On the second down play that ultimately helped the Tigers get off the field and where Smith’s celebration quickly turned to agony, he split between two interior linemen to blow up a run play that ultimately resulted in a loss of three yards.
The defensive identity was predicated on the front four’s ability to cause havoc. Losing Smith so quickly into the first game puts a severe monkey wrench in those plans but isn’t necessarily an injury the Tigers can’t overcome. Assessing the options behind Smith that will make the most sense moving forward, the logical first answer is Missouri transfer Mekhi Wingo.
Wingo was someone the media had an opportunity to meet with in the fall and has SEC experience, being named to the conference’s All-Freshman team in 2021. There’s a lot to like about what he brings to the table, and as he settled in throughout the night with more reps, he was pretty good for the purple and gold.
Keep in mind his workload immediately shifted with the injury to Smith and yet was able to make an impact, recording six tackles, with four of those plays occurring on runs for four yards or less. On a night where the defense struggled to wrap up, having some of that interior presence that Wingo will offer is a threat Matt House and this defense will want to lean into.
Wingo’s improved ability to stop the run is something he’s spent the entire offseason working on, calling it his No. 1 priority when making the jump from Missouri to LSU.
“Gotta be able to take on the double team and stop the run. Especially in this conference, the most physical conference,” Wingo said. “You’ve gotta be able to stay in there and not get pushed out of your gap and help your other teammates.”
LSU’s front seven was pushed to the inside quite a bit during the Florida State game, allowing for some huge gains on the outside, but that’s less on the interior linemen, whose job it is to shut down the running lanes up the middle. Outside of Wingo, a few names come to mind as potential rotation pieces the Tigers will need more out of moving forward.
Jacobian Guillory and Bryce Langston are the two that come to mind right off the bat as neither has had a ton of playing experience, with Guillory appearing in 11 games in 2021 and recording nine total tackles.
It will also be interesting to watch if LSU switches up its personnel much with the loss of Smith. The Tigers typically ran with four linemen up front, with BJ Ojulari operating as a JACK linebacker against Florida State.
But electing to potentially put three linemen on the front line in Ojulari, Jaquelin Roy, and Ali Gaye, allowing an opportunity to bring in another athletic linebacker like Harold Perkins, who showed flashes in his first game with the program. There are many areas where this defense can start to show improvement against Southern, but having an intelligent strategy to recreate the impact Smith would’ve brought to the defensive line is a big step.