John Chavis talks about Tigers recruiting, spring, and fall outlook

John Chavis enters his sixth season as LSU’s defensive coordinator.

Chavis’ defenses have helped carry the Tigers to 53 wins over the past half-decade, and this upcoming season will be no different. Known as “The Chief,” Chavis has a unit LSU will lean upon after the exodus of skill players on offense.

He sat down with The Advocate for an interview last week, a month removed from spring drills and three months ahead of the start of fall camp.

This is your sixth year right?

Yeah. Hopefully I can be here another six years.

Are you a guy who looks down the road at your future?

Not really. I’ve always been a “take it one day at a time” to be honest with you. To me, I think you enjoy life that way. I remember being the youngest coach on staff … and now you turn the tables. I’m not the youngest anymore. Don’t think I’m the oldest, but my point is this: A lot of young guys had timelines that they were going to do this by this and this by this. I’ve never had a timeline on anything. I’m going to go out and do my very best every day and help this program be the very best it can be and feel like I have contributed to that success with hard work and not individual goals about me.

The biggest part is the team and the university. That’s what we represent.

Give me an overview of spring practice.

Thought we made some really good progress. And certainly spring is limited, but I think the way it’s structured. … Coach (Les) Miles gets as much, we get as much out of spring practice as anyone can. I think our guys made a lot of progress.

We were a bit of a young football team, but we’re not going to talk about being young. We gained experience as the season went on. Spring was a continuation of the season. A lot of times, particularly when you have to play freshmen, they’re going to always tell you, “Yeah, coach, I got it.” They really don’t have it all. They had a chance to go out and work those techniques and work those fundamentals. That’s where we improved. From an individual standpoint, there’s not a single position on our defense that we didn’t improve the players in that spot.

It’s exciting to watch young guys in the secondary. It was exciting to see our linebackers grow and gain the knowledge that they needed to have — and still need to grow to look like a really good (Southeastern Conference) group of linebackers. And then to watch our young defensive tackles come on as they did as the spring went on. Obviously, two or three really experienced defensive ends that got better and better.

The No. 2 ranked recruiting class in the nation will be arriving this summer. How much will you rely on the freshmen next season?

You look at the last two years. We’ve played more freshmen than anybody else in the country, really. You hope you don’t have to rely on them in terms of a major, major (part) really, particularly early. Last year, we did.

We’re going to put the best players on the field, and if there’s guys in this freshman class that can maneuver through the depth chart and put themselves in a position for playing time, then that’s what we’re going to do. Certainly, every year you want to try to improve your football team with your recruiting class. Certainly, I think they hadn’t taken snaps other than a couple of guys here in spring practice, but it’s a class certainly on paper looks like it can help us. It’s a class to be excited about.

I’m talking a long time. I can give you short answers: We’re going to get the ones that are ready to play. There will be some freshmen that can find a spot to play and give us help.

You mentioned watching the young defensive backs in spring. How are cornerbacks Rashard Robinson and Tre’Davious White, and swing man Jalen Mills finding homes?

I think toward the end of the season they were playing well. Obviously with Mills … this makes him a very valuable guy, his ability to go back and play safety and play corner. Being that flexible, we’ve done that with guys in the past. I can go back to the 2011 season.

We lose a safety before we play Arkansas. Arkansas at that time was the No. 3 team in the nation. We didn’t necessarily say, “OK, next safety is the next guy in the game.” We moved Tyrann Mathieu to safety. We had a corner that was our next best player in the secondary. Tyrann was flexible enough and a quick learner. Being able to have a guy like Mills you can move around gives you some flexibility.

Those two guys (Robinson and White) absolutely. Again, Mills had done a fine job for us at corner. It’s just getting the best guys on the field.

A big question heading into fall camp is the safety spot opposite of Jalen Mills. Where is that spot in your mind? Is that a place where a freshman can come in?

We had a couple of kids that were not in spring practice because of injuries. We had some guys that made some progress there. We’ve got a number of guys. Our safeties are very similar. If you can play one, you can play the other. We’ll get the two best safeties in the game. We got some good work out of several people in spring practice.

There’s not a position where I’d say it’d be difficult or more difficult … there could be a freshman end up seeing himself in the two-deep in certain portions of the secondary.

Linebacker is a key area in your defense, especially when using the Mustang package. Who do you see shining there?

Guys we’ve used in the past. Dwayne Thomas has done a good job for us, and certainly Jalen Mills is a guy that we’ll use. They don’t get as much pass-rush technique work as you’d like for them to do. We get them enough work where they can be successful and using their speed to rush the passer. Scheme’s a little bit of it, but not that much. It’s about getting the right athlete matched up with somebody that has a tough time handling some people.

When you look back at the 2013 defense, how do you compare it to others in the past? What did you make of the unit?

When you look at the numbers — numbers can mean a lot and can mean nothing to be honest with you — we finished the season 15th in the nation in total defense, third in the SEC. We want to be better than that. Certainly, our players want to be better than that. As a staff, for us to compete for championships, we need to be better than that. At the same time, I thought our team grew. I thought they worked their rear ends off. They never gave in. Biggest thing I can say, they came to fight every week.

The thing you’re really proud about is we got better. We didn’t’ stay status quo. We played our best football toward the end of the season.

The Outback Bowl performance had to be good to see.

It was. It was. And even the Texas A&M game. We didn’t play as well as we wanted to in the Arkansas game, but those two games at the back end of the season … that’s the kind of defense we want to be and we work to be.

Our kids listened to us in terms of what we needed to do, and they went out and worked and got better. We were a better defense at the end of the season.

You mentioned A&M. Can’t help but ask how you and your defense were able to shut down quarterback Johnny Manziel?

We got a lot of help in the preparation. Our offense did as much to help us prepare for that game by giving us looks, giving us the true speed. Coach Miles making that commitment to take one of the best offensive players (Odell Beckham Jr.) and put him over there on scout team as a quarterback.

We didn’t get shocked with the speed of the game, and that did as much for us being prepared as anything we did.

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @rossdellenger. For more coverage of LSU football, follow our Tiger Tracks blog.