LSU's defense thriving on youth movement
Dominant defense won LSU national titles twice in the past decade.
That wasn't expected to be the case this season - not with defensive coordinator John Chavis fitting new starters into seven spots. Yet even as No. 15 LSU's offense struggles to find its rhythm, the Tigers' youthful defense is making big plays to win games and racking up a slew of sacks, with 10 already.
''In the beginning of the year, the question was that we were young,'' cornerback Patrick Peterson said. ''But the guys who are playing, they've been here. They know the system, they know coach Chavis. It's just their first year playing.''
Last season was Peterson's first as full-time starter from the beginning. Now in his true junior season, he is one of the veteran leaders of a unit trying to live up to the standards set by the memorable defensive units of LSU's BCS national title teams of 2003 and 2007.
The only other returning starters are junior safety Brandon Taylor, senior linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and senior defensive tackle Lazarius ''Pep'' Livingston, although Livingston has changed positions from defensive end, where he started 10 games last season.
Senior Drake Nevis is a new starter on the defensive line, but has emerged as one of the unit's leaders after ramping up his offseason training and raising his game. Nevis has been menace to opposing offensive lines with 3 1/2 sacks through two games, even as he takes up double teams.
''This summer and spring he worked his butt off, plain and simple,'' Sheppard said of the 6-foot-2, 285-pound Nevis. ''He got in the weight room and got stronger up top. He's basically taking two and three offensive linemen every snap, and I'm just sitting there at times like, 'Nobody's going to block me? All right. I'm enjoying him.''
LSU's sack total currently leads the nation and its 21 tackles for losses ranks second behind No. 17 Miami's 25.
The Tigers are ranked fourth in the country in run defense, allowing 44.5 yards per game after holding North Carolina to 24 yards rushing in the season-opener and limiting Vanderbilt to 65 yards rushing.
LSU has done this without the benefit of playing at home in Tiger Stadium, a 92,000 seat venue that is thought to be among the loudest in college football. That dynamic will only cause more confusion for opposing offenses, starting with Mississippi State on Saturday.
Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen sees in LSU's defense a unit that doesn't need any more advantages.
''You just see what a great defensive front seven they have and then they play man-coverage with their secondary. It's very impressive,'' Mullen said. ''It makes life easier when you've got corners who can eliminate receivers on the back end. Knowing John Chavis, that's been his thing throughout the years - having lockdown corners and then letting the rest of your guys play defense.''
In the season opener at the Georgia dome, LSU was burned deep for a 97-yard score and wound up giving up 412 yards passing. However, the defense forced what should have been a game clinching sack fumble, only to have to get back on the field to seal the victory after the offense turned the ball over.
Last weekend at Vanderbilt, LSU seemed to have addressed some of its confusion in a secondary with two new starters, giving up only 70 yards passing. It didn't hurt that LSU had six sacks and rarely gave Commodores quarterback Larry Smith time to throw.
The sacks have been coming from a variety of spots, with Chavis having ramped up pressure packages this year.
''He's been more aggressive than he was last year. He told us that in spring and he's definitely backing up his word right now,'' Peterson said of Chavis, a longtime Tennessee defensive coordinator who is now in his second year at LSU. ''He's mixing it up a little bit. Most of the time it is the front four. Those guys are so dominant and so fast.''
LSU arguably has undersized defensive ends including starter Sam Montgomery (6-4, 245) and regular reserve Barkevious Mingo (6-5, 237). Yet the two redshirt freshman are quick and powerful, having combined for three sacks and 4 1/2 tackles for losses.
''Being in the front line, it's not really about size,'' Montgomery said. ''It's about which guy wants to make this play, which guy is toughest, which guys is more physical. I think we need to prove that week in and week out.''
LSU has also been pleased by the performance of new starting linebacker Ryan Baker, a sophomore who broke his jaw in August practice. His jaw was wired shut until early last week, but he came back with a sack and three tackles for losses against Vanderbilt.
''We knew the standards that came with playing in coach Chavis' defense ... and we wanted to come out and show the world that we are still here and that we will play defense at LSU,'' Baker said. ''Our defense thrives on being young. And because of that, everyone wants to make plays.''
AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Jackson, Miss., contributed to this report.