LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson considered the answer so obvious that he responded as soon as the words left the reporter's mouth.
Do you have a guy that can step up and be a guy like Glenn Dorsey, a guy that's always talked about?
"No way," Jackson said. "You can't replace Glenn Dorsey, man. There's only one Glenn Dorsey."
Dorsey, selected by the Kansas City Chiefs with the fifth overall pick in the NFL Draft, finished his LSU career as the most decorated defensive player in school history. Last season, Dorsey won the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman), the Lombardi Award (best lineman or linebacker), the Nagurski Award (best defensive player) and the Ronnie Lott Trophy (top defensive impact player). No wonder teammates and rivals consider Dorsey almost irreplaceable.
Then again, you might want to emphasize the word almost.
"If anybody else had lost Dorsey in this conference, they'd be in real trouble," Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom said. "LSU just puts another one up there."
LSU is perhaps the only school in the nation with enough talented defensive linemen to replace a player of Dorsey's caliber without missing a beat. In fact, the defending national champions have such a talented line that they believe their front four can fare better than it did last season.
"This d-line can be better than any d-line I remember in LSU history," junior defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois said. "You've got speed guys, strong guys, run stoppers, pass rushers. (We have) so many guys, plus the freshman class that's come in. Everybody's got their own thing. If we fine-tune it and put it together, I believe we can be one of the best d-lines in the country or in LSU history."
Jean-Francois and Croom aren't trying to diminish Dorsey's contributions. Far from it. Croom rates Dorsey alongside Reggie White and Howie Long as the only opposing defensive linemen who struck fear in him during his college and NFL coaching career. Jean-Francois marvels at how much he learned from watching Dorsey the past few seasons, and said Dorsey set such a good example that it helped assure the remaining linemen on the roster would continue his legacy.
"I learned about having a motor," Jean-Francois said. "Even when you're tired, you've got to keep going because that guy across from you is going to wait for you to be tired. You've got to keep your motor going no matter what. If (Dorsey) was hurt or anything was bothering him, he'd always keep his motor going."
ASSEMBLY LINE CONTINUES
When NFL scouts look for defensive linemen, they look to LSU. At least one LSU defensive lineman has been selected in each of the past five NFL Drafts:
LSU has enough high-octane performers to keep the defensive line's motor humming all season. Want to know just how loaded the Tigers are up front? Consider the case of 6-foot-4, 316-pound Al Woods, a junior defensive tackle rated by at least one draft service as a potential first-round pick.
"He's massive, and he moves like a defensive end," Jackson said. "Just let that guy roam inside in the middle of a defense, and he'll be making plays just on athletic ability alone."
First, though, he must get on the field. He has played in just 18 games in his two seasons, with one start. And he probably won't open this season in the starting lineup. Woods is competing with sophomore Drake Nevis and senior Marlon Favorite behind starting tackles Charles Alexander and Jean-Francois on the depth chart.
Alexander started the Tigers' first three games in '07 before an injured right knee knocked him out for the rest of the season. Jean-Francois was named the most outstanding defensive player in last year's BCS Championship Game. It was just Jean-Francois' second game of the season. Jean-Francois was suspended for the regular season, then saw his first action in the Southeastern Conference title game.
Favorite made six starts last season, Nevis two. Woods tied for the SEC lead with three fumble recoveries.
The Tigers have a similar amount of talent and experience at end. Jackson and sixth-year senior Kirston Pittman return after starting every game last season.
"I don't know that the piece of Glenn Dorsey will be replaced," LSU coach Les Miles said. "I think he was exceptional that way. But I think our front is awfully talented, and I think that as a group, they may well play as well statistically as that defensive front did a year ago."
A closer look at the numbers shows that Miles' prediction isn't so far-fetched. LSU ranked third in the nation in total defense and 17th in scoring defense last season, but the Tigers struggled to stop teams while Dorsey was bothered by a knee injury late in the season. Florida, Kentucky, Auburn, Alabama, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Ohio State scored at least 24 points apiece against the Tigers.
This defense seems capable of faring better against SEC foes, particularly if their performance in preseason practices offers any indication.
REPLACING STARS ON THE LINE
LSU is one of six teams replacing a defensive lineman who was taken in the first round of the NFL Draft. Here's a look at the six teams and an analysis of how their defensive lines might fare without their departed star.
Chris Long, DE, Virginia – 2nd overall pick
The buzz: Virginia lost Long and end Jeffrey Fitzgerald during the offseason, which leaves the Cavaliers without two guys who combined for 21 sacks last season. The Cavaliers don't have any returning starters on their defensive line. The verdict: Without Long, Virginia's pass rush will come up short.
Vernon Gholston, DE, Ohio State - 6th overall pick
The skinny: Gholston's departure leaves Ohio State without one of the nation's elite pass rushers, but Cameron Heyward – Ironhead's son – and Lawrence Wilson should help pick up the slack. The bigger concern may be at tackle if Doug Worthington's recent DUI arrest affects his status. The verdict: Ohio State's sack total may drop slightly, but the line's overall performance should be fine as long as Worthington's in the lineup.
Sedrick Ellis, DT, USC – 7th overall pick
Lawrence Jackson, DE, USC – 28th overall pick
The skinny: Nobody reloads quite like USC, which sees the loss of All-Americans as an opportunity for other players to make the leap to stardom. Tackle Fili Moala is entering his third year as a starter and enters his senior season as a probable first-round pick. USC also must replace Jackson, but sophomore Everson Griffen should prove to be a more-than-able replacement. The verdict: USC still should have one of the top lines in the nation.
Derrick Harvey, DE, Florida – 8th overall pick
The skinny: The pressure is on end Jermaine Cunningham, who delivered six sacks last season while benefiting from the attention teams paid to Harvey. Florida's bigger concern is at tackle, where the Gators don't have much experience beyond senior Javier Estopinan. The verdict: Florida could suffer without Harvey. The defensive line is the team's biggest concern.
Kentwan Balmer, DT, North Carolina – 29th overall pick
The skinny: Balmer really blossomed as a senior with the Tar Heels, and losing end Hilee Taylor also hurts. But this is one area where North Carolina has stockpiled talent. Tackles Marvin Austin, Cam Thomas and Aleric Mullins and end E.J. Wilson bring an intriguing combination of experience and potential. The verdict: The Heels probably will slip, but not as much as you might expect.
"Going against these guys (in practice) is harder than going in a game," LSU senior center Brett Helms said.
LSU also has a good chance of upgrading its pass rush, even though the Tigers finished second in the SEC with 2.6 sacks per game last season. LSU's hopes of putting more pressure on opposing quarterbacks depend in part on whether Jackson recaptures his 2006 form. Jackson recorded 8.5 sacks in 2006 and seemed on the verge of developing into the SEC's top pass rusher, but he managed only 3.5 sacks last season. Jackson even called it a "subpar year" in the days leading up to the BCS Championship Game, but he changed his opinion during the offseason.
"I learned that I didn't have a bad season," Jackson said. "After going back and looking at all the games I played, I didn't have the stats that I wanted, but … I think I did a lot of special things for our team that put us in position to be successful at the end of the season."
If Jackson can put up the numbers he delivered two years ago, he should team with Pittman to give LSU one of the nation's top pass-rushing tandems. Pittman had eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last year after a foot injury and a torn Achilles tendon caused him to miss two entire seasons.
All those returning players will take turns picking up the slack for the departed Dorsey. But the one guy who could deliver the fear factor Dorsey provided last season is Francois.
Jean-Francois made three tackles in the SEC championship game victory over Tennessee and followed that up by compiling six tackles – 1.5 for loss – and blocking a field-goal attempt in the BCS championship game triumph over Ohio State. Jean-Francois, a two-time Florida state high school champion in the shot put and discus, always has possessed the required athleticism to be a dominant player. Now he also has the necessary confidence.
"If I can repeat that one (Ohio State) game for 14 games – that's one of my biggest goals," Jean-Francois said. "I want to repeat that one game for 14 games. If I do that, I'll be good."
Of course, LSU won't play 14 games this season unless it returns to the SEC Championship Game. If LSU's defensive linemen consistently play as well as Jean-Francois did against Ohio State, a return to Atlanta seems inevitable.