BATON ROUGE, La. — If it weren’t for the continued dominance of the Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU’s defense would’ve been the talk of the SEC in 2016.
The unit was borderline impenetrable. Led by senior linebackers Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley, as well as senior cornerback Tre’Davious White, the group allowed 16.4 points per game, the sixth-fewest in college football behind five teams that all played in New Year’s Six bowls. By ESPN’s defensive efficiency metric, LSU had the No. 5 defense in the FBS, behind Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan and Florida.
But 2017 isn’t going to be 2016. Beckwith, Riley and White are all graduating. So are Tashawn Bower, Dwayne Thomas and Lewis Neal. Junior defensive tackle Davon Godchaux is going to the NFL, and junior safety Jamal Adams is likely following him there.
That said, the Tigers are still going to have pieces in place. And LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. LSU’s defense might not be as good as it was, but it’ll still be pretty darn good.
Let’s break down the positions and project who might be playing for the Tigers next season.
Returning: Arden Key, Ray Thornton Sci Martin, Andre Anthony
Departing: Tashawn Bower
Incoming: Patrick Queen
The LSU pass rush will be the Arden Key show in 2017 just as it was in 2016. Key will come back another year bigger and another year stronger, trying to break his own LSU record for single-season sacks.
Joining him on the search for sacks will be second years Ray Thornton, Sci Martin and Andre Anthony, all of whom have received significant reps in practice toward the end of the season. Thornton might be the most likely to start opposite Key, but Martin is the most similar in build to Key, measuring in at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, while Anthony is a little more slight at 6-foot-5 and 129 pounds.
Interior defensive line
Returning: Greg Gilmore, Ed Alexander, Christian LaCouture, Rashard Lawrence, Frank Herron
Departing: Lewis Neal, Davon Godchaux
Incoming: Tyler Shelvin, Neil Farrell, Aaron Moffitt, Justin Thomas
Neal and Godchaux were the core of LSU’s interior pass rush in 2016, but the unit might be better in 2017 without them.
Rising sophomore Ed Alexander is only going to continue to grow in his second campaign, Gilmore is stout in the middle and LaCouture is returning from a season-ending fall-camp injury that kept him out all of 2016. Rashard Lawrence might step in to play a little bit in Neal’s role, as might Herron. But LSU is also bringing in a strong class of defensive linemen, unsurprising in Ed Orgeron’s first full year as head coach.
If the Tigers can retain the four guys they have committed and lure 5-star defensive tackle Marvin Wilson into the fold, this unit can be dangerous in 2017.
Returning: Donnie Alexander, Devin White, Michael Divinity, Devin Voorhies
Departing: Kendell Beckwith, Duke Riley
LSU has had a little bit of trouble recruiting inside linebackers for this year’s recruiting class, leaving the Tigers a bit thin at this position for 2017.
That said, Donnie Alexander and Devin White will be solid starters if they’re LSU’s only options. The two combined to average nine tackles per game in Beckwith’s absence at the end of the season, the same mark Beckwith himself averaged. The two are rangy, speed backers, but White is expected to grow into more of a Beckwith-esque build.
Speaking of expectation, if you’re looking for names LSU might be targeting in the last month of recruiting, pay attention to the names: Willie Gay, Jacob Phillips and Chris Allen. It very well might be down to the wire on all three of those guys.
Returning: Donte Jackson, Kevin Tolliver, Ed Paris, Kristian Fulton, Saivion Smith
Departing: Tre’Davious White, Dwayne Thomas
Incoming: Kary Vincent
LSU is losing a Thorpe Award finalist in White and an NFL-caliber nickel back in Thomas, but LSU is DBU after all. The talent will bounce back.
Namely, Donte Jackson is returning, and he’ll step into White’s role as LSU’s No. 1 corner. Assuming he’s not still in Coach O’s doghouse, Kevin Tolliver should join Jackson as the other corner, but Ed Paris might fill that role as well.
Rising sophomores Kristian Fulton and Saivion Smith are going to be interesting names to follow this spring. Fulton, assuming he’s healed from his surgery, is one of the leading candidates to start at nickel back for Thomas and Smith should be Jackson’s backup, if he isn’t contending for one of the starting spots opposite him.
Returning: John Battle, Eric Monroe, Cameron Lewis
Departing: Rickey Jefferson, Jamal Adams (probably)
Incoming: JaCoby Stevens, Grant Delpit
After Rickey Jefferson got hurt midway through 2016, John Battle stepped in and stepped in well for LSU. He’s secured a starting spot in everything but name at this point.
Assuming Jamal Adams declares, which again is up in the air, he’ll likely be replaced by 5-star JaCoby Stevens, continuing the train of LSU 5-star safeties who start as freshmen. If not Stevens, expect competition from freshmen Eric Monroe and Cameron Lewis, neither of whom played in 2016.