IN FOCUS: Donnie Alexander
Communications Student Assistant
As the annual rivalry game last season between LSU and Florida was moved from Gainesville to Baton Rouge due to Hurricane Matthew, the Noon CT start time was not the only atypical aspect of that chilly Saturday morning.
Two stout defenses were set to square off, ensuring offensive struggles for both teams. The Tigers’ defense was filled with experience across their starting 11, but their depth was tested in the first quarter as their star linebacker, senior Kendell Beckwith, tore his ACL. Although he had played his final snap as a Tiger, Beckwith was still named a Second-Team All-American and First-Team All-SEC in 2016.
Primarily utilized on special teams and substitution packages prior to Beckwith’s injury, junior Donnie Alexander was tasked with filling the void left by Beckwith for the remainder of the season. Alexander answered the bell.
“When Kendell went down last year, my biggest goal was to go into the game and make it seem like Kendell was still on the field,” Alexander said. “I knew I needed to do the things he taught me in the past years that I’d been behind him.”
Although the Tigers fell to the Gators 16-10 in dramatic fashion, Alexander set a career-high and tied the team lead in the game, recording eight tackles. Alexander’s performance earned him a starting spot for the final two games of the season.
The first was the regular season finale against SEC West rival, Texas A&M. In only his second career start, Alexander finished tied for second for the team lead with five tackles. The Tigers left College Station victorious, 54-39. Alexander was also credited with one pass breakup and one quarterback hurry.
In the final game of the 2016 season, Alexander and the Tigers were faced with the daunting task of attempting to halt in the Citrus Bowl a high-powered Louisville offense, which ranked third nationally in total offense.
The Tigers’ defensive scheme constructed by first-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, was executed to perfection. Alexander and the experienced Tiger defense were the only team in 2016 to prevent Jackson from recording a single touchdown as they cruised to a 29-9 rout of the Cardinals. Alexander recorded four tackles in the stifling team effort.
Alexander believes Aranda’s extensive knowledge provides enormous impact to the defense as a whole.
“He breaks everything down to the simplest terms,” Alexander explained. “For example, he shows us the gap we need to be positioned in and which gap to move to based on the play that the offense calls.”
Although Alexander seemed to have a seamless transition into the defense at linebacker, senior leadership throughout the defense prepared him for this opportunity that came a little earlier than expected.
The Tigers started six seniors on defense last season, highlighted by first-round NFL Draft selection Tre’Davious White. However, the most important senior that aided Alexander when he was called upon played alongside Beckwith and faced a similar situation as Alexander when last season started.
Senior Duke Riley had only started one game prior to his final season of eligibility, as he made the majority of his contributions on the special teams units for his first three years in Baton Rouge. In the meantime, Riley spent his time as a backup learning and improving his craft for preparation when the opportunity presented itself.
The knowledge Riley accumulated of Aranda’s defense was evident as he proved to be one of the leaders for the Tigers last season. When Alexander was asked to step in for Beckwith, Riley’s knowledge of the assignments and technique necessary expedited the learning-curve process for Alexander.
Despite his jump to professional ball for the Atlanta Falcons, Riley to this day will offer his advice and suggestions to Alexander on how to take his game to the next level.
“He taught me how to be a leader,” Alexander said. “He tells me what things I need to look for when I’m watching film. He taught me different ways to better my game technique-wise. To this day, he’ll watch some of our practice film and correct me and Devin (White).”
Given all of the departures after last season on the defensive side of the ball, it is up to seniors like Alexander to take on leadership roles moving forward. Part of being a leader is to hold yourself and others accountable for their performances. They also must set an example by their actions and words to their teammates that are less experienced.
“We need to make sure they’re learning the things they need to,” Alexander noted. “Next year, a lot of us will be gone, and most of those guys will only be sophomores that will have to step up into big roles. We need to teach them the things they need to do on and off the field to be great.”
Alexander and his fellow LSU seniors have the majority of their conference games still to be decided. They are aware of the appropriate mindset necessary for the remainder of the season.
“We have addressed all of the problems that have been going on,” Alexander said. “We have the mindset to win out, and get back to playing the LSU football we saw when we all were recruited here.”