Gilmore, Valentine splitting reps as LSU turns attention to Wisconsin
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Having to compete with the most-hyped interior defender to show up at LSU since Anthony ‘Freak’ Johnson doesn’t seem to faze Greg Gilmore.
It doesn’t bother him that most penciled Travonte Valentine into that starting nose tackle spot Gilmore currently occupies from the minute Valentine was cleared to play. Neither do the 50 pounds he cedes to the first player Les Miles has ever readmitted after dismissal from the program.
Gilmore, now a fourth-year junior, isn’t even the least bit annoyed when most of the questions he fields during a media session are about the newcomer gunning for his spot at the nose of Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense.
“I like that though,” Gilmore responds, asked about what it’s like to compete with much-ballyhooed Mister 105. “I like being the underdog, and, I mean, I’m playing well. I’ve been having great scrimmages and I’m doing the best that I can for this team.”
The nose has been Gilmore’s position to lose since Christian LaCouture went down with a torn ACL, precipitating Davon Godchaux’s shift to defensive end. A former highly-touted recruit in his only right, Gilmore recorded 13 tackles with one sack playing behind Godchaux and LaCouture last season.
It’s been a long road to this point for Gilmore, who credits improved and refined technique for his strong camp. Some were quick to label him a bust after failing to beat out Godchaux — then a true freshman coming off knee surgery — for the starting tackle spot opposite LaCouture in LSU’s 4-3 defense back in 2014.
“I remember talking to all of you my freshman year,” Gilmore laughs. “And now, you know, the opportunity to start. The opportunity to do big things for the school. Just to contribute, which is what I’ve always wanted to do.”
Defensive end Lewis Neal recognizes the growth made by his signing classmate and fellow North Carolinian: “Because he comes every day to get better. I noticed his attitude. When your attitude toward work is important, you’re going to get better.”
As of last week, Gilmore continued to take most of the first-team reps in practice and scrimmages, he said, though he added Valentine has started rotating in with the ones more frequently as camp wound down and Saturday’s season opener against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field came into focus.
It’s a competition of contrasting styles and backstories.
Gilmore, who has worked his way up the depth chart over three years, actually trimmed down a few pounds coming into camp. He feels the added quickness, coupled with technique, will help him hold up against double teams.
Valentine, meanwhile, was the subject of a 13-month re-recruitment process after being handed his walking papers after spring practices concluded in 2015. He’s in far better shape now than when he enrolled at nearly 400 pounds back in 2014, but raw size and power remain his calling cards.
A late addition like that can create some resentment in the locker room if not handled well. Particularly if the rest of the position room perceive a veteran who paid his dues to be getting the shaft. Valentine, for his part, has been received as sincere and rededicated, teammates say.
So, at least for now, the nose tackle battle has been a friendly, productive competition. Enough so that, per Gilmore, the two often work off to the side after practice wraps up. They run through drills, rehearse plays and Gilmore helps Valentine play catchup on learning Aranda’s scheme.
“I think he’s a good dude, man,” Gilmore says. “Personality wise, I think he wants to learn. And he’s changed. He’s definitely changed for the better.”
He continued: “If we teach him the technique, man, he’s going to be unstoppable. Very raw. Very fast. If he learns 10 percent technique, man, he’s going to be great. And he’s already real good.”
That’s why LSU’s nose tackle competition makes more sense as a time share than a typical starter/backup dynamic this season.
In Gilmore, LSU has a salty, game-tested tackle who is ready, willing and able to do the yeoman’s work on the interior. He likely won’t make a lot of splash plays in the backfield, but he’s disciplined enough to not over-pursue on a cutback play or rush himself out of proper gap assignment, either.
Simply put: he can do the job of taking on double teams to keep blockers off of Kendell Beckwith and Co. at linebacker.
But where Gilmore can simply absorb two blockers, Valentine has the ability to push them backward. Such a combination of size, strength and speed doesn’t come walking through the door often. Miles has described him as having “rare talent” with a chance to be “special.”
Allow Gilmore to explain the obvious: there are things Valentine can do that most players physically cannot. The kind of things not even a defensive line guru like Ed Orgeron can teach.
“First of all, he’s 300-something pounds, ok,” Gilmore grins. “I can’t take triple teams like that, you know what I’m saying? I’ve got to use straight technique when I’m in there. I’ve got to be technique sound. I’ve got to be able to pass rush. I’ve got to be able to move and bend.
“He’s is just in there, he’s clogging the hole and driving people back. He’s very strong at the point of attack, and I like that. I like somebody that wants to fight for my spot and wants to push me. I want to play harder.”
With that being said, it’s important to remember that Valentine’s immense size also creates an emphasis on the big fellah’s conditioning. Not to mention that fact he’s played just six games (all at the JUCO level) in the two years since his final season of high school.
Both factors make it unrealistic to expect Valentine to walk onto Lambeau Field this Saturday and push around a traditionally-formidable Badger front for 60 dominant minutes.
It’s never wise to use never in this business — maybe he takes the nation by storm overnight like a beefier Gary Sanchez of the gridiron — but it’s not terribly unlikely.
Now, instead, think about what Valentine could accomplish if LSU were to give him 20-30 snaps per game to go all out. Obvious running situations like short-yardage and goal-to-go, to be sure, but also some chances to rush the passer on third-and-long.
If he’s as freakishly strong and fast as everyone who’s seen him professes he is (reminder: the media has only seen him in a t-shirt after one practice, and never interviewed him) then 25-or-so plays ought to be enough to make a few plays of the impact variety.
Sprinkle a little bit of spectacular from Valentine in with plenty of sound, no-nonsense work from Gilmore, LSU will have quite the productive pairing to at the nose. Two can be better than one.
And, should everything break right, perhaps that’s the final piece to a championship puzzle.