LSU Tigers: Morris Claiborne
The Tigers ranked among the nation’s top-five programs at playing freshmen in each of the last two seasons -- 14 freshmen in 2013 (third) and 15 in 2012 (fifth) -- and Miles has all but guaranteed at least 15 more will see the field this fall once a star-studded recruiting class arrives on campus.
It has quickly become a calling card for Miles’ staff on the recruiting trail.
“You can’t guarantee a guy he’s going to play, but if he knows he’s given the opportunity and he’s got confidence in his ability, the track record speaks for itself. Come in and help us win and here’s the key thing, I think, that I’ve learned since being here is our veteran players -- our juniors and sophomores and redshirt sophomores and so forth -- they expect young guys to come help them play. They’re not afraid of young guys coming in and playing with them.”
Considering its recent history at the position group, it should come as no surprise that LSU recruiting coordinator Frank Wilson traces the development of this trend back to the arrival of key players in the secondary. The wheels were set in motion when cornerbacks Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne contributed as true freshmen in 2008 and 2009, respectively, but the freshman movement truly took off with the 2010 class that featured Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon.
Those players -- and several others who played bigger roles the next season when LSU won an SEC championship -- started to show what they could do in the second half of their freshman seasons, capped by an impressive win against Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl where Mathieu, Reid and Simon all intercepted passes.
“It really hit because we had three guys in the secondary because so many spread defenses came (along), so we played a lot of nickel and a lot of dime with five and six defensive backs there,” Wilson recalled. “So Tyrann Mathieu took to the field, Tharold Simon took to the field as well as Eric Reid, and then offensively Spencer Ware began to emerge, et cetera. So probably in that class, the class of , it kind of hit a high point from that point on. These guys have relished and looked forward to the opportunity to contribute as freshmen, and we like it.”
Mathieu went on to become the 2011 SEC Defensive Player of the Year, a first-team All-American and a Heisman Trophy finalist thanks to his dynamic playmaking ability. Reid also became an All-American and first-round NFL draft pick. Simon didn’t earn the same level of acclaim in college, but he was still able to jump to the NFL after his junior season and become a draft pick himself.
All three players had eligibility remaining when they left LSU, which exemplifies the greatest contributing factor in the program’s recent trend of playing youngsters. No program has had more players enter the draft early in the last couple seasons than LSU, and those departures created holes that talented freshmen could fill.
LSU recruited toward that end for this year's class and cashed in on signing day when it landed the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class, one that featured the top overall prospect in tailback Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 receiver (Malachi Dupre), top guard (Garrett Brumfield) and 16 players who made the 2014 ESPN 300.
“We knew our needs, we knew what we wanted to get,” Wilson said of signing day. “We targeted certain guys, so there was never a panic on our part. We kind of knew early on by way of communication and feedback who we’re in good shape with and who we’re not and have a plan on people to place and sign in those positions.”
Tailback and receiver will certainly be manned at least in part by freshmen this season, and many other freshmen such as quarterback Brandon Harris, safety Jamal Adams and linebacker Clifton Garrett also might follow Mathieu, Reid and Simon’s lead by playing key roles this fall.
LSU isn’t the only school that relies heavily on young players, but it has quickly gained a reputation as a trendsetter in that regard.
“I think that’s a little unique,” Cameron said. “Sometimes guys are afraid of young players coming in and taking their position, but here I don’t sense that. I sense guys like the competition and they know we’re going to need everybody to win a championship.”
“Look out there on the field, and probably 20 of the 22 defensive starters will be playing in the NFL,” said Pendry, who was an offensive coordinator for the Kansas City Chiefs, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans before ending his career in the college ranks.
Turns out, he might have undersold just how much talent was on the field, which in my 20-plus years of covering the SEC is unquestionably the gold standard for premium defensive talent on the field together at one time.
In that game alone, which LSU won 9-6 in overtime, there were 28 defensive players who played in the game -- 14 on each side -- who would get drafted. That includes 10 first-rounders.
The grand total of future draftees who played in the game was 42, and that doesn’t even count another handful of players who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.
“You don’t see that every Saturday,” said Phil Savage, former Cleveland Browns general manager and current executive director of the Senior Bowl.
“That’s why it was a tug-of-war in the middle of the field, all those future pros on defense. We call it a logo game. Neither offense could move the ball very far past the logo at midfield.”
Savage, the color man on Alabama’s radio broadcasts, remembers doing interviews leading up to that epic No. 1-versus-No. 2 encounter and estimating that 40 to 50 players from the game would end up playing in the NFL.
“It’s as close to an NFL game as you’re ever going to see in terms of a college matchup, with so many future NFL players on each side,” Savage said.
The two teams wound up playing twice that season. Alabama avenged its only loss by beating LSU 21-0 in the BCS National Championship in New Orleans. Alabama finished No. 1 nationally that season in scoring defense, and LSU was No. 2. Between them, they gave up 27 touchdowns in 27 games.
The only games in Savage’s recent memory that would come close to that Alabama-LSU affair in terms of producing NFL draft picks were the Florida State-Miami game in 2000 and the Miami-Ohio State BCS National Championship game to cap the 2002 season.
Miami beat Florida State 27-24 in 2000, snapping the Seminoles’ 26-game regular-season winning streak.
In the next three drafts, Miami produced 26 draft choices, although not all of those players played in that 2000 game. For instance, Willis McGahee and Jerome McDougle redshirted in 2000, and Clinton Portis was injured and didn’t play.
Florida State, over the next three drafts, produced 18 draft choices.
But in one game, it’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever see 42 future draft choices again on the field playing, and certainly not 28 on defense.
As a comparison, in that FSU-Miami game in 2000, there were a total of 17 defensive players who would end up being drafted.
Now, when it comes to one team, good luck in trumping Miami’s 2001 national championship team. The Hurricanes had 16 players from that team who would go on to be first-round picks.
Here’s a look at the draftees from that Alabama-LSU game in 2011:
- Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, first round
- C.J. Mosley, LB, first round
- Kevin Norwood, WR, fourth round
- AJ McCarron, QB, fifth round
- Ed Stinson, DE, fifth round
- Vinnie Sunseri, S, fifth round
- Dee Milliner, CB, first round
- Chance Warmack, OG, first round
- D.J. Fluker, OT, first round
- Eddie Lacy, RB, second round
- Nico Johnson, LB, fourth round
- Barrett Jones, C, fourth round
- Quinton Dial, DE, fifth round
- Jesse Williams DT, fifth round
- Michael Williams, TE, seventh round
- Trent Richardson, RB, first round
- Mark Barron, S, first round
- Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, first round
- Dont’a Hightower, LB, first round
- DeQuan Menzie, CB, fifth round
- Courtney Upshaw, DE, second round
- Josh Chapman, DT, fifth round
- Brad Smelley, TE, seventh round
- Odell Beckham, Jr., WR, first round
- Ego Ferguson, DT, second round
- Jarvis Landry, WR, second round
- Lamin Barrow, LB, fifth round
- Alfred Blue, RB, sixth round
- Barkevious Mingo, DE, first round
- Eric Reid, S, first round
- Kevin Minter, LB, second round
- Bennie Logan, DT, third round
- Tyrann Mathieu, CB, third round
- Sam Montgomery, DE, third round
- Tharold Simon, CB, fifth round
- Lavar Edwards, DE, fifth round
- Spencer Ware, RB, sixth round
The SEC has dominated the recruiting world over the past several years. Since 2008, the SEC has had at least three schools finish in the top 10 of the ESPN recruiting class rankings each year. Last year, the conference had an impressive six schools ranked among the top 10 recruiting classes in the country. This year is much of the same, as seven SEC schools are ranked in the top 10.
Here’s a closer look at the five best recruiting SEC schools in the Ultimate ESPN 300.
But signing a talented player is only the first step. A coaching staff must also excel at developing talent, which LSU frequently accomplishes since every All-American was not a coveted recruit.
Let's look at how LSU's recent Associated Press All-Americans graded out as high school prospects:
2013 third-team All-American (all-purpose)
ESPN rankings: 78 grade (three stars), No. 62 athlete in 2011
Evaluation highlights: “Beckham is an exciting athlete that displays some versatility and range as an offensive weapon. He is undersized, but very explosive and shifty with good change of direction and excellent overall instincts with the ball in his hands. ... We feel he would need to be a utility player and certainly has a chance to be an excellent return man.”
In hindsight: Not a bad call. ESPN's analyst pegged Beckham's athleticism correctly, as he developed into one of the nation's most electric receivers and return men. He turned out better than a three-star grade, however.
2012 second-team All-American (linebacker)
ESPN rankings: 81 grade (four stars), No. 133 overall prospect in 2009, No. 11 outside linebacker
Evaluation highlights: “Minter has a great blend of size, speed and toughness. He isn't tall, but has a thick build and carries his weight very well. He's physically ready to make the jump to the next level. ... He should give his future defensive coordinator the flexibility to play him in the middle or on the strong side.”
In hindsight: Good call. Minter had an outstanding junior season, ranking third in the SEC with 130 tackles and fourth with 15 tackles for a loss before jumping to the NFL.
2012 second-team All-American (safety)
ESPN rankings: 81 grade (four stars), No. 71 overall prospect in 2010, No. 7 safety
Evaluation highlights: “Reid is a very gifted player that can really excel at the free safety position. He is an excellent field general that plays with confidence and possesses the necessary skills to run the secondary both physically and mentally.”
In hindsight: Good call. Not only was Reid good enough to rank among the SEC's tackles leaders in 2012, he became a 2013 first-round NFL draft pick and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie for the San Francisco 49ers.
2011 first-team All-American (punter)
ESPN rankings: 74 grade (two stars), No. 24 kicker in 2010
Evaluation highlights: “His long frame and good leg speed allow him to drive the ball 50-60 yards down field. His ability to hang the football is also impressive, with game punts in the 4.8 sec. range. ... Brad has some very good tools to build on. He should become an excellent college punter.”
In hindsight: Not quite. Wing was second in the SEC and 11th nationally in punting for the 2011 conference champs. He encountered problems later in his career, but they were not related to his football talent, which proved better than his prospect ranking.
2011 first-team All-American (cornerback)
ESPN rankings: 77 grade (three stars), No. 36 cornerback in 2010
Evaluation highlights: “Mathieu is an underrated defensive back with a good blend of range, athleticism and closing burst. ... Looks and plays taller on film than his listed measurables. ... Just when you think he is a bit-straight lined he will impress you with his lateral fluidity as a return specialist; overall just a very good, instinctive athlete who should only get better as he receives full-time positional coaching.”
In hindsight: Not quite. Mathieu was probably difficult to grade because of the freewheeling style that turned him into a college star. But he made possibly the biggest impact of any individual player on LSU's outstanding 2011 club, generating key takeaways and highlight-reel kick returns all season.
2011 first-team All-American (cornerback)
ESPN rankings: 80 grade (four stars), No. 26 athlete in 2009
Evaluation highlights: “Claiborne is a bit of a secret in recruiting circles, but his talent level won't be kept at bay for long once he enters the college ranks. ... He works out of the QB position in high school and sees some duty on defense, as well. We feel he'll be a wide receiver, but in time cornerback could be where he finds the most success. ... Overall, we would be very surprised if this kid didn't have a very productive college career.”
In hindsight: Good call. ESPN's analyst was on the right track in projecting Claiborne's eventual college path, which is difficult when a prospect plays multiple roles in high school. He was possibly the nation's top cover corner by his junior season before becoming the No. 6 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft.
2011 second-team All-American (offensive guard)
ESPN rankings: 79 grade (three/four stars), No. 15 defensive tackle in 2007
Evaluation highlights: “Blackwell is an athletic big man who displays good football intelligence. He has a good get off and does a good job of shooting his hands. He can create separation and read blocks. He is physical at the point of attack and displays the ability to hold his ground. ... As he physically grows, he has the tools to be a big, quick, disruptive presence in the trenches.”
In hindsight: Wrong position. The evaluation graded him as a defensive player, but some of the tools that made Blackwell a valuable offensive lineman emerge in the analyst's comments.
2011-12 third-team All-American (defensive end)
ESPN rankings: 84 grade (four stars), No. 26 overall prospect in 2009, No. 2 defensive end
Evaluation highlights: “Montgomery got a late start in the game, but is an exciting prospect. He is green (only one year of football under his belt), but he appears to be a natural. Has excellent athletic ability and also shows a grasp of some of the game's nuances. ... Montgomery is an excellent prospect who has both immediate value and considerable upside.”
In hindsight: Good call. Natural athleticism helped Montgomery become a two-time All-American. He has yet to maximize those talents, but became a third-round NFL draft pick when he left after his junior season.
As he points out, according to a listing on ESPN.com, there are 49 players from LSU in the NFL and 41 players from Alabama.
In reading that piece, I couldn’t help but think back to a conversation I had with former Alabama offensive line coach Joe Pendry just prior to the first Alabama-LSU game in 2011. Pendry retired following the 2010 season and had served as offensive coordinator for both the Carolina Panthers and Houston Texans in the NFL before joining Nick Saban at Alabama.
Realizing how much talent would be on the field that night at Bryant-Denny Stadium, especially on defense, I jokingly asked Pendry how anybody would score.
He estimated that somewhere around 18 to 20 of the 22 defensive starters would end up playing in the NFL.
Looking back, he was dead on.
Of the 22 defensive starters that night, 16 were selected in the NFL draft. Six other defensive players who played in the game were also drafted. That’s a total of 22 players. Two other players that went undrafted spent last season on NFL practice squads.
We’re talking high-round draft picks, too. Of the 22 who were drafted, 14 went in the top three rounds.
Moreover, as many as seven other defensive players from that game who are still in school are likely to be drafted in either 2014 or 2015. Among them: Linebackers Adrian Hubbard, C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest and safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama and tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson and safety Craig Loston of LSU.
So, the final tally of defensive players from that game (some played on special teams) who were either drafted or have spent some time on an NFL roster will likely end up being 30-plus.
No wonder those two teams played eight quarters that year, and only one touchdown was scored between them.
Here’s a rundown of the draft picks from that game on defense:
- S Mark Barron (1st)
- CB Dre Kirkpatrick (1st)
- LB Dont'a Hightower (1st)
- CB Dee Milliner (1st)
- LB Courtney Upshaw (2nd)
- LB Nico Johnson (4th)
- NG Josh Chapman (5th)
- DE Quinton Dial (5th)
- CB DeQuan Menzie (5th)
- NG Jesse Williams (5th)
From: Biff (Chicago): Do the recruiting coaches feel any advantage in having someone like Lavar Edwards, who wasn't a starter his senior year, get drafted into the NFL? Does it give them valuable ammunition for getting four- and five-star rated players to know that at LSU you don't have to be a starter to be an NFL player?
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- In four years, LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis has not yet had a unit allow an average of 20 points per game. No defense has allowed more than than an average 328 yards a game, not more than 307 yards an outing after his first season.
Can he maintain that kind of quality?
Maybe, but if he does, it will be through perhaps his best rebuilding job to date at LSU, one that starts this week when the Tigers begin spring practice.
On paper, one might argue that it's the biggest challenge yet for Chavis at LSU.
One might disagree at first blush. When Chavis arrived in 2009, he was replacing Bradley Dale Peveto and Doug Mallory after the Tigers were perceived to have given up too many points and too many big plays in an 8-5 season. Many looked at the departures as a purging, of sorts, of the defensive problems.
But looking back, that 2008 defense only allowed a reasonable 325 yards per game and 24 points per gam, and those totals were skewed by an offense that committed 20 turnovers, often leading to points for the opposition. That 2009 defense returned six starters, including four future NFL draft picks.
Chavis' first defense actually gave up more yards per game (just under 329) than the 2008 team, but allowed a touchdown a game fewer thanks in no small part to the elimination of big plays by the defense and turnovers on offense.
So this year's defense will have to replace more starters and have to live up to a greater expectation.
After his first year, Chavis' teams have been allowing at least 20 yards less per game than that first defense.
Three things will have to happen if LSU is going to continue its dominance under Chavis. LSU must:
- Find playmakers on the defensive line. With all four starters gone, the Tigers will need a leader -- perhaps big-play tackle Anthony Johnson -- and some young talent to emerge. LSU has recruited well on the defensive line, but the talent is unproven. Young defensive linemen will have to make names for themselves this spring.
- Find a middle linebacker. With Kevin Minter's departure to the NFL, the Tigers don't have an obvious choice to lead the defense from the middle linebacker spot. Lamin Barrow was a 100-tackle star on the weak side, but does his game fit that of a middle linebacker? If not, which of LSU's many young prospects will step up in Minter's spot?
- Find a leader in the secondary. Eric Reid was a solid player, a good student and a natural leader at free safety. With Reid also in the NFL, does LSU have a leader in the secondary? Reid, Tyrann Mathieu, Morris Claiborne and Patrick Peterson are among the players LSU has had in the defensive backfield who came with leadership qualities. Can LSU can that from Craig Loston or one of the Jalens (Mills or Collins) at cornerback? How about from a new starter, potentially Ronald Martin?
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Spring practice can be looked at as simply 15 extra practices.
The reality is, there's more to it than that. Where August practice is focused more on preparation for a season opener, spring practices are more about evaluation and improvements. There are always areas where new players need to step up. Here are four with something to prove this spring:
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In a program that has made an art of the three-year recruiting cycle, they are only players left from LSU's 2009 signing class that was ranked No. 1 in the country by RecruitingNation.
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LSU has been one of college football's premier producers of pro talent in the Les Miles era, and more often than not, the eventual high draft picks are players who were unheralded recruits. For every Patrick Peterson, who was everybody's blue chipper coming out of high school, there's a Morris Claiborne who was anything but that coming out of high school.
So when you look at LSU's recruiting results, don't focus on how many 5-star studs they beat everybody else for. Look for the guys like the ones below who went from unheralded to unstoppable:
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His end of the bargain held up, Reid announced his decision Friday to leave LSU for the NFL. He wasn't the only one.
In a mild surprise, junior cornerback Tharold Simon also declared for the draft after leading the team with four interceptions and 13 passes defended. A first-year starter in 2012, he was a key piece to the LSU secondary in 2011 as the fifth defensive back whose presence allowed the Tigers to use Mathieu as a nickel back.
With their departures, all six of LSU's primary defensive backs on the 2011 team -- Simon, Reid, Mathieu, cornerback Morris Claiborne, safety Brandon Taylor and dime back Ron Brooks -- probably will be on NFL rosters next season.
Regardless, LSU looks to be in better shape next season than it was entering 2012. Where only two of the top six DBs returned for the 2012 season, the Tigers should still have four of their top six back next season.
Junior strong safety Craig Loston probably will return for his senior year and starting cornerback Jalen Mills, nickel back Jalen Collins and dime back Micah Eugene were all freshmen.
That bodes well for the Tigers' secondary, which outperformed expectations most of the year, given that Mathieu's departure forced LSU to have to start a true freshman, Mills, in his place. The Tigers did struggle down the stretch, allowing four straight 300-yard passing games to finish the season.
Developing young talent will be crucial this offseason. Ronald Martin, Eugene, Corey Thompson and Jerqwinick Sandolph are young safeties who might vie for Reid's free safety spot. LSU has one 2013 recruit committed, Jeremy Cutrer. But LSU is pursuing more, including ESPN 150 safety Priest Willis.
At cornerback, Collins figures to replace Mills and LSU also returns Dwayne Thomas and Derrick Raymond and has a talented class of cornerbacks coming on signing day, including three four-star prospects -- Jeryl Brazil, Tre'Davious White and Rickey Jefferson -- and three-star Rashard Robinson.
The Tigers will host a pair of ESPN 150 players on official visits with Maquedius Bain, a defensive tackle from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Priest Willis, a safety from Tempe, Ariz., both scheduled to be on campus this weekend.
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Question is, what game was he talking about? Was it last year when the Tigers used a Tyrann Mathieu touchdown to propel a comeback against Arkansas?
Actually, it was Saturday when Odell Beckham Jr. returned an Ole Miss punt 89 yards for a touchdown, tying the score in the fourth quarter in what was eventually a 41-35 LSU win over Ole Miss.
“If there was one game ball to be given in this evening, it is given to Odell Beckham,” Miles said.
If you were to judge from that day's outcome, one might believe it was Sarkisian who was headed for big success.
Sarkisian's Jake Locker-led offense piled up 478 yards and Washington hung close to the 11th-ranked Tigers, who prevailed 31-23, sending a downtrodden UW team to a 15th straight loss.
The two will match wits again Saturday in Baton Rouge and their stories have taken different turns since that day. It didn't take long for Chavis, the former Tennessee defensive coordinator, to make the Tigers' defense one of the best, if not the best in college football. Sarkisian has UW a long way from 15-game losing streaks, but at 20-19 in his fourth season, he is still got a ways to go to turn his team into a juggernaut.
Sarkisian, a former BYU quarterback who moved up the coaching ladder as an offense coordinator and quarterback guru at USC before going to Waashington, has replaced Locker, now a Tennessee Titan, with 3,000-yard passer Keith Price. Locker threw for 321 yards and two touchdowns in the 2009 game. LSU players are expecting Washington to try to similarly go after a young Tigers secondary with Price.
"We know Washington can throw the ball," said LSU safety Eric Reid after the Tigers' 41-14 win over North Texas Monday. "I know we can make those corrections and improvements [from the North Texas game]. We have to stay focused and I have to do better."
Intriguing SEC bowl games
Final Cincinnati 17 Virginia Tech 33 Final 15 Arizona State 36 Duke 31 Final Miami (FL) 21 South Carolina 24 Final/OT Boston College 30 Penn State 31 Final Nebraska 42 24 USC 45
Final Nevada 3 Louisiana-Lafayette 16 Final Utah State 21 UTEP 6 Final 22 Utah 45 Colorado State 10 Final Western Michigan 24 Air Force 38 Final South Alabama 28 Bowling Green 33
Final Marshall 52 Northern Illinois 23 Final Navy 17 San Diego State 16
Final Central Michigan 48 Western Kentucky 49 Final Fresno State 6 Rice 30
Final Illinois 18 Louisiana Tech 35 Final Rutgers 40 North Carolina 21 Final North Carolina State 34 UCF 27
2:00 PM ET Texas A&M West Virginia 5:30 PM ET Oklahoma 17 Clemson 9:00 PM ET Arkansas Texas
3:00 PM ET Notre Dame 23 LSU 6:30 PM ET 13 Georgia 21 Louisville 10:00 PM ET Maryland Stanford
12:30 PM ET 9 Ole Miss 6 TCU 4:00 PM ET 20 Boise State 10 Arizona 8:00 PM ET 7 Mississippi State 12 Georgia Tech
12:00 PM ET 19 Auburn 18 Wisconsin 12:30 PM ET 8 Michigan State 5 Baylor 1:00 PM ET 16 Missouri 25 Minnesota 5:00 PM ET 2 Oregon 3 Florida State 8:30 PM ET 1 Alabama 4 Ohio State
12:00 PM ET Houston Pittsburgh 3:20 PM ET Iowa Tennessee 6:45 PM ET 11 Kansas State 14 UCLA 10:15 PM ET Washington Oklahoma State