Two primary presences steadied LSU throughout the 2022 football season, outside of head coach Brian Kelly.
Quarterback Jayden Daniels kept LSU’s offense afloat despite early offensive flaws as the team found its identity.
And defensive coordinator Matt House came up with creative schemes and constant adjustments to shut down opponents with a makeshift secondary and without star defensive tackle Maason Smith. When LSU struggled early against Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Auburn, House seemingly always had a second-half counter.
House enters Year 2 with a defense that features exciting players such as Smith, Harold Perkins Jr. and Omar Speights. He also has a much less experienced unit, returning five primary starters and needing to replace an elite edge rusher in BJ Ojulari and all the starting cornerbacks.
The faith remains in House, but piecing this talented but new defense together will be a challenge. Here’s a look at what that defensive depth chart might look like, in addition to how LSU could look on special teams.
Starters: Maason Smith (redshirt sophomore), Mekhi Wingo (junior), Sai’vion Jones (junior)
Backups: Jacobian Guillory (redshirt junior), Jordan Jefferson (senior), Paris Shand (junior), Quency Wiggins (redshirt freshman)
Other candidates: Fitzgerald West Jr. (sophomore), Jalen Lee (junior), Tygee Hill (redshirt freshman)
Maason Smith is back after LSU lost him to injury in the 2022 season opener. (Stephen Lew / USA Today)
Bear with me. This is a group in which picking a starter is both semantics and just plain difficult, because there is no way LSU doesn’t have both Smith and Wingo on the field even though they play the same position. Wingo stepped into Smith’s starting defensive end role when Smith went down for the season in the season opener against Florida State, and he became an All-American and arguably LSU’s best defensive player for much of the season.
Neither is exactly a strong-side defensive end to fill Ali Gaye’s role, and putting either at nose tackle feels limiting for these two talents. Still, Wingo has pointed out that there’s no need to get caught up in labels. Guillory is the clear top traditional nose tackle if LSU wants one, a thick yet mobile 315-pound body that can slide into a large role. So he’s probably a co-starter in reality, but we’ll say he’s a backup because Smith and Wingo may start in a version of that spot.
That leaves strong-side defensive end. LSU added Shand, an Arizona transfer, to compete here, but my gut says the recent growth of Jones has been enough to make him a starter on opening day. Jones had six tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season, and he was seemingly everywhere in his start in LSU’s Citrus Bowl win against Purdue. But LSU has options. Shand started seven games at Arizona, and LSU likes his upside.
Don’t forget Wiggins, who will likely be on Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List sooner than later. He has the kind of talent that can’t be kept off the field. I doubt he starts right away, but he’ll be in the mix to see the field early.
Starter: Ovie Oghoufo (senior)
Backups: Dashawn Womack (freshman), Bradyn Swinson (junior)
Other candidates: Jaxon Howard (freshman), Dylan Carpenter (freshman)
I was close to giving Womack, the five-star freshman, the starting spot, but Oghoufo is experienced and productive enough to start right away in the SEC. The Texas transfer had 14 tackles for loss the past two years, and Womack will miss the spring after shoulder surgery.
Pass rusher, however, is a position at which teams want game-changers more than even polish and experience. So Womack could be part of the pass-rush unit on third down or even eventually supplant Oghoufo. LSU also added Swinson, a transfer from Oregon. So even though it’s relying on newcomers to replace Ojulari, LSU gave itself a mix of experience and big-time talent.
Starter: Omar Speights (senior), Greg Penn III (junior), Harold Perkins Jr. (sophomore)
Backups: West Weeks (sophomore), Whit Weeks (freshman), Christian Brathwaite (freshman)
OK, this may be cheating a bit here, going with three linebackers and an edge rusher, but LSU could get creative with how it uses its fronts and linebackers to ensure it has the best players on the field. Expect LSU to dabble with some two-man fronts of Smith and Wingo lined up on the guards, with both Perkins and Oghoufo/Womack on the edges.
Point being, even if Perkins doesn’t move inside to play a traditional LSU linebacker role, the super sophomore will still be on the field. That’s the beauty of LSU adding Speights, the first-team All-Pac 12 Oregon State transfer. Speights is another rangy, athletic linebacker who can drop into coverage and float around, while Penn, a returning starter, is a more traditional box linebacker. Expect House to get creative letting Perkins and Speights float inside and outside of the box.
All three will be on the field a ton, whether that means fewer bodies on the defensive line or at defensive back. LSU trusts West Weeks as the next man up, but still expect it to add another linebacker to bolster depth.
Starters: Denver Harris (sophomore), Zy Alexander (junior), Duce Chestnut (junior)
Backups: Sage Ryan (junior), JK Johnson (redshirt sophomore), Javien Toviano (freshman) Sevyn Banks (redshirt senior)
Other candidates: Laterrance Welch (sophomore), Jeremiah Hughes (freshman), Ashton Stamps (freshman)
Let’s take some chances! The assumption has long been that Ryan, a former five-star, would step into the starting nickel spot with Jay Ward gone, and that’s probably still most likely. But Ryan hasn’t shown a ton in his consistent rotation time the past two years, and LSU added so many talented defensive backs this cycle.
Chestnut, from Syracuse, brings a real physicality at corner, blowing up screens and aggressively making tackles near the line of scrimmage. He reminds me a bit of Ward, and I wonder if he could do well inside. House and Kelly have proven they do not mind moving players around.
On the outside, Harris, the Texas A&M transfer, seems to be a given as long as discipline concerns don’t become an issue. He looked like a star as an Aggies freshman last fall before suspensions. The other spot feels open among as many as four or five options. Chestnut might be the front-runner if not for my nickel prediction. Toviano is a major prospect who is probably ready to compete to start. And Johnson has questions from his time at Ohio State, but he’s still an experienced Big Ten starter.
For fun, say Alexander impresses and takes it. He was an FCS All-American at Southeastern Louisiana and plays with a natural style. McNeese transfer Colby Richardson showed last year that LSU doesn’t get blinded by star ratings. It will choose the best player.
Starters: Greg Brooks Jr. (redshirt senior), Major Burns (redshirt junior)
Backups: Jordan Allen (redshirt freshman), Ryan Yaites (freshman), Kylin Jackson (freshman), Matthew Langlois (redshirt sophomore)
This is straightforward. LSU returns two of its smartest players and two key pieces in the SEC West title campaign. Brooks’ ability to start at nickel, corner or safety is invaluable, but this year safety is the right fit. Kelly talked often about Burns’ communication as a key, so returning the duo to the back end is a win. The only real question is who is next up, but LSU added two top-300 freshmen in Yaites and Jackson, and don’t rule out lesser known youngsters like Allen and Langlois, who missed last year with a knee injury.
Placekicker: Damian Ramos (redshirt sophomore)
Punter: Jay Bramblett (redshirt senior)
Long snapper: Slade Roy (junior)
Though nobody would describe kicking as a strength last fall, Ramos held his own, going 10-of-14 on field goals, including 2-of-3 on field goals from 40-to-49 yards. He made 55 of 57 extra points. Give him the comfort of being a returning starter, and he should be reliable, even if he’s not Cade York or Cole Tracy, who spoiled LSU fans.
Bramblett is a veteran leader and a good presence in the locker room, and he was the main bright spot during a rough season on special teams. He put 38.3 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line, per Pro Football Focus, and ranked in the top 50 in punt efficiency.
Punt and kickoff return: Aaron Anderson (redshirt freshman)
Brian Polian is LSU’s recruiting coordinator for the entire roster, but one clear focus this offseason was to ensure LSU fixed its return issues from 2022. Insert Anderson. Yes, the Alabama transfer may do big things at receiver, but there’s no doubt he’ll be expected to add a new element to LSU’s return game.