BATON ROUGE, La. - Kelvin Sheppard was almost as happy as his parents when he heard LSU coach Les Miles had hired John Chavis as defensive coordinator.
"They love Coach Chavis," said Sheppard.
The Sheppard family got to know Chavis when he was still running Tennessee's defense, and Sheppard was a sought-after recruit from Stone Mountain, Ga.
Sheppard narrowed his choice to LSU and UT before picking the Tigers. He then dreaded having to tell Chavis.
But the coach made it easy for him.
"He just said, 'I'm proud of everything you've done and I wish you the best of luck,' " Sheppard said.
As luck would have it, he and Chavis wound up on the same team after all.
"Nobody was as excited as my dad and my mom," Sheppard said. "The main thing they loved about him was his personality and how he emphasized a guy getting a degree.
"He talked a lot more about getting a degree than linebacker technique. I thought, 'Man, this guy is more like a father than a linebacker coach.' "
Sheppard's response isn't surprising to anyone with more than a casual understanding of Chavis' relationship with his players as UT's linebackers coach. No one on Fulmer's staff was more adept at extracting effort from his players.
Now, LSU's players talk about Chavis the way UT's once did. And that makes Saturday's game with Tennessee personal.
"He's such a serious guy, and he expects a lot from us," linebacker Ryan Baker said. "We don't want to disappoint him."
Chavis' UT connection will further motivate his players.
"He hasn't said anything about it," Baker said. "But we know that's where he's from, and we want to prove to him that he made the right decision to come to LSU."
No one can question his decision. After Fulmer and his staff were dismissed, Chavis landed a higher-paying job at a better program.
"I'm blessed to be here," Chavis said. "Every day, I thank God, and I thank coach (Les) Miles for giving me this opportunity."
So don't expect him to get misty eyed when he sees Tennessee orange across the field.
"I enjoyed my time (at UT)," he said. "I had a lot of good friends there, had a lot of really good things there - probably one of the better eras in Tennessee football history.
"But that's gone, and you have to move on. Like I said, I'm fortunate to be in a great program."
He also has the kind of talent that could enhance any defensive coordinator's scheme. Patrick Peterson is generally regarded as the best cornerback in the country, senior Drake Nevis is playing as well as any tackle in the SEC, and Sheppard is an all-conference middle linebacker. They form the experienced nucleus of what is a relatively young defense.
Freshman Tyrann Mathieu, who starts as a nickel back, looks like a future star. Sophomore Morris Claiborne is another promising cornerback. Redshirt freshman Craig Loston, a former consensus high school All-American, already is good enough to start. Redshirt freshman Sam Montgomery is a starter at defensive end.
This defense might not have the size and strength up front that LSU's 2003 and 2007 national champions did, but it's faster overall. And Chavis proved at UT he knows how to utilize speed.
After improving significantly in Chavis' first season, LSU leads the SEC in total defense, allowing 41 fewer yards per game than second-place Alabama.
"It's all him," Sheppard said. "He always says it's the players, not the scheme. But he's putting us in position where we're just striking people."
This Saturday, the Tigers will be delivering hits against a program in which Chavis played a prominent role for 20 years. But Chavis makes it sound like just another target.
"I'm purple and gold through and through now," he said.
John Adams may be reached at 865-342-6284 or email@example.com.