From week one to week five, this LSU defense looks like a different group. Looking back to that UCLA opener, there were many concerning issues to take note of.
The defensive line was getting pushed out of its gaps, there were coverage busts on those intermediate crossing routes, tackling issues and a hint of confusion. But over the course of the last month this defense, spearheaded by defensive coordinator Daronte Jones has made marked improvement in all of these areas.
One of the consistent pieces to this group has been the play of senior edge rusher Ali Gaye. He's missed two games this season but when on the field he's been among the most noticeable player at applying pressure in the backfield. For a guy who was on the field for all of last season, seeing just how far this defense has come has been an exciting development for Gaye.
"From game one to now, we're all starting to get it. We're putting the pieces together and as a defense we're hungry," Gaye said. "Win or lose our job is to stop the offense no matter who we're playing. Every game is a learning experience, it's a non stop thing and the train keeps going. Gotta learn what you did from last game and even though we lost there were some good things."
The secondary has improved in coverage, despite being down All-American Derek Stingley Jr. for both conference outings. Cordale Flott, Dwight McGlothern and Jay Ward have all improved exponentially opposite Elias Ricks to make for a much more balanced group of defensive backs.
At linebacker, Damone Clark is playing the best ball of his career and up front, Gaye, freshman Maason Smith and interior linemen like Neil Farrell, Jaquelin Roy, Joseph Evans and Jacobian Guillory have been a steady force in shutting down opposing running attacks. But this weekend LSU faces the difficult challenge of stopping Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez, who leads the SEC in rushing yards.
"We did a good job of stopping the run. We know he's [Rodriguez] a hard runner, he's leading the conference in rushing but our mentality every game is stop the run," Gaye said. "Stopping the run is always the No. 1 thing that we try to do in every game we play."
Tackling has been the most noticeable reason behind this group's improvement over the last few weeks. With the lone exception of not being able to bring Auburn quarterback Bo Nix to the ground, this is a group that has tackled very well at all levels. Another reason to believe this will continue to carry over is there aren't that many quarterbacks who can scramble like Nix proved last weekend.
LSU faces a Kentucky quarterback in Will Levis who is mobile but would much rather stay in the pocket and beat teams with his arm. Nevertheless, Gaye said a big emphasis for this defensive line is finishing plays in the backfield as that is what will lead to success on Saturday.
"One of the big emphasis is working on tackling better, trying to take them down. We tried everything we could [to tackle Nix] but I need to do better in tackling, finishing plays and that's one of the things I can get better at. Moving forward to this week that's gotta be an emphasis."
"I feel like he's starting to settle in, as a defense we're trying to be better with our plays and executing. Overall we're settling in and we're gonna be able to start to do more things."