NCF Nation: Ryan Baker

Speed and athleticism are always immediately mentioned when talking about SEC defenses, but there’s a mental side that’s often overlooked.

For Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson, it’s the first thing he notices when he sees youngsters competing in practices. Their speed is always impressive, but the way younger players are dissecting and learning defenses these days has Johnson shocked. It also has defensive coordinators around the league giddy with the thought of not having to simplify things for youngsters.

“The more recruits that come in, year in and year out, it seems like they’re smarter and faster figures,” Johnson said. “It just keeps going and going.

[+] EnlargeNico Johnson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireAlabama linebacker Nico Johnson says today's young SEC players enter the league with an impressive grasp of defensive schemes.
“I don’t know how it’s happening, but it’s happening.”

That accelerated learning is one of the main reasons Johnson thinks the SEC has been so dominant defensively, and why the conference will continue to be for years to come. Since 2007, the SEC has had at least two teams ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, including having four ranked in the top five in 2011.

Johnson says the way players respond to coaching and changes in defensive schemes have been enhanced since he arrived in Tuscaloosa in 2009. The senior-to-be said it was amazing to see younger players, like linebackers C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest, pick up things so quickly, and admitted they were much farther ahead during their first camps than he was.

And Johnson thinks that it’s going on all around the league.

As the SEC looks to earn its seventh straight national title, teams are looking to continue the tradition of having the staunchest defenses around. Like Johnson, Georgia coach Mark Richt believes that will start with the quicker breed of players who have entered the league.

Richt said he thinks the SEC’s defensive success should absolutely be attributed to the type of athletes who circulate throughout the league, but he also thinks the speed with which athletes adapt to the college level helps. He sees what he and his coaching staff are doing being duplicated at the high school level by coaching staffs, but he also sees younger athletes understanding the game more, especially in the Southeast.

Explaining schemes has almost become a thing of the past.

But it isn’t just preparation that will go into making sure SEC teams return to their defensive perches in 2012. Richt and Johnson agreed that it comes down to having the right mindset -- to be better than those before.

At Alabama, that won’t be easy. The Crimson Tide had one of the all-time best defenses in 2011, ranking first nationally in total defense, rushing defense, passing defense and scoring defense, and will lose a host of players who made all that possible.

Linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower are gone. So is defensive tackle Josh Chapman and defensive backs Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and DeQuan Menzie. It seems like Alabama will be in a rebuilding mode similar to 2010, but Johnson disagrees. With a handful of juniors and seniors returning, Johnson said Alabama’s defense will be far from inexperienced, and will feed off the talk of possibly resembling the 2010 squad.

“We want to make ourselves better than the defense last year,” Johnson said. “We want to create our own identity.

“We know what we’re capable of, and we know what can happen if we don’t do our job 24/7. We use that ... to keep us motivated to keep us going, because we don’t want that to happen anymore.”

But what about the other top defenses? Well, there isn’t much drop-off …

LSU returns nearly everyone who helped the Tigers rank second in total defense. What’s scary is that while Morris Claiborne is gone at cornerback, Tyrann Mathieu could be better this fall, and Tharold Simon could be just as deadly in coverage.

LSU must replace two linebackers, including leader Ryan Baker, but returns three starting defense linemen, including ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, who combined for 16 sacks in 2011.

Georgia loses star cornerback Brandon Boykin, but returns 10 starters, including top pass-rusher Jarvis Jones, from a defense that ranked fifth nationally last season. In order to keep its edge, Richt said his players must eliminate complacency and can’t think 2011’s success will propel them.

“We don’t want to rest on any accomplishments of the past,” Richt said. “I don’t think our coaches will allow that. I don’t think our leaders will allow that.”

South Carolina and Florida are in similar situations. The Gamecocks ranked third nationally in total defense, while Florida was eighth. South Carolina loses playmakers in defensive end Melvin Ingram, Spur Antonio Allen and cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but welcomes back six starters and a hefty line that features Jadeveon Clowney, Devin Taylor and Kelcy Quarles, or 22.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks.

South Carolina also returns most of its front seven, including linebackers Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens, who combined for 96 tackles last season.

The Gators lose defensive tackle Jaye Howard, but should be equipped with all of their remaining defensive parts, including rising star Matt Elam at safety. Dominique Easley will be recovering from a serious knee injury he suffered at the end of the season, but the Gators added depth up front and moved Sharrif Floyd back inside.

The SEC’s top defenses from a season ago return enough talent in 2012 to keep their names near the top of the national rankings. The talent will always remain in the SEC, but the idea of maintaining the tradition of defensive dominance for players keeps teams at the top of the defensive charts, Johnson said.

“I don’t see how anybody in any other conference can compare to it, because of what we do year in and year out,” he said. “We take pride in it, and it makes me feel good that people do look at us like that. We want to go out and prove to every team that’s not in the SEC that it’s no fluke that we’re that good.”

SEC recruiting needs: Western Division

January, 25, 2012
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With national signing day a week away, we’ll take a look today at the recruiting needs of each SEC team, starting with the Western Division. These needs are based on current rosters and voids that will be created with upperclassmen leaving in the next year or two. We realize that a lot of these needs have already been filled by players who’ve committed (or signed) in this class.

Here we go:

ALABAMA

Defensive back: It’s not quite the exodus Alabama faced following the 2009 season in the secondary, but the Crimson Tide lose three starters back there, including both cornerbacks. And safety Mark Barron was the guy who got everybody in the right spots. Alabama signed two junior college cornerbacks, and they’re already on campus.

Receiver: The top four pass-catchers from the 2011 season, including tight end Brad Smelley, are gone. In particular, Alabama could use a big, physical receiver capable of creating mismatches and making big plays down the field.

Linebacker: The Crimson Tide have never been hurting for linebackers, but they lose three good ones in Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and Jerrell Harris. Plus, Nico Johnson will be a senior next season and C.J. Mosley will be a junior. There are some young ones waiting in the wings, but Alabama needs to add to its stable.

ARKANSAS

Receiver: When you lose a pair of record-setting playmakers at receiver like Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, that’s always a good place to start. Greg Childs is also gone, so the Hogs are looking for people to fill their spots.

Offensive line: Finding some reinforcements up front on offense is also a big need for the Hogs. The most pressing need is at tackle. One starter in 2011, Grant Freeman, was a senior, and the other, Jason Peacock, will be a senior next season.

Defensive back: The Hogs like the young defensive backs on their roster, but losing Tramain Thomas at safety will be a blow. Eric Bennett also played well at the other safety, but he will be a junior next season. Another cornerback or two would also be nice.

AUBURN

Receiver: The Tigers need some game-breaking receivers. Emory Blake is back, but he’s going to be a senior, and Trovon Reed hasn’t been able to avoid injuries. The vertical passing game was non-existent this past season, and finding some guys who can get down the field and make some plays is a must for the Tigers.

Offensive line: More than anything else, Auburn needs guards and is very thin there. Christian Westerman is a talented, young guy who’s coming, but the Tigers are going to have to replenish the interior of their offensive line.

Defensive back: The truth is that the Tigers need help on defense, period. But the secondary has really taken it on the chin, especially this past season. Cornerback Chris Davis, a rising junior, has a chance to be special, but he needs some help around him.

LSU

Linebacker: The Tigers are still loaded on defense, but linebacker was the one area they wanted to address with both Ryan Baker and Karnell Hatcher departing, and they did with six commitments from players projected to play linebacker in college. All six are from the state of Louisiana, too.

Quarterback: Zach Mettenberger will step in as the starter next season, but he will be a junior. There’s nobody behind him who’s ever taken a snap in a college game. The Tigers thought they had highly rated Gunner Kiel in the fold, but lost him to Notre Dame. They need another quarterback.

Receiver: Rueben Randle emerged as one of the best big-play threats in the league this past season, but he’s turning pro early. Russell Shepard is set to return for his senior season, and Odell Beckham Jr., and Jarvis Landry both have a ton of potential. Even so, LSU could use a few more playmakers at receiver.

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Defensive line: Losing All-SEC tackle Fletcher Cox early to the pros hurt. The Bulldogs are suddenly behind in their depth. The numbers up front defensively aren’t where they need to be, which makes this a big class for the Bulldogs in the defensive line. Getting a dynamic pass-rusher is a must.

Offensive line: Finding a couple of guys who can help quickly was a priority, and that’s what the Bulldogs hope they’ve done with junior college additions Dylan Holley at center and Charles Siddoway at tackle.

Linebacker: The Bulldogs lost three senior starters following the 2010 season, and Brandon Wilson won’t return next season. What’s more, Cameron Lawrence will be a senior. The most pressing need is a middle linebacker, and preferably one who could step in and play early.

OLE MISS

Running back: One of the first things new head coach Hugh Freeze will look to do is put some pop in the Rebels’ running game. That starts with bringing in some prototypical SEC running backs in terms of size and speed. Jeff Scott led Ole Miss in rushing last season with 529 yards, but at 5-7 and 175 pounds, he’s more of a speed guy or change-up in this league.

Defensive back: The Rebels will take all the help they can get in the secondary. Safety Damien Jackson is gone. Cornerback Wesley Pendleton will be a senior, while cornerback/safety Charles Sawyer will be a junior.

Quarterback: There are several guys on campus who have played, but the Rebels are still searching for somebody who can come in and give them some consistency at the quarterback position. And with Freeze’s new spread offense, finding the right fit will also be important.

TEXAS A&M

Defensive back: The Aggies will jump into SEC play needing to replace three of four starters in their secondary. Both of their starting cornerbacks are gone, in addition to their best safety. So finding guys who can cover will be at the top of their list.

Defensive line: In keeping with the defensive theme, which is a must if you’re going to survive in the SEC, Texas A&M will be looking to replenish its defensive line. Gone are Ben Bass, Tony Jerod-Eddie and Eddie Brown. Building up a deeper defensive line rotation will be critical for the Aggies.

Running back: Depth at running back is another concern. Cyrus Gray, who rushed for 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons, is gone. Christine Michael returns for his senior season, but he’s coming off a torn ACL. It typically takes three backs to make it through an SEC season.
Jordan JeffersonChris Graythen/Getty ImagesLSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson was held to 53 yards passing and 15 yards rushing against Alabama.

NEW ORLEANS -- The ride is over.

The emotional roller coaster that was LSU’s season ended tragically inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

The team that had shaken off a plethora of distractions and back-to-back games with double-digit, first-half deficits never made its way out of the French Quarter as No. 1 LSU (13-1, 8-0) fell to second-ranked Alabama (12-1, 7-1) 21-0 in Monday’s Allstate BCS National Championship Game.

For once, there was no spark for the Bayou Bengals. The team that had rolled over each and every opponent it faced this season -- and seemed on its way to a historic finish -- fell flat when it mattered the most.

“You have to play through adversity,” LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “That’s what our coaches teach us.

“[Alabama] made all the big plays and made all the tough plays tonight, and [I] tip my hat off to them for making all the big plays and winning tonight.”

The defense had more bend on Monday than it had been accustomed to, allowing nearly 400 yards, five field goals and a late-game touchdown. Still, for staying on the field for 35 minutes that’s pretty good.

For everything the defense did for the offense, it got nothing in return. It got no adjustments, no originality. What it did get was five first downs, 92 total yards, 2.1 yards per play and zero points.

It got an offense that crossed into Alabama territory just once … and that came in the fourth quarter.

Followed by criticism throughout the season, LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson couldn’t get his offense moving. He couldn’t run and his arm didn’t help. The vertical passing game LSU promised wasn’t there because Jefferson admitted to holding onto the ball too long on designed deep passes because he wasn’t confident in where Alabama’s defenders were.

Some of his passes ranged from erratic to short. He was sacked four times and heard boos late in the first half and throughout the second when he took snaps instead of demoted quarterback Jarrett Lee.

Jefferson threw for 53 yards and an interception, and was beautifully contained by Alabama’s defense, which allowed him to rush for only 15 yards on 14 carries.

“I was seeing things clearly,” Jefferson said. “Making decisions with the ball wasn’t an issue.”

Jefferson turned the ball over twice, but it was his ill-advised flip-pass to an unsuspecting Spencer Ware that was devastating. Jefferson thought Ware was ready for the pass, but Ware had turned up field to block before Jefferson released the ball, which was intercepted.

“Other than that, I made great decisions with the ball,” Jefferson said. “Offensively, we just fell short.”

Very short.

Though there was no sign of Lee. He just stood on the sidelines, tossing the ball occasionally to keep his arm warm.

“It’s disappointing,” Lee said. “I would have liked to have gotten some snaps, but it is what it is. Didn’t get any snaps, so you gotta move on past that.”

LSU coach Les Miles' only explanation for not playing Lee was that with Lee’s lack of mobility he didn’t feel as though he could sustain Alabama’s pass rush.

Even with as poorly as Jefferson played, the pounding, wear-‘em-down running game that moved this offense never arrived. The Tigers got 12 carries from their running backs. (Leading rusher Michael Ford got four carries but managed only 1 yard.)

Offensive lineman Will Blackwell said the plan was to run the ball up the middle, but that never materialized so the staff directed runs to outside. Even after those didn't work, adjustments weren't made.

“I feel like we got away from our game plan a little bit,” Blackwell said. “We planned on running it inside and pounding them to maybe get the edge.

“We fell away from that and I don’t know what the reason for that is. Our game plan just fell apart.

“We got away from the things we’ve been doing all season, and whenever you do that in a championship game it usually doesn’t work out for you very well.”

LSU finally succumbed to all the adversity. For a team that fed off the negativity, the Tigers weren’t ready for Alabama. There was no game-changing play from the Honey Badger, the defense didn’t force any turnovers, there was no emotion in the second half and the offense never showed up.

For the defense, Monday must have hurt the most. They hunkered down near their own end zone and played well enough to win.

In the end, LSU’s defense just couldn’t play both ways for the Tigers.

“It was very disappointing,” linebacker Ryan Baker said. “We were clawing and fighting out there and we were just sitting back watching them go three-and-out.”

Video: LSU's Ryan Baker

January, 10, 2012
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Edward Aschoff talks with LSU's Ryan Baker following the Tigers' loss to Alabama in the title game.
NEW ORLEANS -- There has been no shortage of complaining since the Allstate BCS National Championship Game teams were announced.

It’s understandable when you consider that No. 1 LSU (13-0, 8-0) and No. 2 Alabama (11-1, 7-1) have already played. But most of the protests stemmed from the fact neither team scored a touchdown when they played in November.

Something called “defense” was played in Tuscaloosa, Ala., but apparently there was too much.

Monday, you won’t see PlayStation-like numbers that have been the norm during bowl season, but both teams promise things will be different when they have the ball.

“We’re going to have a better game plan this time and hopefully put some more points on the board,” LSU wide receiver Rueben Randle said.

“I don’t think anyone’s going to be able to come out 9-6 and win this game.”

For Monday’s rematch to look different, some things need to change on both sides. Here’s a look at why things will be different inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome:

[+] EnlargeRueben Randle
Rob Foldy/Icon SMI"Our passing game is going to have to loosen some things up in order to get our running game started," LSU receiver Rueben Randle said.
LSU’s passing game will be more vertical

In November, LSU’s passing game was ineffective. Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee combined to throw under the century mark and just four passes for double-digit yardage.

Now, the talk from LSU’s side is how vertical the Tigers want to get against Alabama’s defense. LSU ran for 148 yards last time, so Alabama will be keying in on the run.

LSU will want to start on the ground but wants Jefferson to air it out a little more.

“Our passing game is going to have to loosen some things up in order to get our running game started,” Randle said. “They’re going to fill that box to stop the run, so we need to be ready as receivers to make those plays down field.”

Alabama’s wide receivers want to prove themselves

Alabama might have had 100 more passing yards than LSU in November, but it never looked great. Quarterback AJ McCarron made some mistakes, but wide receiver Darius Hanks said the ones who catch the ball need to step up.

Alabama got two catches from tight ends and eight from receivers. Hanks, who caught two, said that should improve Monday.

“Our tight ends and our receivers will be the difference-makers in this game,” he said. “They think that if they stop our run game, then they’re going to win the game, but I feel differently.

“We can see a lot of their weaknesses, so we’re going to attack those areas, go strong and put the ball in the air this time.”

He also expects to spearhead Alabama’s passing game because he feels he can beat All-American cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu.

“I definitely feel like those guys, they can’t cover me,” he said.

P.J. Lonergan is 100 percent

Last time, LSU’s starting center wasn’t at full speed. He was hobbled by an ankle injury and played sparingly against Alabama.

While LSU was able to run the ball well without Lonergan, he should bolster LSU’s pass blocking, which will give Jefferson more time to look downfield.

“It’s definitely good that he’s back healthy,” LSU offensive guard Will Blackwell said.

“A healthy P.J. now will definitely be better than the P.J. that played Nov. 5.”

Alabama is prepared for the option

The Tide’s defense wasn’t as ready for Jefferson and the option in November. The team was prepared to see more of Lee, so when Jefferson came in, holes opened up in Alabama’s rush defense.

Now, Alabama knows that Jefferson will be LSU’s guy and the defense knows that Jefferson likes the option. LSU might want to throw more, but the running game is the heart of the offense.

Tide defensive tackle Josh Chapman said the key will be locking up the run gaps that were open too often when Jefferson ran the ball. Players were out of position because they weren’t ready.

“If we keep our running lanes right and affect him,” he said, “we’ll have a great ballgame.”

[+] EnlargeAJ McCarron
AP Photo/Rick Wilson"I definitely gotta come out and play with emotion in this game like I always do," Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron said.
McCarron will have more confidence and emotion

McCarron didn’t play his game last time. He toned down the emotion and that sucked away his confidence.

His teammates had nothing to feed off of, and that hurt Alabama. McCarron has been given the green light to ramp up those emotions, and that should keep his spirits up against LSU’s defense.

“I definitely gotta come out and play with emotion in this game like I always do,” McCarron said. “Just play my game.”

If McCarron can get going, it will help Alabama in the red zone. The Tide moved the ball well between the 30s against LSU but reached the red zone just once.

Alabama’s secondary is nicked up

LSU could move the ball through the air better this time because Alabama’s secondary is banged up. Safety Mark Barron injured his ribs against Auburn, while cornerbacks DeQuan Menzie and Dee Milliner have leg injuries.

Menzie has a hamstring injury that bothered him all season, while Milliner suffered a thigh injury against Auburn. They say they’re fine, but they’re called “nagging” for a reason.

Backup safety Will Lowery is also out with a season-ending knee injury he suffered against Georgia Southern.

On the flip side, LSU is healthier.

“The most important thing about this break is we’re fresh,” LSU linebacker Ryan Baker said. “Going into Nov. 5, guys were nicked up. … The game plan is pretty much the same, it’s just those guys [who weren’t healthy] will be making plays."

Most of the focus will be on points, but these teams are too old school for this to be a track meet. Defense will continue to be the constant for both teams.

“I'd expect it to be big-boy football,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “And I'd expect it to be very, very physical and that it would be a game that would be representative of two quality football teams.”


OXFORD, Miss. — LSU linebacker Ryan Baker promises there was no Arkansas talk on the sidelines or in the locker room Saturday.

He smiled that boyish smile while relaying the message that Ole Miss was the only topic of discussion during and after the 52-3 drubbing of the Rebels, so who knows if he was fibbing?

But would anyone have blamed the Tigers for casting aside such an overmatched opponent so quickly?

It took 28 seconds for LSU to get its game-winning score and less than a quarter before Ole Miss’ student section began to shrink and file out of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and into the Grove.

Saturday night was an imposing display of total dominance that began with a Ron Brooks’ interception returned 46 yards for a touchdown on a poorly thrown pass from Zack Stoudt.

This “contest” was over before Jordan Jefferson even took the first snap of his second start of the year and it could have been worse if not for four kneel-downs ordered by LSU coach Les Miles inside Ole Miss’ 5-yard line with five minutes remaining.

“We felt like if we came with it fast and physical we could jump on top of them,” LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers said. “We felt like if it gets pretty bad, they would let it down, shut it down a little bit.”

LSU imposed its will, and there was nothing Ole Miss could do.

LSU’s rout wasn’t surprising and the speed with which it occured probably didn’t shock anyone, either. It says a lot about the shape of an Ole Miss program that will say goodbye to head coach Houston Nutt after next week’s game at Mississippi State, but it also says a lot about where this LSU program is.

There is no question that this is the best team in the country and during a game in which LSU could have easily played down to its competition, the Tigers never lagged or got sloppy.

“This team realizes the path that it’s on,” Miles said.

“Our football team recognizes that for our destiny and the things that we need to do.”

Miles said he didn’t bring up Oklahoma State’s Friday night loss to Iowa State. He didn’t mention the SEC’s Saturday struggles. He didn’t because it wouldn’t have added any motivation.

LSU doesn’t need it.

Les Miles
Spruce Derden/US Presswire"You don't have to sugarcoat it," coach Les Miles said of LSU's approach. "All you need to say is simply, 'This is what we do.'"
“Our plan was good. I felt like our guys came in with an edge and a want for victory,” Miles said.

“Really, we felt like this is what we do. You don’t have to sugarcoat it. You don’t have to bring up other teams having difficulties. All you need to say is simply, ‘This is what we do.’”

LSU doesn’t have time to get sluggish or walk into a game. LSU sprints at and over its opponents each week. It would have been natural for LSU to spend all of its energy and emotion on the Alabama game, but somehow there is more fuel to push through to the finish.

“This team has a lot of drive. Our goals at the end of the year are to play for something significant,” Baker said. “You can really see it in this team’s demeanor that we really want this championship at the end of the year.”

To accomplish that goal, getting past Arkansas is the next step. If LSU is the best team in the country, Arkansas might as well be the hottest one after dismantling Mississippi State 44-17 Saturday.

Since slipping by Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, Arkansas has outscored its last three opponents 137-52. What started off as just a high-powered passing game has evolved into a much more balanced offense in the past three weeks, giving the Hogs legitimate BCS aspirations.

They would love nothing more than to put a big, fat blemish on LSU’s sparkling resume. An Arkansas victory would create a three-team tie in the West if Alabama beats Auburn, so there is a semifinal feel to next Friday.

A loss for the Tigers could crush their national championship hopes.

If the Alabama game was “The Game,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo labeled this one “The Game: Part 2.”

Film sessions start Sunday. It’s offense vs. defense. It’s glamor verses grit.

“They love to pass the ball and we love to give pressure,” Mingo said. “We’ll see how that works out.”

The rest of the country is anxiously waiting.

Clash of the titanic defenses

November, 4, 2011
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU linebacker Ryan Baker wasn’t holding back when he was asked about more being on the line Saturday than just a win over Alabama.

No, it didn’t have to do with the national championship or the SEC championship.

It had to do with bragging rights. More importantly, defensive bragging rights.

For most of the season, Baker and the rest of the country have heard about the comparisons between both units and the question of whose unit is better had been asked ad nauseum.

Well, talking time is over, it’s time for someone to take the moniker of “the best” home.

“I’m not gonna lie and mention that I don’t want to be the best defense on the field at any time,” Baker said. “Really, it’s proving ourselves. We’ve heard a lot about their defense and we want to come out and show them that we can play defense as well.”

Both teams have been playing defense all year. Both rank fifth or better in the country in five defensive categories, and fifth or better in the SEC in nine defensive categories. Alabama and LSU are one and two in the SEC in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense.

“Everybody’s competing for the best defense,” LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo said. “Everybody’s claiming we got it. They’re claiming they got it, so it’s going to be good competition.”

[+] EnlargeAlabama's Dont'a Hightower
AP Photo/Rick WilsonDont'a Hightower (30) and Alabama might have nation's best linebacking unit. But is Alabama's defense better than LSU's?
It’s going to be great competition and there could be at least 10 high defensive draft picks taking the field Saturday. Alabama might have the best linebacker corps, especially with Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw flying around the field and off the edge, but LSU might have the top trio of cornerbacks around, with the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) zeroing in on the ball and Morris Claiborne and Tharold Simon sticking to their men like glue.

Here are some numbers to munch on:

  • Alabama enters this game holding opponents to six points or less in six of its eight games. Alabama has also allowed seven points or less in 12 of its past 13 first halves.
  • LSU has given up 41 points in its first five conference games, the fewest since 1985 when LSU equaled that feat.
  • Alabama’s opponents have run 458 plays this season and only managed 119 -- both running and passing -- that went for more than 5 yards.
  • The Tigers have held opponents without a touchdown in 24 of 32 quarters this season and have yet to allow a first-quarter touchdown.
  • Offenses have crossed the 50-yard line during a drive against the Tide 24 times and have moved past Alabama’s 40 just 16 times.
  • The longest rush against LSU this year is 29 yards, and on 96 possessions, LSU has either forced a three-and-out or a turnover 48 times.

The bottom line is that these two units are darn good and you’d be hard-pressed to find two more complete defenses out there.

Both possess that rare combination of strength and speed across the board. While Alabama has more girth -- especially within the linebackers that Mingo referred to as “monsters” -- it doesn’t lack in speed. LSU is much slimmer, but just ask Mathieu about the toughness of he and his mates.

LSU coach Les Miles passed on the discussion of which unit was better, but he didn’t shy away from complimenting his players.

“I think there’s a great deal of speed and want in our defense -- all 11 guys,” Miles said. “An advantage, at times, is the ability to maneuver into the spot to make the tackle. There are advantages in strength and quickness, not necessarily size.”

LSU players said this week that they hadn’t paid much attention to Alabama’s defense this season, but there were peaks here and there. Baker said he watched the Florida and Penn State games, while Mingo said he’s caught glimpses along the way.

Tigers safety Brandon Taylor said he has never seen so much hype surrounding two defenses before. The only thing he could compare this matchup to was a ferocious NFL rivalry.

“The Pittsburgh Steelers and the Baltimore Ravens. Those are the only teams I’ve ever heard [receive this much defensive hype],” Taylor said.

“We want to outplay their defense. That’s going to be our motive. If they don’t score, they don’t win.”

When asked if he had seen a game with two defenses of this caliber taking the field, Miles started into a classic Miles response before failing to find the right words. It seemed like The Hat had been stumped.

He paused for a few seconds, flashed an approving smirk and returned to form to deliver his final answer.

“There have been some teams that have lined up and had quality defenses as well,” he said. “I just think both of these defense might match the best that I’ve seen.”

Us too.

Video: LSU LB Ryan Baker

November, 3, 2011
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Edward Aschoff talks to LSU linebacker Ryan Baker about Saturday's matchup with Alabama.

Quiet excitment around LSU's campus

November, 1, 2011
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- For now, everything is peaceful on campus.

Students were trudging around after what was surely a fun Halloween in Baton Rouge. The number of Honey Badger costumes had to be staggering.

There are "Beat Bama" signs sitting in a few yards outside of campus and the students seem more eager than the players and coaches.

Linebacker Ryan Baker said that his phone has been inundated with text messages and phone calls all about Alabama. It can get a little overwhelming, but Baker said it adds even more excitement to the game.

Defensive end Barkevious Mingo said one thing that helps him is the fact that head coach Les Miles is as loose as ever. It might sound weird for a head coach, even for a coach as unorthodox as Miles, to keep the same demenor he's had all season for a game of this magnitude, but his players certainly don't mind.

"If he's calm," Mingo said, "we're calm."

Chavis returns to Neyland ... as a Tiger

October, 13, 2011
10/13/11
11:46
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John Chavis isn’t talking this week.

Really, that’s not all that unusual for the man known as “Chief” around the SEC football world. He’s never been a big talker, especially when it comes to mugging for the cameras.

He’s as old school as old school can get and would rather be on the practice field or in the film room than he would talking to the media.

[+] EnlargeJohn Chavis
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJohn Chavis returns to his alma mater on Saturday, but this time as LSU's defensive coordinator.
And getting him to talk this week? You’d have a better chance of scoring against his LSU defense.

Yes, it’s Tennessee. Yes, it’s his first trip back to Neyland Stadium since being unceremoniously pushed out along with Phillip Fulmer and the rest of the Vols’ coaches following the 2008 season.

And, yes, Chavis’ blood still boils when he thinks about all that he invested at his alma mater and all that the Vols accomplished on his watch as defensive coordinator … and then how it all came crashing down.

But Chavis doesn’t want Saturday’s game to be about him. That’s not his style, and that’s why the only thing you’re going to get from him this week concerning what this game means to him is one of his customary grunts.

Still, it means plenty, especially with it being in Knoxville.

Chavis, who walked on at Tennessee as a middle guard and later earned a scholarship, also worked his way up through the coaching ranks to become the Vols’ defensive coordinator in 1995. He held that position for 14 years and refused to go anywhere else despite several lucrative NFL offers coming his way. Former South Carolina coach Lou Holtz also tried to hire him away.

But Chavis’ roots were too deeply dug in at Tennessee, and those who know him best will tell you that he’s as loyal as he is stubborn.

So when Fulmer and his longtime staff were sent packing after a national championship, two SEC championships and five trips to the SEC championship game in their 16 full seasons together, nobody took it harder than Chavis.

To this day, he has a hard time talking about how it all ended, but he’s also grounded enough and secure enough in his new career at LSU that he’s moved on.

“I’m sure there will be some emotion for John. That is only natural,” Fulmer said of Chavis’ return to Neyland Stadium. “But John is the ultimate professional and has always attempted to prepare his defensive teams to play at a high level … regardless of who they play.”

Chavis not only has this LSU defense playing at a high level. He has the No. 1-ranked Tigers playing at a championship level, and it’s reminiscent of the way his 1998 national championship defense at Tennessee played.

LSU is ranked fifth nationally in total defense, allowing 254 yards per game. The Tigers lead the SEC with 48 tackles for loss and have given up just eight touchdowns in six games.

It’s also an LSU defense that’s still young. Of the 22 on the defensive two-deep, 13 are sophomores or younger.

And with this being the third year in Chavis’ system, the players are playing faster, more instinctively and with fewer errors than they did a year ago when the Tigers finished 11th nationally in scoring defense and 12th nationally in total defense.

“This might not be the most talented defense I’ve been on,” LSU senior linebacker Ryan Baker said. “But as far as communication, playing together and everybody being on the same page, this has to be one of the best defenses I’ve ever been on, and a lot of that has to do with coach Chavis.”

LSU coach Les Miles didn’t waste much time going after Chavis when Chavis was cut loose following that 2008 season. Clemson was also hot on Chavis’ trail, but Miles was able to lure him to Baton Rouge.

Georgia’s Mark Richt made a run at Chavis two years ago, but LSU answered with a raise, taking Chavis to $700,000 annually. Texas also showed some interest in Chavis this past offseason.

Miles says Chavis has been “really what we needed” and isn’t about to let him get away.

Miles also has a feeling what will be going through Chavis’ mind when he walks into Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

“It’s hard for me to talk for John, but anybody that knows him knows that he has such a grand heart, and he’s so loyal,” Miles said. “I can remember playing against his defenses when I was at LSU, and you felt his presence across the field. … John will want that defense to play well.”

Baker said Chavis hasn’t said a word this week to the defense about this game carrying any special meaning for him.

“He’s too much of a field general for that,” Baker said. “He’s about playing hard and playing with passion every time you go out.”

That said, Baker said the LSU players have taken it on themselves to make sure Chavis’ return is one he’ll remember for all the right reasons.

“We actually talked about it as a team,” Baker said. “We know coach Chavis spent the majority of his coaching life at Tennessee, and we want to get this one for him. He deserves it.”

LSU dominates overmatched Gators

October, 8, 2011
10/08/11
10:11
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Things should have been worse.

A lot worse.

LSU dominated all aspects of Saturday’s 41-11 drubbing of Florida in front of the third-largest crowd (93,022) ever in Tiger Stadium.

Had the Tigers not momentarily called off the dogs in the third quarter, Florida’s wounds might be impossible to lick.

Despite giving up just 213 total yards to the Gators, LSU linebacker Ryan Baker said the defense was upset that Florida scored at all.

“In a way, guys were upset that we actually gave up some points,” said Baker, who had five tackles Saturday. “Every time we come into a game, we feel like we can shut a team out.”

That might seem a bit arrogant, but he’s right. If not for an uncharacteristic mistake by cornerback Morris Claiborne on Andre Debose's 65-yard touchdown reception, Florida wouldn’t have gotten in the end zone. If not for the LSU defense's failure to adjust to Florida’s Wildcat on its final drive of the first half, the Gators wouldn’t have made it into the scoring column.

[+] EnlargeLSU's Spencer Ware
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesSpencer Ware had 110 yards and two touchdowns on 24 carries as LSU ran over Florida.
These two teams -- really the programs in general -- are on completely different levels right now.

LSU is on pace for another double-digit win total behind a beastly defense and its efficient, pound-it-on-the-ground offense. Florida is fading with five stars.

LSU has confidence seeping out of its ears, while Florida looked out of this one after Rueben Randle's 46-yard touchdown catch less than four minutes in.

LSU is tough. Florida just isn’t.

When Claiborne looks at his teammates, he doesn’t see hesitation in their play or anyone holding something back. They go 100 percent, every down, every chance they touch the field.

“I sit back and watch the confidence that we have on defense and it’s amazing,” Claiborne said.

“You gotta have confidence. You have to feel like you’re the best on the field. Each 11 guys that are on the field, they feel like they’re the best and we go and play like it.”

It’s not just the defense. LSU’s offense overpowered the Gators with its running game, getting 238 yards, with Spencer Ware collecting 109 of those and two touchdowns.

But after LSU’s offense stalled in the third quarter, quarterbacks Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson injected some life into the Tigers with touchdown drives of 81 and 76 yards.

LSU exacted its will on Florida and its gang of highly recruited, maybe highly overrated, high school All-Americans.

“We pay no attention to stars whatsoever,” Claiborne said.

When asked about facing Florida’s defensive line, LSU offensive lineman Will Blackwell said he was impressed and expects a lot of improvement, but it’s not there yet and LSU was more than ready for it.

“We face a D-line that’s as good, if not better, every day,” Blackwell said. “They’re going to be good, but we had a good day today and got the best of them.

“It’s a different game now. This isn’t high school anymore. It’s Division I, SEC football.”

And LSU clearly knows that. LSU also clearly has the talent to not only play lights-out but have fun, too. There was Brad Wing’s foolish taunt, Tyrann Mathieu’s honey badgering and that jump pass that must have eaten Gator Nation up inside.

This team is businesslike, but it knows when to clown around at the appropriate times.

“It’s like backyard football,” Baker said. “Anytime someone comes into your backyard, invades your space, you have to give them your best that day, but at the same time you want to keep it fun.”

When you look at these two teams, you see polar opposites. Florida has taken a step back in the past two seasons, getting outscored by Alabama and LSU 143-56 in the process. LSU, meanwhile, is a national darling.

It won 11 games last season with a team that struggled on offense, but made teams suffer with its defense. This season, the offense is improved, but not great. However, the defense is just plain scary, there is no letup and the mistakes are either limited or almost nonexistent.

Those characteristics are what make this team special.

“I like the idea that we’ve played quality opponents and had the earnest to really gain the advantage and then withhold the opportunity to let them recover, especially in the beginning, and we did that,” LSU coach Les Miles said.
As a beat writer covering Tennessee's football program from 1997-2006, I saw some of John Chavis' best defenses with the Vols up close.

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Butch Dill/Getty ImagesCornerback Tyrann Mathieu is a versatile weapon for LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis.
They were fast, aggressive, loaded with talent, and Chavis knew how to get guys in position to make plays.

His 1998 defense, led by future Pro Bowl linebacker Al Wilson, was the backbone of Tennessee's national championship team. It's a defense that saw nine of its starters go on to play in the NFL.

I realize we're only three games into the 2011 season, but there's no question in my mind that Chavis is coaching another national championship-caliber defense at LSU.

Man, those guys are nasty. Even I'm still hurting after watching them rack up 15 tackles for loss in their 19-6 win against Mississippi State on Thursday night.

From a depth standpoint, this LSU defense is superior to Chavis' 1998 national championship defense at Tennessee, in particular the secondary. The Tigers' starters are all former cornerbacks, and they tackle as well as they cover. Try keeping track of nickel back Tyrann Mathieu, who roams and seemingly comes from everywhere to make plays.

I'm not sure the Tigers have a leader and a playmaker in the mold of an Al Wilson, although senior linebacker Ryan Baker is definitely a tone-setter for this group, but LSU's defensive front is suffocating with interior guys who collapse the pocket and outside pass-rushers who are relentless off the edge.

LSU was dominant defensively in the first half Thursday. But when the second half rolled around, the Tigers absolutely turned the lights out on a Mississippi State offense that was averaging 588 yards in total offense and had scored 11 touchdowns coming into the game.

With a little more than five minutes remaining in the game, the Bulldogs had just 6 yards of total offense in the second half.

Chavis' defenses have always been built on speed and pressure, and it's obvious with this being his third season at LSU that the players are completely on board now with his system. They make very few mistakes, and this group is playing faster and more instinctively than either of Chavis' first two defenses at LSU.

Keep in mind that LSU was pretty stout on defense a season ago, finishing 11th nationally in scoring defense.

Here's the other thing: How many teams could lose three players the caliber of Patrick Peterson, Kelvin Sheppard and Drake Nevis and not miss a beat? Peterson was the fifth overall player selected in the NFL draft, and Sheppard led the Tigers in tackles last season and was their unquestioned leader.

All that does is further underscore how much talent is on this LSU defense, and much of it is concentrated in the freshman and sophomore classes.

Anybody who knows Chavis knows how closely he plays it to the vest. He's not a big talker, period, to the media and is never going to say anything that sets his defense up for a fall.

But it was obvious in talking with him this offseason that he felt like he had something special brewing this season and had a special mix of talent to work with in his 17th season in the SEC as a defensive coordinator.

How special?

We'll just have to wait and see, but something tells me the good folks on the Bayou are going to love the ride.
When asked about who he thought was the toughest running back to bring down in the SEC, LSU linebacker Ryan Baker didn’t hesitate with his choice.

He remembered his struggles with him, could see his face and his jersey clearly in his mind. But his name? Not so clear.

“I was really impressed with the guy at Mississippi State. I don’t know his name,” Baker said.

[+] EnlargeVick Ballard
AP Photo/Stephen MortonMichigan safety Jordan Kovacs went from walk-on to honorable mention All-Big Ten as a sophomore.
No worries, Ryan, not many people do. It’s just how it is for senior Vick Ballard. There are other running backs in the SEC that are higher on the pecking order for people. Alabama’s Trent Richardson and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore are just two of the names you’ll hear more frequently than Ballard’s.

It can get frustrating at times, but Ballard doesn’t put too much stock in it. Besides, he spent 2010 flying under the radar and all he did was set a Mississippi State record with 20 total touchdowns, 19 of them rushing.

Ballard, who is a mixture of power and grace on the field, was one of five running backs nationally, and the only in the SEC, to have 19-plus touchdowns, average more than 5 yards per carry and have 950-plus rushing yards (968 to be exact) in 2010.

Not bad for a player who is a year removed from junior college ball.

Ballard has never been the best athlete at his position. He won’t blow past people or consistently barrel through players, but he’s always been a hard worker. When Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was recruiting Ballard at Mississippi Gulf Coast CC in Pascagoula, the thing that impressed him was how everyone praised Ballard’s work ethic and attitude before his skill. He had this determination that Mullen thought was really special.

“That is something that catches my attention, something that when you turn on the film and you watch, he's not the fastest player out there, he's not the most dynamic move, he's not a monster big back, he's just a great football player,” Mullen said of Ballard.

But as Ballard begins his final season in Starkville, he’s noticing that while he isn’t the most talked about running back, his name does come up in more conversations here and there. That’s refreshing, but it can also be a danger. Ballard doesn’t want to get caught up celebrating the hype and forgetting his focus.

“I’m self-motivated, man,” Ballard said. “When you have a lot of people talking to you, it’s hard to stay humble. I try not to let it get to me and just stay self-motivated and let everything handle itself.

“In this league everybody’s big everybody’s fast. You get better in your head the mental aspect of the game. My coach always said the smarter you are the better you are.”

And Ballard expects to be even smarter this fall.

So where will that put him on the impressive list of SEC running backs? He doesn’t know and he really doesn’t care. To him, there are too many factors that should come into play when talking about who’s the best.

“We’re pretty stacked in the SEC, but the way I look at it is we all do different things better than the others,” he said. “I don’t think you can rank us one, two, three, four, five.You have to look at as what aspect of the game we do better.”

Ballard is just hoping that whatever he does not only makes him better but his team as well.
It didn’t take long for Dont’a Hightower to join Trent Richardson’s fan club.

Forget Richardson’s five-star ranking coming out of high school. What really impressed Alabama’s veteran linebacker was seeing Richardson in the flesh during his very first 7-on-7 workout in the summer of 2009.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Marvin Gentry/US PresswireAfter two seasons of backing up former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, Alabama's Trent Richardson is ready for a starring role.
Sultry doesn’t even begin to describe the summers in the South, but as the sun’s heat burned and the humidity suffocated, Hightower watched as the freshman stole the show.

It was a small check-down, where Richardson simply had to come through the backfield and stop in front of the linebackers. But what looked like a normal play turned into something fascinating as Richardson took the ball, shook a few defenders and sprinted for a touchdown.

It was at that moment that Hightower realized this kid would be special.

That give-it-your-all mentality has never left Richardson, who enters the season as Alabama‘s No. 1 running back after spending his first two seasons as a backup. Though he’s had to sit behind former Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, Richardson has played with the demeanor of a starter -- a darn good one.

“Mark missed a couple games early in the season last year, and Trent probably played his best football of the season when he was in that sort of A-back role, being 'the guy,' coach Nick Saban said.

“I don't have any issue or problem with Trent's ability to play with consistency and be successful.”

He’s built like a tank, but runs with finesse and grace. When he’s not cutting past defenders, or throwing them to the ground, his movements and speed mimic a track star, giving him the ability to outrun you and run through you.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a game where it has taken one guy to make him go down,” Hightower said.

“You don’t see too many guys run with that much attitude and that much power and explosiveness each and every play.”

Richardson isn’t tall, barely reaching 5-foot-11, but he delivers all of his 224 pounds. In his first two seasons at Alabama, he had 1,451 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He also grabbed 39 passes for 392 yards and four more scores.

He’s a physical freak and thinks he has what it takes to not only be one of the best backs in the SEC, but he’ll put his skill up against any of his national counterparts.

“I know that I want to be one of the best backs, one of the best not just in the conference, although the conference is great and has some great backs, but one of the best backs in the country,” Richardson said. “I want to have my name remembered, be one of those players you can see on the greatest games, someone who was one of the best on the field.”

Lead Alabama to success and you’ll be more than just remembered.

But is Richardson ready? Can he handle the load of being the guy for a backfield that will feature an inexperienced quarterback?

And what about his durability? He suffered plenty of nicks and bruises last season, even suffering a knee and abdominal injury against LSU, but assures he’ll be more prepared to withstand the beating this fall. And by more prepared he just intends to run even harder, making sure he inflicts more pain than he receives.

Alabama‘s camp feels Richardson is ready to take over and players around the league agree.

“To play against a guy like that, you have to really elevate your level of play because he will embarrass you,” LSU linebacker Ryan Baker said.

Arkansas’ Knile Davis called him a “phenomenal athlete” and envied his running patience.

South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore said he tries to mimic Richardson’s cutting ability and the toughness in his runs.

Outside of the SEC, there have been plenty of eyes on Richardson. He was a first-team All-SEC selection by both the media and the league’s coaches this summer and he‘s an early Heisman contender.

He’s even feeling some heat from his three- and five-year-old daughters, who are die-hard Tide fans, dressed in his jerseys and already screaming “Roll Tide.”

“Those little girls are so smart,” Richardson said. “They’ll tell me, ‘Hey, you fumbled the ball.

“It’s kind of cute when you hear it from your daughter.”

It won’t be so cute when he’s hearing it from his coaches or media pundits. But Richardson isn’t concerning himself with that. He understands the expectations and he understands this team might go as far as he carries it.

“Is it pressure? I think it is, but I don’t even pay attention to the stuff they [the media] put out there,” he said. “I know I’m going to play my game and I have an offensive line that’s going to be pretty good this year and we have a quarterback that’s going to make smart decisions.”
HOOVER, Ala. -- He eats grass, says weird things and loves to roll the dice on fourth down.

He's LSU coach Les Miles, and his unpredictability has become must-see TV for everybody in college football, even his players.

"It's crazy. I mean, he's a character," LSU linebacker Ryan Baker said of what it was like to play for Miles on a day-to-day basis.

The Mad Hatter is clearly a hit with his players. They love how fearless he is, whether it's calling a fake field goal when nobody else expects it or going for it on fourth down when the defense is daring you to do so.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLes Miles keeps things interesting for the Tigers.
"Some of the guys, we sit around and talk about that," Baker said. "We never know what to expect from our coach. We love it. We go into every week not knowing what to expect, but we always know that he has our back no matter what the situation."

It's not just on the field, either.

Baker said during his freshman season that Miles showed up for a team meeting in preseason camp wearing a headband and tight shorts and doing his best "Soulja Boy" dance.

Apparently, Miles has an affinity for rap. He and Snoop Dogg are also boys.

Baker thinks Miles even listens to a little rap from time to time.

"I'll see him on the plane with his headphones, and he'll give it a head rock," Baker said.

Miles, whose Tigers are a consensus top 5 selection to begin the 2011 season, hasn't always been so popular with the LSU fans, who skewered him for well-chronicled clock management mistkaes in 2009 against Ole Miss and last season against Tennessee.

He's also been known to say things that make you wonder if even he knows what he's trying to say at times.

Baker said one of the players usually brings a dictionary to team meetings.

"Yeah, it's off the wall," said Baker, doing his best to keep a straight face.

One day in practice, Baker said Miles reeled off a word that stumped everybody.

"I don't even know what the word was," Baker recounted. "It was a long word, seven or eight syllables."

Finally, one of the LSU players looked up the word and explained to everyone what it meant.

Pressed again on what the word was, Baker shrugged and said, "I really don't remember. It happens a lot."

Baker said receiver Russell Shepard does the best impersonation of Miles.

"He's pretty good, too," Baker said.

Sometimes, the LSU assistants are as lost as the players when Miles gets rolling on his Miles-isms, according to Baker.

"You can sort of tell. They look around and wonder," Baker said.

And if he goes to defensive coordinator John Chavis for a translation, Baker said he usually gets the same response.

"He's like, 'Yeah, what coach said,'" Baker said chuckling.

"He keeps us upbeat. We love it. We love playing for somebody like that."

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