LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis knew he had some pillars to build around on defense this season.
He also knew he was going to be frighteningly young in spots.
“We have a chance. It all depends on some of these young guys and how they develop,” Chavis said just prior to the start of the season when assessing his second defense at LSU.
Well, the young guys have come around just fine in the first three games, and a lot of them are still coming.
And the older guys?
It’s difficult to find a tackle-linebacker-cornerback combo anywhere in the country that’s playing better right now than Drake Nevis, Kelvin Sheppard and Patrick Peterson.
Granted, the fourth quarter against North Carolina in the season opener was shaky. But if you take that one away, the Tigers have played 11 quarters of suffocating defense so far heading into what should be their stiffest test of the season Saturday night against Noel Devine and that West Virginia offense.
“If our defense continues to play like we have and we continue to get turnovers, our football team will have the kind of year we all look forward to,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “Defensively, I think there are a lot of young guys playing. You look at freshmen. You see the script and you want to go look at (jersey) numbers in the program to see who it is because they are making a quality play.
“That is the way it is supposed to be, and we are enjoying the fact that young players are playing and they are making special plays.”
Some of those young players on defense include ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo, linebackers Lamin Barrow and Kevin Minter, tackle Michael Brockers and safety Craig Loston – all redshirt freshmen.
A pair of true freshmen – cornerback Tyrann Mathieu and safety Eric Reid -- have made big impacts in the secondary along with sophomore cornerback Morris Claiborne.
And even though starting linebackers Ryan Baker and Stefoin Francois are both juniors, neither had started a game prior to this season.
The bottom line is that the Tigers are getting production from a lot of different players, and that’s the way Chavis likes it.
But when you have a core on defense as rock solid as Nevis, Sheppard and Peterson, it makes everybody better. Among the three, they already have nine tackles for loss and three interceptions. Sheppard’s 27 total tackles tie him for third in the SEC. He’s also the Tigers’ quarterback out there on defense and has helped them avoid a bad play more than once by picking up on things and making sure everybody’s lined up correctly.
“I can’t tell you what he’s meant to us, just his leadership, when you look at all the young guys we have playing,” Chavis said. “He’s been invaluable.”
The Tigers were stingy when it came to keeping teams out of the end zone last season. They only gave up 19 touchdowns. Alabama and Florida each allowed 18. But where LSU has been even better this season on defense is getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers.
The Tigers are tied for second in the SEC with 11 sacks after recording 21 all of last season. They’ve also forced nine turnovers in three games. That’s after forcing only 18 in 13 games a year ago.
Any defense will tell you, though, that you’re only as good as your last performance.
And as Peterson noted this week, Devine has made a lot of defenses look bad.
“We’re going to have our work cut out for us come Saturday, but I have faith in this defense to slow him down,” Peterson said.