STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State kicks off the season against No. 6 LSU on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. CT in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
To say the defending national champion Tigers are decimated might be an understatement. We looked at LSU’s special teams on Tuesday. That’s the only area of the Tigers that remains unchanged, for the most part. We can’t say the same for the LSU defense.
The Tigers lose six starting defenders from the national champion team. They lose two of their top three tacklers in linebackers Jacob Phillips (113) and Patrick Queen (85) who left early for the NFL. In fact, the team lost its entire starting linebacker corps with the departure of K’Lavon Chaisson for the draft as well.
Defensive linemen Rashard Lawrence and Breiden Fehoko are gone. So are defensive backs Grant Delpit and Kristian Fulton.
Former Youngstown State head coach Bo Pelini, LSU’s defensive coordinator from 2005-07, is back, replacing Dave Aranda after the latter’s departure to become the head coach at Baylor. Pelini is switching from Aranda’s multiple 3-4 scheme back to a 4-3 scheme.
Sophomore cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. is the best defender returning for LSU, and arguably the best corner in the country. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Baton Rouge native is coming off an All-American season where he picked off six passes, broke up 15 more and recovered a fumble. He will also be returning punts for them.
With Fulton gone, as previously mentioned, sophomore Cordale Flott will be the other starting cornerback. The Saraland, Alabama, native finished his first season with 15 tackles and four passes defended. Five-star freshman cornerback Eli Ricks, from Rancho Cucamonga, California, will get the starting nod on the outside opposite Stingley when the Tigers go to nickel, which Orgeron said Pelini will do plenty in 2020. When Ricks is on the field, Flott will slide inside at nickel.
Safety JaCoby Stevens was persuaded to return as a senior. Stevens, a Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native is LSU’s top returning tackler with 92 tackles. At the other safety position, the Tigers have either junior Todd Harris Jr. or sophomore Maurice Hampton Jr. Harris had his 2019 season cut short after suffering a knee injury in the Northwestern State contest in Week 3, but he enters the 2020 season at full strength and is expected to be a key contributor at the safety position. He has seen action in 27 games during his career with two starts … 38 career tackles to go with one interception. Hampton played in 13 games as a freshman with one start. His one start was in place of an injured Delpit against Arkansas, He had 10 tackles and a pass breakup to his credit on the season.
The Tiger defense is typically stout against the run, and that could very well be true for this 2020 team.
The first four defensive linemen for LSU are JUCO transfer Ali Gaye, sophomore Siaki “Apu” Ika, senior Glen Logan and Andre Anthony.
Gaye, an Edmonds, Washington, native joins LSU after a couple years with Garden City Community College in Garden City, Kansas. The 6-foot-6, 262-pound lineman was named to the 2019 All-Jayhawk League First Team and was rated the No. 2 JUCO defensive end in the country for 2019. He had 44 tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, a pass breakup and two blocked kicks during 2019 campaign at Garden City.
Ika, hailing from Salt Lake City, gets the starting role at nose tackle after playing in 13 games in a backup role as a true freshman. At 6-foot-4, 340 pounds, he often requires two blockers. He has 17 career tackles to go with 1 1⁄2 tackles for loss.
Logan is the veteran of the LSU defensive line. He has made 37 career appearances with 23 starts. The 6-foot-3, 339-pound lineman from Kenner, Louisiana, has 83 career tackles with 8.0 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks. He has all the skills to be the next big-time defender for the Tigers.
Anthony, a 6-foot-3, 255-pounder from New Orleans comes into the year with 23 tackles and 1 1⁄2 tackles for loss in 22 games. The projected backup to Anthony is four-star freshman from Marietta, Georgia, B.J. Ojulari. Head coach Ed Orgeron has been raving about Ojulari, the grandson of a Nigerian prince, the descendant of a powerful war chief and king. Orgeron says he’s probably the Tigers’ best pass rusher.
LSU is replacing star linebackers Phillips, Queen and Chaisson with three very solid players in graduate transfer Jabril Cox, junior Damone Clark and junior Micah Baskerville.
Cox, a native of Kansas City, Missouri, is a graduate transfer from FCS powerhouse North Dakota State. He will immediately give the Tigers a huge boost at linebacker. He helped North Dakota State win three consecutive FCS Championships from 2017-19. He joined the Tigers during the summer after graduating from North Dakota State where he was a two-time FCS All-American and capped his three-year career with 258 tackles, 32.0 tackles for loss and 14.0 sacks.
Clark was tabbed as a future star last season and will now be in position to be a productive starter, especially after sophomore Marcel Brooks decided to enter the transfer portal and is now at TCU. In 28 games, including three starts, the Baton Rouge native has 51 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss and 3 1⁄2 sacks.
Baskerville, from Shreveport, Louisiana, will enter as a starter to fill the void left by Phillips. A year ago, he served as a backup middle linebacker to Phillips. He has played in 20 games with one start in his two years with the Tigers.
Looking ahead to Saturday, is this defense vastly different than what the Bulldogs faced last year? Yes. Is it still a very talented defense? Yes.