For five months this offseason, the assumption was LSU's defense was due for a change in philosophy because of the unbelievable depth the Tigers had up front. It's a big reason why for years coach Ed Orgeron wanted to make the switch to the 4-3 defense.
At times this offseason, Orgeron said the Tigers could go four deep at every position along the defensive line. Those days are long gone as the last month has produced gut punch after gut punch to what was once considered the deepest position group on the roster.
First there was senior defensive end Neil Farrell announcing he'd be opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 related reasons. Then came Orgeron's announcement that defensive end Justin Thomas would be leaving the program, later transferring to UAB. All of that came to a head on Monday when it was reported that defensive end TK McLendon would be entering the transfer portal and junior defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin would be opting out of the season.
That makes four players that at one point or another Orgeron has called a starter this offseason, who are now off the 2020 team. The only returning starter who received significant playing time is senior Glen Logan, who recorded 20 tackles as a junior in 2019.
LSU has done a phenomenal job on the recruiting trail and will now be asking some of the youngsters on the roster to step up with the loss of the veteran players. Orgeron said last week in a zoom call that he's been impressed with seniors Andre Anthony and Travez Moore, calling them both starters at defensive end.
"I really like Andre," Orgeron said. "I really like the work he is doing. Travez Moore is starting at left end right now. It’s Travez’s senior year, and he’s done a good job."
JUCO transfer Ali Gaye is right behind Moore and will likely see a ton of work throughout the season, even if he doesn't start right away. Gaye is listed at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds and has been mentioned by Orgeron on more than one occasion since the start of fall camp.
But the true standout on the outside has been freshman pass rusher BJ Ojulari, who Orgeron believes could one day be an All-American for the purple and gold.
"Yesterday [Ojulari] had four or five sacks," Orgeron said in a zoom call last week. "You are going to see him on third down. He is definitely considered a starter in the rotation. Phillip Webb is doing well. Those guys are looking good."
Not much has changed on the outside from where things stood two weeks ago but with the departure of Shelvin, the interior defensive line is a totally different story. What made Shelvin a special player was his ability to procure double and triple teams, giving his teammates more opportunity. It's a unique skill set that's hard to replicate.
On the inside, Siaki "Apu" Ika figures to be the prime beneficiary with Shelvin's departure. Ika is a 6-foot-4, 340-pound sophomore who drew rave reviews as a freshman but just didn't see the field much. Logan will have one of the starting spots inside locked up and Ika will be given every opportunity to earn that other interior spot.
A pair of freshmen have also stood out on the interior in Jaquelin Roy and Jacobian Guillory. Roy and Guillory were the two big defensive line signees from the 2020 class and have shown the coaching staff a lot since arriving to campus in June.
"Jaquelin Roy is 6-foot-3, 300. I tell you a guy that came on hard in Football School is Eric Taylor. He is a very, very talented young man," Orgeron said on 104.5 ESPN Baton Rouge last month. "Eric's 6-foot-4, 292. Jacobian (Guillory) is 6-foot-1 but he's 337. They come in all sizes, but the athletic ability, I think all three of those guys along with defenses are phenomenal players.”
The depth on the defensive line will ultimately be determined by how much of an impact the freshmen can have. Orgeron said during his preseason zoom call with the media that he thinks the defensive line will be a strength of the team but there's no doubt the depth has taken a hit since those comments.
“I think with the defensive line, we have a lot of depth and we can rotate those guys,” Orgeron said. “I do believe that having a 4-3 defense and how we will attack, I can’t say enough about Coach [Bo] Pelini and what he has brought. He knows the defense in and out, and he knows what he wants out of it. He’s an aggressive coach, but he’s a player’s coach, and they love him.”