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LSU linebacker roles explained

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BATON ROUGE, La. – Who, exactly, is Mack? And what about his ever-present partner Money?

Listen to LSU’s linebackers discuss their varying roles and you’ll probably hear those nicknames tossed around at some point, always as a tandem. But what do they mean?

Even genius sportswriters sometimes need explanations on details that are introductory-level information for the folks who played or coached the sport beyond middle school. So let’s hear it straight from the Tigers’ mouths.

“Mack and Money is basically the Mike and the Will in the nickel package,” LSU senior linebacker Lamar Louis said.

Does that clear everything up? No? Well, let’s back up a bit.

Most of us know the football-coach shorthand for the linebacker roles in a basic 4-3 defensive scheme. There’s the Mike (middle linebacker – a position that Kendell Beckwith holds down at LSU), Will (weakside linebacker – Deion Jones and Donnie Alexander) and Sam (strongside linebacker – Louis and Duke Riley).

When the Tigers shift to a nickel defense, they typically play four defensive linemen, two linebackers and five defensive backs. The two linebackers in that package are labeled Mack and Money.

They both line up in the center of the field, but Mack operates much like a middle linebacker and Money is like the weakside linebacker. Thus it makes sense that Beckwith is the Tigers’ first option at Mack followed by Louis and Ronnie Feist and that Jones, Riley and Alexander all play Money.

“You’ve got to be able to cover to play Mack,” Beckwith said. “You’ve got to be able to see blockers, read your keys and you’ve got to know your alignment and be able to get the defense lined up.”

As for Money, “it’s mostly seeing the fronts,” Jones said. “Since there’s only two of us, a lot of it is reading the blocking scheme and flowing to the running back and stuff like that.”

The players at both jobs essentially function like outside linebackers, so they’re similar. The labels just describe which side of the field they occupy.

“They really don’t change much,” Louis said. “In pass, you play pass coverage like a linebacker. In run, you rush like a D-end.”

Since LSU’s linebackers were in an explanatory mood, why stop with just the nickel linebacker positions? Let’s see what they have to say about their positions in the base scheme and what it takes to play those jobs effectively.

Mike is the “quarterback of the defense,” Beckwith said, receiving the defensive calls from defensive line coach Ed Orgeron off the sideline and then passing word to teammates around him.

“I’m basically the head guy of the defense,” Beckwith said. “You’ve got to call the play, get the D-line set up, get the call to the safeties, make adjustments if you have to. It’s just a little of everything.”

Will is generally fast and strong in pursuit and in covering running backs out of the backfield.

“Will I guess you could say is a faster guy, but also big,” Riley said. “We all play in the box sometimes, Mike, Sam and Will.”

Finally, Sam lines up on the offense’s strong side of the field – generally where the tight end lines up. He should be capable of covering the tight end in passing situations and big and strong enough to shed blocks to make a tackle.

“Like myself, I guess,” Riley chuckled. “I’m 230 now, so I guess you’d say you need nice size.”

The twist with this year’s LSU linebacking corps is that most of the players are interchangeable. With the exception of the bulkier Beckwith, whose 6-foot-2, 252-pound frame helps him take on blockers in the middle, LSU’s other linebackers are mostly smaller, quicker players.

New linebackers coach and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has crosstrained many of them at multiple linebacker positions, in part to alleviate depth concerns and in part because those players are versatile enough to do different things.

“They don’t want us to be just one particular position doing one particular job,” Beckwith said. “We kind of pride ourselves on being an athletic group, being able to do multiple jobs. So that’s the thing with that, just making sure we’re being versatile, making sure we’re moving around and just knowing different positions on the field.”

Their physical similarities make the players – particularly the outside linebackers – nearly interchangeable. They also make the linebackers’ specific roles a bit more difficult to define, Riley said.

“All of our guys move well. We’re all kind of the same size: me, Deebo [Jones], Donnie and Lamar,” Riley said. “Kendell is the only guy that separates himself, and he moves like us so you can’t really tell a difference. I guess those people are just put in those positions and whatever side of the field you’re on, play that way.”