The defensive side of the ball for LSU is the one with intrigue — and questions. It has potentially two of the best players in the country in linebacker Harold Perkins and defensive tackle Maason Smith, but transfers have to step up at multiple spots.Last season, defensive coordinator Matt House developed creative schemes and used second-half adjustments to help LSU win 10 games. He now has a less-experienced unit with five returning starters. The Tigers had to replace star edge rusher BJ Ojulari and replace both cornerbacks.
After two weeks of preseason practice, here is a projected defensive and special teams depth chart. Find the offensive version here.
Defensive endStarter: Sai’vion Jones (Jr.)
Backups: Paris Shand (Jr.), Quency Wiggins (R-Fr.) and Da’Shawn Womack (Fr.)Jones seems headed for a productive season. He is tough to handle as a pass rusher, and he has improved his run defense. After recognizing last fall he needed to work on that area of his game, Jones said at the beginning of camp: “I feel like I already had the technique. I just needed the weight to back it up.” Now weighing 280, he has gained 38 pounds since his freshman year.
Shand, an Arizona transfer, recently emerged “as a complement to Sai’vion,” head coach Brian Kelly said. He also slides inside at times. Wiggins and Womack have tremendous upside but need more development. They are getting better, as both won more individual reps recently than they did earlier in camp. Womack can also play Jack linebacker.
Starters: Maason Smith (R-Soph.) and Mekhi Wingo (Jr.)Backups: Jacobian Guillory (R-Jr.), Jordan Jefferson (Sr.)These four create a deeper defensive tackle rotation than LSU had last year. Wingo uses his quickness and various moves to shed blocks. Guillory has nose tackle size (6-foot-2, 320 pounds) and obvious strength. Jefferson looks like a solid addition from West Virginia. Their ability to play different alignments can help defensive coordinator Matt House use creative fronts.
Smith looked particularly disruptive early in camp. He has since dealt with injuries, including an ankle sprain, but Kelly said LSU does not feel “overly concerned” about them. House said Smith had to knock off rust after missing a year and needed to lower his pad level, but the combination of size and athleticism is enticing.
Jack linebackerStarter: Ovie Oghoufo (Sr.)
Backup: Bradyn Swinson (Jr.)Oghoufo’s experience made him the likely starter, and that hasn’t changed. What has is Swinson’s role. He got first-team reps earlier this week, and Kelly said he has played well on third downs.
“He’s been a real good pass rusher for us, and I think the combination of those two guys has been really nice for us,” Kelly said of Swinson. “We like what we see there.”
Inside linebackerStarters: Harold Perkins (Soph.), Omar Speights (Sr.) and Greg Penn (Jr.)Backups: West Weeks (Jr.) and Whit Weeks (Fr.)Perkins, Speights and Penn rotate enough to call them all starters. Who’s on the field — and where — depends on the formation and situation. Perkins spends most of practice at inside linebacker, but he also gets individual pass rush reps and works on coverage in the flat. Speights has the physicality and sideline-to-sideline speed to handle multiple responsibilities. He and Perkins will be all over the field, with Penn mainly inside the box.
CornerbackStarters: Duce Chestnut (Jr.) and Zy Alexander (Jr.)Backups: Ashton Stamps (Fr.) and Laterrance Welch (Soph.)The No. 1 question heading into practice has both clarity and lingering concerns. Chestnut and Alexander look like the starters. Chestnut is a savvy, experienced player who often holds his own, and Alexander’s length stands out. Alexander has gotten beat more often than Chestnut in individual drills, but perhaps that’s because he usually covers wide receiver Malik Nabers. Not a favorable matchup for anyone.
“Chestnut has played a lot of football,” Kelly said. “So to have him there has been a nice addition because he’s a calming influence out there.”Stamps has been the biggest camp surprise. He rose up the depth chart to even play with the first-team defense at times. Welch hasn’t flashed as much, but he would be called upon if the depth gets tested.
That depth remains a concern with the absences of Ohio State transfer JK Johnson (out indefinitely, lower left leg fracture) and Texas A&M transfer Denver Harris. Harris, a former five-star, could return this weekend after being away with what Kelly called “personal matters.” He was a backup before his absence.
NickelStarter: Sage Ryan (R-Soph.)Backups: Greg Brooks (Sr.)Ryan, a former five-star recruit, has consistently been with the first-team defense as he tries to make a leap in his third season. He hasn’t done anything flashy to this point of camp, but it’s clear he will have a prominent role. He even had reps at cornerback this week. Brooks may be one of the most versatile players on the team. LSU moves from to nickel sometimes and uses him as the dime linebacker.
SafetyStarters: Brooks and Major Burns (Jr.)
Backups: André Sam (Gr.) and Javien Toviano (Fr.)Burns exudes confidence. No one else on the team talks as much trash. He has played well this camp after missing most of the past two seasons. Him and Brooks form a solid tandem, and Sam will contribute. LSU’s trust in the seventh-year transfer lets Brooks move around.
“Having three veteran safeties kind of helps you a lot, and then Sage is having a nice camp,” Kelly said. “So to have four veteran players, in a sense there, balances out maybe a little bit of the inexperience at the cornerback position for us.”
Punt ReturnerStarter: Aaron Anderson (R-Fr.)Backups: Gregory Clayton (Sr.) and Kyle Parker (Fr.)
Anderson looks dynamic with the ball. He is fast, and he accelerates away from defenders in open space. Anderson could go a long way toward improving LSU special teams if he makes the difference Kelly expects. He called Anderson “as comfortable of a punter returner that I have seen.”Kick returnerStarters: Anderson and Noah Cain (Sr.)Backups: Clayton and Logan Diggs (Jr.)
LSU hasn’t settled who will return kicks. Anderson has been back there, and Cain returned seven kickoffs for 155 yards last season. They’re both getting reps along with Clayton, Diggs and wide receivers Kyle Parker, Javen Nicholas and Jalen Brown.
KickerStarter: Damian Ramos (R-Soph.)Backup: Nathan Dibert (Soph.)One day this week, punter Jay Bramblett said, LSU lined up for a 25-yard field goal near the end of practice. Kelly asked Ramos where he wanted the ball. Ramos wanted a 53-yarder and made the kick, Bramblett said. Ramos handled all three extra points in an open period the next day. Dibert would likely be the kickoff specialist.
PunterStarter: Jay Bramblett (Sr.)Backup: Peyton Todd (R-Soph.)Bramblett looks like he will be reliable once again after averaging 44.5 yards per punt last season. Todd has improved but needs to get more consistent heading into next year, when he could become the starter.
Long snapperStarter: Slade Roy (Jr.)Backup: Jonathan Ferguson (R-Soph.)
Roy returned as the starter, and Bramblett said Roy has gotten to the point he can control the number of rotations on his field goal snaps.