On the eve of LSU spring football getting underway, I caught up with defensive coordinator John Chavis.
Entering his fifth season on the bayou, the Tigers’ resident defensive guru and 2011 Broyles Award winner as the top coordinator in the country has an evolving group. Suddenly linebacker is one of the deepest units on the LSU team, and there’s some rebuilding to do with the front four.
Chavis talks about all that and more below, sharing his philosophy and giving a thorough outlook on the 2013 LSU defense.
Ben Love: Starting at Mike linebacker, is that a position you have uncertainty about and expect competition or do you go in with an idea of who that guy is?
John Chavis: Well, let me say this first, obviously we’re going to compete for every position. We met with our guys on defense just yesterday, and that’s one of the things that was made very, very clear. Nobody’s got a position nailed down, and there’s going to be competition. Competition is going to make us better. So the Mike linebacker as well as the Will and the Sam, there’s competition for all of them.
Now, when you’ve got a guy coming back that’s played as much football as Lamin Barrow’s played, you’d think that he’s the odds-on favorite to be a starter somewhere. But if he doesn’t improve, and somebody’s pushing him and goes by him, then that’s what we’re going to allow to happen.
BL: If you were to look at Lamin and Kwon Alexander specifically, are there elements that both of those guys give you that tell you they could be Mike linebackers?
JC: Yeah, no doubt about it, but there are other guys, too, when you look at Lamar Louis, who worked in there some last year, and Ronnie Feist and D.J. Welter will get an opportunity as well. Right now I guess it may sound better if I’d say ‘I know who the Mike linebacker is going to be.’ I have no clue, other than we’ve got four or five people that we’re going to give a look to and let it shake out. We’ll try our best to end up with our best three players on the field. I think if we do that we’ll have three pretty good players out there on the field.
BL: What is your excitement level like as a position coach for it to be as deep in the linebacking corps as it is this season?
JC: It’s very exciting. Obviously we’ve got a lot of things to sort through, but this is a very talented group of young men, especially knowing that we’ve got two or three guys who are coming in with a lot of talent to add from the (2013) class. We really helped ourselves with this class. We’re excited about the possibility of making this a strength of our football team.
BL: Do you think about the fact that you have so many guys, maybe five or six deep, who have starter quality at linebacker and maybe wonder about moving them to safety or end or somewhere to make sure that they all get on the field?
JC: Well, yeah, we’ve talked about that. And we’re going to look at some other guys as we go. Again, the whole deal is – and I mentioned this from a position standpoint earlier but it’s also true for your whole defense – we sit around as coaches, and we’ve evaluated, and we’ve come up with who we think may be the 11 best players and ways to get those guys on the field. Certainly we want to do that. Now, there will be games that 11 best, just based on the nature of the offense that you’re playing, may change a little bit. So we’ll see some people who will be doing double-duty, and we’re not going to sit a guy on the bench if he can be better than a guy who’s on the field.
BL: I’m assuming you don’t want to tell me any names of those versatile guys?
JC: No (Laughing). Not at this point in time. We can get to that a little later on as we see how the scrimmages go.
BL: I know you’re a base 4-3 coordinator, but with some newness and lack of experienced depth on the defensive line and an abundance of talent at linebacker, is there any thought that goes into playing some 3-4 this season? Maybe just in spurts?
JC: Well, we’ve played, depending on our package, some 3-4 already. Our dime package is really a 3-4 package, but we could personnel it with outside linebackers and very easily get to a 3-4. But what we like and what we’re really excited about is what we do with our 4-3 personnel. We’ve recruited to that, and the people who are coming in here speak to it. Obviously with guys at defensive end like [KeKe] Mingo and what not, we’ve recruited to that. In certain situations we already have been a 3-4. It’s not anything that we advertise or talk about, but our base is 4-3 and will continue to be that.
BL: What is your outlook on the 2013 defensive line and the job that Brick Haley, someone you’ve been really familiar with for years, will have to do with some really talented but somewhat inexperienced players?
JC: You never know what scenarios are going to be, and certainly we lost a bunch of good players, but we definitely have talent coming back. I think inside particularly, if those guys stay the course and continue to work and progress as they have, that will be the strength of our football team.
Certainly, when you can put two defensive tackles in the game like we can, it’s a huge advantage. Those guys have played well at times, but now there’s nobody out there with them. They’re going to be out there. They’re going to be the frontrunners. They’re going to have to play well all the time. They’re capable of doing it, and I think we will be better there than we have been since I’ve been here certainly. That’s because of talent and obviously because they’re being coached well.
BL: Is Danielle Hunter somebody that’s going to make a lot of people wide-eyed when they finally see him at defensive end?
JC: I hope so. He played a little bit as a freshman. It’s hard, you know, for an 18-year-old to come in and play against 21- and 22-year-old guys. There’s a lot of maturity that takes place during the course of those years. He’s gotten bigger, stronger and faster since he’s been here. He’s a talent, and we’re going to have to see how he can handle playing 50 or 60 snaps a game. That’s part of the growing-up process. But we’re excited about how talented he is and look forward to seeing him in that role.
BL: Back in the secondary, does the plan change as far as running as much nickel, dime and Mustang as you have in recent years based on who’s back there this year?
JC: Not a lot. We’ll actually be deeper in the secondary this season than we were this past season. I thought Corey Raymond did a terrific job. You come in for your first season back at LSU, and you don’t force it. You play the best player, and he did. We started a true freshman (Jalen Mills), and we asked that true freshman not only to play corner and be our starter but also move into the nickel spot when we did play nickel. We’ve never asked that much of a true freshman before. I thought he did a wonderful job, but I thought Corey also did a wonderful job of getting Jalen Mills ready to do those things. And it’s in a big-boy league that he walks in, big-eyed and right out of high school, and now he’s the starting cornerback and nickel at LSU. We will have a little bit more depth back there this year, which is going to be a big plus for us.
BL: Is Deion Jones your fastest linebacker?
JC: You know what, I could probably say he’s the quickest. Time-wise, though, I don’t know exactly who would be the fastest. We haven’t run them in 40s. We’ve certainly got really, really good speed. Several of them can really run, and he’d be near the top. I know I wouldn’t be wrong in saying he’s one of the quickest, too, because he’s got some suddenness about him that you just don’t see in a lot of athletes.
BL: Do you expect any drop-off from Tahj Jones after almost a full year out of competitive in-game football?
JC: No, not at all. We’re excited about having him back as Tahj has played a lot of football around here, but he’ll be pushed. Tahj will have to continue to grow and get his game better. If not, there’s pressure behind him. Make no mistake, though, I think our guys will thrive under pressure. When they’re being pushed, they know that if I can’t get better, this guy will and I’ll have to watch him play. It’s a competitive situation, and I think that brings the best out of most good athletes.
BL: This time last year you told me your defense would be one in 2012 that would get better as the season went on and the players got their feet wet. How will this one be the same or different?
JC: I think it will be a little bit of the same. The reason I say that is because of the youth right now. In terms of recruiting, we started recruiting with the idea that we could lose a number of juniors that could move on. We met those needs, which was good. You know what, it’s going to be exciting to watch this young group go to work. Certainly, when they take the right attitude to work every day, they’re going to just get better and better.