Senior Linebackers are Built for Speed
Since defensive coordinator John Chavis arrived in Baton Rouge prior to the 2009 season, LSU has consistently boasted one of the nation's best defensive units.
A constant force in the success of LSU's defense has been a strong linebacker corps and the 2011 Tigers are no exception.
After 2010 First-Team All-Southeastern Conference selection Kelvin Sheppard departed for the Buffalo Bills in the NFL Draft, the LSU defense had big shoes to fill. This season, the Tigers' defensive leadership continues to come from their senior linebackers, most notably Ryan Baker, Karnell Hatcher and Stefoin Francois.
Baker is the Tigers' most experienced linebacker. The Grand Ridge, Fla., native is the team's leading returning tackler, having played in 41 career games, starting 16 of them to date.
Baker entered the season as a second team preseason all-SEC selection. He also joined cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu on the Bednarik Award Watch List, which goes to the nation's best defensive player in addition to the Butkus Award Watch List, which goes to the nation's best linebacker.
"We have a very talented defense, but we're young," Baker said. "When you play linebacker in Coach Chavis' system, everything goes through you so it's really just about steering everyone in the right direction and keeping them focused. The calls come in from the sideline and you need to relay them to the secondary and the defensive line. It's a lot of responsibility, but the fact that Stefoin, Karnell and I are so close helps us in communication before the play and during the play."
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Baker has taken over for Sheppard as the Tigers' vocal on-field leader in 2011, after earning a huge amount of respect from his teammates a season ago when he played the first month of the season with his mouth wired shut because of a broken jaw.
He registered a stellar performance in his first start of 2010, notching six tackles, including a career-high three for loss, against Vanderbilt without being able to open his mouth to communicate or breathe. That performance set off a season where he ranked sixth in the SEC with seven sacks for 60 yards in losses.
Baker has continued to rack up impressive stats into 2011 as he's averaging four tackles per game in four games played.
"It was crazy playing with my mouth shut," Baker said. "I had to focus on things you don't usually worry about like breathing because I could only take air in-and-out through my nose. I was on a liquid-only diet for three weeks; I was forced to rely on my non-verbal communication on the field as well as off."
In Hatcher and Francois the Tigers boast not one, but two converted safeties playing at the center of the defense, continuing a Tiger tradition dating back to Chavis' arrival at LSU of putting former members of the secondary at the heart of the defense.
Converting safeties into linebackers is nothing new for Chavis.
The first Tiger to make the switch under Chavis was Harry Coleman, who made the move from safety to linebacker in 2009, Chavis' first year at LSU. Coleman finished the season third on the team in tackles en route to being named the Tigers' defensive MVP.
Chavis' tradition of turning safeties into speedy, hard-hitting linebackers goes back to his days coaching at his alma mater, Tennessee. He converted multiple safeties into linebackers with great success in his 14-year tenure as defensive coordinator for the Volunteers.
One of those was Al Wilson, who played safety in high school before Chavis moved him to outside linebacker, where he became an All-American on the Vols' 1998 national championship team. He went on to become a five-time NFL Pro Bowler with the Denver Broncos.
"We understand how important speed is on defense in the SEC," Baker said. "Guys like Stefoin and Karnell jumping closer to the line with such quickness while still bringing the physicality needed to play linebacker in the SEC provides an advantage for us."
Francois, a product of Reserve, La., made the transition from safety prior to the 2010 season. The move paid instant dividends for the Tigers as Francois made the game-winning play in his first game at linebacker, LSU's season-opening win against North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A kickoff game.
With the Tar Heels driving toward a potential game-tying touchdown, Francois broke up UNC quarterback T.J. Yates' intended pass to tight end Zack Pianalto in the end zone as time expired to preserve the win for the Tigers.
"In that game and situation, I think having experience playing coverage in the secondary played a crucial role," Francois said. "My instincts just took over."
Francois played a crucial role in helping Hatcher, a Delray Beach, Fla., native, in his move to linebacker this season.
"I told Karnell when he moved down from the secondary the biggest difference between safety and linebacker is you're closer to the ball so you need to react faster," Francois said. "The transition was a little easier for me because I played linebacker in high school so I had an idea how physical you need to be at the point of attack. I tried to share pointers like that with him as much as possible. He's caught on really quickly."
Hatcher's successful transition didn't come without a lot of hard work and extra time put in off the field.
"I had to get a little bigger while staying quick so I spent a lot of time in the gym," Hatcher said. "Learning a new position was also a challenge but the coaches and my teammates helped me so much in practice and in watching film."
Playing two converted safeties at linebacker may be unorthodox for an SEC team, but it's difficult to argue with the 2011 LSU defense's results thus far.
The Tigers are allowing just 12.8 points a game and 60.4 rushing yards per game through week five. LSU also ranked No. 2 in the SEC and No. 4 in the nation in rushing defense. They have put up spectacular numbers in the turnover column, leading the SEC and ranking No. 4 in the nation in turnover margin at plus-9.
"Our defense reminds me of the 2007 unit because we're really aggressive and talented, especially against the run and at forcing turnovers." Francois said. "I don't think we have any weak links. I think our defensive line has done a great job of taking up blockers against the run. As linebackers, that has allowed us to just make sure we fill in gaps and make tackles. That's pivotal in our defensive scheme."
While the script for the rest of the 2011 season has yet to be written, the Tigers will need to continue to receive big performances out of their linebacker playmakers if they want to achieve their goals of an SEC championship and a national title.