- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- Brick Haley faces the blessing and the curse of coaching LSU’s defensive line each year around this time.
The blessing is that the Tigers’ coaching staff has attracted loads of NFL-caliber talent to Baton Rouge. Just check the stats. Eight LSU defensive linemen have been drafted since Haley joined the staff in 2009, a number that would grow to 10 if defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson are selected this year.
The curse is that continuity is nearly impossible to maintain, particularly at defensive tackle. This is Haley’s sixth spring practice at LSU and the third where both of his starting defensive tackles -- whoever they might be in 2014 -- will be new to starting roles.
“That’s LSU,” said Christian LaCouture, who is attempting to take over one of the starting jobs after Johnson and Ferguson both bolted for the NFL after finishing their junior seasons. “That’s something where guys, we want to win a national championship, we want to win an SEC championship and a lot of the guys go to the league. You’ve got to prepare. It’s the next man in here and you’ve got to produce.”
LaCouture is perhaps LSU’s most experienced interior lineman, having appeared in all 13 games last season as a true freshman. But he faces plenty of competition for a starting job from junior Quentin Thomas and redshirt freshmen Maquedius Bain and Greg Gilmore. Redshirt freshman Frank Herron also took some practice reps at defensive tackle earlier this spring, but he appears to be playing end for now.
While LSU coach Les Miles said after Saturday’s scrimmage that there’s a chance that the defensive tackles “could be as successful as any group that we’ve had,” the dynamics in play this fall could be significantly different from a season ago. Ferguson and Johnson played the vast majority of scrimmage downs in 2013, but the workload might be spread more evenly between players this season.
“They definitely were the impact players of our defensive tackles. They definitely were, and it’s all good,” Gilmore said. “I think that was a good year for us to sit back, learn the plays, learn the techniques. So I think this year now we have everybody that’s equal, trying not to have a drop-off in the twos and try to rotate in.”
By redshirting Bain and Gilmore -- both of whom ranked among ESPN’s top 130 overall recruits in 2013 -- Haley put a particularly heavy burden on his two starters, and Bain said the effect of that workload was noticeable.
“Last year they were kind of tired between Ego and Freak [Johnson],” Bain said. “They were kind of tired and we told Coach Brick, ‘You wore them guys a little bit more. You can trust us.’ So now that he trusts us, he’s putting us out there in the spring and now he sees that we can do what Freak and Ego did.”
Of course, the candidates must prove to Haley that they deserve to share some of those snaps -- which is the same responsibility that signees such as Travonte Valentine, Trey Lealaimatafao and Davon Godchaux will face when they arrive in the summer.
Valentine, according to fellow Floridian Bain, could be a candidate for early playing time if he competes well in August.
“Hopefully when Tra Valentine gets in here, he’ll be the fifth man,” Bain said of the freshman signee fitting in with himself, LaCouture, Thomas and Gilmore. “But right now, it’s just a four-man rotation and that’s what we’re going with.”
Last season, Haley made the best of the hand he’d been dealt. Starting tackle Bennie Logan had eligibility remaining when he entered the 2013 NFL draft. Johnson and Ferguson were the returning linemen with whom Haley was the most comfortable, and he decided that the Tigers would be better off riding them as far as possible without relying on the raw freshmen.
Now nobody is particularly proven, and the resulting competition reduces any possibility of complacency within the group. That’s what their counterparts on the offensive line have noticed, anyway.
“They know they have less experience than the guys that left, so of course they’re out there trying to get better each and every day and they’re giving us their all,” senior offensive tackle La'el Collins said. “Last year we had a lot of veteran guys and those guys were just out there going through whatever they needed to go through. But these guys are giving a little bit more effort because they understand that it’s their time to play, so they’re really trying to focus on getting better.”
Center Elliott Porter added that “it’s a grind every day to block them,” which has created worthwhile practice competition for both LSU lines this spring. Although LSU’s offensive line carries a serious experience advantage over its defensive opponents, Miles indicated Saturday that the competition between the two groups has been close -- with two weeks of spring practice left to declare a victor.
“I think that these [defensive tackles] can be dominant players. I think improvement needs to take place,” Miles said. “Again, I think the offensive line and defensive line, they’re measured in the spring. It’s going to be interesting to see that competition as it plays out the next two weeks.”
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