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Thursday, February 6, 2014
LSU class solid despite in-state misses

By David Ching

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Five years from now, maybe sooner, we'll be able to accurately assess the signing class that LSU assembled on Wednesday. Since we like to prematurely keep score, the crop of new Tigers must be judged on two fronts: How it appears today and how it could have been.

What it is is outstanding. Really, truly outstanding. It includes the top player in the nation, superstar tailback Leonard Fournette, two others ranked first at their respective positions (receiver Malachi Dupre and offensive guard Garrett Brumfield) and three more ranked second (safety Jamal Adams, inside linebacker Clifton Garrett and dual-threat quarterback Brandon Harris). In all, 15 ESPN 300 prospects in a collection of 22 signees and a class that ranked second in the nation once the dust settled on Wednesday.

This group forms the backbone of one of the finest classes Les Miles' staff has assembled over the last decade, but fairly or unfairly, it might also face a perception problem in the short term.

Leonard Fournette
LSU kept the nation's top prospect, RB Leonard Fournette, at home, but missed on a few in-state stars.
Make no mistake, LSU will win a ton of football games with this group playing leading roles. Maybe even championships. Perhaps it will win so much -- Miles predicted that “we ought to compete for a national title or several” after adding Wednesday's signees -- that any hint of a shortcoming will be proven incorrect. But such a hint exists now, largely because LSU didn't live up to its reputation as a program that fences off its home state as well as any other major program.

“We identify the best players in the state of Louisiana and then we work outward and find the best players in the United States,” LSU recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson said on the program's signing day special that aired on its website. “We're appealing to some of those kids and we're fortunate enough that we're able to go to Illinois, able to go to Nebraska, able to get six players out of Texas and Florida and all of those things. It's great.

“It's just tough when it happens to us. When one of ours leaves the state, we [say], 'How dare he leave!' But it happens. But for the most part over the year in and year out, I think we've done a great job of wrapping our arms around the best players in the state of Louisiana that fit what we do.”

You see, this could have been the nation's top signing class if LSU sealed shut the state's borders the way it has at points in the past. The state was brimming with top-end talent -- it typically is, but this year was particularly special -- although an unusually large portion is heading elsewhere for college.

When a school competes in the SEC West, particularly against a school like Alabama -- which landed the top recruiting class for the third year in a row -- it's imperative to capitalize on every opportunity to keep pace with the Crimson Tide.

But in Louisiana, No. 3 overall prospect Cameron Robinson, the top offensive tackle, picked rival Alabama. So did safety Laurence Jones and receiver Cameron Sims. Versatile wideout Speedy Noil -- the No. 7 overall prospect and top athlete -- opted to play in Texas A&M's spread offense. Gerald Willis III, the No. 2 defensive tackle, is Florida-bound, and the top overall junior college prospect, receiver D'haquille Williams from LaPlace, La., enrolled at Auburn last month.

To be fair, LSU didn't truly pursue all of those prospects, while some combination of personal issues or simply personal preference led the others to their respective choices. But when your reputation is that of the overwhelming recruiting force within your home state, this was the wrong year to only sign half of a dynamic in-state top 10.

“There were at least two players in the state that we coveted and I can tell you that we recruited to those positions and I thought that we helped ourselves significantly,” Miles said.

That's how it looks today, with only two members of the class already on campus. Adams looks like a good trade for Jones, and the collection of talent LSU assembled at receiver is phenomenal even without Sims, Noil or Williams. Missing out on Robinson, in particular, might hurt the most, and Miles was already in sales-pitch mode to 2015 offensive linemen about the biggest need LSU must fill this time next year.

“In my time here, if we've had a real area of need, we've been able to go out there and answer it very effectively. I'm certain that we will,” Miles said. “But those offensive linemen in the sound of my voice, the opportunity is certainly great to join these Tigers and have an opportunity to compete to play.”

As we all know, recruiting rankings are only general predictions of how the group might turn out. The Tigers have had eight players earn Associated Press All-America honors in the last three seasons and there was not a single five-star prospect in the bunch. In fact, half received a three-star grade or worse.

It would be incredibly silly to criticize this class today, months before most signees arrive on campus and years before their full impact will be apparent. To the contrary, it looks to be one that not only will help LSU extend its unprecedented recent run of success, but it might just help the Tigers hoist a crystal football sometime within the next few years.

Today it's understandable to at least address the misses that could have pushed LSU's class over the top from a perception standpoint. It's also worth wondering whether two or three years from now, LSU fans will chuckle over ever having felt any disappointment whatsoever when some in-state stars announced at last month's Under Armour All-America Game that they would play elsewhere.

Let's revisit this conversation in a couple years to settle which of those options reflected the correct viewpoint. At this point, it's up to the 22 newest Tigers to determine how that conversation will go.