To 3-4 or 4-3, that is the question new LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele is asking himself going into the 2015 season.
The continued exodus of talent leaving Baton Rouge to the NFL started to take a toll in 2014, as a four-year streak of double-digit wins came to an end following an 8-5 showing. One of the many problems for Les Miles' team was inexperience up front on defense. That inexperience showed in both stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, especially in SEC play.
The bad news is stud linebacker Kwon Alexander and his team-leading 90 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss, and 1.5 sacks are gone. The other bad news is defensive end Danielle Hunter (73 tackles, 13.0 TFL and 1.5 sacks) also has departed as has safety Ronald Martin (73 tackles, 2 interceptions, 11 pass deflections).
The good news is both starting defensive tackles are returning. Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux were solid in the trenches as first-year starters. Godchaux had 42 tackles, 1.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks. LaCouture had 40 tackles, 4.0 TFL and 2.5 sacks.
If tackle Travonte Valentine can stay out of Steele and head coach Les Miles' doghouse he is a difference-maker. At 6-foot-3, 325 pounds he is a force in the middle. Academic issues may keep him from playing time in 2015.
Another loss on defense is Trey Lealaimatafao. Lealaimatafao is off the team after being arrested for robbing an unconscious man and hitting a woman outside a bar in Tigerland in June. The redshirt freshman was a big 4-star recruit expected to fill in the two-deep this year. That leaves Greg Gilmore, Frank Herron and Quentin Thomas to fill in the spots.
The big question for LSU, will the Tigers get pressure off the ends in 2015?
Juniors Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal are penciled in as the starters. Both played in 13 games last season, but of the two Bower was the only one getting real playing time. Bower had 16 tackles with 2.5 sacks. Neal had three tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss.
The status of Maquedius Bain is also in doubt. Bain was one of the guys arrested when starting quarterback Anthony Jennings went looking for his stolen property in someone else’s home. The indefinite suspension could linger until the legal matter is fully processed.
LSU only signed two defensive linemen in the 2015 recruiting class, Arden Key and Isaiah Washington. Key is already expected to contribute as a true freshman but has a lot of work to do over the summer to prepare. At 6-foot-6, 215 pounds, he's a good-sized human being compared to us regular Joes but slight for a SEC end. Washington has some time to spend in the dining hall and weight room as well. He comes to Baton Rouge around the 6-4, 225-pound range.
Cause for Concern in Baton Rouge
In 2014 the youth movement slowed down the front seven in Baton Rouge. The defense picked up 19 total sacks but even that number is skewed. Of the 19, seven came against Sam Houston State in a 56-0 romp.
Longtime defensive coordinator John Chavis is gone to Texas A&M and former Alabama linebackers coach Steele is the new guy in town. Chavis typically had so much talent up front and in the secondary he could run a base 4-3 shutting down anyone and everyone’s rushing or passing attack but a trend in the wrong direction developed between the 2013 and '14 squads.
LSU has long been known for its play on defense but the team was no longer fearsome in 2014. The 2013 squad was respectable, allowing 143.2 rushing yards per game, ranking No. 35 nationally and No. 3 in the SEC. In 2014 those numbers finished at 152.7 yards allowed per game , putting the Tigers No. 46 nationally and No. 7 in the SEC.
Steele may be deeper at linebacker, opting to run a 3-4 instead of a 4-3 defense to get production on the outside. A change in scheme could slow the reaction time of the players, forcing them to think instead of going full speed. Time will tell which direction proves more fruitful for the Tigers.
One positive up front is new defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron has a reputation for being a great defensive coach despite his failures at Ole Miss. He turned around the fortunes at USC as the interim coach after Lane Kiffin was fired five games into the 2013 season. Can he do the same for LSU in 2015?
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.