Jalen Mills, Ronald Martin stake claims to LSU’s starting safety spots

With the LSU football team about to wrap up spring drills, one of the biggest questions of the offseason has been answered — for now, anyway.

Through 31/2 weeks and 13 practices, rising junior Jalen Mills and senior-to-be Ronald Martin have staked their claims to the starting safety jobs — Mills at free and Martin at strong — for defensive coordinator John Chavis.

Apparently, both players took advantage of the opportunity that spring ball affords: a chance to prove something and get a leg up on the competition, which will include highly-regarded freshman Jamal Adams, for when fall practice begins.

Make no mistake about it, Mills and Martin had much to prove personally this spring after less-than-fulfilling seasons in 2013.

Mills lost his starting cornerback job midway through the season and Martin, who replaced NFL first-round draft pick Eric Reid at free safety, missed four of the Tigers’ last five games — including the Outback Bowl — with a stress fracture in his right foot.

If the foot injury wasn’t bad enough, Martin played with a heavy heart following the death of his father early in the season.

“I felt I had a lot to prove last year and with everything coming on me, I kind of had a setback year,” Martin said. “So, I feel like I have something to prove again this year.

“I’m just doing whatever the coaches want me to do out there,” he said. “I’m giving it my all each and every day to get better, and try to learn and take in as much as I can in my last year.”

For Mills, who was moved to safety because of depth issues late last season — mainly because of Martin’s injury and a knee injury to Corey Thompson -- the spring has given him an opportunity to re-establish himself.

One year after earning Freshman All-America status in starting all 13 games at cornerback in 2012, the 6-foot-1, 194-pound Mills had to learn a new position in the back end of the secondary.

Mills admitted that switching to safety was a bit rough at the time, but said he’s feeling a lot more comfortable after getting back on the field earlier this month for the start of spring practice.

“It was a little rough at first, but I know the defense so it’s kind of easy now,” he noted. “I wasn’t really upset (about the position change) because it was for the team. It made the defense complete.”

Mills said he’s suited for the position because his cornerback skills and speed help him get from the middle of the field to each sideline very quickly.

It also doesn’t hurt to have picked up some knowledge from Reid, a three-year starter for LSU before being the 18th overall selection of the San Francisco 49ers in last year’s NFL draft.

“When I was at corner in my freshman year, I would ask Eric, ‘What are you reading. What are you thinking when you’re back there?’ ” Mills said.

Mills, who tied for the team lead with three interceptions and ranked third with 67 total tackles last season, said Reid told him to only pay attention to his read or keys and not try to look at everything on the field.

“The biggest thing is lining up the linebackers, and sometimes, even the defensive line,” Mills said. “It’s coming easier now.”

While Mills is getting a new position down, Martin has returned to his old spot at strong safety.

He played there extensively as a sophomore in 2012 before winning the free safety job last fall. But he struggled at times and injured his foot in an Oct. 26 game against Furman.

With Mills settling in and feeling a lot more comfortable at free, Martin has been able to slide back to his more natural position and better use his 6-1, 218-pound frame.

“I like playing strong, I’m down in the box more tackling and helping with run support,” said Martin, who had two interceptions in Saturday’s scrimmage. “I thought I played well there in my sophomore year even though I was alternating with Craig (Loston). At strong, I feel more involved.”

Hopefully, it’ll help him forget about last season.

“It set me back a lot,” he said of his injury. “It made me sit down and think about a lot of stuff more, like not being out there to help my team when it needed me.

“Then, I started thinking about me missing my dad because in times like that I knew he would bring me up. Not having him there took a toll on me, so now I’m just trying to stay focused and put that in the past and keep moving forward.”