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AS HE BEGAN to overhaul a defense that surrendered 325.5 yards a game and allowed at least 30 points five times last season, defensive coordinator John Chavis set the tone for LSU's new look with two off-season meetings in his office.
First, Chavis told Chad Jones that his days as a nickelback were over; the Tigers needed the 6'3", 214-pound junior to start at free safety. "I had a serious face on," says Jones, a reliever and reserve outfielder on LSU's 2009 national championship baseball team. "But I was smiling on the inside." Jones spent his first two seasons playing on obvious passing downs, but Chavis, who moved to LSU last January after 14 years as the coordinator at Tennessee, saw a human Swiss Army knife who can make plays from sideline to sideline. "He's got as much range as anyone I've seen," Chavis says.
Next, Chavis told senior Harry Coleman, who led LSU in tackles as the starting strong safety in 2008, that he had lost his job and would have to compete for playing time at outside linebacker. The coach explained that with a deep secondary, he could best use the versatile Coleman at linebacker. Chavis braced for the worst, but Coleman told the coach he would do whatever he could to make the Tigers better. And with his performance in spring practice, the 6'2", 205-pound Coleman made a case for getting significant playing time at his new position. Chavis now has a hybrid linebacker who can cover receivers, giving the coordinator more flexibility to disguise blitzes and coverages, a trademark of his Tennessee defenses. "Some of those things will keep the offense guessing," Chavis says. "You have to be multiple in this league. If you're not, the offense will start dictating to you."
But the transformation of the defense is about more than schemes. Coach Les Miles says it has undergone "a significant culture change"—from passive and predictable to aggressive and ever-changing. Senior left tackle Ciron Black, who has started 40 consecutive games, agrees. "Our defense looks unbelievable," he says. "They're hungry. They're fired up. They're mad."
Given the fact that in recent years they have recruited some of the SEC's best athletes, the Tigers, just two seasons removed from a national championship, could climb back into title contention this fall. But Miles is well aware that his team will be in for a fight every week. "I don't think that big tiger lies in the weeds," Miles says. "Everybody knows when they're playing us."
Chavis's job is to make sure opponents still feel that way after they have tangled with his defense.