl and showed, perhaps painfully, the kind of promise that was squandered for much of the campaign.
Making just the second start of his career (the other came in 2011), Jones recorded four tackles, including a sack of that other Tajh — Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd — and recovered a fumble.
“I’m ready to get back on the field,” said Jones, a 6-2, 205-pound senior from Sulphur. “All during the summer, my teammates would come up to me and say, ‘I’m ready to see 58 (Jones’ number). I’m ready to see 58.’
"They’ve got me motivated to keep doing what I need to do to be on the field.”
He is being pushed at his spot by Alexander, the sophomore who has as many career starts (two) as Jones does, and freshman Kendell Beckwith, who is frequently mentioned as one of the first-year players expected to make a significant contribution this season.
Jones hasn’t rested on reputation or seniority but said he’s put in the work this summer to stay ahead of the younger talents behind him.
“I’m working on my technique and to get my keys down pat,” he said. “During the summer, I was repping things in my head and would write it down to make sure I’m going to my right gaps and playing the right coverages.
“Coverage is a big part of playing Sam linebacker. I’ve got to know all my techniques to help the defensive backs out. If they give me the call, I’ve got to make sure I bump the receivers off their routes to make it easier for the safeties. It’s communication.”
Perhaps the biggest thing Barrow and Jones can communicate to the world is that LSU’s rebuilt defense is in good hands.
Advocate sportswriter Matthew Harris contributed to this report.
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