The 2012 LSU defense rarely stuck to the script.
With a green secondary and a dominant defensive line, the first months of the season were supposed to bring growing pains against the pass, and the linebackers were considered a question mark.
The Tiger defense looked much different than expected, yet nearly as effective in reality.
Spurred by timely turnovers and a familiar bend-don’t-break style, LSU remained among the elite defenses in the country while allowing 16.9 points and 296.2 yards per game.
Both those figures place LSU third in the Southeastern Conference among the top dozen nationally, behind only Alabama and Florida.
The template to get there looked familiar under defensive coordinator John Chavis, but the key pieces weren’t the usual suspects.
Instead of an imposing defensive line or a lockdown secondary leading the charge, it was a pair of unheralded junior linebackers in Kevin Minter and Lamin Barrow who stepped to the forefront this fall.
Minter, who is a finalist for the Butkus Award, led LSU with 111 tackles — among the top five totals in the Les Miles era — including 13.5 for a loss.
A cramping issue marred Minter’s otherwise legendary 20-tackle day in a 14-6 loss to Florida, as the Gators immediately scored both touchdowns upon his exit.
Barrow was his running mate every step of the way, finishing second on the team with 92 tackles to go along with 5.5 for a loss and two fumble recoveries in his first season as a starter.
“That’s what we’ve waited for from those guys,” junior safety Eric Reid said last month. “I joked with them in the offseason that I didn’t want any runners reaching us in the secondary. They made sure of that pretty often.”
When runners or receivers did reach the secondary, it spelled more trouble than usual with three freshmen (Jalen Collins, Jalen Mills and Micah Eugene) playing significant snaps there.
The young unit, lacking a senior in the two-deep, outperformed expectations early while quieting the Heisman-hyped Johnny Manziel, corralling Washington slinger Keith Price and rattling South Carolina’s Connor Shaw.
Then November hit.
LSU allowed three consecutive 300-yard passing games to finish the season, escaping all three with victories.
“I really felt this year, three games into it, our team changed numbers,” said LSU coach Les Miles. “Key players were not there. There was an opportunity for young guys, true freshmen, to step in the fold and play and be counted on. To see the future evolve for us in this year really was pretty special.”
Few will remember the secondary lapses of those games, though.
The lingering image of the Tigers’ young secondary may be Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron picking apart the unit on a game-winning 72-yard touchdown drive in 43 seconds, capped by Mills’ ill-advised blitz on the 28-yard screen pass that effectively ended LSU’s championship hopes.
That sequence was just a microcosm of the defense’s only glaring issue this season.
The Tigers allowed six touchdowns in the final two minutes of a half, sometimes negating otherwise brilliant efforts and earning Chavis criticism for a soft prevent scheme.
Alabama scored a touchdown in the final two minutes of each half, while Texas A&M and South Carolina used late touchdowns to make LSU sweat after leading by two scores.
“It’s something where we have young players that are going to play great and young players that will play ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘I forgot that’ or ‘I didn’t make that play,’” Miles said. “We’re going to continue to coach technique, alignments and assignments, so that will change.”
What the defense slightly lacked in stinginess, it made up for with another ball-hawking season.
The Tigers forced 31 turnovers, including 18 interceptions, ranking second in the SEC. Flipping the field was necessary, because the LSU offense put the defense in more precarious situations this season.
Five opponents’ touchdowns resulted from drives that began on LSU’s half of the field after a Tiger turnover.
The defensive line remained the constant, with junior defensive end Sam Montgomery finishing fifth in the SEC with seven sacks while junior tackle Bennie Logan helped limit foes to 101 rushing yards per game.
That consistency made it a quiet year on the line, a welcome change from the upheaval that marked the rest of the defense.
“We have a reputation to defend here,” Montgomery said. “There’s no ‘if’ or ‘but’ about having a great defense at LSU. You hit the snags along the way — maybe a few more this year — but we held on and kept the [reputation] strong.”