By now, LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis knows the catch to using the latter stages of shellacking nonconference opponents as time to tinker, tweak, swap and experiment the Tigers’ linebacking corps.
Calibrated alignments are off. Gaps might not be properly fit. Eagerness leads to overrunning a play. And an otherwise pedestrian tackle is replaced by a whiff. No, Chief isn’t easily forgiving gaffes but knows that depth is mined no other way than at full speed.
His boss doesn’t easily overlook mistakes, either.
Yet coach Les Miles was coy Monday about divulging the calculus behind the pairings or what insights were gleaned — but the price paid, however irksome, was beneficial.
“There’s a lot that goes into the rotation,” Miles said. “There’s some guys make real strides. And frankly, we’ll settle down to a five linebacker rotation. I think you’ll find they’re pretty darn good.”
Settling on a pecking order is imperative ahead of facing Auburn, which arrives at Tiger Stadium for a 6:45 p.m. kickoff Saturday, and a power rushing attack out of the hurry-up, no-huddle scheme of first-year coach Gus Malzahn. Auburn’s offense has averaged roughly 239 yards per game.
Against Alabama-Birmingham and Kent State, the sixth-ranked Tigers turned the second quarter into a laboratory, testing conditions for different personnel groupings at the second level. Roughly half of the total yardage and 27 points allowed in those victories were ceded over that same span, a time when up to eight linebacking combos were slapped together and saw reps.
“Chief just wants to get young guys on the field and see how they react to the pressure,” senior outside linebacker Lamin Barrow said. “There’s a lot of young guys that we have, but as time goes on, they’ll need to play and need that type of experience.”
Since the start of preseason practice, the word has been that the Tigers will platoon and roll two waves of linebackers through, mixing in stalwarts such as Barrow on the weakside, reincorporating vets such as D.J. Welter and Tahj Jones, and trying to find room for precocious youth in sophomores Lamar Louis, Kwon Alexander, Deion Jones and freshman Kendell Beckwith.
“He wants to play as many as people as he can play, just to get them ready for when we’re going to need them,” Louis said. “A lot of it has to do with people getting their feet wet. Where everybody is going to fall? I don’t know.”
The Blazers’ first scoring drive, which came in a second quarter in which LSU allowed 182 yards, in a 56-13 loss is a microcosm of the Chavis’ approach. Out of his eight sets of linebackers, the trio of Alexander, Louis and Barrow saw the most snaps — and that was a total of five.
“There are certain situations he puts in,” Louis said. “Ultimately, he wants to put you in every situation so you’re comfortable with it. We earn playing time on the practice field, and if you show you can do it there, he won’t mind throwing you in for the game.”
Quickly adapting could prove vital against Auburn, which is using roughly 23.8 seconds per play, in line with Malzahn’s ideal tempo.
The misconception of Malzahn’s scheme is that temp0 is synonymous with exotic. In reality the system — developed as a highly successful high school coach in Arkansas — relies on a punishing ground game premised around staples such as the power, counter and draw mixed with new-age concepts such as the speed sweep and read option to set up play-action passing.
“When you have a team like that that moves guys around, it kind of brings linebackers and safeties out of the box,” Barrow said. “It leaves you vulnerable to the counter and things like that. We have to just communicate and adjust.”
Since facing Oregon in its season-opener two seasons ago, LSU routinely works on a tempo phase in practice each week, Miles said. Facing fast-break teams in Texas A&M and Ole Miss are also recent in LSU’s mind.
Our guys have to be ready not to substitute,” Miles said. “They have to get the call in. They have to make sure that they understand who is making the call for the front, for the secondary. It’s all done off the field in what is most like a game simulation.”
Against Kent State, LSU allowed 10 points and 61 yards of offense in the second quarter, which came on the heels of allowing a mere 19 yards in the opening 15 minutes. Miles, though, lauded Chavis’ approach, only saying he would have liked to have seen certain sets of players together for longer stretches.
No one illustrates this better than Beckwith, a 6-3, 246-pound East Feliciana product.
The four-start recruit and Under Armour All-American lined up on the strongside against UAB, and then put his hand on the ground at defensive end against the Blazers in the Mustang package for third-and-long pass rush situations. Last week, he worked at the outside and middle linebacker positions.
“We think that he can play a number of spots on defense,” Miles said. “There’s an opportunity for him to play linebacker, maybe a Mike backer; in certain situations move to the perimeter and put his hand on the ground and pass rush.”
Yet Miles harped — albeit calmly — on poor issues with presnap alignments, incorrect angles in pursuit and a lax job in wrapping up in close space after both victories.
Those blunders could stem partly from the a facet coveted by Chavis: fast guys playing with a high motor trying make a play.
“We all want to make a play, and being eager to make a play might take away from our assignment,” Louis said. “You might have two tackles but played assignment football the whole game. You gave those tackles away to your teammates.”
Barrow said, “You can be eager trying to get the ball,” but said Chavis is always intent on “stressing those things and go back to using fundamentals like using our hands or using the sideline.”
“He’s going to compliment on you the effort,” Barrow said. “A lot of plays where you overrun or take a bad angle is because you’re running full speed to get to the ball.”
That raises the question, too, of whether a player can adequately develop a feel for the game and how the scheme is unfolding in front of him — a notion Alexander dismisses.
“If you get two plays, you should be in the flow already,” Alexander said. “If you go out there, you should out there with energy and want to make plays regardless of how many plays you get.”