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Strong LSU defense vulnerable to mid-range passes

Ken Fowler | Tuesday, January 2, 2007

NEW ORLEANS – Louisiana State’s pass defense is as good as any in the country, but the Tigers have not seen an air attack nearly as diverse as Notre Dame’s. At least that was a common theme from LSU players during their media session Sunday.

The Tigers surrendered just nine passing touchdowns in 2006, and Irish quarterback Brady Quinn set a major-college record with a 35-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio. So something will have to give in Wednesday’s Sugar Bowl.

The key to the LSU pass defense is its secondary, as Tigers defensive coordinator Bo Pelini relies on seven- and eight-man fronts with little use of linebackers falling into zone pass defense. LSU has thrived on man-to-man coverage with safety help, and at both corner positions and each safety spot, the Tigers have top-quality players.

Left cornerback Joseph Zenon and right corner Chevis Jackson are returning starters on the defense and exceptional in single coverage. Zenon finished the regular season with three interceptions and 13 passes defended, while Jackson led the team with 15 break-ups, including two picks.

“Chevis and Jonathan have played at a very high level,” Pelini said. “We play a lot of man-to-man. Those guys are out on the edge with a lot of pressure on them fairly often, and they’ve responded very well. They just seem to answer the call every week.”

The Zenon-Jackson combination is the only pair of teammates in Division I-A to average at least one pass defended each per game.

“We feel we have as good a set of corners as there are in the country, and we’re very fortunate to have them,” Pelini said.

Behind Jackson and Zenon are senior safeties Jessie Daniels and LaRon Landry, who is considered by most NFL analysts to be a to-10 or top-15 pick in April’s draft. Landry earned first-team All-American honors from the Associated Press and the American Football Coaches Association this season after conference coaches voted him a first-team All-SEC member in 2005.

Landry led the team with 68 tackles, a modest figure, but the entire LSU defense had lower numbers than their production suggests because the unit forced 56 three-and-outs in 12 games.

“I think LaRon Landry is a tremendous player and I think you’re going to see him play in Hawaii some day,” Pelini said, referring to the location of the NFL Pro-Bowl. “If he stays on task and keeps focused, which I know he will because of the tremendous young man he is, I think he’ll be an all-pro down the road.”

At 6-foot-2 and 202 pounds, Landry is one of the fastest and hardest-hitting safeties in the country. The native of Ama, La., said he benefited this season from the play of Zenon and Jackson. He said the group’s communication and “chemistry” would be vital in shutting down Notre Dame’s senior wide receivers Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight.

“They have a great receiving corps in McKnight and Samardzija,” Landry said. “They can be a threat in the passing game with Quinn. He’s able to read coverages very well. They’re very effective.”

For his part, Samardzija earned second-team AP All-American honors and was one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award, given annually to the nation’s top wide out. He said he looks forward to facing LSU’s line-up-and-press-you defense.

“Obviously they like to bring some pressure at certain times so then you’re going to have some guys manned up on the outside,” Samardzija said. “I think they’re confident in their guys out there so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them man up out there a little bit.”

Samardzija finished the regular season with 70 catches for 958 yards and 11 touchdowns. McKnight had 15 scores and 885 yards on 64 catches.

What also worries the Tigers is Irish running back Darius Walker’s ability to catch passes out of the backfield. LSU linebackers Ali Highsmith and Darry Beckwith said Walker’s strength is selling the pass-block and finding open space in the flats on delayed routes after linebackers give up on him.

Walker was third on Notre Dame with 54 catches for 361 yards and one receiving score.

“For us, it’s all about keeping our eyes in the right places, and playing in the right position and playing assignment football,” Highsmith said. “I believe they throw to the running back more than any other team that we’ve played so we know that is high standard in their offense.”

Highsmith said practicing against the LSU offense and running back Jacob Hester has been important in preparing for Walker. Hester has 34 catches for 257 yards and three touchdowns out of the backfield.

Contact Ken Fowler at kfowler1@nd.edu