AS HE BEGAN tooverhaul a defense that surrendered 325.5 yards a game and allowed at least 30points five times last season, defensive coordinator John Chavis set the tonefor LSU's new look with two off-season meetings in his office.
First, Chavis toldChad Jones that his days as a nickelback were over; the Tigers needed the6'3", 214-pound junior to start at free safety. "I had a serious faceon," says Jones, a reliever and reserve outfielder on LSU's 2009 nationalchampionship baseball team. "But I was smiling on the inside." Jonesspent his first two seasons playing on obvious passing downs, but Chavis, whomoved to LSU last January after 14 years as the coordinator at Tennessee, saw ahuman Swiss Army knife who can make plays from sideline to sideline. "He'sgot as much range as anyone I've seen," Chavis says.
Next, Chavis toldsenior Harry Coleman, who led LSU in tackles as the starting strong safety in2008, that he had lost his job and would have to compete for playing time atoutside linebacker. The coach explained that with a deep secondary, he couldbest use the versatile Coleman at linebacker. Chavis braced for the worst, butColeman told the coach he would do whatever he could to make the Tigers better.And with his performance in spring practice, the 6'2", 205-pound Colemanmade a case for getting significant playing time at his new position. Chavisnow has a hybrid linebacker who can cover receivers, giving the coordinatormore flexibility to disguise blitzes and coverages, a trademark of hisTennessee defenses. "Some of those things will keep the offenseguessing," Chavis says. "You have to be multiple in this league. Ifyou're not, the offense will start dictating to you."
But thetransformation of the defense is about more than schemes. Coach Les Miles saysit has undergone "a significant culture change"—from passive andpredictable to aggressive and ever-changing. Senior left tackle Ciron Black,who has started 40 consecutive games, agrees. "Our defense looksunbelievable," he says. "They're hungry. They're fired up. They'remad."
Given the factthat in recent years they have recruited some of the SEC's best athletes, theTigers, just two seasons removed from a national championship, could climb backinto title contention this fall. But Miles is well aware that his team will bein for a fight every week. "I don't think that big tiger lies in theweeds," Miles says. "Everybody knows when they're playing us."
Chavis's job is tomake sure opponents still feel that way after they have tangled with hisdefense.
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"OUR DEFENSE IS ... HUNGRY," SAYS BLACK."THEY'RE MAD."
COACH: Les Miles (5th year)
2008 RECORD: 8--5 (3--5 in SEC)
FINAL AP RANK: NR
RETURNING STARTERS: 13 Offense 7, Defense 6
5 at Washington
26 at Mississippi State
3 at Georgia
7 at Alabama
14 Louisiana Tech
21 at Ole Miss
A victory would give LSU a surge of confidence headinginto the teeth of its SEC schedule. The Tigers haven't won in Athens since1987, though they've played there only three times since.
What happened to Death Valley? Last season the Tigersdropped three home games—their most since they lost four times in Baton Rougein 1999—and gave up 52 points to Georgia, the most scored by a visitor sinceFlorida racked up 58 in 1993.
Jones will be asked to cover a lot of ground as the new free safety.