Senior College Football Columnist

With Chavis in charge, the LSU defense never rests


BATON ROUGE, La. -- John Chavis says he can't talk. He has to get a haircut and gives you his number. Call him later, he says. Later turns into a day later.

"Tonight, about 9:30?" he says.


That was a week ago. It's obvious during the ramp-up to the biggest game of the season, LSU's defensive coordinator has gone into a bunker. Alabama should be more concerned than the media about "The Chief" being out of pocket.

There is game-planning to be done in that bunker. The man should be as familiar to the SEC as bourbon and tailgating. For 20 years, he was Phil Fulmer's wing man at Tennessee, coordinating a national championship defense in 1998. When he became a free agent after the end of Fulmer's run, well, go ask Albert Pujols how it feels.

"I was communicating with about five guys, but he was my first pick," says Les Miles, who hired Chavis in 2009. "I knew how good his defenses played ... After I met him and sat down and talked to him, I said it was over."

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If it wasn't for Alabama's six, seven or eight defensive future pros -- you choose -- Chavis' unit would be the star of this latest game of the century. Without him to expand on the subject there is mystery. This week Chavis, in his 17th season as a coordinator, has to love mystery.

"We played [Alabama] as well as any other team that's played them in the SEC," Bradley Dale Peveto says proudly.

The voice on the other end of the line is LSU's former co-defensive coordinator. Peveto immediately preceded Chavis, spending four years on Miles' staff. Now he has his own program 200 miles up the road at Northwestern State. Peveto recruited several of the current Tigers, then spent the summer trying to crack the code on a defensive unit he helped assemble.

Yes, the Demons were an outmanned FCS program from little, old Natchitoches in Tiger Stadium the night of Sept. 10 but Peveto thought he could get some things done.

In 56 snaps, Northwestern State moved the ball 95 yards in a 49-3 loss.

"We were able to keep our quarterback from taking a beating in that game," Peveto says.

Which is always a plus.

That was the second week of the season. LSU already was building its defensive rep. Three high draft choices left after last season -- corner Patrick Peterson, defensive lineman Drake Nevis and linebacker Kelvin Sheppard -- but the swagger didn't.

The Tigers chewed up and spat out Oregon. The legend of the Honey Badger was born. In Week 3, the Tigers found themselves tied at 6 with Mississippi State in the third quarter. But the Bulldogs never found the end zone. LSU had an incredible 16 tackles for loss in a 19-6 win.

Florida and Tennessee couldn't get within four touchdowns. There were seven sacks against Auburn. Peveto may have been right. His guys scored three. SEC teams have averaged 8.4 points against LSU.

"The contact that takes place when our defense is on the field is very sincere," Miles says in typical Les-speak.

But his current coordinator remains squirreled away somewhere in a secret lair. Four times the opposition has been held to single digits. A top 12 defense in 2010 ... is even better in 2011 -- No. 3 in total defense this season allowing 251 yards per game. Like Nick Saban, Chavis likes to bring pressure from all angles at any time. Is it any surprise that LSU is No. 2 in the SEC in both sacks and tackles for loss?

"He's definitely one of the more intense coaches," LSU safety Eric Reid said. "He has pet peeves about attitude and effort. If you mess up, just loafing, we usually run for loafs. He's gotten me a couple of times."

If these guys are loafing, all of us have missed it. Saturday's defensive matchup is more or less a push -- on paper. Alabama is the No. 1 in scoring, total, rushing and pass efficiency defense. LSU is third, fourth, fifth and third in those same categories.

So who are these defensive Tigers -- No. 1 in the polls and the BCS but underdogs in Bryant-Denny? They are six starters from the state of Louisiana. Half of them in the two-deep are freshmen or sophomores.

They are that Honey Badger (cornerback Tyrann Mathieu) and a Barkevious (Mingo, backup defensive end). They are progeny of Michael Jackson.

That would be Michael Jackson, the high school coach of tackle Michael Brockers at Houston (Texas) Chavez High School.

They are the sons of national championship hurdlers.

"I didn't even take any other visits," Reid says. "For me it was an easy choice."

That's because Eric Reid Sr.'s LSU school record in the 110-meter hurdles set 24 years ago still stands. Eric Jr. has the body of a hurdler -- 6-foot-2, 207 pounds -- and the attention of his coordinator.

"It takes you a couple of weeks to catch on," Reid says. "Once you know it, everything fits together. Everything goes along with each other. We still haven't run a couple of plays that are in the playbook."

These Tigers also know they are going to be heard. Sophomore defensive end Sam Montgomery is slowly gaining an identity as the team's philosopher.

"The image of LSU," Montgomery says of a season sprinkled with suspensions, "would have to be a group of young men who know how to play football that still has some growing up to do ...

"Those young guys had to become great men and great ballplayers at a very young age. We're learning and we're going to get it right."

All of this furrows the brow of offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert, who remembers a gangly freshman playing on the scout team.

"We were just messing with him constantly," Hebert said of Montgomery. "We'd block him and tell him what he could have done better. Now he's so dominant, all those guys are. They've kind of grown up before your eyes. It's almost like a little brother suddenly beating you up."

They are driven, playing their own games within games during practice. Offense vs. defense. It's always something. They keep score.

"Say one day the defense wins, the next day the offense buckles down," Hebert says. "We're constantly trying to top each other. We'll be talking trash. We'll get pretty fired up. We have guys with competitive urges."

They will be challenged. There may be a Heisman Trophy out there to be won Saturday. Alabama's Trent Richardson will take a giant step toward the hardware if he is able to succeed against LSU's D behind one of the most effective offensive lines in the country.

Reid already has a sense of that matchup. He was part of the defense that beat Alabama 24-21 here last season.

"I remember getting to tackle Mark Ingram and he just won his Heisman [in 2009]," Reid says. "It was like, 'Whoa, I just tackled Mark Ingram.'"

These Tigers know they're going to play right away too. If they're good enough. Les Miles sells that playing time. It's not a new concept, but it works for him. After losing those three high draftees, Miles retooled. That meant No. 1 prep tackle Anthony Johnson as a backup. In a lot of programs a 315-pound dude who ran a 4.8-second 40 would be starting.

"We're not redshirting guys," Miles says. "I want to be the best team we can be this year. If we have a guy who is a great player and potentially a contributor this year, why would we want to wait until next year?"

So they don't. Alabama may have more future pros on its unit. LSU, though, has next. How that plays into the T-Town Tussle is to be determined. But the defensive Tigers will not be intimidated.

"I think we've marketed to the youthful, talented player," Miles says.

There's marketing and marking one's territory. Mathieu, reinstated for Alabama after being suspended for a game, has as many recovered fumbles (three) as 29 teams. Mingo is tied for the team lead in sacks (four), as a backup. Nine of the top 11 tacklers are underclassmen. None of this is a mystery to the man in the bunker. The Chief knows it, and is trying to improve upon it. Just don't try to call him. Not this week.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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