Picking up where they left off last year, the Tigers and their dominant defense are rarin' to geaux
You would think the Tigers see enough of their demanding coach in early morning workouts, marathon afternoon sessions and evening meetings. Not Marcus Spears. The senior defensive end has made Nick Saban's backyard pond in Baton Rouge his getaway spot, going there to fish for bass and catfish, often with his girlfriend, Aiysha Smith, on days off from football. "I've joked to Aiysha that I should make my pond off limits so she can go on a real date," says Saban. As for the 6'4", 297-pound Spears's affection for tranquil waters, the coach says, "That's pure Marcus. He's unassuming, doesn't have a big ego and doesn't need to be in a place where he might bring attention to himself."
Those qualities served Spears well after LSU's 21-14 Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma, when he had to choose between staying in school for his senior season and seeking his fortune in the NFL. The reasons to bid adieu to Baton Rouge were plentiful: Spears's best friend, wide receiver Michael Clayton, was leaving a year early to turn pro; Aiysha, who graduated from LSU in 2003, is on the road for a large chunk of the year playing for the WNBA's Washington Mystics; and the day after his stellar performance in the national title game, Spears started receiving messages from agents telling him that he could be a late first-round or early second-round draft pick. But at a Jan. 13 press conference Spears announced he was staying, drawn by the prospects of receiving his degree in communications and improving his standing in next year's draft.
"A lot of people close to me would have loved to have seen me start my pro career," says Spears, who was all-state in football and basketball at Baton Rouge's Southern Lab High and has a large circle of family and friends in the area. "But it's going to feel good knowing that I can help my team win the way we did last year." When he rose to announce his decision to the media, Spears spotted some familiar faces beyond the reporters. "Seven or eight of my teammates had come as support," he says. "Later they said they'd all breathed a sigh of relief when I said I was staying."
Last year Spears earned first-team All-SEC honors with 49 tackles, including 13 for loss, and six sacks. His most memorable play came in the Sugar Bowl, when he returned an interception 20 yards, outrunning several would-be Oklahoma tacklers, for what proved to be the winning touchdown. Spears's quickness stood out on a line that thoroughly flustered top SEC quarterbacks David Greene of Georgia (a combined 37 of 85 passing and five interceptions in two losses to LSU last year) and Mississippi's Eli Manning (16 of 36 in a 17-14 loss to the Tigers). Spears and his swarming, physical linemates were a primary reason that the defense led the nation in points (11.0 per game) and total yards (252.0) allowed. LSU also held opponents to 67.0 rushing yards per game (third in the country) and a pass-efficiency rating of just 89.8 (second).
At season's end, however, that mighty line seemed in danger of losing major punch. While Spears was mulling whether to stay, consensus All-America tackle Chad Lavalais, a senior, and end Marquise Hill, who'd declared early for the draft (then rescinded, then redeclared), were already on their way out. Spears knew he was the obvious choice to carry the mantle of the dominating defense, and once he resolved to remain in Baton Rouge, he set about rallying his fellow linemen. "This year we might have a larger talent pool, but last year we had a seasoned line that was mentally perfect," says Spears, who will be joined by returning starter Kyle Williams (at tackle) and game-tested backups Melvin Oliver (tackle) and Kirston Pittman (end). "I've challenged myself to be perfect in practice, so that I'm not telling the new players one thing and then doing something different."
For young linemen who are having a tough time getting used to LSU's varied defensive schemes, Spears can use his own past as motivation. Before becoming one of the SEC's best defensive players, he arrived at LSU as one of the nation's highest-rated high school tight ends. When coaches moved him to the other side of the ball midway through the 2001 season, Spears was confronted with a whirlwind of challenges, from bulking up (he's gained 40 pounds since coming to Baton Rouge) to learning how to react to plays. "As I tell the guys, my head was spinning at first," says Spears. "Last year it was the greatest feeling when I suddenly felt I knew what I was doing."
He set a fine example in the spring game, during which Oliver had three sacks and junior college transfer Claude Wroten notched two at defensive tackle. "Marcus is extremely quick and getting more physical and tough by the year, which could be the key for him at this level," says Saban. "But most important, he is a dynamic leader who our players respond to."
Spears picked up a leadership award at the end of spring workouts, but the highlight of his off-season came when the seniors gathered in Saban's office in March to select the team's motto for 2004: Band of Brothers. "It suits us perfectly," says Spears. "If we can come together like we did last year, rather than playing like a group of individuals, there's no reason why we shouldn't win the national title again."
-- Kelley King