Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring Practice Preview: Defensive Backs

LSU lost only senior safety Curtis Taylor off last year's squad, but we may see a whole lot of change in the defensive secondary. That change starts with new secondary coach Ron Cooper who comes to LSU with a hell of a resume from South Carolina. He's made his mark by consistently putting defensive backs into the NFL and by playing a role in some of the SEC's best defenses over the last several years. Two more of his pupils, Captain Munnerlyn and Emanuel Cook, are expected to be high draft picks next month. In truth, LSU's secondary was a mess last year. DB coach Doug Mallory was also the defensive coordinator, and the lack of attention spent on coaching the defensive backs was evident in their subpar play on the field. I'm also not sure that the most talented players were on the field and to top it off, LSU had a screwy substitution pattern that seemed to confuse all 11 players on defense while simultaneously frustrating all 92,000 people in the stands. I expect all of that to change with Ron Cooper running the show.

Replacing Taylor at free safety is going to be junior Chad Jones. After a very promising freshman season where Jones made a number of big plays, the coaches asked him to do too much last year. Jones played some at safety, some as the nickel back, and some as the dime back. Jones is probably good enough to play any of those positions, but it's difficult for a player to learn the nuances of three different spots. It's just too much to learn, especially for a guy who was trying to play college baseball. What we got was a player who performed adequately but didn't excel at any one of those positions. To be kind, it was a wasted year for Jones. One of the first things the new defensive staff did was anoint Jones as the #1 guy at free safety. It's his position to lose. No more nickel and dime. He'll be on the field for every snap. Jones is a very rare talent. He's 6'3" 220 pounds yet one of the fastest players on the entire team. During his freshman season, he showed that he's a pretty good blitzer so the coaches can get very creative with how they use him. I'll be tentative with my expectations for Jones, but I'll just say that I won't be surprised if he ends up on some All-SEC teams this year.

So who will play the other safety? The guy who will get the first look will be senior Harry Coleman who started a year ago. Coleman struggled through most of the 2008 season, like most of LSU's defenders did. He did lead the team in tackles, but he had trouble in coverage and he really struggled with his tackling. Coleman does have some ability, and I wouldn't be too surprised if he holds off the others and opens 2009 as a starter. As I mentioned in yesterday's update, he could be a candidate to get a look as a linebacker but nothing has happened yet.

Coleman's stiffest competition may come from senior Danny McCray who, much like Jones, was mis-used in 2008. McCray is a safety. He's a good safety. Yet, the coaches kept playing McCray as the nickel back and asking him to cover receivers one-on-one when he proved over and over that he just couldn't do it. Because he was routinely getting toasted, he became the scapegoat for a lot of fans upset with the play of the defense. I don't blame McCray. I blame last year's coaching staff for putting him in the wrong position. Later in the year when McCray played safety, he played well. He won't get the big hit like Harry Coleman and he's not as good a blitzer, but he's a lot more reliable. I'm expecting he'll practice and play exclusively as a safety this year, but it remains to be seen.

One of the surprises this spring could be sophomore safety Karnell Hatcher, who played sparingly last year. He did play though, which means he caught the eye of the coaches. Hatcher has good size at 6'1" 195 pounds and showed good speed and range last year. I definitely wouldn't be surprised to see him make a move and maybe even win a starting position this year. Hatcher will almost certainly make an impact on special teams.

True freshman Rocky Duplessis is participating in spring practice and trying to make an impression. Duplessis looks an awful lot like Craig Steltz on his highlight films and we'll see what he can do.

Sophomore Stefoin Francois is unfortunately injured and it sounds like a pretty serious injury. He won't be practicing at all this spring and he could be out for the entire 2009 season. Francois was highly recruited out of high school and was looking to this year as one to make a statement. He'll have to wait for now.

In the fall the nation's #1 high school safety, Craig Loston, will join the mix and I think he'll see the field. Loston is a serious ball player. While I don't see him taking over one of the starting positions at any time in 2009, I do think he'll make an impact. LSU also welcomes Josh Johns.

At cornerback, LSU has an embarrassing amount of talented players...more than any team in the SEC. I'm curious to see how it all shakes out.

Locking down one corner position is sophomore Patrick Peterson. Peterson earned a starting job about halfway through last season, his true freshman season. Now, he's ready to take the next step and become a star. Peterson has everything you could want in a lockdown cornerback. He's 6'1" 200 pounds. He's plenty fast and plenty strong. And he can stick to receivers like glue. I fully expect Peterson to establish himself as one of the top corners in the SEC this year, which should set him up for All-SEC and All-American honors in 2010. While LSU has lots of talent, I can't see anyone starting ahead of Peterson.

The big question is who will start on the other side of Peterson? The smart money is on either senior Chris Hawkins or junior Jai Eugene who were both starters last year. Eugene was ultimately repalced in the starting lineup by Peterson while Hawkins remained a starter for the entire season. Both guys played OK last year but not great. They both made some good plays and both got beat as well. Eugene, in my opinion, showed a lot more toughness and willingness to tackle. Both Hawkins and Eugene are feverishly trying to hold off a number of younger players, including 3 very talented sophomores.

Brandon Taylor, Phelon Jones, and Ron Brooks have all shown a whole lot of promise in limited playing time last year. Taylor and Brooks also made their mark on special teams. The competition is going to be very intense, not only in battling Hawkins and Eugene for a starting position, but to win the nickel and dime positions as the 5th and 6th defensive backs in passing situations. Brooks is a fan favorite for the enthusiasm he shows on kickoff coverage teams. He's also a candidate to return kickoffs. Phelon Jones is a very solid, very reliable player who could potentially play some safety too. That makes him a good candidate to play nickel or dime. Lastly, the coaches think Brandon Taylor could be another lockdown corner similar to Peterson. They're very excited about him, and he may be the most likely to see the field this year.

Sophomore Derrick Bryant is another player who will try to impress the coaches. Bryant impressed enough last year as a true freshman to win himself a spot on special teams. He also played some in the secondary in mop up duty. Bryant is a versatile player that practices at both cornerback and safety. We'll keep an eye on where he's practicing this spring.

Redshirt freshman Ryan St. Julien is yet another very talented guy who'll try to get on the field this year. St. Julien is still very thin and needs to add some bulk before he's ready for the field. He's 6'1" 175 pounds right now, so he's heading in the right direction because he was in the 160s for most of last year. With all of the players in front of him, St. Julien will likely have to be patient in his career before seeing the field later down the line. He reminds a lot of people around the program of Jonathon Zenon.

LSU didn't sign any true cornerbacks in this class but it's very possible that Morris Claiborne will practice at corner. He was recruited as an athlete and could play either receiver or DB.

All in all, the talent is entirely too plentiful in the secondary for LSU to play as poorly as they did in 2008. I'm expecting tons of improvement next year, and that starts this spring.


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