BATON ROUGE, La. — When Eric Reid arrived at Louisiana State University, the older players made one thing clear:
He was expected to contribute right away on defense. There was to be no drop-off from the guys who came before him.
Now, he passes it on.
“We tell the freshmen the exact same thing,” said Reid, a junior safety and one of the leaders of the Tigers’ defense. “We don’t want them to use youth as an excuse. You come to practice, practice hard and get the job done.”
The same could be said of top-ranked Alabama.
After last season, the Crimson Tide had six players off its national championship defense – considered one of the best in college football history – selected in the NFL Draft. Three of them went in the first round. Another was taken early in the second.
For most programs, that sort of exodus would have led to a major rebuilding job.
Not at Alabama (8-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference), which again leads the nation in all four of the major defensive categories, seemingly just as dominant as it was with players such as Mark Barron, Dont’a Hightower and Dre Kirkpatrick.
“I’m not really surprised,” said one of the replacements, linebacker C.J. Mosley. “Great players left last year, but we had players that could fill their roles. So far, we’re getting the job done.
“It’s all about communication because we’ve got the athletes and we’ve got the players who can play with anybody in the nation,” Mosley said.
Defense isn’t just a vital part of the game for these two schools.
It’s who they are.
It’s why they seem to meet every year with so much on the line.
This year is no exception. Alabama will travel to Baton Rouge on Saturday night for what is essentially a playoff game in the national championship race.
The winner will have the inside track to a spot in the SEC title game, which has become a routine conduit to the BCS finale.
Despite plenty of inconsistency on offense, LSU (7-1, 3-1) is right in the thick of things again largely because of its defense. While not quite as dominant statistically as Alabama, the Tigers are certainly in the same ballpark, ranking in the top 10 nationally in points allowed, total yards, rushing yards and passing yards.
“It’s a tradition that was established long before we got here,” said LSU linebacker Kevin Minter, the team’s leading tackler. “It’s fundamental here. It’s what we do. We play hard-nosed, hit-you-in-the-mouth defense. Both teams do.”
Like Alabama, LSU lost a number of top defensive players off last year’s unit, which carried the Tigers all the way to the national championship game before they lost to the Crimson Tide 21-0.
Cornerback Morris Claiborne and defensive tackle Michael Brockers were both selected in the first round of the NFL draft, while safety Brandon Taylor went in the third. Then, the Tigers lost perhaps their most dominant player on either side of the line, cornerback and Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu. The Honey Badger was reportedly kicked off the team for several failed drug tests, and he’s spending the year away from the field, trying to get his life in order.
Despite those heavy losses, especially in the secondary, there hasn’t been much of a slide. LSU ranks fourth in the nation, allowing just 148.5 yards per game through the air. Tharold Simon and freshman Jalen Mills have filled those big shoes at cornerback, each coming up with a pair of interceptions. LSU ranks eighth nationally with 13 picks as team.
“Their secondary still looks good,” Alabama receiver Kenny Bell said. “They still have a good defense. I feel like this is going to be the one of the best defenses we’ve gone against all year. We’ve just got to keep working hard ... and get better so we can be able to execute against this defense. Because, you know, they are good. Their front four is very good and their secondary is real good.”
When you consider that Crimson Tide quarterback A.J. McCarron hasn’t thrown an interception all season, the play of LSU’s secondary becomes even more important. In last year’s regular-season victory at Tuscaloosa, a 9-6 slugfest, Reid came up with a huge pick right at the goal line. The Tigers would like nothing better than a repeat Saturday night.
“Hopefully we can force him to make a bad throw and see if we can get an interception,” Reid said. “That definitely would be nice. It would give us some momentum for our offense.”
LSU’s offense needs all the help it can get. In two meetings last season, the Tigers never got to the end zone against the Crimson Tide. It looks like they’re facing another daunting challenge.
Robert Lester has three interceptions, and five other players have two. Mosley is the closer in the middle of coach Nick Saban’s 3-4 defense, leading the team with 65 tackles. Ed Stinson spends a lot of time in opposing backfields, leading the team with 7.5 tackles behind the line.
Saban, along with defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, gets a bulk of the credit for assembling a defensive scheme that isn’t that far off from the pros are doing. LSU has its own defensive guru, coordinator John Chavis, the man they call “Chief” and a must on any list of the nation’s top assistant coaches.
“I feel like it’s great coaching,” Minter said. “Bama obviously has great coaches with Saban and Kirby over there. I’ve always admired them. We have Chief over here. They’re all great at developing talent. Both teams always find a way to reload, regardless of who leaves.”