LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis has said “tradition doesn’t graduate,” and his players insist that will be evident when they open the season against No. 20 TCU on Saturday night in Arlington, Texas.
The Tigers have just three starters from last year’s defense — safety Craig Loston, cornerback Jalen Mills and linebacker Lamin Barrow — as well linebacker Tahj Jones, who was poised to start last season before becoming academically ineligible for all but the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
But when you add to that a generous helping of talented players and the tradition Chavis talked about, you come up with the 2013 model of the Tigers defense, which the players say will be a lot like the 2009, ’10, ’11 and ’12 defenses that Chavis led.
LSU has finished in the top 12 nationally in total yards and scoring each of the past three seasons, yielding averages of 17.5 points and 307 yards last season.
“We’ll be the same as always,” tackle Anthony Johnson said. “We play fast, physical and dominant. We’re going to go out there with a great game plan like coach Chavis always puts us in, and we’re going to go out there and play great football. We’re going to be disciplined and attack the guys in front of us.”
Head coach Les Miles said Chavis is coming off perhaps his most challenging preseason camp because so many starters left for the NFL after last season.
“It looks like the kind of defense that we’re used to having here at LSU,” Miles said. “I can’t imagine it playing any differently.”
Johnson is the most experienced lineman, having played in 27 games in his first two seasons, but he has started just three. The line features four new starters, and much of the premium depth will come from true freshmen, beginning with tackle Christian LaCouture (6-foot-5, 298 pounds) and end Tashawn Bower (6-5, 243).
“Those guys are big bodies and can help us in short yardage situations,” Johnson said. “We’re going to go out there and play great football and try to get those young guys involved.”
Johnson said LaCouture and Bower have “earned the right to play” and aren’t being rushed on to the field out of necessity.
“LaCouture came in a semester early like I did my freshman year, and he’s proven to the coaches that he can stay in with the big boys,” Johnson said. “He showed a lot of great things going against the first-team offensive line. He’s a powerful guy.”
Johnson likened Bower to Danielle Hunter, who’s in a three-man rotation at the top of the depth chart at end with Jermauria Rasco and Jordan Allen, whom Miles called “interchangeable.”
“He’s a big, physical pass rusher with cat-like moves,” Johnson said of Bower.
D.J. Welter, a fourth-year junior who like Jones was academically ineligible for all but the bowl game last season, is expected to make his first career start at middle linebacker, sandwiched between seniors Barrow and Jones.
“I’ve been through so many camps now it seems like forever,” Welter said. “To finally be able to go out there and suit up and be a factor in the game plan is a big deal for me.”
The secondary has two returning starters — senior safety Craig Loston and sophomore cornerback Jalen Mills — and two new starters in junior free safety Ronald Martin and sophomore cornerback Jalen Collins. Sophomore Micah Eugene is the nickelback, and sophomore Dwayne Thomas is the dimeback.
Mills said he was attracted to LSU because of its “style and caliber of defense.”
“I don’t think there will be any drop-off,” he said. “We’ll have the same style and attitude that LSU has always played with.”
The pass defense allowed an average of 331 passing yards in the final four games last season as each opponent threw for at least 300 yards. Mills attributed that breakdown to “a lack of concentration.” It’s up to the few veterans to keep the younger players focused, as their predecessors did.
“When you look around and see there are just a few guys left, it’s up to you to grab the torch,” Loston said. “You have to get out of your comfort zone and do different things. You have to be able to become a leader, look out for the others and talk and interact a little more.”
Loston acknowledged the uncertainty that comes with so many players taking on expanded roles, but he said he knows what to expect Saturday.
“Everybody’s anxious to see what happens, but I know what those guys are capable of doing,” Loston said. “I’ve been around them every day for the last 2½ months, and I can’t wait for them to show everybody else what they’ve been showing me.”