LSU has received good news by the droves this week with three key veteran pieces announcing their returns to the program.
As the Tigers and Brian Kelly were bracing for a near complete reconstruction on the defensive side of the ball, the return of defensive end Ali Gaye, linebacker Micah Baskerville and safety Jay Ward is significant for a multitude of reasons.
For starters, LSU now has three additional returning starters on defense when it looked as if the unit would be lucky to get two in Maason Smith and BJ Ojulari up front. There were others who made spot starts and had significant playing time down the stretch but not to the level of Gaye, Baskerville and Ward.
What their returns mean as a whole is that the purple and gold will have at least one veteran with significant starting experience at every level of the defense. That's what is perhaps most important for the linebackers and secondary units that watched as key leaders and All-SEC caliber talent moved on from the program.
Making up that difference from scratch is impossible to do and there's still more work to be done solidifying both groups. What Baskerville brings at inside linebacker instantly gives the Tigers two great options heading into 2022.
Baskerville and Mike Jones Jr. both played a ton down the stretch and shared the field every once in a while but now figure to be the two favorites to start at inside linebacker. The two played in a combined 25 games for the Tigers last season and recorded 117 tackles between the two, albeit the majority coming from Baskerville.
But Jones really seemed to settle into his role as 2021 waned and with another offseason to develop under defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Matt House, this should be a well polished, potentially lethal 1-2 punch at linebacker.
Ward coming back essentially stopped the bleeding in the secondary as one of LSU's only returners with some level of starting experience. He's played in 20 games the last two seasons but really felt like he found a more natural position at safety in 2021, recording 71 tackles and six passes defended.
His tackling improved and now he returns as the only remaining pillar of a secondary set to welcome in a bevy of new talent through the portal and 2022 class. Ward's experience and leadership will be counted on, though it wouldn't be a bit surprising to see LSU use him in a variety of ways all over the field.
The development of Sage Ryan, Major Burns, Derrick Davis, Jordan Toles and Matthew Langlois at safety will be key if the Tigers hope to have success in the back half of the defense. There's no doubt at the moment the strength of the secondary is at safety, though it will be interesting to see how freshman Laterrance Welch, ULL's Mekhi Garner and Arkansas' Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks fit into the mix as well.
Last but certainly not least is the senior edge rusher Gaye, who will combine with BJ Ojulari in 2022 to form one of the more lethal pass rushing duos in the SEC if both can stay healthy. It looked for a while as if Gaye was setting himself up to be a day two NFL draft pick but an early season injury in 2021 halted what could've been his final season.
At 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, he can apply pressure unlike many others, having a knack for disrupting the passer through sacks, tackles for loss and deflections. With his return, defensive line is likely the most talented room of the defense, especially when you add in potential starters like Smith, Jaquelin Roy and recent addition Mekhi Wingo. But the depth behind the starters is where the questions will come in with this group and why LSU might not be done adding a player or two to the mix.
"My goal moving forward it to help lead my team to an excellent season, and ultimately, win a national championship," Gaye wrote in his social media post.
Getting these three back in 2022 was absolutely essential if the defense hopes to carry over the strong play at the end of last year to next. There's no question that depth will be a concern at a number of positions this season but all in all Kelly and this staff have done a good job filling out this defense with more likely on the way.