By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
LSU will take the field on Thanksgiving night without its best run stuffer.
Senior linebacker Kendell Beckwith won’t play against Texas A&M, LSU interim coach Ed Orgeron announced at his Monday press luncheon. Beckwith left Saturday’s loss to Florida in the second quarter with a reported knee injury.
It’s a big blow to a defense that’s allowed just 11 touchdowns in 10 games this season, the fewest among FBS schools.
“He’s very important to the defense,” cornerback Donte Jackson said. “Great run stopper. Just a great leader for us in the middle. You know somebody like Beck is going to be a huge loss for us, but I’m sure he doesn’t want us to dwell on it.”
Beckwith, LSU’s leading tackler, ranks second in the Southeastern Conference with 91 total stops. The three-year starter was sorely missed in the second half Saturday as the Gators’ yard-per-carry average jumped from 2.2 in nine carries with Beckwith on the field to 4.8 on the game’s final 26 attempts.
So why is it that one man is so pivotal for LSU’s run defense?
According to those who’ve work against him in practice on a daily basis, it’s Beckwith’s rare blend of size, speed and football IQ.
“He doesn’t jump the gun,” fullback J.D. Moore said. “He has really good eyes and good discipline … He sticks to his assignments and isn’t fooled often. So he’s a real smart football player, and then, when it comes to the point of attack, he’s real physical as well.”
Left guard Will Clapp added: “He’s a big linebacker. He’s physical. He knows how to come downhill and really strike people.”
With Beckwith out, junior Donnie Alexander will make just his second career start. Alexander entered Saturday in relief and tied for the team-high with eight tackles against Florida.
After getting a chance to study the film, Alexander described his outing as “pretty good,” but insisted he could and would play better.
“I’ve just got to be way more focused than I was before,” Alexander said. “I know Kendell is a big loss for the defense, and I want to go out there and make it seem like he’s still there in a type of way.”
Alexander will slide into Duke Riley’s position as the senior moves over and fills in for Beckwith as, essentially, the quarterback of Dave Aranda’s defense. Orgeron expressed confidence that part of the transition would go smoothly.
“Duke Riley stepped up,” Orgeron said. “Duke did some things during the game. Duke Riley, I can’t say enough about him. And there’s some things in the game? He knew the play was going one way; he switched positions with him and got himself in position to make plays.”
Here’s the cause for concern: starting two undersized linebackers may make LSU’s defense faster as a whole, but it leaves the middle short on beef.
Riley and Alexander are listed at 230 and 214 pounds, respectively, while Beckwith weighs in around 250. Beckwith’s bulk helps supplement a defensive line that registers as lighter than most 3-4 fronts.
There’s no way to duplicate that extra poundage, but LSU is hoping the vulnerability won’t be as exposed going against a spread-style Texas A&M offense. The Aggies run their offense primarily out of the shotgun, as opposed to the downhill running game Florida found success with in the second half.
“I’m sure they’ll try to do some of the same things that Florida did, just because they saw some of the things we missed keys on,” Alexander said. “But we’re going to have everything tightened up there.”
Aside from losing an All-SEC linebacker and an elite run defender, Beckwith’s absence also leaves Aranda uncomfortably thin at linebacker. With Alexander pressed into starting duty alongside Riley, true freshman Devin White and converted defensive back Devin Voorhies remain as available reserves.
It’s an odd twist of fate that LSU’s linebacker depth becomes a central storyline heading into a game against Texas A&M.
Aggie defensive coordinator John Chavis, who famously bolted Baton Rouge for College Station after the 2014 Music City Bowl, drew criticism during his tenure in Baton Rouge for not signing enough linebackers.
The teams current predicament can be traced directly to LSU failing to sign a single linebacker as part of the 2015 cycle and netting just two — Alexander and Clifton Garrett, who has since transferred — the year before.
“Donnie is going to have to step up,” Orgeron said. “He’s really going to have to do it.”