Just like a family

This is the seventh of a series examining each of the positions on the 2007 LSU football team.
Linebackers (projected depth chart)
No. Name Ht. Wt. Class Hometown
7 Ali Highsmith 6-1 225 Sr. Miami, Fla.
48 Darry Beckwith 6-1 230 Jr. Baton Rouge, La.
35 Luke Sanders 6-5 240 Sr. West Monroe, La.
11 Kelvin Sheppard 6-3 225 Fr. Stone Mountain, Ga.
54 Jacob Cutrera 6-4 235 So. Lafayette, La.
56 Perry Riley 6-1 230 So. Ellenwood, Ga.
52 Ace Foyil 6-3 230 So. Mandeville, La.
58 Jeremy Benton 6-1 230 Jr. Monroe, La.
57 Derrick Odom 6-2 210 Fr. Jackson, Miss.
17 Shomari Clemons 6-1 215 Fr. West Monroe, La.
43 Lydell Smith 5-10 210 Fr. Shreveport, La.
There may be no more experienced area on the LSU football team than linebacker where the three returning starters have participated in a combined 90 games during the past three seasons.
None of the three first-unit linebackers – Ali Highsmith and Luke Sanders on the outside and Darry Beckwith in the middle – has earned a first-team All-Southeastern Conference selection.
However, that linebacking trio will certainly provide solid performances during the 2007 season. The three linebackers have grown accustomed to working with each other on the playing field.
"This group has been here and played together now for two years," said Highsmith, who has made the most career starts of the linebackers with 24. "We are probably closer with each other than previously.
"It makes you feel like you are playing next to your brother. Everybody is there for each other."
Highsmith is statistical leader of the three linebackers. He has recorded 159 tackles in his first three seasons. Highsmith's best year came two seasons ago when he made 75 tackles, including four sacks. In 2006, Highsmith made 63 tackles with three sacks.
"From when I first started playing, my reads are a lot better," said Highsmith, who plays on the weak side. "I'm getting off blocks quicker. I know what to expect. Everybody seemed fast at first. The game has slowed down for me. It's a growing process."
Even though Highsmith was a second-team All-SEC choice a year ago, Beckwith is the player most people expect to have a dramatic effect this season. Moving to middle linebacker midway through last season, Beckwith finished with 65 tackles.
"I have more understanding of the defense now," Beckwith said. "I know what the defensive line has to do on each play. I have a better overview of the game."
Sanders will start at the strong-side linebacking position. Starting for the first time a year ago, Sanders registered 35 tackles. Sanders comes off the field when the Tigers use their nickel and dime defenses.
Beckwith knows the linebackers have an important role on a LSU defense considered to be one of the best in the country.
"We have to be the emotional leaders," Beckwith said. "We have to get guys in the right spots and then make plays. Our run fits and our pass drops are better this year. Defense is all about will and want to. Eleven hats have to get to the ball."
Behind the three veteran linebackers are three up and coming players – redshirt freshman Kelvin Sheppard and sophomore Perry Riley on the outside and sophomore Jacob Cutrera in the middle. Cutrera has missed some preseason practice with an elbow injury.
Highsmith believes that both the linebackers and the entire defense need to be more productive this year.
"(Linebackers) should probably play better since we've been playing with each other for a year," Highsmith said. "We're more comfortable back there. If one of us doesn't know something, the other one does.
"The whole defense can't play to maintain what we did last year. We have to play to be better. The expectations for our defense are so high. To keep our reputation, we have to play better. Everybody has to be on one page."
Next: Defensive backs