Not a primary concern
Young, untested secondary living up to LSU's reputation as 'DBU'
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Anybody who has closely followed LSU in the last few years suspected that eventually Craig Loston would miss a start because of injury.
The Tigers' junior strong safety had his share of bumps and bruises in his past, from a broken finger to a concussion to a toe problem that has continued to dog him into this season. So when sophomore Ronald Martin took the field in his place to start last Saturday's game against Idaho, it wasn't a shocker.
"His play, from where I was standing, looked pretty good," head coach Les Miles said. "And he gave Loston another week to rest."
Martin's play has continued a trend for LSU in the secondary that has taken to calling itself "DBU" -- young players have been forced into action and have repeatedly delivered. LSU enters SEC play looking a solid seven deep in the secondary, including three freshmen and Martin.
"We've got a lot of young guys," said redshirt freshman cornerback Jalen Collins, who deflected the ball to Martin on both interceptions, "but we are stepping up."
They're stepping up so much so that a secondary decimated by graduation, a suspension, the NFL draft and departed transfers looks more like a strength than the possible weakness suggested by offseason attrition.
Since the end of last season, LSU lost Thorpe Award-winning cornerback Morris Claiborne, reserve cornerback Ron Brooks and strong safety Brandon Taylor to the NFL. It also lost reserve safety Derrick Bryant to graduation, starting cornerback Tyrann Mathieu (a Heisman Trophy finalist) to a season-long suspension and three reserve underclassmen who opted to transfer.
After all the departures, Martin, Collins, starting cornerback Jalen Mills and reserve safety Micah Eugene have held up well playing meaningful snaps after not playing much, if at all, last season. All but Martin, who played in three games as a true freshman late last season because of injuries to Loston and free safety Eric Reid, are freshmen. Mills was playing high school football in Mississippi at this time last year.
The four young defensive backs have combined to intercept four passes, returning one for a touchdown. They've broken up four passes, recorded 33 tackles and registered 2.5 tackles for loss, including a sack, during the Tigers' 3-0 start.
Mills and Martin each have two interceptions. Mills, starting in what was Mathieu's cornerback spot, has as many picks in three games as the Honey Badger had all last season. Collins and Eugene have played well in nickel and dime packages to give LSU confidence to use those personnel groups in long-yardage situations or against spread teams, much as the Tigers did last season with Mathieu (who would slide over from corner) and Brooks playing the nickel and dime roles.
"I think there is a lot of competition in that secondary." Miles said. "I think some of the young guys stepped in and have played extremely well. There's a want to improve."
In three games this season, LSU has allowed four touchdowns, all via pass. On three of them, there were busted coverages, all three by the two most veteran members of the secondary, Reid, a preseason All-America free safety, and junior cornerback Tharold Simon.
"Those are easily correctable," Miles said.
While the young secondary members have made plays, they have not had the kind of mistakes that cause touchdowns, something that might be credited to coaching.
Also lost from last season is secondary coach Ron Cooper, who now holds the same position with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was replaced by former LSU defensive back Corey Raymond. Veteran LSU defensive backs noted during the spring that Raymond is a stickler for fundamentals.
His emphasis on the basics has paid off for the young players forced into duty.
"I think Corey Raymond, our secondary coach, has done a great job in schooling some of these young guys," Miles said. "They are like any good young player; they need reps. With more games under their belt, the more series of play, the better they'll play."
In three games so far, the young defensive backs have looked ready. But SEC ready? The first test will come from Auburn.
"We're stepping up really good," Collins said. "In the absence of one player, another player has to step up. And that's what we're doing."
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