Tigers sophomore LBs waiting on how roles will be defined

D.J. Welter stood in a rollicking Tiger Stadium last season with his plight before his eyes.

On the turf below, the linebacker’s gaze slipped to the second level of John Chavis’ defense as it helped choke off South Carolina’s run game to a paltry 34 yards. Stuck on scout team duty after being deemed academically ineligible, the Crowley native’s pangs of loss were evident.

“I wasn’t critiquing them,” Welter said. “But there were definitely plays where I wished I was in there.”

Ten months later, the junior’s absence nurtured empathy for a sophomore trio of Kwon Alexander, Lamar Louis and Deion Jones, who each made contributions last season but are sandwiched between veterans and another bumper crop of freshmen recently arrived in Baton Rouge.

So, if you’re not weakside stalwart Lamin Barrow, the questions become simple: How many snaps do you get? Under what conditions? And will the man nicknamed Chief just platoon a group deemed by him to be his most talented in waves?

“That’s really Chief’s call,” Alexander said. “If he wants to do it, he can. Right now, it looks like we’re going to be rotating.”

If anything, sorting out which linebacker goes where and when has become positively Darwinian in that evolving is essential. No one proves this necessity more than the rotating cast last season at strongside linebacker last season.

Tahj Jones, now a senior and the current name atop the depth chart, was ruled academic ineligibility before the season started. In stepped Luke Muncie, who only lasted four games before stomach ailment took him out of the mix.

So, that left Alexander, a 6-foot-2, 215-pound thumper as the lone option. He lasted two games before breaking his ankle in a road loss at Florida. Finally, Louis, a 6-0, 220-pound former Breaux Bridge standout, manned the position until Welter returned for the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

Now, Jones is back on the outside, and Welter appears to be fending off Louis for the middle linebacker job. And with touted talent such as Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley in the fold, there might be a sense the sophomores are a year older and no further along in the pipeline.

“I’ve been in that spot before, too, just being a (backup) my first couple years, backing up guys,” Barrow said. “There are guys in front of you in line, and I hate to say it, but you’ve kind of got to wait your turn. Those guys are ready to play, and you never know when they’re going to be on the field.”

The dynamic is best illustrated by the duel between Louis and Welter, who insist the competition has been cordially competitive as camp winds down and a crucial third scrimmage looms Tuesday afternoon.

“We’re battling every day,” Welter said. “I know any given play that Chief can just slide him in there, too. We’re good in different areas, and I know I need to do what I do well and really work on those things he’s asking me to work on.”

Now, Louis’ stat line is modest, 13 tackles and two quarterback hurries, but he might be faster than Welter and possess a shade more athleticism. Yet Welter can be more detail-oriented, and the Notre Dame graduate compensates with savvy and a deep knowledge of the system.

“He’s handled his business,” Chavis said. “He’s a very intelligent player. He knows our scheme and our calls, and he can play physically.”

And Louis succinctly sums up the difference. Welter is “a smart guy” and “likes to look at the whole field,” Louis said. Critiquing himself, Louis said he “might pinpoint on one thing, and I might need to like D.J.”

“If we can find that even margin, we’ll both be better,” Louis said.

It appears Jones is entrenched in the No. 2 spot until Barrow’s time at LSU ends. That only leaves Alexander trying to supplant Jones, all the while as Beckwith — a four-star prospect and an early favorite of Chavis — tries to enter the mix. If Alexander winds up caught in the logjam, he feels adaptable enough to find snaps at other spots in the linebacking corps.

“Whatever Chief needs me to do, I’m going to do it,” Alexander said. “I’ve been trying to learn all three positions just in case somebody goes down and Chief needs somebody to go in I’ll be ready.”

That’s a hallmark of Chavis’ coached linebackers — adaptability. And Welter said the progress of Alexander, Louis and Jones on the developmental curve is evident.

“They’re learning the scheme, who to pick up on pass plays and where to fit against the run,” Welter said. “A year ago, they’d see it but overrun it. Now, they’re sitting down in their gap and definitely coming along.”

Fast enough to pass up a veteran, though?

“We’ll see,” Barrow said.