2012 LSU Football Preview: Defense and Special Teams

Bennie Logan breaks through the line and prepares for a tackle during the Tigers’ 19-6 victory over Mississippi State last year. PHOTO BY CHRISTOPHER LEH / THE DAILY REVEILLE.

Mission Miami. The Road to Redemption.

Whatever tag you attach to it, the 2012 LSU football season is finally here.

Nearly eight months of talk about everything from the 2011 BCS title game to the Tigers’ new quarterback to distractions associated with dismissals and academic issues are finally in their proper place.

In the past.

Tomorrow night LSU opens its quest for a fourth national championship when it hosts the North Texas Mean Green Saturday at 6 pm in Tiger Stadium. The Tigers have not lost a season opener since 2002 when it lost 26-8 at Virginia Tech, and are 16-1 in home openers, the lone loss coming in 2005 when they lost to Tennessee in overtime on the Monday night after Hurricane Rita hit Louisiana.

“If you have to look at what I’m looking forward to, I think our team is looking forward to taking the field,” said Head Coach Les Miles. “I think there’s an aggressor there that really speaks to where we want to start this season. I think our guys have a little bit of an edge to them about how we play. I think we look forward to taking the field.”

Coincidentally, it was that year that the expected opening game–against North Texas–had to be moved to later in the year, forcing the Tigers to open with a tough SEC opponent. The status of tomorrow’s game was in question until Thursday afternoon after Hurricane Isaac stormed through the area.

“Our options are limited as far as opportunities to play this game and there was minimal damage to the stadium, so we are proceeding with the season opener on Saturday night,” Director of Athletics Joe Alleva said.

LSU should have no problem with the Mean Green. The top-ranked Tigers boast a 36-0 record against Sun Belt Conference opponents and have not allowed North Texas into the endzone in the last three meetings. The Tigers have held North Texas to zero touchdowns in the last three meetings.

Tharold Simon has all the makings to be the next great cornerback at LSU. PHOTO BY AL TIELEMANS / SI

LOCKING IT DOWN

The Tigers finished No. 2 nationally in both total defense and scoring defense a year ago, falling behind the only team that was able to beat them last year–the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Don’t expect much of a drop-off in this year’s defense. Gone are first round draft picks Morris Claiborne and Michael Brockers, yes, but look for long and rangy Tharold Simon to continue the tradition of lock-down corners at LSU and a line of talented and hungry defensive tackles to step in to replace Brockers. Top 2011 recruits Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson along with senior Josh Downs will be more than adequate in anchoring the line along with underrated returner Bennie Logan.

Also gone is Tyrann Mathieu, of course, but look for his dismissal to make the Tigers’ chemistry even better. Mathieu was a ball-hawk and game changer, there is no doubt, and it seemed his teammates fed off of his non-stop energy. But his brashness in the off-season and public claims of being the best defensive player in college football could not have gone over well with his equally able teammates. Defensive end Barkevious Mingo was blunt in saying that the Tigers will not miss Mathieu.

“We were all sad for him because we love him like a brother,” said Mingo to ESPN. “But it’s just one of those things that has to happen.”

Mingo is a member of Les Miles’ 22-man unity council, a group of leaders comprised from every position and class of the Tigers’ roster. He is a quiet leader who lets his actions on the field do his talking, a very different approach to playing the game than Mathieu.

Look for the likes of Mingo, fellow defensive end Sam Montgomery, linebacker Kevin Minter, safety Eric Reid, and Logan to spark a defense that will have the same ferocity as last year’s with perhaps a little less talk on the field. This more steady and mature approach will benefit the Tigers’ cupboard of ultra-talented freshman linebackers, several of which will see the playing field early and often in 2012.

The Tigers will have a light schedule to ease their way into dominant form, unlike last year when it came out of the gate playing three ranked opponents in its first four games.

Drew Alleman (#30) celebrates with holder Brad Wing after kicking the game-winning field goal in overtime to defeat the Alabama Crimson Tide 9-6 last season in Tuscaloosa. PHOTO BY STREETER LECKA / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA.

WINGED AND FLEET-FOOTED

The Tigers have the best special teams in the nation, and it may not even be close.

They return All-American punter Brad Wing, an Australian who can kick with both feet and command the flight and landing of a ball like few who have ever played the position–college or professional.

They return steady and reliable placekicker Drew Alleman, who singlehandedly won games at Mississippi State (four FGs in a 19-7 victory) and at Alabama (three FGs in a 9-6 overtime victory). He was 16 for 18 overall last season.

They return James Hairston, the kickoff specialist who consistently puts balls in the endzone. This year, he will be kicking off from the 35-yard-line and touchbacks will come out to the 25. So an adjustment in strategy will have to be made by Les Miles and the special teams, but don’t expect them to fumble this issue at all.

Though Mathieu’s dynamism at punt returner is gone, don’t expect the Tigers to be hurting there with shifty Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry taking the reins. Beckham and Landry, along with Russell Shepard, will also handle kickoff duties for the Tigers, who were paced by Claiborne’s 25.2 return average a year ago.

The bottom line? Mathieu will be missed as much as an exiting senior would be. Expect nothing less than for one of Les Miles’ super recruits and of course the already in place veterans to step right up and roar this year as the Tigers vie for a trip to Miami.

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