Editor’s Note: For a preview of National Signing Day, complete with video of all the uncommitted players LSU was sweating out decisions from this week, click here.
Ed Orgeron may have been the only man in America who could go from an interim head coach to head coach to owner of a Top 7 recruiting class within the space of about four months, but then again the effort just completed on National Signing Day was one of the main reasons he was hired by Athletic Director Joe Alleva.
In the modern era of recruiting rankings there has never been a Top 10 recruiting class signed by a school immediately following a coaching change. Orgeron owns the first such class. Admittedly, he has an advantage over his predecessors in that Orgeron hardly came into this recruiting season cold; unlike in the case of Texas’ Tom Herman, for example, who brought a completely new coaching staff into Austin and proceeded to largely get steamrolled for most of his top targets, Orgeron had not only been at LSU as an assistant for the previous two seasons but was the recruiting coordinator in the year prior to replacing Les Miles. His recruiting board was full, not empty, and he already had lots of the relationships necessary to successfully signing players.
Nonetheless, while some of Orgeron’s circumstances were favorable certainly not all were. His hiring was seen in some quarters as a disappointment after reports had LSU negotiating with Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher and Herman as its top choices to replace Miles, and some time – and steam – was lost while Orgeron waited on Lane Kiffin’s choice whether to sign on as his offensive coordinator. Amid those circumstances it appeared LSU would be behind an 8-ball of sorts heading into National Signing Day, and yet he managed to restore some positive momentum to the signing class.
Again, in the modern era of college football recruiting this is the best signing class ever assembled by a coach hired in the offseason.
What else was good about the class?
Take the quarterback position, for example. Orgeron, after a bumpy start which shook both of them loose for a time before Matt Canada was finally named as the new offensive coordinator, held on to the best pair of quarterback recruits since Nick Saban signed Jamarcus Russell and Matt Flynn in 2003. Myles Brennan is the best pocket passer to sign with LSU since Zach Mettenberger, and he has a much higher upside than Mettenberger had. Brennan could completely revolutionize LSU’s passing game and dissolve its long-standing brand as a smash-mouth team; all he needs is a good first season in the weight room and an increase in muscle mass, because he has everything else – great pocket vision, a quick release, pinpoint accuracy, decent mobility and the kind of moxie that all great quarterbacks possess. At 185 pounds on a 6-4 frame he’s way too thin to play much immediately, but as a redshirt freshman in 2018 he could well become the superstar quarterback this program has lacked for so long. That’s if Brennan is even the starter, because in Lowell Narcisse LSU has a dual-threat quarterback who could well be the kind of impact player DeSean Watson was for Clemson. Narcisse is a hulking 6-3 and 225 pounds, with a cannon for a left arm and an explosive running ability. Narcisse is already on campus; the only question about him is the two knee injuries which robbed him of all or part of his final two high school seasons. It’s impossible to believe that in either Brennan or Narcisse LSU won’t find a quarterback capable of leading a championship-quality offense.
Miles gets credit for initially landing the quarterbacks, and he also should get credit for the haul of offensive linemen LSU claimed this year. Austin Deculus in particular could be an impact player – the massive 6-6, 330-pound Houstonian is already on campus and could end up being the starter at left tackle this fall. The tackle spots were particularly thin heading into this recruiting class, and Deculus’ bookend, 6-7, 320-pound Seth Stewart out of West Virginia, is also a good-looking prospect. Stewart was only rated as a three-star recruit, though; if he turns out to be a quality player it will be a testament to offensive line coach Jeff Grimes’ talent evaluations. LSU has for some time done a nice job in finding interior offensive linemen, and guards Edward Ingram and Saadiq Charles are both massive road graders who should be key cogs in keeping the running game productive in the future.
The haul on defense, though, is more due to Orgeron’s efforts than Miles’.
Most impressive about this signing class is what LSU accomplished at linebacker after the coaching change. On the day Orgeron got the LSU job permanently, only Patrick Queen was on board as a linebacker – in a recruiting class where it was absolutely crucial to the future of the program that a full complement of linebackers be signed. With the coaching change a pair of local stars in Chris Allen and Dylan Moses (the latter having left town to play his senior year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida) opted to commit to Alabama, making LSU’s prospects somewhat dire. But Orgeron and his staff rolled up their sleeves and solved the problem; arguably, the commitment of K’Lavon Chaisson out of Houston and Jacob Phillips out of Nashville more than offsets the losses of Allen and Moses, and then LSU also added Georgia star Tyler Taylor to the mix for one of the best recruiting classes at the linebacker position the school has ever taken. To make that much progress in the space of about a month with a new coaching staff is nearly miraculous, and the coach deserves much credit for it.
In addition, Orgeron is to be congratulated for uncovering someone who appears to be a real talent as a recruiter. Dennis Johnson, who is affectionately named “Meatball” by the coaching staff, played at LSU as a walkon defensive lineman before remaining in the program as a graduate assistant. When Miles was fired, Johnson was promoted to outside linebackers coach and sent on the road recruiting. It was a rather brutal baptism by fire for Johnson, but he nevertheless had LSU in contention for some of the top players in the country and stole Chaisson away from Texas at the end in the great victory of National Signing Day for the Tigers.
LSU also reeled in a great class of defensive backs, and Orgeron gets credit for it. Of the five players LSU recruited for the secondary this year, four were already committed when Orgeron was hired permanently – but the star of the bunch, Jacoby Stevens, was in Nick Saban’s crosshairs as his top target at a position of need. The work done by the head coach and general manager Austin Thomas, who also did a great job in reeling in Phillips, to slam the door on Saban for Stevens was nothing short of excellent. And then Orgeron pulled in Plaquemine safety Todd Harris, who also was in Saban’s crosshairs, on Signing Day; Harris’ commitment was a crucial pickup for LSU in preventing an Alabama rout in Louisiana. Holding Stevens and adding Harris meant that a recruiting class which already contained superstar cornerback Kary Vincent of Beaumont and stud safety Grant Delpit of Houston by way of IMG Academy, along with underrated cornerback Jontre Kirklin of Lutcher, who was an outstanding high school quarterback.
That’s the good. But as strong as the recruiting class is, it had holes – and those holes indicate weaknesses Orgeron needs to fix quickly if he’s going to be successful.
The most obvious of those holes was uncovered in the 24 hours before Signing Day and continued to the disappointing finish in which Houston Episcopal superstar defensive tackle Marvin Wilson chose Florida State over LSU. Wilson’s choice came on the heels of a decision by Monroe Neville’s Phidarian Mathis, who went with Saban over the Tigers. Those two reversals robbed Orgeron of a signing class on the defensive line that would have insured a dominant defense for years to come; instead, what he signed was pretty good but not all that great.
Tyler Shelvin is, of course, a potential game-changing nose guard. The problem with Shelvin is he’s got work to do in the classroom before we’ll know he’s eligible in the fall, and an even bigger problem is his weight – LSU listed him at 380 pounds on its release today, and that is far too heavy. LSU needs to keep Shelvin under 350 pounds and get him qualified; if they can do that he’s likely to be one of the best interior run-stoppers to come through the program. Behind Shelvin, though, there are a trio of three-star recruits – Justin Thomas and Neil Farrell from Mobile and Aaron Moffitt from Catholic High in Baton Rouge. Any of the three could emerge as better-than-expected future stars, but they’re just not the heralded additions Wilson and Mathis would have been.
Mathis, after committing to Alabama, identified something that might explain the fizzle for LSU’s defensive line recruiting. He said he didn’t have a relationship to speak of with LSU’s defensive line coach Pete Jenkins, which an unidentified LSU assistant hotly disputed in another media report a short time later by saying Mathis had met Jenkins multiple times on LSU’s campus and had his phone number. It’s certainly worthwhile to question whether Mathis was just feeding the locals a nice line of BS to deflect the anger lots of people in Monroe would have over his choosing Alabama; the problem is it’s the same line JC transfer Isaiah Buggs, who hails from Ruston but also choose Bama over LSU, peddled. And then Wilson chose Florida State a day later.
Jenkins is unquestionably a great defensive line coach; he’s a legend in the business. He’s also 75 years old and didn’t recruit off campus for LSU, and it’s apparent that even though Johnson and Thomas did everything they could to cover for him that was a problem. It’s not that LSU can’t get defensive linemen with Jenkins as the coach, it’s that LSU is going to have a really hard time beating Odell Haggins at Florida State and Karl Dunbar at Alabama, who are elite recruiters and pretty damn good position coaches as well, when the defensive line coach isn’t directly recruiting against them. You’re going to come in second a lot when you’re after the top players in the country under those circumstances.
The way Saban handles such situations is the use of a “shadow staff,” where he has expert coaches who don’t want to work the road in recruiting operate as “analysts” who coach the coaches and insure the players are getting top-flight instruction and development. His assistants are all excellent recruiters and that’s why he took a recruiting class that looks more like an all-star team – including more of Louisiana’s top five players than LSU signed. Jenkins is a perfect candidate to sit on a shadow staff at LSU; they’re going to need a defensive line coach who can work the road, because with four seniors on the defensive line this year Orgeron has to sign a defensive line class containing some impact recruits.
And that won’t be easy. The top defensive line prospect in Louisiana next year is Ferriday’s Dare Ferguson (6-7, 290), who was at one time committed to Alabama and will be one of Saban’s top targets all the way to Signing Day. Beyond Ferguson are a pair of quality in-state players in Cameron Wire (6-6, 260) of East Ascension and Davin Cotton (6-1, 260) of Shreveport Evangel; it’s not established that either are going to be national blue chips at this early stage. Beyond that point, you’re recruiting outside the state of Louisiana and you’re going to be in a war with the elite programs around the country – and they’re all going to have defensive line coaches who are great recruiters and aren’t known to be short-timers in their jobs.
Wide receiver recruiting could be considered a hole in this class, mostly because Amite’s Devonta Smith picked Alabama over LSU and JC transfer Stephen Guidry, who had been an on, then off, then on again commitment, had to back out at the last minute because he doesn’t have the credits to graduate from Hinds Community College in time to play at LSU this fall. You could argue that with Travin Dural graduating and Malachi Dupre going pro LSU lost two receivers and therefore signing two to replace them they did what they had to do, and you might be right. Certainly Mannie Netherly and Racey McMath, the two receivers Orgeron and wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig signed, are great athletes who look like future stars on film. But there is no doubt Orgeron wanted at least one more and yet LSU struck out on Smith and Pinson, Alabama product Nico Collins, who signed with Michigan. That was a bit of a disappointment and something of a concern.
That said, with wide receivers there’s reason to be less concerned. Namely, Louisiana is absolutely loaded with blue-chip wide receivers next year and LSU already has a commitment from one of the best in Kenan Jones of Berwick. And if the Tigers didn’t make as big a splash at wide receiver as they might have hoped, one could argue this was something that had been coming for a while – Miles always managed to recruit big-time wide receivers despite running an offense that essentially made them lawn ornaments, and at some point that was going to manifest itself in difficulties on the recruiting trail. With Canada’s entry into the picture, the coaching staff has an opportunity to put a passing game on display that attracts receivers, and then that bumper crop of local players could refill the depth chart with impact recruits.
But at running back, Louisiana doesn’t appear to have a budding superstar in the mold of a Leonard Fournette or Derrius Guice, and that’s a serious problem. The inability to add a good running back to this class to go with Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who we really think will be a solid contributor, makes for a gaping hole that will show up after Guice goes to the NFL a year from now; for 2018 all LSU will have is Nick Brossette, who’ll be a senior, and Edwards-Helaire, plus what true freshmen they’ll recruit. That’s why LSU needed to land either Mississippi superstar Cam Akers, who they lost to Florida State, or at least Jennings’ Travis Etienne, who chose Clemson. The inability of running backs coach Jabbar Juluke to land either might well mean he’s not around next year, because LSU simply can’t afford to miss on their top targets at running back next February. There’s a national blue chip running back next door in Hattiesburg, Mississippi in Fabian Franklin, and Orgeron is going to need to lock him up early – Franklin has declared himself an LSU lean – on the way to finding two impact running backs to restock the position.
Which brings us to the ugly. We’ve already hinted as to the fact that LSU’s vaunted fence around Louisiana is without question down; of Louisiana’s top 25 players in this year’s class a pitiful seven signed with LSU. That’s not what built this program, and a reliance on out-of-state players to replace Louisiana kids LSU can’t get is a sign of trouble. Just ask Mike Archer, who shepherded the decline of the program in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when he couldn’t recruit his own state and had to recruit second-line players in Texas to replace those losses; it was a decade before that damage was repaired.
Now, in Orgeron’s defense this wasn’t the best year in Louisiana. Had he wanted, he could have signed more in-state players. LSU slow-played, in particular, a pair of recruits in Thibodaux cornerback Amik Robertson, who signed with Louisiana Tech, and East Ascension defensive end Justin Harris who would easily have signed with Orgeron if he’d rolled out the red carpet; and it was defensible that he didn’t. Robertson fell victim to the fact LSU’s recruiting board at his position next year is almost too stacked to be believed, while Harris, who inked with Baylor, may not qualify academically – and with the emphasis on Wilson and Mathis Orgeron was never in a position to give a full-fledged “we want you” to him until it was too late.
And as said above, the out of state players LSU signed to replace the in-state kids are as good or better. Nobody would trade Deculus for East Ascension’s Adrian Ealy, for example, who signed with Oklahoma. And while New Orleans McDonough 35’s Bruce Stewart, who signed with Florida, is a good player, you can’t blame Orgeron for passing on him to take Stevens and Delpit. New Orleans Landry-Walker quarterback Keytaeon Thompson is very good, but not the passer Brennan is. And so on.
But Alabama came in and took Mathis, Moses, Buggs, Smith, Allen and even Mandeville kicker Joseph Bulovas, who LSU didn’t offer. Saban offered nine Louisiana players and signed six, and that’s a disaster. Juluke was supposed to replace Frank Wilson, who was LSU’s star recruiter manning that fence at the state line, and it’s clear he’s not Wilson. Orgeron has to make changes to get more hands on the recruiting deck in Louisiana next year – the class coming up has too many crucial recruits for the future of the program to allow Saban and others to poach those players.
But unlike this year, he’ll at least be operating from a position of stability and have a full cycle to develop the relationships he needs. Typically the first “full” recruiting class for a new coach, the one which comes to fruition after his first full season on the job, is the one which represents his best work. So if Orgeron improves on this excellent class and fills the holes which opened up this year, he’s going to do just fine at the Ole War Skule.