TAMPA, Fla. — When Craig Loston is asked the question, he immediately laughs and shakes his head.
“Uh. Um. I don’t know if I can say that,” LSU’s starting safety says, smiling.
What’s the big secret? Who’s playing safety opposite Loston.
Less than a week before kickoff of the Outback Bowl against Iowa, the Tigers’ biggest question mark — no, not true freshman quarterback Anthony Jennings — might be at safety.
Make it the secondary in general. It has been a sore spot this season for a program known for producing defensive backs. On this team, there is no Tyrann Mathieu, Morris Claiborne, Eric Reid or Patrick Peterson — LSU All-America defensive backs since 2010.
No. 14 LSU (9-3) enters the New Year’s Day game against Iowa (8-4) with depth and skill issues in its secondary, a unit even coach Les Miles calls “ever-evolving.”
“We’re getting new guys in and new guys out,” he said.
LSU used seven different starting lineups in the secondary in its 12 regular-season games, a result of demotions and injuries.
In just four of 12 games did LSU start more than one upperclassman defensive back. The Tigers never started more than two — Loston and Ronald Martin.
Ahead of the Outback Bowl, LSU is starting a true freshman, Tre’Davious White at cornerback and could be starting another, Rashard Robinson.
Safety Corey Thompson suffered a season-ending knee injury against Texas A&M and is out. Another safety, Micah Eugene, left the team.
Two more reserve defensive backs, cornerback Derrick Raymond and safety Jerqwinick Sandolph, did not travel with the squad to Tampa. And cornerback Jalen Collins was demoted from starter to backup.
Cornerback Jalen Mills, the only defensive back to start all 12 games this season, has struggled to live up to his freshman year of 2012 and may be in the midst of a position move.
And Loston? He’s the lone veteran of the group who admits LSU’s secondary hasn’t lived up to past groups this year.
“It could be better,” he said. “Take away those small mistakes every game, we could have been a great secondary.”
Missed assignments and blown coverages have been a regular thing for this young crew. Mills points to communication issues, specifically affecting alignments and coverages.
“You can’t line up the same way five times in a row,” he said, “when you have five different defensive calls.”
It’s likely the product of an ever-evolving and young bunch.
In LSU’s pre-bowl depth chart released earlier this week, six of eight secondary players listed are underclassmen, including four redshirt freshmen. The depth has taken such a hit that Mills is listed as a starting cornerback and the backup to Loston at safety.
And so back to that question: Who plays safety opposite Loston, Thompson’s old role?
After his initial answer, Loston quietly slipped out a name: Ronald Martin.
It’s unclear, though, who will really man the post against the Hawkeyes. Suffering from a nagging foot injury, Martin hasn’t played in nearly two months, at Alabama on Nov. 9.
If Martin or freshman Rickey Jefferson fails to do a good enough job, Mills said he’ll be moved from corner to safety. Robinson would replace him at cornerback.
Mills admits it’s not a move he loves.
“I want to play corner, but safety is fun, too,” he said.
But these are tough times for a beat-up and struggling unit. Everyone seems to know the woes of the 2013 secondary. Safety signee Ed Paris said last month that he hopes to help “bring back our normal status as DBU,” referring to “Defensive Back University.”
And LSU coaches are on the hunt for defensive backs this recruiting cycle. The Tigers have two DB commits for 2014 — three if you include Wilkinson (Miss.) County’s Devin Voorhies, who’s listed as an athlete.
Coaches are also targeting a highly ranked safety prospect from Texas, Jamal Adams, and Neville High’s Laurence “Hootie” Jones, who de-committed from Alabama earlier this month.
For at least one more game, LSU must perform with the players it has. That could mean a fourth different starter next to Loston.
“It’s my job to get everyone on the same page,” Loston said, “no matter who’s on the side of me.”