There was little apprehension and plenty of conviction.
When freshman Javien Toviano lined up for the first time at cornerback in LSU’s road contest against Alabama, the former four-star safety didn’t blink.
In fact, he embraced the opportunity when LSU’s top cornerback – Zy Alexander – suffered an injury against Army on Oct. 21 that’s kept him out of action.
“One play at a time,” Toviano explained his approach after Tuesday’s practice. “I didn’t pay any mind to how big the moment was. I tried to trust my fundamentals and my focus throughout the week. I trusted the process throughout the week, so I felt pretty confident going into that game.”
The 6-foot-1, 201-pound Toviano, a four-star signee and early enrollee, has found comfort in excelling at his new position each week in practice. That’s where LSU’s secondary faces a baptism under fire each week, having to line up against one of the nation’s top receiver corps in Malik Nabers, Brian Thomas Jr. and Kyren Lacy.
When you go against the best, it’s hard not to establish a great deal of confidence that’s carried over to the games.
“I’m a firm believer in iron sharpens iron,” Toviano said. “Going against Malik, BT (Thomas) and Kyren, those are probably the best receivers we’re going to see all year. I think we have the Nos. 1 and 2 receivers in the country. It’s a great opportunity to go up and practice against them every week and I definitely feel myself improving from it.”
What was once a position of concern for LSU has steadily built into a measure of stability.
When the No. 14 Tigers (8-3, 5-2 in SEC) host Texas A&M (7-4, 4-3) in Saturday’s regular season finale at 11 a.m., expect to see to a group of young cornerbacks such as Toviano and fellow freshman Ashton Stamps to continue to exhibit growth.
The game will be televised by ESPN and carried locally by 98.1-FM.
“I think we’re improving each and every week,” Toviano said. “We pride ourselves on just playing hard and competing. Getting extra time in the film room is big for us. I know Ashton does a good job of that and I do. Just making sure that we’re recovered and ready to go for every practice and game.”
Second-year LSU coach Brian Kelly attempted to solidify his secondary through a combination of high school signees and players from the NCAA transfer portal.
After losing both of his starting cornerbacks from a year ago, Kelly signed four cornerbacks – all with at least a measure of college experience – to come in and fill a gaping hole in LSU’s defense.
Southeastern Louisiana’s Zy Alexander proved to be the most consistent player of the transfer portal signees. He started in all eight of the team’s games with 44 tackles and two interceptions.
Alexander’s second interception proved risky, though, where on the return against Army before halftime, he sustained a lower leg injury. He hasn’t been back since and Kelly hasn’t indicated when he might return.
LSU suffered a season-ending injury to JK Johnson (broken leg) of Ohio State in preseason camp and Duce Chestnut of Syracuse and Denver Harris of Texas A&M have not played and been inactive since October.
The loss of Alexander was alarming and hastened the move of Toviano from safety, where he had six tackles in four games, to cornerback. The Tigers have also experimented with safety Sage Ryan and freshman Jeremiah Hughes at cornerback and sophomore Laterrance Welch getting some action in the team’s last two games after a rough outing at Ole Miss.
“The next play mentality,” said Toviano of playing the position. “You’re not going to win at the line every time. You’re not going to deflect the ball every time. There’s going to be chances where the offense is going to make the play and you’ve got to keep moving forward. Next play, not getting too wrapped up about the play that just happened or not getting excited on the pass breakup.”
Toviano provided a glimmer of hope in Alabama’s 42-28 victory. While quarterback Jalen Milroe ran wild and scored four touchdowns, Toviano was capable in coverage and recorded seven tackles, one more than he had on the season to that point.
In a wild 52-35 win over Florida, Toviano finished second to linebacker Grep Penn III in tackles with seven. He’s now the fifth-leading tackler in the secondary with 25 tackles along with a fumble recovery and pass breakup.
“My eyes, my technique, making sure I’m fundamentally sound and I’m taking all of the adjustments the coaches are giving during the week,” Toviano said of his adjustments. “The playbook, and just taking it all in, and being a playmaker from it.”
There’s a sense of maturity coming from Toviano when asked about playing home state Texas A&M for the first time. While the Aggies are located more than three hours from his hometown of Arlington, he’s taking the same single-minded approach he’s played with this season.
“It’s just another team that we’re playing,” he said. “Another SEC-caliber opponent that’s going to play us tough. Of course, it’s fun seeing some of those guys that I’ve been around in the area grew up in. Ultimately, we’re trying to win the game and that’s our main focus.”