BATON ROUGE, La. — Late in the evening, when most Americans are probably getting ready for bed and trying to decide which late-night infomercial to doze off to, LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is fielding text messages from his eager freshmen.
Aranda believes you can tell a lot about football players by the kind of questions they ask. He says questions are a form of forward thinking, a great way to gauge the intersection between mental understanding and physical development.
If that’s true, LSU’s three freshman inside linebackers are developing and understanding as quickly as anyone could ask.
“I get texts at 10:30, 11 o’clock at night with videos of their iPads saying ‘How do I fit this? What do I do with this?'” Aranda said. “I think you can really tell what lies ahead.”
Jacob Phillips, Patrick Queen and Tyler Taylor were must-gets for LSU’s 2017 recruiting class. As Aranda joked back in the spring, LSU had more scholarship kickers than inside linebackers prior to National Signing Day. But in this trio of interior thumpers, depth has arrived.
Phillips, Queen and Taylor represent three distinct types of player. Phillips is the thumper, the player who is most physically ready and quickest to make contact. Taylor is the thinker, with the most developed instincts and understanding. Queen is the athlete, the one with the most refined physical tools.
The trio officially became college athletes less than a month ago. But because LSU is thin at the linebacker position, they won’t have the luxury of sitting back and taking a year to learn.
“I think they’re all going to have to play,” Aranda said. “It’s still very much in play as to how that works out. But I think as far as depth and the limited number of people, I think I’m going to have to use all of them.”
Among inside linebackers, Aranda returns senior Donnie Alexander and sophomore Devin White, both of whom saw significant action when Kendell Beckwith tore the ACL in his left knee last season.
But at the two outside linebacker positions, LSU will rely upon youth. Star pass-rusher Arden Key is unlikely to be healthy to start the season, so Aranda will to lean on a freshman or redshirt freshman at the bench — or “B” — linebacker spot. That job will likely come down to a competition between Ray Thornton and K’Lavon Chaisson, with Chaisson holding the advantage as a pass rusher and Thornton thriving as a run stopper.
Chaisson is in the same position as Phillips, Taylor and Queen. He doesn’t even have a month of practice under his belt yet. But Aranda hasn’t needed a month to notice how natural – and rare – Chaisson is as a pass rusher.
“He has the ability to run right at an offensive lineman and freeze him,” Aranda said of Chaisson. “So he can go right at him and head nod and get the lineman to shift his weight and freeze his feet, then go the other way. But he also has the ability to run around people and not give any head nod. There are very few guys who can do both of those, and he has the ability to do that.”
When Key returns, whenever that may be, the B backer job will be his. There’s no keeping a healthy Arden Key off the field.
But at the field, or “F” linebacker, there’s no clear standout.
Corey Thompson is a sixth-year senior who came to LSU as a safety and has missed two of the past three seasons with injuries. He appears to be healthy now, but he has yet play linebacker in a game and hasn’t seen live action since 2015.
Michael Divinity Jr. has shifted positions more times than an antsy toddler on an airplane. He started off as a high school quarterback but was recruited to play outside linebacker at LSU. Divinity made 13 tackles in the Tigers’ first four games in 2016 but didn’t record another tackle for the rest of the year. Divinity then moved from outside to inside linebacker in the spring. Now Divinity is back on the outside and putting up a fight to start.
“At the F-linebacker, there’s good competition between Michael Divinity and Corey Thompson,” Aranda said. “Corey had a great scrimmage, and Mike’s been real consistent in fall camp. Those two are vastly improved.”
Between Thompson, Chaisson, Thornton, injured B-linebacker Andre Anthony, Phillips, Taylor and Queen, LSU might use seven linebackers who didn’t play the position until this year.
Some defensive coordinators might be concerned about that situation, but Aranda seems comfortable with how the group is developing. If he isn’t getting enough sleep, it’s because he’s being kept awake by insightful questions — not because he’s worried about his linebackers being up to the task.