When LSU cornerbacks Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon were held out of last week’s game against Auburn for violating team rules, it allowed the Tigers to show off their depth and versatility in the secondary.
Ron Brooks stepped in at cornerback, safety Brandon Taylor played multiple positions, and the trickle-down effect created more opportunities for Derrick Bryant.
Meanwhile, cornerback Morris Claiborne and safeties Eric Reid and Craig Loston kept doing what they’ve been doing, and the No. 1-ranked Tigers kept doing what they’ve been doing by winning, 45-10, to improve to 8-0.
Brooks returned an interception 28 yards for a touchdown, and Bryant got his first career sack. Reid, who caused a fumble that LSU recovered on kickoff coverage, and Loston tied for the team-high with seven tackles as Reid matched his season-high and Loston set his.
“That’s LSU,” Claiborne said. “We have depth and we have talent with guys waiting to step up and make plays.”
Taylor, who signed with the Tigers as a cornerback, exemplifies the versatility in the secondary.
“I just put on a lot of weight and the coaches liked the way I tackled, so they moved me to safety,” Taylor said. “I’m very comfortable moving out there on the outside. We have a lot of versatility. We all know the positions so that’s good when we have a lot of people missing.”
Taylor leads the team with 48 tackles, and he has 2.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and four pass breakups.
“Brandon Taylor is a veteran who’s seldom out of place,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “He puts himself in a position to make key plays. He’s a solid tackler and he understands how to cover the pass. He’s very important to the secondary.”
Taylor’s season ended prematurely last season when he suffered a foot injury against Alabama in the ninth game. He said he spent a lot of time in the weight room while rehabbing. He also studied the games from the sideline, which he said has him better prepared mentally.
Reid, who Miles and defensive coordinator John Chavis both said is unusually well advanced mentally for a second-year player, is second with 43 tackles and Mathieu is third with 42. Cornerback Morris Claiborne (30) and Simon (29) are also among the leaders.
Russell Shepard and the rest of the Tigers wide receivers find themselves running routes against a variety of defensive backs every day in practice.
“It helps us out,” Shepard said. “We go against collectively probably the best secondary in the country, probably one of the best secondaries in LSU history. It helps us out on offense and on the perimeter as skill guys. It shows on the field. We’re able to make people miss, we’re able to run by people because we go against the best every day.”
Taylor said learning to play multiple positions is beneficial now, and could be down the road as well.
“It gives you the opportunity to make a lot of plays in different positions,” he said. “It also helps you out when you talk about getting drafted in the NFL because scouts see you can play a lot of different positions and make plays at those positions. It’s pretty good because when you’re playing your position you know what the other person is doing at their position.”
Mathieu and Simon returned to practice Tuesday and are expected to play at Alabama on Nov. 5 after LSU enjoys its open date this weekend. That will give Chavis and defensive backs coach Ron Cooper their full arsenal to work with.
“Coach Cooper doesn’t like a player to learn just one position,” Claiborne said. “You’re going to be learning pretty much everything.”
The secondary has had one sub-par performance, allowing 463 passing yards and two touchdown passes in a 47-21 victory at West Virginia on Sept. 25.
Miles said he was pleased with how the defensive backs competed in that game and wasn’t concerned about the statistics because the mistakes that were made were correctable. Apparently he was right.
The Tigers haven’t faced a passing game as effective as the Mountaineers’ since, but the statistics in the four games since then are dramatically better. LSU’s last four opponents have averaged 114 yards passing and have thrown two touchdowns and five interceptions.
“I think we just came out with a different mind-set after that game,” Brooks said. “We said that we were going to work on the little things even more than we did before and make sure that we didn’t let that happen again.”