Upon arriving at LSU last winter, new coach Les Miles immediately formed what he calls a "unity council" of players and coaches who meet weekly to discuss team issues. Of the 13 Tigers selected by teammates for these sessions, one stood out in the eyes of Miles. "I knew right away that Kyle Williams meant something to this team," says Miles, who was the Oklahoma State coach the last four seasons. "I'll never forget him looking me in the eye before my first LSU press conference and saying, 'I want you to know that there's a great group of guys committed to making this a good season.'"
That such a statement came from a senior defensive tackle was especially gratifying for Miles. For the past five years the LSU defense had been masterminded by his predecessor, Nick Saban, whose idiosyncratic scheme helped LSU win two SEC titles and a BCS championship. While offensive players will be in a familiar system under returning coordinator Jimbo Fisher, their teammates are learning the plays and terminology of new defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. "Our scheme is multiple but simple," says Pelini, whose most recent coordinator stops were at Nebraska, which ranked second in scoring defense in 2003, and Oklahoma, which was sixth in the nation in rushing D in '04. "It's based foremost on effort."
That suits Williams. As one of two freshmen who saw playing time on defense in 2002, the 6'2", 295-pound product of Ruston (La.) High was often praised by Saban for his tenacity. But despite becoming a starter five games into the '03 BCS championship season, he was overshadowed by All-America tackle Chad Lavalais and ends Marquise Hill and Marcus Spears, flashier talents now in the NFL. After adjusting from left to right tackle last year, and tying for second on the team in sacks (six) and tackles for loss (12), Williams has become the line's most consistent performer. "When you learn as much as we did under Saban, there's a certain familiarity with everything," he says. "I feel prepared for anything [Pelini] brings to the table."
Having lost three players--Spears and cornerbacks Travis Daniels and Corey Webster--to the NFL, coaches are counting on leaders like Williams to speak not only for the team but also to the team. "It's one thing to tell players something, and another to have a Kyle Williams reiterate your message," says Pelini. For now the senior wants to send the message that a coaching transition need not prevent LSU from winning its third SEC title in four years. "The bonds with these coaches were immediate," says Williams. "I think people will be surprised to see how LSU comes together this year." --K.K.
2004 RECORD 9--3 (6--2, 2nd in SEC West)
FINAL AP RANK 16 RETURNING STARTERS 16
KEY RETURNEES (2004 stats)
T Andrew Whitworth (Sr.) Equally adept at run blocking, pass protection
RB Alley Broussard (Jr.) Led Tigers rushers with 867 yards, 10 TDs
WR Dwayne Bowe (Jr.) Playmaker had 5 TDs among his 39 catches
S LaRon Landry (Jr.) Top tackler in third season as starter
Differential in rushing yards gained (193.8 per game) versus rushing yards allowed (99.8) by LSU, which led the SEC in both categories.
Following minor surgery to clean out scar tissue in his left ankle (sprained last preseason), senior wide receiver Skyler Green should flash his form of 2003. That year he led the nation in punt return average (18.5 yards) and scored as a receiver, runner and punt returner. In '04 the 5'9" 195-pounder played hurt, and his performance--though valiant--suffered.
Sept. 3 NORTH TEXAS
10 ARIZONA STATE
Oct. 1 at Mississippi State
8 at Vanderbilt 15 FLORIDA 22 AUBURN
Nov. 5 APPALACHIAN STATE 12 at Alabama 19 at Mississippi 25 ARKANSAS
Williams and his defensive mates were quick to embrace Pelini's new scheme.