DEVILLE: The Effects of High-Profile Recruiting
When recruiting rears it’s ugly head; plenty of drama surrounding Bastrop High program with Randle, Downs and Benton
by Matt Deville
Tiger Rag Senior Editor
(At left) Rueben Randle and Josh Downs on the LSU campus on Nov. 8 for the LSU-Alabama game (Photo by Matt Deville)
I remember the first time I saw Rueben Randle play football.
It was in Shreveport on a frigid north Louisiana December evening as the Bastrop Rams defeated the Breaux Bridge Tigers 41-12 in the Class 4A state championship game.
It was the first of three straight state titles captured by the Rams. The game was played in Shreveport’s Independence Stadium due to the affects of Hurricane Katrina on the Louisiana Superdome three months earlier.
I recall a tall, skinny kid playing wide receiver as a freshman. I heard he was “going to be” pretty good. But at the time, wide receiver DeAngelo Benton was all the rage. Only a junior, Benton was projected to be one of the nation’s top wide receiver in his senior season of 2006.
And he was.
Benton was a five-star player when he committed to LSU. The only problem was, the 6-2 wideout didn’t have the grades to gain eligibility and wasn’t able to report to LSU. Benton went to Hargrave Military Academy in 2007 but still failed to gain eligibility for the 2008 season, in which he played nowhere.
Bastrop coach Brad Bradshaw says Benton is now eligible and should he decide to honor his 2007 commitment to LSU, will be available in August. And trust me on this, Benton is a player, every bit as good as he was billed as one of the nation’s best two seasons ago.
Randle made a name for himself as a sophomore when he played alongside Benton as the Rams won a second state title. Benton was phenomenal in the 28-14 beating of Archbishop Shaw and showed why he was one of the nation’s best pass catchers.
Randle was still young, but was on the move. His upside was obvious, but it was just going to take some time for his body to catch up to his potential. By the time Bastrop landed in their third straight state championship tilt, Randle was a household name.
Alongside flame-throwing quarterback Randall Mackey, Randle and the Rams torched Shaw once again 38-14. Not only did Randle display great hands, his speed was eye-popping and led to a No. 1 national ranking at his position heading into his senior season.
The only problem was, Mackey was off to college and the Rams had no quarterback. The team had plenty of talent to make it four state titles in a row. However, coach Brad Bradshaw had a dilemma at quarterback.
Randle accepted the challenge and slid into the starting quarterback role. He did his level best under center, but he was no doubt at a disadvantage and clearly out of position.
Bastop quarterback Randall Mackey (partially hidden by trophy) celebrates the Rams 2006 state title. Mackey enjoyed a brilliant season at East Miss. Junior College in 2008 and is on track to honor his commitment to Ole Miss. (Bastrop Daily Enterprise photo)
For the first time in his high school career, Randle experienced a loss, losing at home to Evangel, which snapped the school’s 49-game winning streak.
Still, Bastrop rattled off win after win following that loss and was a game away from reaching the state championship tilt again. However, the Rams finally ran of gas falling short to a buzzsaw in Belle Chasse at home.
Bastrop painfully lost by one point and watched as Belle Chasse went on to thrash Shaw for the state title.
While the Rams were a good team in 2008, there was clearly something missing, something just wasn’t right.
It was clear Randle wasn’t comfortable at quarterback and it ended up costing the Rams another state championship.
Something else wasn’t right either and it also had to do with Randle. The recruiting bonanza surrounding this 6-4, 200-pound was reaching almost ridiculous levels.
Unlike Benton before him, Randle has his affairs in order in the class room. An honor student carrying a 3.8 grade point average, Randle was the complete package and college recruiters recognized it.
Every school in the nation has taken some sort of interest in the Bastrop product. The number of offers is almost ridiculous and the revolving door on the Bastrop Fieldhouse has been spinning constantly with visits by almost every major college football coach.
Les Miles, Nick Saban, Charlie Weis, Lane Kiffin, Houston Nutt, Randy Shannon, Bob Stoops; you name it and they’ve been there.
The Bastrop trio of Kentravis Auburey (left) DeAngelo Benton and LaMarcus Williams (right) headlined the 2007 Tiger Rag Dirty Dozen. Aubrey is currently on the LSU roster, Williams plays for Miss. State and Benton could be headed to Baton Rouge in August. (Photo by Marq Mitcham/Bastrop Daily Enterprise).
And all have come bearing scholarship offers, promises of early playing time and the best college experience an 18-year-old could possibly imagine.
Randle was widely regarded as the nation’s top wide receiver, but by late October 2008 Rivals.com had elevated him to the nation’s top overall prospect.
The hype intensified.
Media attention was unparalleled. Newspapers, televisions stations and the recruiting services were burning up the phones and the roads in and out of Bastrop trying to find out which school Randle would choose.
One Monroe area television station even carries a weekly segment entitled “Recruiting Rueben,” in which they interview him each week with updates and progress on his recruitment.
He has been featured in almost every major newspaper, on ESPN and - of course - all across the Internet. For those who have trekked to the small northeast Louisiana town for an interview, the introspective high school senior is willing to chat.
But he doesn’t do phone interviews and he is extremely hard to contact, which has added to mystery of his intentions an intensified the buzz.
One can’t imagine what everyday life must be for Randle, who cannot escape from the daily inquiries from coaches, family members, friends, classmates and fans.
He has said numerous times that he still is unsure of which school he will choose, but it is pretty clear Randle has narrowed the list to LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma and Miami.
He visited LSU over the weekend. And when Randle entered the Maravich Center for Saturday night’s LSU-Xavier basketball game, the crowd was aware of his presence. The student section chanted his name.
Local sportscaster Jacques Doucet commented on the student’s shouts during a 10 p.m. newscast saying, “Why not back away from the computer and stop trying to figure out what Reuben Randle had for lunch, and cheer on the basketball team?”
It is almost ridiculous.
I have been familiar with the situation for quite some time considering Randle and I call the same small town home.
I once played for the Bastrop Rams, however, it was before the arrival of Bradshaw and eons before state championships became synonymous with the Bastrop program.
On the day of the Alabama game on Nov. 8, Randle visited the LSU campus along with Bradshaw and teammate Josh Downs, who is a defensive tackle and an LSU commitment.
I told Randle I once played for the Rams just like him. He slyly smiled and asked “when?” I told him I was a senior in 1994; he in turn informed me he was born in 1991.
Wow, talk about perspective.
While visiting with my wife and me at our tailgate party, Randle and Downs were dressed plainly in warm up suits and looked the part of any ordinary 18 year old.
It didn’t deter fans, who would walk up 10 or so feet away and stand gawking at Randle. It was pretty disconcerting for me - I can’t imagine what it was like for him.
And what must that be like for Downs?
One guy walked over, probably 20 or so, and asked could he have his picture taken with Randle. Randle, clearly annoyed, half-heartedly obliged and the young man’s mother snapped a quick pic.
As he began to bolt away to brag to his friends at a nearby tailgate party, I barked out, “Hey! Don’t you want a picture with this guy too?”
The starstruck Tiger fan stared at me (and Downs) blankly having no clue whatsoever who Downs was.
I sarcastically added, “I mean since Josh has already committed to LSU and all, I’d have thought you’d want a picture with him.”
You have to think Downs is used to it by now. I feel sympathetic to both young men considering situations like that, Downs for being overlooked and Rueben for realizing that it is happening and at the same time, him being the reason why.
A three-time all-state defensive lineman that committed to LSU almost a year ago, Downs has been overshadowed by his high-profile teammate the entire time. Also the pensive type, much like Randle, Downs doesn’t say much. He lets his actions on the field do the talking. The wrinkle constantly affixed between his eyes shows he is a no-nonsense type player, a trait he shares with his coach.
On Sunday, New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Jim Varney, a close friend of mine, wrote a detailed feature on Randle. He traveled to Bastrop two weeks ago, sat down with Bradshaw, Randle and a host of others in the Morehouse Parish town to get the whole story on the whirlwind that has surrounded the Bastrop wideout.
In the story, Bradshaw talks about Downs, how he is grossly underrated and how he thinks his prized defensive tackle will excel at the collegiate level.
“He’s an old school football player; he’s just meaner than a lot of guys on the field,” Bradshaw told Varney. “I always knew he was tough enough to play at the next level.”
Varney detailed how Downs has balanced his time between football, academics and caring for his handicapped mother. He also incorporated the story in which the 6-2, 290-pound tough guy cried when Bradshaw informed him LSU had offered a scholarship.
The only problem with the story was, Varney referred to Downs as “Chris Downs,” not Josh.
That’s a classic example of how the Randle phenomenon, through no fault of his own, can be such a distraction. Randle admitted in the story he and Downs are close and refuse to talk about football or their individual recruitment; they in turn talk about life.
One of my main concerns with this intense situation is the level of expectations.
Randle is an 18-year-old kid. I know where I was and what I was doing at 18. I am sure there are plenty of you reading this that weren’t having to make life-altering decisions at that age as well. But Randle is faced with the biggest decision in his young life. And to top it off, whatever decision he makes, there are going to be a lot of people who condemn him for it, chastise him and curse and spit over the mere mention of his name.
And remember, we aren’t talking about the expectations fans will have concerning how many catches or total yards or yards after the catch or even touchdowns. Right now, it’s all about just choosing at what school he is going to catch the ball.
Being from Louisiana, everyone expects him to choose LSU. Varney pointed out the mood in Bastrop is one that he will be heading to Baton Rouge. However, the folks in Tiger Town are in a frenzy over the fact he might go elsewhere. Grown men sit for hours in a cold sweat brooding on Internet message boards about Randle and his impending decision.
It’s widely regarded a tragedy if the nation’s top player and best wide receiver left the state to play for another program – especially the evil Nick Saban at Alabama.
I can recall a few years back when Joe McKnight chose USC over the Tigers. Stationed in my booth at the Gridiron Club’s Bayou Recruiting Bash at the Baton Rouge River Center, I had streaming video playing on my laptop from McKnight’s press conference in New Orleans.
Hundreds of grown men crowded around the booth looking on. They were chanting and cheering and already sizing up McKnight for an LSU jersey.
But as soon as McKnight voiced his decision to play for the Trojans, the mood changed instantly. Groans, boos, hisses, profanity. One man pounded his fist on the table and barked out, “What a Punk!” just minutes after cheering the notion of this 18-year-old coming to LSU.
I was shocked. Appalled.
Being from Bastrop, it makes me proud that my high school has produced so many great football players in recent years, several of whom have attended LSU. I tell people all the time that as a journalist, I try to be as objective as possible. But when it comes to Bastrop and the players that wear the blue and white, I am as biased as it comes. Much the way the late Tim Russert used to sign off at the end of “Meet the Press” by saying “Go Bills,” I am “Go Rams” all the way.
I have spent a good amount of time with Randle, Downs, Bradshaw and many of the great players that have come through the Bastrop football program. Solomon Lee, Claude Wroten, Kentravis Aubrey, Mackey, Benton; I have followed and enjoyed the careers of all of these young men, the first three named here actually played for LSU.
I wish Rueben and Josh the best in their future careers; Josh at LSU, Rueben at whichever school he decides to attend.
But I for one can tell you I’ve never been so happy to see National Signing Day get here. And it’s not for the reasons some of you would think.
Everywhere I have gone for the past six months I am constantly met with the same questions, “What about Rueben? Are we going to get him?”
In my opinion, I hope Rueben does choose LSU for the simple fact that I always want as many Bastrop players on the LSU football team as possible. And for that matter, I do think Rueben will end up choosing the Tigers.
But who knows for sure. That’s Rueben’s decision and hopefully whatever decision is made, it is the best for him and his future endeavors, whether that is on the football field or in the board room.
I will admit I have no clue whatsoever where he is planning to go. But there is one thing I know for sure: LSU is getting a quality man in Josh Downs, a player that is going to give everything he has on the football field.
Downs plays with a toughness and a motor comparable to Booger McFarland, Chad Lavalais and Glenn Dorsey. There is some work to be done on adding some girth to his frame, but there is not a doubt in my mind he will contribute to great success in Tiger Stadium.
And while Downs displays a chilly demeanor coupled with an almost trademarked scowl, it definitely doesn’t translate to his character off the field. LSU is getting a good one here and I strongly urge you not to read into what the “recruiting experts” say with their star rankings. Remember, Jacob Hester was a two-star prospect, whatever that means, right?
Downs took part in the Under Armour All-Star game a few weeks back. I had the chance to visit with him last week when he and Bradshaw were in Baton Rouge. When I asked him about the trip to Orlando, Downs said when he got there, the coaches had him listed a “sub.” Matter of fact, Downs told me he was fourth team. By the second day of practice, he had been bumped up to first team defensive end.
I looked at Bradshaw, who just closed his eyes and shook his head.
It seems almost laughable to try and tag a ranking on a player or a recruiting class for that matter before the true potential is shown on the field. A class cannot truly be ranked until its eligibility is complete and the fruits of that recruiting labor have been translated into victories on the field.
And should Rueben doff the wrong cap on Feb. 4, please try and refrain from repugnant remarks about the young man. Try and realize you’re a grown up, he’s just a kid and football is only a game.
Matt Deville is the senior editor of Tiger Rag. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.