After successfully rolling players off its kick coverage teams to starting linebacker roles over the past few years, perhaps LSU is building a tradition.
At least the Tigers hope that’s the case with Donnie Alexander and Devin White set to take over at inside linebacker from senior standouts Kendell Beckwith and Duke Riley. Alexander and White were two of LSU’s best special-teams players last season, just as Riley and Deion Jones before them, but neither player has much experience as a starter now.
Between their transition to bigger roles and an outside linebacker position adjusting to the absence of top sack man Arden Key -- out until at least this summer while tending to personal issues -- the linebacker group is one of LSU’s top question marks this season.
LSU will receive an infusion of talent this summer when several key signees arrive on campus, but here’s a look at how things stand for one of the Tigers’ most unproven position groups now:
Departed: ILB: Kendell Beckwith, Duke Riley; OLB: Tashawn Bower
The skinny: Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda loses his top five tacklers from last season -- and it could be seven of the top eight if Key is unable to return to the active roster this summer as planned -- so this spring is a work in progress for the defense in general.
That said, the linebackers are an especially unproven group after the departures of Beckwith and Riley, solid seniors who accounted for 184 tackles and 15 tackles for loss a year ago. Add to that the uncertainty on the edge with Bower completing his eligibility and Key sitting out the spring and you place a giant question mark over this group.
These concerns might not be cause for major alarm, though. Sophomore White looks like he could develop into LSU’s next great linebacker and senior Alexander gained valuable starting experience late last season when Beckwith sat out the final two-and-a-half games with a knee injury. That’s a good place to start ahead of the summertime arrival of LSU’s trio of four-star inside linebacker signees: Phillips (No. 141 overall on the ESPN 300, No. 3 ILB), Taylor (No. 204 overall, No. 7 ILB) and Queen).
The depth inside is not ideal for now -- that’s part of the reason why sophomore Divinity shifted over from outside linebacker this spring, according to LSU coach Ed Orgeron -- but Alexander and White are getting plenty of practice reps to get their new jobs down pat.
Same for the guys on the edge. Assuming Key returns to his old form, we already know what he can do. He logged 12 sacks and 14.5 TFLs as a sophomore and would instantly rank among the nation’s top pass-rushers once he comes back. Other guys are getting chances to learn while he’s away, which could make a big difference this fall.
Freshman Anthony, who sat out last season while gaining his academic eligibility, could emerge as a legitimate pass-rushing threat early in his career, and redshirt freshman Thornton is also getting looks at both outside linebacker spots. Sophomore Martin will be another name to watch this fall, although a knee injury has shortened his spring.
Don’t be surprised if a freshman OLB grabs some early playing time, either. Orgeron has repeatedly said that LSU landed the nation’s top pass-rushing prospect, Chaisson (No. 34 overall, No. 4 defensive end), on national signing day, and his staff will surely keep a close eye on the rookie’s progress once he arrives in June.
On the other side, converted safety Thompson leads the group at LSU’s “F” outside linebacker spot ahead of Voorhies. Sixth-year senior Thompson sat out last season while dealing with injuries, but said Tuesday that he’s healthy and ready to contribute.
Prediction: While the depth inside is not ideal, it will be fine once the freshmen arrive this fall. The rookies will contribute immediately, and one of them might even grab a starting spot. LSU’s pass rush is the greater source of uncertainty. It’s rare that one of the SEC’s top players can step aside and a team can replace him without missing a beat. Key’s status will likely determine the ceiling for Aranda’s group. But if Key comes back focused and healthy, this group will develop into a strength for the LSU defense, even without last season’s star seniors in the middle.