Will this LSU secondary finally live up to the DBU hype?

BATON ROUGE – Let’s be honest.

The chest-thumping DBU (Defensive Back University) moniker LSU defensive backs gave themselves for the amount of NFL Draft choices produced hasn’t equaled the on-field production since the 2019 national championship season.

Last season in Brian Kelly’s first year as head coach, the Tigers were 79th nationally in interceptions and 73rd in third-down conversion defense.

Two subpar defensive coordinator hires by former head coach Ed Orgeron in 2020 and 2021, plus a rash of transfers, left Kelly digging out of a hole in his maiden voyage.

And he’s still got the shovel in his hand.

There were six transfer portal defensive backs in his first (2022) recruiting class. Four were one-year rentals.

There are four transfer portal DBs in the 2023 recruiting class. Three are potentially in one-year layover situations.

While there’s a growing group of recruited sophomore and freshmen defensive backs who have shown potential in preseason camp, Kelly is leaning toward experience when No 5 LSU opens the season vs. Florida State on Sept. 3 in Orlando.

“(New senior Marshall transfer) Andre Sam has been outstanding, Greg Brooks is competing, Major Burns has had a really good camp, Sage Ryan has had a really nice camp playing both nickel and a little bit of corner for us,” Kelly said. “(Junior Syracuse transfer Duce) Chestnut has played a lot of football, so to have him there has been a nice addition. He’s a calming influence out there.  

“When you have a veteran secondary out there other than one cornerback position, I’m feeling pretty good about where we’re at this point.”  

Ryan, who suffered what Kelly termed in his Tuesday press conference as “a stinger” in Saturday’s Tiger Stadium scrimmage, has emerged as a key component in Kelly’s plans.  

And that’s good for Ryan, a redshirt sophomore who was winner of the LSWA Mr. Football award as a five-start recruit at Lafayette Christian High. Hyped as someone saddled on a rocket ship to stardom, his progress has been subdued and steady.  

But now, Kelly sees Ryan in a different light as a cornerback rather than a safety.

“He has elite speed to play out there (at corner),” Kelly said. “He’s got the skill and experience. He’s a pretty smart football player who puts himself in a pretty good position.

“One thing that we really are concerned about is making sure that we’re tackling the football and having a great tackler out there. Sage has been a really steady tackle force.”

Ryan has been impressed with newbies Chestnut and freshman Ashton Stamps.

“He (Chestnut) has ball skills off the chart,” Ryan said. “And Ashton has tremendous feet for a cornerback.”

Chestnut, an All-Atlantic Coast Conference honoree last season, admittedly was smitten with LSU’s DBU hype as a youngster growing up in Camden, N.J.

“(Former LSU All-American defensive backs) Patrick Peterson and Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) were guys I looked up to even before I got the high school,” Chestnut said. “I always told everybody that I was trying to go to LSU. I always wanted to be a part of DBU.  

“When I put my name in the transfer portal and heard LSU wanted me, I almost broke into tears. I always watched LSU, no matter where I was at because it was always my dream school growing up. I watched the Alabama game (last season). I can’t wait to play in the stadium like that.”  

Ryan, Chestnut and other LSU DBs said the secondary has improved daily in the preseason.  

“In the spring, we were more of adjusting to each other and learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” Chestnut said. “The more as fall camp goes on, we’re not too far from being where we want to be. It’s just corrections while learning the defense and the more we learn the defense, the more we look better as a secondary.”  

Here’s Kelly on other subjects in his Tuesday presser:  

On his assessment of last Saturday’s scrimmage

“Overall, what we were looking for more than anything else was who are the guys that need to be developed to be guys to count on and who are the guys that are not ready to be counted on yet that need more time to develop.

“This was much more about finding out who else can we get on the field at the jack position. Is Whit Weeks getting closer to playing? Can (Ashton) Stamps hold up at corner and become a positive force? We’re looking for those kinds of answers.” 

On the development of true freshman offensive tackle Lance Heard

“He certainly has developed just the understanding of the offense and itself from terminology to technique. It’s college football. There are guys he went against last year (in high school) who were probably mismatches for him 99 percent of the time. Now, he’s going up against Sai’vion Jones and he’s going up against some pretty impressive football players. That’s a whole new thing for him to deal with. He’s going through a lot of that. But is he pushing for a starting position? He’s a guy that we’re giving reps. We’ve got to find the best five guys and then the next is the sixth and seventh. He’s in the mix and he’s out there competing hard.”

Contact Ron at ronhigginsmedia@gmail.com

A native of Baton Rouge and a 1979 LSU graduate, Ron Higgins has written for seven newspapers, two online websites and a magazine in four states during a sports writing career that now spans six decades. The man nicknamed “Mad Dog” has won more than 180 state, regional and national writing awards including more than 80 first places. He is the Journal’s LSU beat writer.