SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The jersey swap is one of the odder and longest-standing traditions of the bowl season.
Players routinely trade uniforms for the final practices of the season. Sometimes it’s good for a laugh, like the sight of seeing a quarterback like Joe Burrow throwing with an offensive lineman’s jersey hanging off of him. Other swaps seem meaningful for a different reason entirely.
Grant Delpit traded jerseys with fellow safety Todd Harris as LSU practiced at a local Scottsdale prep school on Saturday afternoon. It was the final practice of 2018 made open for media viewing as LSU prepares to face UCF in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day.
It may have been a simple coincidence, but the sight of Delpit running around in a No. 33 jersey evoked a connection to Jamal Adams, the All-American who played the position so brilliantly for LSU before him.
The parallels between the two are noteworthy. Both Adams and Delpit are Texas natives who signed with LSU as blue chip recruits. Both played a lot as true freshmen before evolving into full-fledged stars during their sophomore seasons.
Delpit this season became the ninth LSU player ever to be named a Unanimous All-American, meaning he earned first-team recognition from all five of the major organizations that publish such lists. The last Tiger to do so was Morris Claiborne in 2011.
And if you ask Dave Aranda, LSU’s resident defensive mastermind, Adams is the only other player he’s coached who could impact the game in the multitude of ways that Delpit has this season.
“We’re blessed to have him,” Aranda said. “To be honest, Jamal could have, but we were so early with installing the defense and stuff that we just weren’t ready to do some of the stuff we’ve been doing this year. But I would’ve loved to do some of that with Jamal, because I think Jamal could’ve done it.
“Last year I think we were doing some of the stuff. Two years ago we were doing a limited amount of it with Dwayne Thomas. Last year we did some of it with Donte (Jackson), but not to the extent we’re doing it with Grant.”
The statistics speak to how impact Delpit was for LSU this season. He finished third on the team in total tackles (73) and tackles for loss (9.5). He tied for the team lead with five sacks and led the Southeastern Conference with five interceptions.
No other Division I defender totaled both five interceptions and five sacks this season. Of the other players who intercepted five passes, none had more than one sack. Only two other defensive backs from Power-Five conferences recorded five sacks: Jacob Thieneman (Purdue) and Taylor Rapp (Washington).
Delpit has demonstrated a rare ability to affect the game at all three levels. He can pressure the quarterback as a rusher, can set the edge in the running game and is a ball hawk in the secondary who can cover man-to-man from the slot or play center field as the high safety.
“I think of it this way: we’re allowing Grant to be a kid and have fun when he’s playing low (in the box) because he’s pressuring and making plays,” Aranda said. “You’ve got to be an adult when he’s on the back end because you’ve got to cover, make calls and get guys lined up. He does all those things very effectively. Jamal I think had that. Donte had some of that, but not to the extent of what Grant does.”
Aranda says he approached Delpit over the summer about expanding his role this season. He played almost exclusively as a deep safety during his freshman year and high school career, but LSU needed him down around the line of scrimmage, especially once K’Lavon Chaisson went down with a knee injury.
That versatility is invaluable as the game of football becomes more spread out and the run-pass option continues to become a staple in every offense. It’ll likely make him a top-10 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft should he choose to declare early, as Adams did before him.
Delpit has taken everything Aranda and safeties coach Bill Busch have thrown at him this season and run with it. Now they’re asking him to expand his role a bit more against UCF in the Fiesta Bowl.
LSU is without three of its top four cornerbacks for various reasons, meaning there will be a lot of inexperienced players stepping into different roles. Aranda is counting on Delpit to be the quarterback of the defense, so to speak, and help keep that makeshift secondary on the same page.
“Grant did a great job of buying into it and really maximized that role,” Aranda said. “There’s so much that goes into it because you’re a linebacker, you’re a corner and you’re a safety. Now he’s in a whole new role.”
The expectation is that Delpit will be handling more deep safety duties while players like JaCoby Stevens and Eric Monroe see more time around the line of scrimmage.
Such a change is necessary with veteran cornerbacks Greedy Williams and Kristian Fulton unavailable, but Aranda doesn’t want to take away the playmaking ability that makes Delpit special, either.
Since returning from Christmas break, Aranda said he’s dedicated time to devising ways for Delpit to play down low without compromising the back end of his defense. Only time will tell what new wrinkles ‘The Professor’ schemed up in his lab.
“He’s basically the cop in the back making sure everybody is obeying the speed limit,” Aranda explained. “There’s a need for that, but we want to have a need for the other thing, too. You can find a balance with a guy that can do it all, and that’s Grant.”
Delpit is meeting the new challenge in stride, as he has with every previous wrinkle the staff has thrown at him. He knows it’ll require him to tap into a different set of skills as LSU tries to slow down a warp-speed UCF offense that thrives on creating confusion in space.
“It does change my role a little bit,” Delpit said. “It means I’ve got to be a little bit more of a vocal leader on and off the field. This game is going to be tough to be a vocal leader because of the amount of hurry-up they do, but I just need to know all my stuff and echo the calls to keep everybody on the same page.”
It’ll be a tall order for Delpit to keep everyone organized against the Golden Knights, but what’s one more duty for LSU’s resident Mr. Everything?