STARKVILLE — The players come and go, but the constant on defense for the LSU football team is John Chavis.
Despite philosophical changes on offense that have led to spread schemes and teams running more plays and scoring more points, LSU”s defensive coordinator has relied on the same approach for more than 20 years in the Southeastern Conference.
Chavis, who holds a degree in education from the University of Tennessee, uses basic math to hold some of the best nation”s best offenses at bay. When No. 3 LSU (2-0) plays No. 25 Mississippi State (1-1) at 7 tonight (ESPN) at Davis Wade Stadium in the SEC opener for both teams, fans should count how many defenders the Tigers send at quarterback Chris Relf because Chavis always has believed his unit will win if it can outnumber the opposition at the point of attack.
A national audience already has seen the effectiveness of Chavis” defense. The Tigers caused three turnovers in building a 33-13 lead en route to a 40-27 victory against the then-No. 3 Ducks on Sept. 3 at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas. LSU “held” Oregon to 335 yards total offense, but 138 of those yards came on two of Oregon”s touchdown drives in the fourth quarter.
MSU coach Dan Mullen watched that game live and immediately noticed something about LSU”s defensive ends and linebackers.
“You learn LSU is really, really fast,” Mullen said. “They took a team that played in the national championship game with a lot of returning starters, ranked no. 3 in the nation, and pretty much blew them out.”
In his third year implementing his system, Chavis has recruited more speed on the front seven so he can challenge spread offenses, similar to what MSU primarily runs, with base packages.
“More and more teams are playing it, (and) that”s been the way for the last few years and we”ve gotten better at it every year,” Chavis said. “The way we deploy our personnel is important, but being a great tackling team is what eliminates big plays, and we”re spending a lot of time on that this fall like we did in spring practice.”
LSU is eighth in the nation in rushing defense (45.5 yards per game). It held Oregon to just 95 rushing yards, and have allowed just one play of more than 20 yards.
“(LSU has) big, fast, physical, strong, great football players,” Mullen said. “The team”s loaded, full of NFL players. That”s what sticks out about them. I”m sure they”d win the NFC East this year.”
Chavis” system, which has produced three defensive lineman drafted to the National Football League in the past two years, relies on its cornerbacks to play a physical bump-and-run, man-to-man system. In front of the coverage, LSU normally has eight or nine players within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.
MSU”s ability to run the football will be a key tonight. LSU is 36-3 under coach Les Miles when it holds an opponent under 100 rushing yards in a game. MSU has gained 642 rushing yards and has allowed 12 tackles for loss on 101 carries and one sack on 65 passing plays.
“John Chavis is a wonderful advantage for me,” Miles said. “I turn to him for many ways and ask for his opinion. He”s one of the best in the business.”
The effectiveness of LSU”s secondary is tied to the Tigers” ability to pressure the quarterback. Not only do offenses typically have less time to make decisions, but the defense also capitalizes by reading the tendencies of quarterbacks to create turnovers.
Last year, LSU thrived with Jim Thorpe Award winner Patrick Peterson in the backfield. The Arizona Cardinals drafted Peterson in the first round of the 2011 NFL draft. The consensus All-American was a three-year starter at cornerback for the Tigers, and finished his career with 135 tackles, 22 pass breakups, and seven interceptions.
“Tradition never graduates, and that”s so true,” Chavis said in the preseason. “We have players that go on to the NFL and I”ll be shocked if those guys I”m talking about aren”t on an NFL roster and probably starting at the same time. … It”s time for some different guys to step forward.”
Chavis has turned to 5-foot-8 cornerback Tyrann Mathieu to be his next shut-down cornerback. Against Oregon, Mathieu scored LSU”s first touchdown on a fumble return and picked up a fumble and had a team-high 10 tackles.
“We put him in position, but there were a lot of things he did on instinct,” Chavis said. “He”s a playmaker. It doesn”t matter where you put him he makes plays.”