SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It gets a bit chilly in the desert this time of year. Temperatures are closer to freezing than to the 100-degree heat that Phoenix is known for.
That’s a good thing, according to Ed Orgeron, as LSU’s defensive line enters the Fiesta Bowl a touch thin on big bodies.
A lot has been made about LSU’s sudden dearth of cornerbacks, but the defensive line has taken its share of hits too. LSU was already without starting defensive end Breiden Fehoko (biceps surgery) before nose tackle Ed Alexander declared he’d be sitting out ahead of the NFL Draft.
The loss of Alexander, who had a strong season, elevates Tyler Shelvin into a starting role for the first time in his up-and-down career. LSU is going to need to get a lot of reps out of hulking defender that Orgeron says weighed in at “a slim 350” pounds.
“I know big Tyler is going to like this cool weather,” Orgeron joked Sunday at Fiesta Bowl Media Day. “We’re very thin at the defensive line. Those guys are going to have to step up. Those guys are going to have to play and play well.”
Shelvin was the top recruit in Louisiana coming out of Notre Dame High School, but his college career has been hindered by injuries and conditioning issues. He redshirted last season and appeared in only two of LSU’s first nine games this season. He was even left home from the trip to Florida.
The light has come on to some degree as Shelvin saw increased playing time over the final three games of the regular season. Shelvin said the key has been finally being fully healthy after undergoing ankle surgery earlier this year.
“It was kind of tough,” Shelvin said. “I had to overcome it though. I had to step up and handle business, start practicing well like Coach O said. Just grinding it out.”
The news of Alexander’s decision didn’t come until a few practices into preparations for the Fiesta Bowl. Shelvin said he was a bit late to hear the news, but once he did, he quickly realized that he would be the next man up.
Shelvin, like the player he’s replacing, represents a tantalizing talent for the LSU defensive front. He’s capable of dominating the point of attack and command double teams when he’s on his game, but coaches are still working to coax more consistency out of the massive nose tackle.
“There’s been flashes of it, but we’re looking to see it more consistently,” LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said. “I go back to fall camp, there were really good flashes. For a day or two a week, we’re thinking as a staff that we’ve got a breakthrough here. We’re thinking this is the guy, and then we’d have a setback or two. That’s been the case really since that time. He’s had a really good two weeks of practice for the bowl. I think he’s empowered knowing he’s going to get quite a bit of playing time.
“When he turns it on, he’s different that the other guys that we’ve got. If we can get it consistent for this game, we sorely need it.”
Teammates say Orgeron has taken a personal hand in staying on top of Shelvin, which is hardly a surprise given his background as a defensive line coach.
Like Aranda, they’ve seen the flashes of brilliance from the Lafayette native in practice. Now LSU is counting heavily on him as it looks to slow down a UCF ground attack that that ranks fifth nationally at 276.5 yards per game.
“He’s got to be big,” LSU defensive end Rashard Lawrence said. “He’s matured into a good young man that wants to be great. I think, earlier in the year, he didn’t see his potential. Now Coach O has told him, and he’s always on Tyler, that he can be great here. He doesn’t want to waste his God-given talent.
“This is his first big test where he’s going to play pretty much every snap. We’ll see how he plays.”