BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU football training camp is approaching. SEC Country is counting down the days until camp with a position-by-position preview of how the Tigers stack up this season.
Last week we kicked things off with the offense. This week it’s time to look at Dave Aranda’s defense. Next week? Football will be here.
If there’s any position LSU fans take pride in the Tigers excelling at, it’s cornerback. LSU hasn’t earned the “DBU” mantle for nothing, and recent stars like Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne and Jalen Collins have helped maintain the title.
Last season, Tre’Davious White added himself to that list, finishing as one of three finalists for the Thorpe Award, given to the nation’s top cornerback. But White is in the NFL now, playing for the Buffalo Bills, and replacing him will be one of the trickiest and most important moves Aranda makes in 2017.
The talent to replace White is there. But just as can be said of nearly every defensive position, LSU is going to need to make the most of its inexperience to thrive defensively.
The returning star
After White and fellow senior Dwayne Thomas both graduated, Aranda’s only returning starting cornerback is junior Donte Jackson. Dubbed “the fastest man in college football,” Jackson is a pure athlete who has instincts to match.
Working as LSU football’s No. 2 corner in 2016, Jackson intercepted two passes and broke up eight more, with 39 tackles and a forced fumble. And while his most memorable play might’ve been a blown coverage and missed tackle that resulted in Florida wide receiver Tyrie Cleveland scoring a 98-yard touchdown, that play was more of an outlier than a predictor.
That play was one of two touchdowns Jackson allowed in 2016 across 11 starts and 12 games played. (You could argue that number is three, but one of the touchdowns was allowed on a trick play thrown to a receiver no one was covering in a game where LSU was already winning by 35 points.)
Memorable as the Florida play might’ve been, the Jackson you’ll see in 2017 is likely to be the consistent, shutdown guy, not the gets-burnt guy.
The comeback kid
Flanking Jackson as LSU’s No. 2 corner will be fellow junior and former 5-star Kevin Toliver. Toliver started five games and played in seven last season before sitting down for the remainder of the year after LSU’s loss to Alabama. He finished the year with 21 tackles and one pass break up, an underwhelming display for a man expected to be a major cog in LSU’s DBU tradition.
Toliver admitted in the spring that he never felt 100 percent in 2016, as he was still recovering from a shoulder surgery he had following his freshman campaign. Against Alabama, Toliver reinjured that shoulder, keeping him off the field for the rest of the year.
But Toliver said he felt he returned to 100 percent in the spring, and award voters took notice. Toliver was put on the preseason watch lists for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy and the Bednarik Award, two honors bestowed upon the best defensive player in college football. Jackson was named to neither list.
If Toliver is healthy and playing at the level he did as a freshman in 2015, LSU’s one-two punch of Jackson and Toliver could be one of the most formidable in the nation. But if Toliver can’t live up, there’s a long list of players behind him competing for playing time.
The battle for third
Though Aranda’s defense is often characterized as a “base 3-4,” the proliferation of spread offenses in the SEC leaves LSU in a 3-3-5 more often than not. This means that on any given possession, LSU’s defense is more likely to have three cornerbacks on the field than a full stack of linebackers.
A season ago, Dwayne Thomas occupied this role for LSU and did so admirably. Aranda and defensive backs coach Corey Raymond have a handful of options they can call upon here among returning players, most of whom are inexperienced.
Former 5-star cornerback and Archbishop Rummel product Kristian Fulton is one of the Tigers’ most talented options. Fulton didn’t play much as a freshman in 2016, making two tackles in four games, but his 6-foot-1, 188 pound frame makes him a long and impressive option in the nickel.
Beyond Fulton, LSU could also call upon Greedy Williams, Xavier Lewis or Cameron Lewis. Of that trio, only Xavier Lewis played in 2016, making eight tackles in 11 games. Williams and Cameron Lewis both took redshirts.
Because this is the LSU football team, the cornerback reinforcements are always coming. LSU signed two cornerbacks in the class of 2017, Texas native Kary Vincent Jr., and Lutcher, La., product Jontre Kirklin.
In Vincent, the Tigers bring in one of the few players in the nation who can compete with Jackson in pure, straight-ahead speed. Vincent is the reigning Texas state champion in the 200-meter dash, a trait he showed off by returning three interceptions for touchdowns as a high school senior. Vincent profiles well in the nickel for LSU, but also has a chance to compete for a sideline corner job, especially once Jackson and Toliver have moved on.
Kirklin is a former high school quarterback who LSU identified and recruited as a defensive back. Though Kirklin was only a 3-star recruit, LSU football coach Ed Orgeron mentioned Kirklin in the same breath as Vincent and Greedy Williams at the SEC Media Days when listing off young defenders who excited him.