Playing defense is more art than science, especially at linebacker.
The middle linebacker has to direct the orchestra of the front seven. The outside linebackers are the percussion, setting the beat with the beat downs of opposing running backs and receivers.
They’re playing a new tune in the LSU linebacker corps this spring, with new sheet music to learn for virtually everyone involved.
Kendell Beckwith has moved to middle linebacker from defensive end, where he will backup the only incumbent still in the same place, senior D.J. Welter.
Kwon Alexander has crossed the field from the “Sam” or strongside linebacker spot (typically the linebacker opposite the tight end) to the “Will” or weakside, while Lamar Louis moves from middle backing up Welter to strongside.
The chess pieces are moving around the board in large part to account for the loss of Lamin Barrow, the departed senior starter who led the Tigers with 91 total tackles last season.
But it’s also to better take advantage of the linebackers’ experience and talents.
“I like moving to Sam,” said Louis, who like Alexander is entering his junior season. “I like running a lot. I think I can showcase my speed and ability more.
“At Mike (middle linebacker), you stay in the box. There are a lot of collisions with the offensive linemen, pretty much every play. At outside, you get to run more, get more space to work with. You can make plays on the perimeter as well as inside.”
The hope for LSU is that Louis can come closer to matching Barrow’s considerable production with the move.
He had 25 tackles as a sophomore, well behind not only Barrow but Welter (81 tackles) and Alexander (65).
Louis’ defensive numbers will still likely pale compared to Welter and Alexander’s because it is typically the Sam linebacker who is cashed in when LSU switches to its nickel (five defensive backs) package.
That’s one of the reasons Alexander is excited about his new spot as well.
“I can play faster and get to the ball faster,” he said. “It’s basically the same calls in the passing game.
“As the Will, you are basically on the field the whole time.”
At 6-foot-2, 218 pounds and 6-0, 216, Alexander and Louis are closer in size to LSU safeties like Corey Thompson (6-2, 212) and Ronald Martin (6-1, 218) than Beckwith (6-3, 246).
But both clearly fit into the physical mold defensive coordinator and linebackers coach John “Chief” Chavis likes at the position: lean and quick.
“I talk to Chief almost every day,” Alexander said. “He says I’m doing pretty good. By the time I get to the spring game, I should know everything I should know.”
The spring is all about improvement. That will be difficult without a team leader like Barrow, but it remains the goal for the linebackers, Louis said.
“I think we have to be the best position on the field for us to be successful,” he said. “We have Kwon, D-bow (Deion Jones), Duke Riley. All our guys are capable of playing big for us. All our guys played special teams and did well. We just have to translate that to the defensive side of the ball.
“I think the linebacker group has to be real big for the defense this year, helping out the secondary. We still have some younger guys out there and some younger guys with their hands in the dirt.”
And in between are linebackers like Louis and Alexander, setting the rhythm for a defense that will likely have to do more in 2014 to help cover for an offense chocked with inexperienced skill position players.