Eight of the 14 SEC schools will begin the 2015 college football season with a new defensive coordinator.
You read that right. A quick review:
Auburn: Will Muschamp, the former head coach at Florida, does his second tour of duty on The Plains.
Florida: Geoff Collins comes over from Mississippi State to join the staff of new head coach Jim McElwain.
LSU: Kevin Steele, Alabama’s linebackers coach, replaces John Chavis, who went to Texas A&M.
Mississippi State: Manny Diaz, a former DC at Mississippi State, Texas and Louisiana Tech, returns to Starkville to replace Collins.
Missouri: Barry Odom, a former Missouri player who spent the last three seasons at Memphis, takes over for Dave Steckel, who became head coach at Missouri State.
South Carolina: Jon Hoke, who has been in the NFL the past 13 seasons, reunites with Steve Spurrier. Hoke will share the title with Lorenzo Ward but will make the calls during the game.
Texas A&M: Chavis takes over for Mark Snyder, who was relieved of his duties.
Vanderbilt: Head coach Derek Mason decided to be his own defensive coordinator after releasing David Kotulski.
Now of those eight guys, which one has the most pressure to perform at a high level this season?
I’m going with Steele, the former head coach at Baylor who also has worked for Tom Osborne at Nebraska, Bobby Bowden at Florida State and Nick Saban at Alabama (twice). Here’s why:
No. 1: Steele is being asked to replace one of the best defensive minds of our generation. Great defense was a given during Chavis’s six years at LSU and the 20 years before that when he worked at Tennessee, his alma mater. While the LSU offense has struggled for the past couple of years it was “The Chief’s” defense that gave the Tigers a chance to win on most Saturdays. Last season LSU was first in the SEC in total defense (316.8 ypg) and second in scoring defense (17.5 ppg).
No. 2: Steele isn’t merely replacing a great defensive coordinator. He’s replacing his best friend. The two grew up together in Dillon, S.C., and were roommates when they played at Tennessee. Their families vacation together. He doesn’t want to let his friend down. That’s pressure.
“He (Chavis) called when it looked like he was leaving,” said Steele, who was the defensive coordinator at Clemson from 2009-2011. “He said ‘you need to take this job.’ Well, it hadn’t been offered to me but it sure got my attention.”
Whem Steele threw his hat in the ring and started examining the job, it immediately looked like a good fit.
“I knew the head coach (Les Miles). I knew the staff and I knew most of the players because they had been recruited by the schools where I had been,” said Steele. “My son (Gordon) had just left there after three years as a graduate assistant. So there was immediately a great comfort level.
“But even when you put that aside, it is arguably one of the best defensive jobs in college football. It became apparent that if the offer came this was something we needed to do.”
The offer came in January and was accepted on Jan. 14. There was some uneasiness about the hire among parts of the LSU fan base at the time because Steele’s three seasons as Clemson’s defensive coordinator (2009-2011) did not end well. Steele was let go by Clemson after a 70-33 loss to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl. Steele’s departure from Clemson is a lot more complicated than one bad bowl loss but that’s another story for another day.
That concern was somewhat mitigated less than 24 hours later when LSU announced that it had hired Ed Orgeron as defensive line coach. Orgeron, a former head coach at Ole Miss, had been at USC for four years and served as interim head coach when Lane Kiffin was dismissed during the 2013 season. Orgeron, considered one of college football’s best recruiters, did not coach in 2014. But he is Louisiana through and through.
“I didn’t know Ed really well before we hired him but I can say this now: I am sure glad he’s on our team,” said Steele. “He is a great football coach and our players love him.”
So with Steele and Orgeron presenting a united front, LSU began spring practice on March 7.
“I was replacing a guy who was my best friend so I knew a lot about our players before we started,” said Steele. “The first thing I knew was that it wasn’t broke. They finished first in the league in defense. I didn’t need to fix anything, I just needed to take what they had and to see if I could do some things to make it better.”
One of the things LSU must do better in 2015 is put pressure on the quarterback. Steele and Chavis are a lot alike in their defensive philosophy. But Steele has always put a bit more emphasis on doing what you need to do to make the quarterback uncomfortable. LSU’s yardage and scoring numbers were good last season, but the the Tigers only had 19 quarterback sacks, which was 12th in the SEC and No. 102 (out of 125 teams) in the FBS.
When Steele walked into the defensive team meeting room for the first time at LSU, he saw that Chavis had left a list on the board of things the defense needed to improve upon in the spring. At the top of the list was finding a way to get better pressure on the quarterback.
“I understand why we only had 19 sacks last season and we made it a real point of emphasis in the spring,” said Steele. “The quarterbacks we’ll play against are just too good for us to sit back.”
If LSU is going to get more pressure on the quarterback, Steele and Orgeron have to settle on some replacements for ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco. There are a number of young players who showed they could handle the position this spring like juniors Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal, plus sophomores Maquedious Bain, Deondre Clark, and Sione Teuhema.
They will combine with proven defensive tackles Christian LaCouture and Davon Godchaux (10 starts as a true freshman), so getting pressure on the quarterback should be a strength and not a weakness in 2015.
Steele and Orgeron have brought a more aggressive style to the LSU front that the players say they really like.
“Coach Orgeron and Coach Steele have a scheme that suits us,” LaCouture told the New Orleans Times-Picayune earlier this spring. “The defense we have is an attacking style defense and I love stuff like that. I feel the defensive line is very aggressive. I’m at my highest peak and I feel the defensive line is as well.”
But the harsh reality for LSU is that none of this is going to matter if Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron don’t get the quarterback position figured out.
LSU has exceptional talent at running back in sophomore Leonard Fournette (1,034 yards as a freshman), at wide receiver in Travin Dural (37 catches) and Malachi Dupree (22.7 ypc), and on the offensive line. But the quarterback play simply hasn’t been good enough for LSU to be a contender in the SEC West. Rising junior Anthony Jennings played in 13 games and completed only 48.9 percent of his passes last season. Freshman Brandon Harris was given a start at Auburn last season but after a 3-for-14 passing performance in a 41-7 loss he might as well have been in the witness protection program for the rest of the season.
Both quarterbacks played pretty well in the spring game (Jennings was 13 of 20 for 242 yards; Harris was 11 of 17 for 178 yards). Jennings is a diligent worker who takes care of the football but isn’t going to wow you with his skills. Harris is very gifted but is a little loose with the football. The decision will come this summer.
The bottom line for LSU? Since playing Alabama for the BCS national championship after the 2011 season, LSU has seen its conference record go from 8-0 to 6-2 to 5-3 to 4-4. The passionate LSU fan base is getting restless. That trend needs to be reversed this season.
NEXT UP: OLE MISS