It was, perhaps, a sign of the times that LSU’s defense won a national championship in 2019 with a defense that gave up an average of 21.8 ppg. Sure, when paired with a video game offense, the Tigers could certainly afford to give up a lot of points — for instance, they gave up 38 points to Texas, 38 points to Vanderbilt (really 24, with a couple of defensive touchdowns by the Commodores), and 37 to Ole Miss. But on balance, that defense was good enough because even with all the points, they still managed to go 15-0 with an average margin of 26.5 points.
Fast forward to 2020, and a defense gutted both by the NFL Draft and COVID-19 opt-outs, as well as an injury to probably its best returning player (Derek Stingley Jr.), gave up 44 points in a season-opening loss to Mississippi State. Stingley will be back, as will defensive tackle Glen Logan (who also missed the Mississippi State game), but this is a unit that returns just three starters from 2019. And without two of its three biggest stars... well, you got that against Mississippi State.
Granted, Mike Leach knows how to coach an offense and the jury is still out on Vanderbilt’s offense. But if the 6’3”, 339-pound Logan is out again, LSU’s defensive line is scary inexperienced. On the edge, LSU will rely on Andre Anthony, a senior who’s played sparingly in previous years, and 6’6”, 262-pound JUCO transfer Ali Gaye, who had two tackles for loss and three passes defensed against Mississippi State. Gaye’s length will make him problematic. 6’4”, 340-pound sophomore Siaki Ika is listed as the starter at defensive tackle alongside Logan, but didn’t register a tackle against Mississippi State. The sheer size of LSU’s defensive front will be problematic for a young Vanderbilt offensive line, but it’s hardly a vintage unit.
Things get a bit better as you move back on the defense. All three linebackers are new starters, but Damone Clark saw plenty of action last season and had a sack in the opener. 6’4”, 231-pound senior Jabril Cox, a transfer from North Dakota State, had a sack and an interception against Mississippi State. The third starter, junior Micah Baskerville, played sparingly last season but did have four tackles for loss.
The defensive backfield is fine, and has a couple of genuine stars in Stingley and senior safety JaCoby Stevens, the latter of whom had two sacks against Mississippi State. True freshman Eli Ricks got an interception in the opener, and assuming Stingley is back, he’ll compete with sophomore Cordale Flott for the other starting corner spot.
We should also throw a shout here to Zach Von Rosenberg. The 30-year-old former minor league pitcher in the Pittsburgh Pirates system has emerged as one of the nation’s best punters. LSU didn’t need him much in 2019, but a shakier offense might make him more useful in 2020.