NCF On The Trail: Les Miles

Boston College coach Steve Addazio remembers an era when players wanted to redshirt as true freshmen to better prepare them for the final four years of their college career.

"Now it's 'I want to play,' " Addazio, 55, said. "If you're talking about not playing them early, the majority are like 'What do you mean?'"

So, the ability to play or possibly even start as a true freshman has become a regular sales pitch for coaches from the Power Five to the Group of Five. It's certainly a tool in the belt for Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher. Last week, Fisher alluded to the number of freshmen All-Americans he's coached the last four seasons. Twenty-four hours later, it was on the program's official recruiting Twitter page.

"The last [four] years we've had 14 freshmen All-Americans," said Fisher, condensing multiple outlets' freshmen award teams into one, concise Florida State propaganda poster. "If you come in ready to play, we're willing to put you on the field. It's critical for guys to come in saying 'When I'm the best, I'll play.'"

Fisher has the goods to back up his claims, even if the numbers are obviously skewed to best represent his program. But how does his résumé compare to those coaching some of the country's other top programs?

I tried to come up with a way to accurately discern which schools play the most freshmen and decided true freshmen letterwinners was the simplest and most effective way to crunch the numbers. To earn a letter, a player has to actually play consistently through the season. The disclaimer is each program can use different benchmarks when awarding letters, but there is never going to be a perfect way.

I began with Florida State's, looking back at the 2011-2013 classes. To properly quantify the data from Florida State, I decided I'd look at the five schools ranked highest in the preseason polls that have had its coach in place at least five seasons. Oregon's Mark Helfrich was offered an exemption because he was promoted from within and is in his sixth season with the Ducks. Coaches in place at least five years was the stipulation since an incoming coach might be susceptible to playing the prospects he recruited or having a number of transfers that could open up starting or rotational spots.

The criteria: Each class was looked at and the total number of signees was pared down to just those who enrolled as members of the football team in the fall. Junior college signees were excluded, as were any recruits who were academically or medically disqualified before playing a game. That explains why the total number of freshmen for our purposes might look different than what might be seen on RecruitingNation. Any true freshmen who spent a year at a post-graduate or prep school was also excluded. Redshirt freshmen were disqualified, too.

Bottom line is if the player was not a part of the football team the fall following his high school graduation, he was excluded.

Nearly all of the data was collected after poring through media guides and archives, although the communications departments at some of the schools were also helpful providing numbers and deserve recognition.

So, here is the actual data:

 

It is hardly a coincidence that Fisher and Alabama's Nick Saban, who mentored Fisher at LSU, have identical percentages of true freshmen earning a letter. Fisher and Saban arguably have been the two best recruiters over the last few cycles, and, the data shows those two are not going to keep young talent off the field simply because of age. Nearly half of the true freshmen at Alabama and Florida State lettered over the last three seasons.

Mark Dantonio has built Michigan State into a national title contender in a different manor, relying on experience. Only 12 percent of true freshmen lettered over the last three seasons. Recruiting to Michigan State is not the easy task it is at some other top-10 programs, and the Spartans are not recruiting as many ESPN 300-level players as the likes of Alabama and Florida State.

It should be noted Michigan State, Oklahoma and Oregon don't have quite the recruiting base Alabama and Florida State do.

Inquiring minds want to see how that 45 percent stacks up to some of the other top programs in the country, so even though they did not fit the criteria I looked at a few other schools with coaches in place at least five seasons and lately in the top half of the rankings. LSU was worth a look considering it's Les Miles' 10th season in Baton Rouge and, like Fisher and Saban, has recruited exceptionally well for a long period of time. Mark Richt is in his 14th season at Georgia and, like Miles, usually has a highly-regarded recruiting class. Steve Spurrier is in his 10th season at South Carolina and has steadily improved the Gamecocks' class to the point that the 2015 class is No. 5 nationally. Dabo Swinney has turned Clemson from a perennial disappointment into a two-time BCS bowl participant. And Ohio State and Texas A&M, mainly because it's worth seeing how third-year Buckeyes coach Urban Meyer fares considering he frequently voices his preference to avoid redshirting. Kevin Sumlin is also in the process of trying to build an SEC power that can compete with Alabama and LSU in the SEC West.

 

For the Buckeyes, out of the 69 true freshmen to land in Columbus, Ohio, from 2011-2013, 31 lettered -- the same 45 percent. Looking at just Meyer's two seasons, however, he is decimals ahead of Fisher and Saban at 46 percent (21 out of 46), thanks in large part to 14 freshmen letterwinners in his first season.

Georgia's Mark Richt has a percentage of nearly 50 percent, but the Bulldogs' numbers might be the most skewed. Along with South Carolina, the Bulldogs had several recruits that either did not qualify or spent time at a prep school or junior college. Also, Georgia's long list of dismissals and transfers is well documented, and all of the departures has opened up spots for freshmen to earn immediate playing time.

It is Miles, though, who plays a higher percentage of freshmen than all of the others. Twelve true freshmen lettered for LSU in both 2012 and 2013, and another nine earned a letter in 2011. There were a total of 65 applicable freshmen to enter LSU during that span and 33 of them lettered. That's a percentage of 51 percent.

Certainly the numbers will fluctuate year to year, and coaches at every single program are playing freshmen more frequently than ever before. When taking into account the timeline is over three years, LSU averages just one more freshman letterwinner per season than Alabama and Florida State. For our intents and purposes, though, the data shows which top programs consistently play the most freshmen in this new era of freshmen phenoms.

And, uh, FYI, Alabama has 19 ESPN 300 players prepping for their freshmen season this fall. LSU has 16, and Florida State isn't far off with 13 of their own.
Even the least astute coach with his nose buried deep in his playbook knew the Ed O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit and the vote for autonomy was going forever change college football.

One of the first changes expected to pass, and would first impact prospects in the Class of 2016, will be the addition of full cost-of-attendance stipends. Four-year scholarship guarantees are expected to be on the early agenda, as well.

Those moves are good. But there is potentially a lot to fix and the concerns aren't going away.

"I'm afraid we've opened Pandora's box," a Big 12 recruiting coordinator said. "We kept hearing over and over autonomy was going to be positive for student-athletes and address their welfare. But there's a growing concern by a lot of coaches I visit with, that this is simply an end run by the biggest schools in the country to stack the deck for them even more, especially in recruiting."

Yes, there are bigger subjects the Power Five has to fix first, such as cost of attendance and the stipend issue, but not far behind those should be adjustments on the recruiting trail. Focus them on the recruits and do it with all 65 teams in mind, not just the biggest few.

Heck, the biggest reason autonomy passed originally was the idea that change could reduce the infringement on recruits' academic preparation. What would improve their academic well-being more than fixing the out of control recruiting process?

Recruits are facing more pressure than ever before. If it's not dealing with a coach direct messaging them at all hours in the day, it's the pressure to commit while on an unofficial visit in March of their junior year without mom and dad sitting at their side because they couldn't afford to make the visit.

Outside of the ability to add an early signing period, the vote for autonomy gives the Power Five an opportunity to re-write many of recruiting's key rules, and if a majority of schools and conferences agreed, it could make the process less of a burden for the student-athletes and parents involved.

Let's allow recruits to take official paid visits earlier. Recruits are already committing earlier and earlier, so why not let them get on campus with mom and dad at their side so they aren't pressured into making a decision they might not want to make?

Let's fix the communication situation. Both coaches and recruits are craving more actual communication on the phone or even face-to-face, instead of only 140 characters at a time. Having actual conversations surely would lead to fewer decommitments or confusion.

And let's also ensure that everybody is playing with the same cards and introduce limits on the size of recruiting support staffs a school can have.

There's a litany of other rules the Power Five could adjust that would make recruiting better. And if this move to autonomy was truly done with in the interest in supporting the student-athletes -- and not a power grab by schools with the deepest pockets -- then there's no reason why it shouldn't step up and make much-needed changes.

Social Studies


Aug. 1 was the first day schools could officially offer Class of 2015 prospects in writing, and it's been fascinating to see recruits posting pictures of their official offer letters. Before it was often a mystery as to whether or not a recruit truly had all the scholarship offers he claimed or what promises were made by schools. In today's social media world, though, it's all out there for everybody to see.

What's also out there for everybody to see is the language schools use in their letters.

For example, Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher expects the Seminoles to have a football graduation rate of more than 90 percent by the end of this season.

 

Also, Colorado received a lot of positive attention when it sent an offer letter to both Buffalo offensive line commitment Tim Lynott and his family.

 

And Les Miles led off his pitch to ESPN 300 cornerback and LSU commitment Xavier Lewis by talking about how LSU will always be competing for a championship.

 
BATON ROUGE, La. – While it’s not completely set yet – he has some work left to complete in the classroom this summer – offensive tackle Jevonte Domond is on track to become the 24th member of LSU’s 2014 recruiting class.

Initially considered a 2015 prospect, Domond’s plans changed quickly when LSU offensive line coach Jeff Grimes informed him a few weeks ago that he could be academically eligible to become a Tiger by passing only a few more courses at Glendale (Ariz.) Community College.

“When he first offered me, it was for the 2015 season,” Domond said Sunday evening, shortly after returning home from his official visit to Baton Rouge, where he signed with the Tigers. “I was going to play another year at GCC and he just went through my transcripts and he told me that I only needed a couple of classes to be done at GCC, so I hurried up, I scrambled, got into some summer classes that I needed and then they offered the scholarship for this year.

“Truthfully, the offer happened and then a week later, that happened and all of it happened really fast.”

The 6-foot-5 offensive tackle said he is taking three classes at GCC this summer – astronomy, public speaking and world of religions – in order to complete his coursework. He plans to report to LSU in time for fall camp on Aug. 3.

LSU’s 2014 signing class was one of its best in years, ranking second nationally according to multiple recruiting services, including ESPN’s. If there was a hole in the star-studded class, it was that it didn’t include an offensive tackle, so Domond would be a welcomed addition.

“It was a couple months ago, maybe even a month ago, Coach Grimes came out and just told me he was looking for a juco tackle and he was scouring the country for a tackle that he wanted and that he would let me know if I had an offer from them,” Domond said. “A couple of weeks later, I got the offer. Before that, we started talking like once a week, building our relationship and just getting to know each other – just him telling me more about the program, more about himself. And so I got the offer, took my official this weekend.

“Basically I had committed before I’d even seen the school, just off the reputation of the school, the coaches that are there – Les Miles, Coach Grimes – they’re winning, the bowl-game history they have every year, a winning record every year. So I committed to them, took my official and it pretty much just sealed the deal, just made it concrete [and confirmed] everything I already thought.”

Domond is still fairly new to football. A former hockey player from Massachusetts, he played football only two years in high school plus last season at GCC, so he acknowledges that he has plenty to learn from Grimes. But with three years of eligibility remaining, he has faith that his new position coach can help him become a productive lineman.

“He can turn me into a great lineman to play any position,” Domond said. “I’m not set on playing just tackle. I’ll play anywhere they put me, anywhere I can contribute to the team. But yeah, I’m just ready to go in and just learn from him. He’s put some great people in the league and just taught a lot of people that had successful careers in the NFL, so I’m an open book and just ready to learn.”

It appears that Grimes and LSU beat several other programs to the punch in convincing Domond to sign. He was considering Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Miami when the LSU offer arrived, but nobody had made an offer to sign for 2014. Domond said Oklahoma and Oklahoma State offered for 2014 after LSU realized it could add the offensive lineman to this year’s class, but by then he had already decided where he wanted to go.

“When Grimes offered me for the 2014 season, Oklahoma said they would and Oklahoma State said they would, too,” Domond said. “But LSU, I think, is more of an elite school. I feel like it’ll be a better fit. I want to go up against the best and I want to compete at the highest level in college football.”
When he was first hired, Les Miles said one of the key ingredients for success at LSU was to win the local recruiting battles. Through the years, Miles has done a masterful job of doing just that. But in the past few classes, some LSU fans have complained after watching highly-ranked prospects such as Landon Collins, Tim Williams, Cameron Robinson, Laurence Jones and Speedy Noil end up at Alabama or Texas A&M.

Never mind that the Tigers landed Leonard Fournette, the nation’s No. 1 player in 2014, and five of the top 10 Louisiana players in both 2013 and 2014. All fans wanted to focus on were the setbacks. They shouldn’t.

LSU and Miles continue to be the kings of The Pelican State and continued to prove it Wednesday with the additions of two local ESPN Junior 300 prospects. The Tigers added pledges from St. Francisville (La.) West Feliciana four-star receiver Jazz Ferguson and Mandeville (La.) Lakeshore four-star running back David Ducre.

Early Offer: A winning attitude 

January, 31, 2014
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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: Coaches say things like size and speed are important when determining whether or not they will pursue a recruit, but one ACC head coach has something else that’s vital in his team’s evaluation process; Les Miles and Nick Saban were in the home of the nation’s No. 1 receiver prospect on Thursday.

Overlooked part of evaluation


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Early Offer: Big weekend for USC 

January, 24, 2014
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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today’s offerings: If USC is going to close strong, landing some of this weekend’s 11 official visitors are key; even though neither are going to land him, Alabama and Oregon earned high praise for their recruiting efforts with offensive lineman Braden Smith’s coach; and Lorenzo Carter has become priority No. 1 for several of the Southeast's top teams.

11 recruits set to visit USC


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Early Offer: Wooing Dupre 

January, 20, 2014
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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's regular feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Monday's offerings: The nation’s No. 1 receiver visited LSU over the weekend, but it’s just the first part of his tour throughout the Southeast this week; Derrick Griffin is back in Texas after a short stint at a prep school, and it will help him get back on the recruiting map; and Nebraska’s loss is Kansas State’s gain.


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The Early Offer is RecruitingNation's latest feature, giving you a daily dose of recruiting in the mornings. Today's offerings: reasons for LSU fans to be patient, Ohio State's start, and Sonny Dykes reloading.


Patience is a virtue for LSU

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LSU was a dream school for Alexandria (La.) Senior High School receiver D.J. Chark growing up.

So when the 2014 prospect got the opportunity to become a Tiger while on an unofficial visit to campus on Monday, he took advantage and gave LSU his verbal pledge.

"It's great," Chark said. "I feel really good."

Chark, who was recruited by special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey, named a top three of LSU, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M going into the visit and was planning a return visit to the Aggies after they offered him on Sunday night, a week after he performed at their June 2 camp.

But after touring the campus and soaking in everything LSU had to offer academically and athletically and spending time with the coaching staff, Chark believed it was time to make a pledge right then and there in Les Miles' office.

"I was convinced about coming to LSU and that's when we shook on my commitment," Chark said.

The 6-foot-1, 176-pound receiver won't be visiting the Aggies now and is happy to be staying with his home state Tigers. Chark built a good relationship with McGaughey, who hopes to use him on special teams in addition to receiver when Chark arrives at LSU.

"He became like a mentor," Chark said. "He knows what he's doing and he does it well."

Aside from his top three, Chark had offers from Memphis, Tulane, Southeastern Louisiana and Southern University.

Brandon Harris makes the rounds 

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COLUMBUS, Ohio -- The explosion of offers and attention was overwhelming enough for Brandon Harris when spread over four months.

But it was nothing compared to the 72-hour window a week ago that essentially offered confirmation that the four-star quarterback (Bossier City, La./Parkway) has arrived on the national scene and isn’t going away.


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LSU recruits address 'the sign' 

December, 31, 2012
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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Although it’s doubtful LSU coach Les Miles and his staff wanted a list of players who were missing team workouts made public, it doesn’t appear it will have a negative effect with any of the Tigers’ targets.


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NFL, LSU are options for Gardner 

December, 14, 2012
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All Sierra College wide receiver Courtney Gardner wants to do is play football.

After sitting out the 2012 season to deal with academic issues, he desperately wants to get back onto the field.

The question is where will he go? LSU? Test the waters of the NFL draft? Gardner doesn’t know, but he’s not going to stop working.

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