One of LSU's biggest surprises this season has been on defense
LSU defensive end Lewis Neal was straightforward the first time he met his new position coach, Ed Orgeron, this past winter. "Coach, I'm going to be one of your best players," Orgeron recalls being told by Neal.
At the time, the 6' 2", 264-pound Neal was known more for his effort than his production. The junior had a combined 10 tackles and a half-sack in his first two seasons, which included a brief stint at defensive tackle early last year.
So it's no wonder that Orgeron's answer to Neal's prediction was short. "Good," Orgeron replied.
"He was a good fellow, but just hadn't amounted to much," Orgeron tells The Inside Read.
Neal has changed that this season with his team highs of seven sacks and eight tackles for loss entering fourth-ranked LSU's clash at No. 7 Alabama (7–1, 4–1) on Saturday night. In the Tigers' last big game, a 35–28 home win over Florida last month, Neal had a career-high three sacks.
Against the Crimson Tide, Neal will be tasked with slowing down Alabama star running back Derrick Henry, who has already rushed for a career-high 1,044 yards and 14 touchdowns on 180 carries this season. The Tigers (7-0, 4-0) are sixth in the FBS in run defense (93.7 yards per game).
"We'll need (Lewis) because of the physicality in the way Alabama runs the football and throws the football in that pro-style scheme," Orgeron says. "Derrick Henry's a beast. It's a good test for us. Lewis will be ready. He'll do fine."
Neal has benefited from the clean-slate approach Orgeron has taken since his arrival in Baton Rouge in January. The boisterous assistant made it a point not to watch too much video of his defensive linemen's past play so he could evaluate them without preconceived notions. Under Orgeron, Neal is not only playing with even more effort, but is also more fundamentally sound.
"He does everything right," Orgeron says. "He has leverage. He has long arms, is very strong and plays smart. He's got good technique and a commitment to get better everyday."
The latter is evident in Neal's extra video study of NFL pass rushers. He tries to emulate what he watches, paying particular attention to the Indianapolis Colts' Pro Bowl outside linebacker Trent Cole.
"The way he uses his hands, hips and feet is incredible," Orgeron says of Neal.
So is the chemistry between the two, who feed off each other. Orgeron laughs recalling a time earlier this year when an offensive lineman knocked Neal off the line of scrimmage.
"I had to tell him in my words that's not how the LSU Tigers play if you know what I mean, and he got it," Orgeron says with a chuckle. "He really can take tough coaching and constructive criticism. When there's something that's glaringly wrong, I get on him and he expects that. He's motivated by it."
Orgeron tries to motivate his other defensive linemen by showing them clips of Neal's relentless effort.
"He's really intense in his drills," Orgeron says. "He can take one drill and apply it to the next drill. Learn a technique and keep it. Some guys it takes a while to apply those techniques. He can do it. He's matured. It was his time. He can handle the workload intensity. I just think it was a good fit. He's one of our best players on the team."
Just like Neal said he would be.
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Southern Miss coach Todd Monken changes mindset
Terri Monken had seen enough. When her husband, Southern Miss coach Todd Monken, was on the field, his unhappiness was evident. Just like it was when he came home. So she gave him an ultimatum during last year's painful 3–9 season, which was actually an improvement from his inaugural one-win campaign in 2013.
"Listen, either you've got to stop doing the offense or you've got to resign and go run an offense," Monken recalls being told by his wife. "You're miserable."
It was a sobering revelation for Monken, who was hired by Southern Miss because of his play-calling brilliance in his previous job as Oklahoma State's offensive coordinator. He continued those duties during his first two seasons in charge of the Golden Eagles.
But the more Monken thought about what his wife said, the more he realized she was right. So Monken delegated play-calling duties this season to offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chip Lindsey. "I needed to change," Monken tells The Inside Read.
It's worked, as Monken and Southern Miss have orchestrated one of college football's biggest turnarounds this season. With Saturday's 34–13 blowout of UTEP, the Golden Eagles have a 6–3 record and are bowl-eligible for the first time in four years. They're also tied for first place in Conference USA's West Division with a 4–1 mark. Southern Miss is 14th in the nation in total offense (507.7 yards per game), an improvement of nearly 143 yards per contest from last year.
It's been a remarkable reversal for Monken, who's been able to make significant cultural improvements within his program after giving up play-calling. "It's much better," he says. "When you don't have as much on your plate, you can keep your (positive) attitude, energy and body language."
When Monken arrived at Southern Miss nearly three years ago, he inherited a program coming off a winless campaign under Ellis Johnson, who was fired after that lone disastrous season. Attrition had caused the Golden Eagles' number of scholarship players to dip, but Monken stressed positivity in attitude, energy and body language.
The only problem with that was that Monken became so frustrated at times by his team's struggles that he didn't heed to his own words. After last season when he asked his players how he could improve, some of them told him he should practice what he preached.
"You know what," Monken says, "they were right."
Monken had so badly wanted to return Southern Miss to its winning ways that his intensity had been detrimental to that goal. "Most of the time when I yell and scream, it's frustration (that) I can't get you to do it better," Monken says.
So while Monken's message of what he believes it takes to win—toughness, effort, discipline, no excuses and finishing—is still the same to his players, the way he delivers it has changed.
"It was more of how we get that across to our players and how we build them up," Monken says. "I think we did a poor job of that in the past and I was in charge of it. It gets frustrating. It's hard when you're losing because there's a lot of weight on you. You feel it. No one takes a job to lose. You feel a little of that pressure. You feel like, 'Hey, my job is to get it fixed.' I had a lot of things that I needed to back off from to be a much better manager of our program and create a more positive approach that we can do it. We are good enough."
To reinforce that encouraging mentality, Monken made another change by bringing in new strength and conditioning coach Zac Woodfin, who had previously been at Alabama-Birmingham. He's helped players make significant strides from core strength to nutrition, according to Monken.
"He brought a real positive approach to our team that we needed," Monken says.
It's also helped that Monken's recruits have blossomed into stars. Junior quarterback Nick Mullens is second in Conference USA in passing yards (2,890 yards) and touchdown passes (25), while junior defensive end Dylan Bradley is third in the league in sacks (5.5) and fourth in tackles for loss (10.5). First-year linebacker D'Nerius Antoine, a junior college transfer from Trinity Valley Community College, has been a tackling machine with his team-high 64 stops. "We are significantly better," Monken says.
Monken is still involved structurally in his team's up-tempo spread offense, but he's had more time to assess all of his players in practice. "It's allowed me to have a much better perspective," Monken says. "When I'm watching special teams, I'm not thinking about the last offensive set we ran in practice where we ran four straight incompletions and I'm pissed. I'm thinking about that drill we're on right now."
Monken doesn't have any regrets about his first two seasons in Hattiesburg. He's learned more during that time than he ever did when he was successful in other jobs. But he does wonder what might have been had he reduced his role in his team's offense sooner.
"I added fuel to a fire that wasn't going to get fixed," Monken says. "The first year, we won one game. Were we going to win seven or eight? No, but we could have won three or four. In the second (season), would we have won eight or nine? No, but we would have had more than three. The point was that I needed to do more for the staff and my own health. I had to back away from all of these things that I take so personally."
Without the changes Monken made this season, he's not sure his team would be as improved, despite its uptick in talent. Yet the true sign of success for Monken has been the fact that his wife hasn't given him an ultimatum this season.
"She knows it's different," Monken says. "In terms of being around me, it's just different."
And that's made a cheerful difference for both him and Southern Miss.
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