Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spring Practive Preview: Linebackers

LSU has to replace 3-year starter Darry Beckwith as the "Mike" or middle linebacker this spring, but all other contributors return.

LSU also has a new linebackers coach in John Chavis who is also LSUs' defensive coordinator. Chavis routinely had big-time players at linebacker while at Tennessee, so the evidence suggests that the man knows how to find talent at linebacker and that he can maximize their talent once on the field. While Tennessee had over 10 linebackers drafted just this decade, LSU has had just 1 LB drafted (Bradie James) since 1990. Chavis-coached linebackers are known for having lots of speed, and Chavis mentioned in an interview that he'd like to use a big safety as the third linebacker. The rationale in doing this is that rather than substituting out the 3rd linebacker in place of a defensive back in passing situations, that third linebacker would have the ability to cover. The lack of constantly substituting players in and out simplifies things and eliminates a lot of the confusion we saw a year ago. The player who seems best suited to make such a move would be Harry Coleman, but nobody has moved yet.

Though Beckwith received more post-season accolades, Perry Riley outplayed him and the rest of LSU's linebackers in 2008. In his first year as a starter, Riley showed very good speed and ability, and he made a number of plays. He finished the season with 7 tackles for loss, a very good number for a linebacker. Riley is now a senior and one of the leaders of the linebacking corps. He's the only guy in my opinion who is assured a starting position for next year. He's currently working as the strongside linebacker.

Kelvin Shephard, a starter as the weakside linebacker last year, struggled throughout most of 2008. His athleticism was evident, but he overran a lot of plays and missed a lot of tackles. These things can and probably will be fixed with better coaching this season. Last year, Shephard came off the field in the nickel package, so if Chavis experiments with a safety playing linebacker, it could be at Shephard's expense.

The favorite to replace Darry Beckwith as the middle linebacker is senior Jacob Cutrera. Cutrera has been a very solid backup during his time at LSU, but has battled a number of injuries. He's 100% healthy now and looking forward to a very productive spring. Reportedly, Coach Chavis loves Cutrera and thinks he can be a big-time player as a senior. I personally thought Cutrera outplayed Beckwith last year when given the opportunity. When on the field, Cutrera has struggled with overrunning plays or filling the wrong gaps, and those things come with experience.

The top reserve is likely sophomore Ryan Baker who really made a name for himself last year on special teams. Baker made a whole lot of big-time hits and tackles covering kickoffs, including the very first kickoff of the season against Appalachain State. Baker practices as Shephard's backup at the weakside linebacker. Speed is Baker's biggest asset, but he's still awfully small at just 6'0" 213 pounds. After seeing him excel on special teams, a lot of fans wondered why they didn't see more of him at linebacker. The answer probably has to do with his size. If Baker played, we'd probably see him make a lot of plays in the backfield, but we'd also probably see him get run over if an offensive lineman or a tight-end got their hands on him. Many thought we could see Riley or Shephard move to middle linebacker with Baker taking over one of the outside positions, but that has not happened to this point. Baker will get his opportunities in 2009 but it doesn't look like it will be as a starter unless he really impresses the new staff during spring.

True freshman middle linebacker Kevin Minter graduated high school early in order to participate in spring practice. Minter is physically ready for SEC ball at 6'0" 230 pounds. He's reportedly done really well in the weight room and at conditioning workouts. After seeing him, a lot of people don't think Minter will redshirt this season. He'll likely be the top backup to Jacob Cutrera and could play some special teams. The coaches may want to get him as much playing time as possible in 2009 because he's likely the starter at middle linebacker in 2010 and beyond.

Sophomore Shomari Clemons completes the two-deep as Perry Riley's backup. Clemons, a converted safety, is up to 6'1" 232 pounds. He hasn't made much of an impact since moving to linebacker, but he's gotten on the field with special teams. He'll likely remain a top backup during the spring, but I'm not sure if he'll be able to hold off the younger guys when they arrive in the fall.

Redshirt freshman Kyle Prater is still trying to make his mark. I honestly haven't heard much at all regarding Prater from the practice field during the 2008 season. He's 6'1" 220 pounds and playing one of the outside linebacker positions. I do know that Prater performs very well in the weight room, but we'll have to wait and see whether that translates to performance on the field.

Redshirt freshman Kellen Theriot is unfortunately injured and won't be participating in spring practice this year. I have high hopes for Theriot because he's a very quick, very athletic, and very strong player. He's got good size at 6,1" 230 pounds. I see him as the perfect modern middle linebacker. He's a tough kid who can fill the gap on running plays between the tackles, but he has good enough speed to chase down ball carriers or receivers on the edge. I don't know what Theriot's injury is or how bad it is. Hopefully, he'll be ready to go by the fall. If healthy, I think Theriot may replace Minter as the #2 middle linebacker, and he's an easy choice to be on kick coverage teams.

Speaking of the fall, LSU will welcome 3 additional players to the linebacking group. Lamin Barrow and Tahj Jones will both likely be outside linebackers. Barkevious Mingo will also play on the outside but may end up practicing with the defensive ends.

Due to the coaching ability and track record of John Chavis, don't be surprised if the linebackers as a whole are the most improved group of players on the field next year.


Post a Comment


Saturday Night Slant - LSU Sports & Recruiting