LSU linebackers have chance to shine in Ala. game

University of Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms (12) tries to regain control of the snap as LSU linebacker Ryan Baker (22) applies pressure during the second half Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn. Show caption
University of Tennessee quarterback Matt Simms (12) tries to regain control of the snap as LSU linebacker Ryan Baker (22) applies pressure during the second half Saturday, Oct. 15, 2011, at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

The LSU linebackers have a chance to make a name for themselves in the game against Alabama on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

The Tigers’ linebackers tend to get overshadowed by their playmaking teammates in the secondary and on the defensive line. On top of that, the Crimson Tide’s defense, which has statistically outperformed LSU’s, gets an awful lot of attention, in large part because of their standout linebackers.

“Who doesn’t want to be the best defense on the field?” Tigers weakside linebacker Ryan Baker said. “We haven’t really talked about it, but I can see how guys have taken it upon themselves to prove that we’re capable as well. It’s just about proving yourself. We’ve heard a lot about (Alabama’s) defense. and we’re going to come out and show that we can play defense as well.”

LSU’s defense certainly is capable, ranking second in the Southeastern Conference in rush defense (76.63 yards per game), total defense (251.38), and scoring defense (11.5 points per game), third in pass efficiency defense (96.48), and fourth in pass defense (174.75). Alabama leads the conference in each of those categories, giving up just 44.88 rush yards, 162.38 passing yards, 180.50 total yards, 6.88 points, and a pass efficiency rating of 83.63 on average.

The Tide often plays a 3-4 defense, led by “Mike” linebacker Dont’a Hightower and “jack” linebacker Courtney Upshaw. The Tigers play a 4-3 alignment.

“I don’t know if there’s really a comparison at all. They play a different style of defense,” Baker said. “I guess we’ll find out (which is best) on Saturday.”

LSU’s linebackers have taken on a more prominent role in recent weeks. The Tigers’ early opponents ran a lot of spread offense, dictating that LSU use a fifth defensive back instead of a third linebacker for much of the time. The last three opponents – Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn – have used personnel more conducive to the Tigers base defense. The Crimson Tide’s power running game – led by Trent Richardson, the SEC’s leading rusher – will provide the biggest test for the linebackers.

“We’ve played a lot of spread teams this year and this is pretty much our first time playing a downhill running team,” Baker said. “We’re looking forward to it. (Middle linebacker) Kevin (Minter) and I took it upon ourselves to get in the film room, understanding that this game revolves around our play more than anything else. This is my type of game.”

Baker and Minter are joined in the starting lineup by strongside linebacker Stefoin Francois, though Tahj Jones has gotten much more playing time behind Francois the last two games.

Baker leads the linebackers and is tied for fourth on the team with 33 tackles, followed by Minter (30 tackles), Karnell Hatcher, who backs up Minter and has 18 tackles, Jones (17), and Francois (5).

“I see our linebackers coming of age and playing better,” head coach Les Miles said. “The good news is that we have number of guys that are ready to take the field and give us reps. They have to play well in this game. This is a game where our linebacker core is going to have to step in there, plug some gaps and be good tacklers. The good thing is that we can get some of our secondary into there as well. I think our team and the linebackers have improved as the season has continued.”