TAMPA, Fla . — You have to be a man to play middle linebacker in the Southeastern Conference, but there’s still a lot of little boy left in LSU middle linebacker D.J. Welter, too. It was that part of him that was giddy Friday afternoon to shed the football player’s high-tech armor and head to Busch Gardens for the Tigers’ pre-Outback Bowl visit.
Welter wanted to hit the famous roller coasters: Montu. Scorpion. Kumba. Air Grover. Well, maybe not Air Grover, home of the fuzzy blue “Sesame Street” Muppet.
A cynic — OK, perhaps a realist — would say that Welter’s junior season has been a roller-coaster ride itself. A genuine E-ticket white knuckler.
The middle linebacker is the quarterback equivalent of the defense. That earns him a bloated portion of praise when things go well and makes him an obvious scapegoat when things go wrong.
This season, things have often gone wrong for LSU’s defense. The Tigers at times have looked vulnerable to the run — giving up 148.8 rushing yards per game compared to 101.6 yards last season — and allowed more than 25 points six times this season compared to just twice in 2012.
A lot of times when things have gone awry for the LSU “D,” Welter has been in the middle of the action. He has suffered by comparison to his two predecessors at the middle linebacker spot: All-American Kevin Minter and All-SEC selection Kelvin Sheppard.
But like Rocky Balboa taking punch after punch from Apollo Creed, Welter keeps coming back for more. He hasn’t shrunk from the fight and certainly has not given up his spot. Going into the Outback Bowl against Iowa, Welter is still penciled in as LSU’s starting middle linebacker over sophomore Lamar Louis and freshman Kendell Beckwith, just like in the Tigers’ 12 regular-season games.
“If you think about getting passed up, you won’t play anymore,” Welter said sagely.
For a guy who plies his trade on Saturday afternoons with 60,000 to 100,000 full-throated fans weighing in on every play he makes, Welter said he is able to tune out the criticism.
“I haven’t really heard much of it,” he said. “As the Mike (middle) linebacker, I take a lot of responsibility for things that happen.
“You take it upon yourself and the defense as a whole. It’s no secret we have shut down some teams this year, and other times we haven’t done as well. But we know we have the potential to be a (good) LSU defense. I hope that in this game people come out with that in mind.”
It’s a long way from the tiny community of Mire, La. — Welter’s hometown; he prepped at nearby Notre Dame in Crowley — to the bright lights of Tiger Stadium or a New Year’s Day bowl game in an NFL venue like Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium. Mire is a wide spot in the road in rural Acadia Parish west of Lafayette where a flashing light and a stop sign mark the center of town.
It’s a figuratively long trip as well that Welter has made from the start of the season, when he was thrown into action and hoped he was doing the right things.
“I felt at the start of the year I had to keep telling myself to play with confidence, make the read and go for it,” he said. “Week by week, I’ve tried to go with that. It’s helped me play faster, get my read and just keep going.”
Upon closer inspection, Welter has grown into the key role he plays better than perhaps anyone has given him credit for doing.
Consider his three quarterback hurries against slippery eel Johnny Manziel in the Texas A&M game. Like anyone, Welter had a hard time getting Manziel on the ground.
But he played a big role in keeping Johnny Football shackled to the pocket, helping LSU complete a still-stunning 34-10 rout of Texas A&M that knocked Manziel out of Heisman Trophy contention.
In the regular-season finale against Arkansas, Welter tied for the team lead with nine tackles. He ranks second on the team this season with 74 total stops behind only outside backer Lamin Barrow (86).
Arkansas, with former Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema at the controls, plays a smashmouth style similar to what the Tigers expect to see from Iowa. It’s that muscle memory that Welter believes will serve LSU well against the Hawkeyes.
“We definitely know we can do it,” he said. “We have to have our heads in the game. When something goes wrong, we can’t let it ruin our whole day. You have to keep the defense together and get onto the next play.”
And if the game turns into a roller coaster, don’t be afraid to go back for another ride.