LSU has talent to burn

Published 3:25 pm Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A week ago, with Arkansas’ high-powered passing attack on the way, the hand-wringing on the LSU campus was whether free safety Eric Reid would be able to play.

He wasn’t and didn’t.

But not to worry.

LSU wasn’t going to run out of defensive backs, throttled the Razorbacks 41-17, and afterward — for the first time — head coach Les Miles was asked how his 12-0 unanimous No. 1 team stacks up against the greatest in college football history.

Miles respectfully said he’d leave that to the historians.

And it’s still an unfinished history, beginning with Saturday’s trip to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game against No. 12 Georgia (10-2).

But it would probably be hard to find a deeper team, no matter how far back through the archives you dug.

The Tigers regularly plays seven or eight defensive backs, so they weathered Reid’s absence just fine. Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu moved from cornerback to Reid’s spot, and he wasn’t missed at corner while being voted national defensive player of the week honors at his new position.

“Week in and week out, there won’t be any letdown if anybody gets hurt or isn’t playing,” said LSU strong safety Brandon Taylor. “We have so much depth and talent. We just put somebody right in. Backups have just as much talent as the starters.”

That’s just the secondary. But it could have been most anywhere, like the seven regular linebackers who see meaningful time, and they surely aren’t going to run shy of defensive linemen with that nine-man rotation down in the trenches.

All told, it’s a defense that has 24 players who have shared LSU’s 89 tackles for a loss.

And that doesn’t even address the Five Horsemen in the offensive backfield — no one even noticed that Alfred Blue, the leading rusher the previous two games, was held out of the Arkansas action — or the mix-and-match offensive line or the covey of wide receivers.

No wonder Miles, who could probably find the partridge under a pear tree if he looked hard enough, is reluctant to admit that he’s no longer operating under a true two-quarterback system.

“Everybody’s got first, second, third string,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said this week. “But if your second and third string aren’t that good, you’re not going to play them much.

“These guys with LSU, they’re all playing. And they’re all playing for good reason.”

They’re all playing because they can.

Mathieu has gained fame and even a few Heisman whispers with the Honey Badger routine, but for the most part it’s known as a complete team with few superstars.

That’s a myth, according to former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach, who now does a national radio call-in show.

“There’s a bunch of players on that LSU team that, if they were on another team, would be superstars,” he said on his show Monday. “The trouble is they play for LSU and they’re overshadowed by other superstars.

“You dump a bunch of superstars on one team, they don’t (stand out as much).”

Nor, apparently, do they care to, which makes for the kind of chemistry that keeps the Tigers showing up week after week with the same fire.

Richt has noticed.

“It creates better morale because everybody is playing,” he said. “It takes pressure off guys as far as injuries, and it keeps everybody fresh.”

“There’s an implied peer pressure, if you will, that says this is how we do it,” Miles said. “This is how you do it. Come of age, step on the field. This year certainly it’s happened.

“I think it’s a very important piece. We recruit you, you come in and make a contribution, we put you on the field and we give you an assignment.”

But is anybody really a backup?

The ridiculously deep backfield has had four runners — Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Kenny Hilliard and Blue — lead at least one game in rushing this year. All four have at least six rushing touchdowns (running, of course, behind three fullbacks).

Miles said he is hoping to get Terrence Magee back for this week, further crowding things up.

“We are fortunate there,” said Miles, who added that the plan is always for Ware to start and see how it goes from there. “It gives us fresh legs and more yards after contact, that is our view.”

That also caught Richt’s eye.

“They tend to wear teams down,” Richt said. “They are playing hard. They’re playing fast every single down. I’ve been watching them (on film) all day, and I haven’t seen one guy loaf yet. II haven’t seen one guy even look tired.”””

LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu

Michael Westbrook