BATON ROUGE, La. — LSU cornerback Donte Jackson set a career high with 9 tackles in Saturday’s emphatic 17-16 win at Florida.
When the Tigers’ best cover corner woke up the next morning, he felt every single one of those hits. Jackson was battered enough to remain in bed most of the day.
Good thing the remote was within reach.
Why was Jackson so sore in the first place? That comes down to LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s new game plan. Just as Aranda did with eventual first round pick Tre’Davious White in 2016, he moved Jackson into the slot to play nickelback against Florida.
It’s a move that will loom even more important this Saturday.
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When LSU hosts No. 10 Auburn, it will face one of the most efficient, effective passing attacks in the nation. Auburn quarterbacks have completed 71.2 percent of their passes in 2017, the fifth-best rate in the FBS. In three SEC games, that rate climbs to 75 percent with five touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Auburn’s offense thrives because of its quick-strike mentality and variety of schemes. Jackson said the toughest part about facing a Gus Malzahn-coached offense is the way it makes you doubt your assignments. Before the snap, Auburn tries to create confusion by mixing and matching formations.
That’s why it becomes an advantage to play Jackson in the slot.
Prior to the move, Jackson played on the outside with redshirt freshman Greedy Williams manning the other outside spot and a rotation between freshman Kary Vincent Jr. and sophomore Xavier Lewis in the nickel. With Jackson sliding inside, that frees a spot for junior Kevin Toliver II to take over on the sideline and gets LSU’s three most experienced and talented cornerbacks on the field at the same time.
“Greedy’s been playing great. Kevin came along, and now he’s balling. He’s back to his normal ways,” Jackson said. “That’s something where if we can get two solid guys on the outside, we can move somebody inside like me — somebody who can beat blocks and make tackles. Having those guys outside is kind of like a security blanket to be able to move me inside.”
The blanket definitely provided security against Florida. Coming into the game against LSU, the Gators averaged 213 passing yards and 1 touchdown per game. The Tigers limited Florida to 108 yards on 10 completions with no scores.
That’s the sort of performance the LSU secondary expects to produce against Auburn. After all, Williams is the SEC’s interception leader. Toliver is a former 5-star recruit who has worked tirelessly on his technique. Then there is Jackson, who thrived against Florida in his new role.
“It helps me be a lot more mobile, a lot more around,” Jackson said. “It gives me a chance to make a lot of plays on the ball, to get a lot of tackles. Any way you can make plays, I’m always good with. I was happy with the move. I feel like it makes our defense a lot more dominant when you’ve got somebody inside who can make plays and help on the run fits and make plays on passes.”
Playing nickel brings new responsibilities for Jackson. On the outside, linebackers and safeties made the calls for him. The nickelback, however, makes the calls for the linebackers and safeties, who then relay that information to the corners. The mental burden is higher, as is the physical one, since nickelbacks have to tackle and blitz a lot more than sideline corners.
Jackson isn’t likely to complain about the added responsibility. Early in the season, he said he sometimes gets bored playing the sideline when other teams don’t throw at him. That shouldn’t be a problem against an Auburn team that throws the ball so effectively, and Jackson welcomes the challenge.
“They ain’t gone against us yet,” he said.
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