- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU has speed and athleticism in spades within its linebacking corps and a secondary that appears ready for a breakout season. The biggest unknown on the Tigers' defense -- a line that has little experience and only marginal productivity -- might be the biggest factor in whether LSU returns to its dominant form on D.
"Going into camp, that's what I was thinking about," senior defensive end Jermauria Rasco said. "Our linebackers are the strongest. They're the core of the defense. The secondary, they're real tight. And me personally, I feel like the D-line is the question mark right now."
Rasco's comments came a few days after the Tigers opened preseason camp earlier this month. The ensuing two weeks have reportedly been productive for the group -- as they needed to be.
Teams that win SEC titles usually dominate up front on defense, and even when they don't (see Auburn, 2010), they typically have at least one lineman who creates havoc in opponent backfields. Since 2000, only two SEC championship clubs (Florida in 2008 and Alabama in 2012) failed to have at least one defensive lineman make the coaches' All-SEC team at the end of the season.
Once junior tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson both jumped for the NFL draft after last season, LSU lost its only obvious picks for postseason honors. Now it's up to Rasco and fellow end Danielle Hunter -- a combination that totaled just seven sacks a season ago -- and a host of inexperienced players in the middle to pick up the slack.
"We might not be the key, but we're a piece of the puzzle," redshirt freshman defensive tackle Greg Gilmore said. "We're all a piece of the puzzle and if we can fit in right, we can make it good for us."
Gilmore and his position mates are probably the most important piece of the puzzle. Hunter seems poised for a breakout season and Rasco is now healthy after struggling with shoulder injuries earlier in his career. But the tackles are largely unknown to those who don't watch the Tigers practice each day.
Those who do continue to project confidence about the group's capabilities despite a lack of on-field experience.
"I think some of those young defensive linemen, Frank Herron and some of those guys whose names you don't know, are going to be very, very good players," LSU coach Les Miles said.
Sophomore Christian LaCouture played sparingly as a reserve last season, as did Quentin Thomas -- still working to return from a biceps injury suffered during camp -- and converted defensive end Lewis Neal. Then you have redshirt freshmen Gilmore, Herron and Maquedius Bain waiting for the chance to prove that the tackles aren't nearly the cause for concern that their lack of experience would indicate.
"They don't get enough credit, and they will. Their time comes," senior center Elliott Porter said. "Just like Ego, his time came [and he became a] second-round draft pick. The time comes. It's going to happen. You've got to open your eyes and see. You've got to open your eyes. We breed D-tackles around here, as you can see the last three or four years."
That is true -- LSU has placed eight defensive linemen in the NFL draft over the past four years -- but that has no impact on the present. When the Tigers open the season against Wisconsin on Aug. 30, they'll rely on multiple interior linemen who have yet to play a college game.
Of course, that's another LSU tradition of late.
"Coach Miles always says we play young guys, we play freshmen," Herron said. "So I'm ready to play and show the world what I've got. Playing next to Christian and Greg and Bain, it's been a blessing. Those guys show me new things each day and they're just telling me to keep pushing myself, keep going."
Herron and LaCouture have reportedly had good camps, but Hunter might be the top breakout candidate on the line. Good luck getting him to admit it, though. The junior defensive end -- who generated lots of attention when practice photos of his ripped physique made the rounds on social media early in preseason camp -- seems completely oblivious to outside attention, even after Miles credited him with nine tackles and four tackles for a loss after last Saturday's scrimmage.
"I didn't really hear all this about what Coach Miles said about me until this morning, when one of my teachers texted me saying I did well in the scrimmage. I didn't realize I did that well," Hunter said, adding, "I actually felt like during the scrimmage, I really didn't feel like I did so good."
If that's the case, LSU fans can't wait until Hunter's offseason focus on pass-rushing results in a sack or three and he actually feels good about a performance.
Nonetheless, the Tigers' defense has emphasized competition since the end of last season, when a strong finish generated some offseason momentum after what had been a sometimes-rocky fall. Things are looking good at linebacker and in the secondary, so if the line can prove Miles correct for being confident, the Tigers will once again become a defensive force within the SEC.
"The ceiling's so high," LaCouture said. "Looking at it, you don't know if you have a ceiling on it. We're full of potential and stuff like that, but potential's just a name. ... You have to know what you're doing."
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3dSam Khan Jr.