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Wednesday, January 9, 2013
Is the three-year cycle sustainable?

By Gary Laney

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Around the nation, and to those who follow LSU from an arm's length, the news that trickled out from Nicholson Drive in the last week was alarming.

Vadal Alexander
Vadal Alexander is one of five true freshmen that started for LSU this season, something that might become more commonplace.
The Tigers lost nine, count them, nine underclassmen to the NFL draft over the weekend, leaving the defense in a rebuilding mode and their deep stable of running backs an injury away from being dangerously thin.

It was called a mass exodus. Best we can tell, it set the record for the number of underclassmen leaving one school early for the NFL. Before they left, LSU figured to have 10 defensive starters back. After the early exits, it was down to four.

But understand this: It didn't shock those close to the program.

Among those who are leaving, only running back Michael Ford and punter Brad Wing might be considered surprises, and mild at that. Rumblings that that the rest -- defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, defensive tackle Bennie Logan, linebacker Kevin Minter, defensive backs Eric Reid and Tharold Simon and running back Spencer Ware -- were expected to be done after this season before this season even started.

They all had solid sophomore seasons and were deemed likely bets to leave with good enough junior ones. All of them, with the possible exception of Simon, had seasons that most thought met the "good enough" threshold. We figured that the Tigers were about to lose a lot of guys after the Chik-fil-A Bowl.

If we knew it, you know Les Miles and his staff knew it.

Heck, they planned for it.

Look at what Miles had to say in the news release LSU issued Monday:

"We recruit very talented players with the understanding that there’s a choice that they may have to make following their junior year," Miles said. "It’s an individual decision and one that has to do with them and their family. I met with each player and provided them with as much information as I have so that they can make a quality decision in regards to their future. We wish these guys great fortune as they pursue this next step."

If LSU recruits players with the understanding that they might be on a three-year cycle, that, of course, changes recruiting strategy. LSU was looking to stockpile defensive linemen this year assuming three juniors -- Mingo, Montgomery and Logan -- would leave after the 2012 season. As a result, the Tigers have eight players who can play defensive line in this class and they are still after two more elite defensive ends in Robert Nkemdiche and Tim Williams.

Similarly, LSU stockpiled safeties and cornerbacks last year under the premise that Reid, Simon and Tyrann Mathieu were a year away from departing after their junior season in 2012. For Mathieu, the departure happened early, as he was dismissed from the team and one of the 2012 recruits, Jalen Mills, wound up starting in his place. LSU brought in three cornerbacks in 2012 and has four committed for 2012. One can read into that an assumption that there would be attrition at the position.

When you prepare like that, you cushion the blow. The departures were hardly a shock to LSU's system.

There remains one big issue:

LSU can have success on signing day by promoting the three-year cycle -- "Come here and we'll get you ready to leave for the pros after your junior year," they might tell a recruit -- and the Tigers can overwhelm a lot of opponents with across-the-board young talent. But can LSU win big rotating so many young players through its program?

It's the John Calipari question in cleats.

LSU played 15 true freshmen this season, second most in the nation. Five of them started significant games.

In the Tigers' 21-17 loss to Alabama, the Crimson Tide scored the winning touchdown when Mills made a true freshman mistake and blitzed from the corner position when he should have stayed home. It left T.J. Yeldon (another true freshman) open to catch the winning touchdown pass from A.J. McCarron.

In the Chick-fil-A Bowl, right tackle Vadal Alexander, another true freshman, had a nightmare of a game as LSU's front struggled in a one-point loss to Clemson, which got on the youngster early and kept the pressure on him all night.

Those were two close games that turned on youthful mistakes.

With LSU on the three-year-cycle, will it always be playing young players that might make similar mistakes in big games and at key moments? Or can you win with a decidedly young roster in football the way Calipari's 2012 national championship Kentucky basketball team won?

LSU, it seems, is the program that might provide the answer to that question.