You would think the Tigers see enough of their demanding coach in early morning workouts, marathon afternoon sessions and evening meetings. Not Marcus Spears. The senior defensive end has made Nick Saban‚Äôs backyard pond in Baton Rouge his getaway spot, going there to fish for bass and catfish, often with his girlfriend, Aiysha Smith, on days off from football. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve joked to Aiysha that I should make my pond off limits so she can go on a real date,‚Äù says Saban. As for the 6'4", 297-pound Spears‚Äôs affection for tranquil waters, the coach says, ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs pure Marcus. He‚Äôs unassuming, doesn‚Äôt have a big ego and doesn‚Äôt need to be in a place where he might bring attention to himself.‚Äù
Those qualities served Spears well after LSU‚Äôs 21‚Äì14 Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma, when he had to choose between staying in school for his senior season and seeking his fortune in the NFL. The reasons to bid adieu to Baton Rouge were plentiful: Spears‚Äôs best friend, wide receiver Michael Clayton, was leaving a year early to turn pro; Aiysha, who graduated from LSU in 2003, is on the road for a large chunk of the year playing for the WNBA‚Äôs Washington Mystics; and the day after his stellar performance in the national title game, Spears started receiving messages from agents telling him that he could be a late first-round or early second-round draft pick. But at a Jan. 13 press conference Spears announced he was staying, drawn by the prospects of receiving his degree in communications and improving his standing in next year‚Äôs draft.
‚ÄúA lot of people close to me would have loved to have seen me start my pro career,‚Äù says Spears, who was all-state in football and basketball at Baton Rouge‚Äôs Southern Lab High and has a large circle of family and friends in the area. ‚ÄúBut it‚Äôs going to feel good knowing that I can help my team win the way we did last year.‚Äù When he rose to announce his decision to the media, Spears spotted some familiar faces beyond the reporters. ‚ÄúSeven or eight of my teammates had come as support,‚Äù he says. ‚ÄúLater they said they‚Äôd all breathed a sigh of relief when I said I was staying.‚Äù
Last year Spears earned first-team AllSEC honors with 49 tackles, including 13 for loss, and six sacks. His most memorable play came in the Sugar Bowl, when he returned an interception 20 yards, outrunning several would-be Oklahoma tacklers, for what proved to be the winning touchdown. Spears‚Äôs quickness stood out on a line that thoroughly flustered top SEC quarterbacks David Greene of Georgia (a combined 37 of 85 passing and five interceptions in two losses to LSU last year) and Mississippi‚Äôs Eli Manning (16 of 36 in a 17‚Äì14 loss to the Tigers). Spears and his swarming, physical linemates were a primary reason that the defense led the nation in points (11.0 per game) and total yards (252.0) allowed. LSU also held opponents to 67.0 rushing yards per game (third in the country) and a pass-efficiency rating of just 89.8 (second).
At season‚Äôs end, however, that mighty line seemed in danger of losing major punch. While Spears was mulling whether to stay, consensus All-America tackle Chad Lavalais, a senior, and end Marquise Hill, who‚Äôd declared early for the draft (then rescinded, then redeclared), were already on their way out. Spears knew he was the obvious choice to carry the mantle of the dominating defense, and once he resolved to remain in Baton Rouge, he set about rallying his fellow linemen. ‚ÄúThis year we might have a larger talent pool, but last year we had a seasoned line that was mentally perfect,‚Äù says Spears, who will be joined by returning starter Kyle Williams (at tackle) and game-tested backups Melvin Oliver (tackle) and Kirston Pittman (end). ‚ÄúI‚Äôve challenged myself to be perfect in practice, so that I‚Äôm not telling the new players one thing and then doing something different.‚Äù
For young linemen who are having a tough time getting used to LSU‚Äôs varied defensive schemes, Spears can use his own past as motivation. Before becoming one of the SEC‚Äôs best defensive players, he arrived at LSU as one of the nation‚Äôs highest-rated high school tight ends. When coaches moved him to the other side of the ball midway through the 2001 season, Spears was confronted with a whirlwind of challenges, from bulking up (he‚Äôs gained 40 pounds since coming to Baton Rouge) to learning how to react to plays. ‚ÄúAs I tell the guys, my head was spinning at first,‚Äù says Spears. ‚ÄúLast year it was the greatest feeling when I suddenly felt I knew what I was doing.‚Äù
He set a fine example in the spring game, during which Oliver had three sacks and junior college transfer Claude Wroten notched two at defensive tackle. ‚ÄúMarcus is extremely quick and getting more physical and tough by the year, which could be the key for him at this level,‚Äù says Saban. ‚ÄúBut most important, he is a dynamic leader who our players respond to.‚Äù
Spears picked up a leadership award at the end of spring workouts, but the highlight of his off-season came when the seniors gathered in Saban‚Äôs office in March to select the team‚Äôs motto for 2004: Band of Brothers. ‚ÄúIt suits us perfectly,‚Äù says Spears. ‚ÄúIf we can come together like we did last year, rather than playing like a group of individuals, there‚Äôs no reason why we shouldn‚Äôt win the national title again.‚Äù --Kelley King
2003 RECORD 13‚Äì1 (7‚Äì1, T1 in SEC West)
FINAL AP RANK 2
RETURNING STARTERS 13
KEY RETURNEES (2003 stats)
RB Justin Vincent (Soph.)
MVP of SEC title game and Sugar Bowl
CB Corey Webster (Sr.) Seven picks each of last two seasons
C Ben Wilkerson (Sr.)
Rimington award finalist has 33 starts
DE Marcus Spears (Sr.)
Clocked at 4.8 in the 40 this spring
LB Lionel Turner (Sr.)
78 tackles ranked second on the team
Interceptions needed by cornerback Corey Webster to break the school record of 20, set by Chris Williams (1977 through ‚Äô80).
Dwayne Bowe doesn‚Äôt waste time: Just two years after he started playing organized football, the wideout from Miami‚Äôs Norland High led LSU freshmen last season with nine catches for 106 yards. The 6'3" 202pounder plays with a physical, powerful style that will remind many of Michael Clayton, the Tigers standout who was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April--and whose starting job Bowe is expected to fill.
Sept. 4 OREGON STATE
11 ARKANSAS STATE
18 at Auburn
25 MISSISSIPPI STATE
Oct. 2 at Georgia
9 at Florida
23 TROY STATE
Nov. 13 ALABAMA
26 at Arkansas*