Austin Deculus is the last man standing

There’s an easy-to-find April 2016 video interview of an offensive line prospect from a Houston suburb.

He’s not exactly the Billy Bob offensive line character playing for a fictional Texas high school team in the 1999 movie “Varsity Blues” but he has that air about him.

His hair is cropped short and he’s not necessarily comfortable being interviewed, but his answers are so straightforward it’s refreshing.

“I love aggression, that’s my thing,” he says. “Pass blocking is good and I feel like it’s necessary at times. But overall run blocking is my favorite.”

Fast forward six years and that same offensive lineman is standing in front of a ballroom full of reporters with a TV audience of hundreds of thousands watching.

His long hair falls just past his shoulders, he’s dressed in a blue suit offset by a gold-on-gold striped tie and he’s answering questions like he’s conducting a presidential press conference.

He’s asked about his new offensive coaches and how much resemblance their offense has to the one he was part of in 2019.

“The thing about both of those offenses that is similar is giving playmakers plays to make plays in space,” LSU graduate student Austin Deculus replied. “Say that about three times, and I can’t do it, I promise you.”

The evolution of Deculus, though mostly under the public radar because he’s an offensive lineman, has been fun to track since he enrolled early at LSU in January 2017. It happened immediately after the four-star recruit completed a star-studded prep career for Cypress (Texas) Cy-Fair High in which he was rated nation’s 5th best offensive tackle by ESPN.

Since then, Deculus has lost weight (“I was 355 pounds as a freshman,” he said), grown his hair to medieval warrior length (“I’m trying to be like Thor or Aquaman,” he said a couple of years ago), gained a girlfriend (“You have just one person you trust cutting your hair, she’s the only person I trust to cut mine,” he said), and played more than 2,400 snaps in 49 games (34 starts) through four LSU seasons (“I pride myself in being a tough guy, I owe it to my teammates,” he declared).

Choosing to take the extra year of eligibility the NCAA offered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he is about to play under his third different offensive coordinator, his second passing game coordinator and his third offensive line coach.

“Austin Deculus is going to break the (career) record for the most games played by any LSU football player.” LSU coach Ed Orgeron said. “He was instrumental in getting our whole offensive line to come back (for one more season).”

The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Deculus could become the first player in LSU history to appear in 60 games. He gave himself that chance when he decided to return, also possibly making him the first Tiger ever to play five straight seasons.

He could have entered the 2021 NFL draft where he was projected as a late-round pick or maybe a free agent.

But there was something gnawing at him – redemption of state and personal pride for LSU’s 5-5 dumpster fire 2020 nightmare that followed the sweet dreams of the Tigers’ magical 15-0 2019 national championship season.

“I wanted to come back, I couldn’t end going out 5-5,” Deculus said. “LSU has given me so many opportunities. The fans at LSU have given me so much love. They gave me another place to call home. I felt like I owed it to the state and this university because the state is deserving of what’s going to come this season, that’s all I’ve got to say.”

While the truth is Deculus was raised in the Houston area after being born in Mamou (about 80 miles east of Baton Rouge), he lists Mamou as his hometown as a tribute to his father Tony who was raised in Mamou.

Tony, who’s just 5-foot-6, played football for an organized team serving in the Marine Corps. Both Austin and his older brother Ryan, who played linebacker for Division III Howard Payne University, got their size from their mother Cheryl who’s 5-foot-11.

“I’ve always found myself being more of a Louisianan than a Texan,” Austin said. “There’s just something about Louisiana, the hospitality and the food. It wasn’t a tough choice (choosing a college).

“I had a list of top schools (Alabama, Oklahoma and Michigan), but choosing LSU was like coming home. I wanted to come back and wear the purple and gold.”

He could have said the same thing about returning for one more Tigers’ season this year because his first four are filled with memories.

Like realizing that 2019’s championship run wouldn’t have happened without LSU’s 10-3 2018 season where a few mistakes caused close losses at Florida and at Texas A&M in the seven-overtime battle royale in College Station.

“It (2018) helped us find our identity as a team,” Deculus said. “Coach O told us we probably could have made the playoffs, but in the games we lost there were just two or three plays that defined our season. He emphasized we weren’t going to leave anything to chance (in 2019), that we were not going to let a few bad plays come back and bite us.”

The approach led to 15 straight wins and memories for a lifetime.

Like landing at the Baton Rouge airport on the team charter just hours after beating Alabama 46-41 in Tuscaloosa.

“When we landed, you could see the flashes from the cameras of our fans waiting for us,” he said. “It was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Or the not-so-subtle motivation tactic by then-LSU offensive line coach James Cregg the week of the Florida game as the O-line prepared to play a defense that had five sacks on Tigers’ QB Joe Burrow fand hurried him eight times in the 2018 loss to the Gators.

“Coach Cregg had the stats of that game and taped a copy of it on each of our lockers the Monday at the start of Florida game week,” Deculus said. “Then on Saturday, we gave up no sacks and no hurries.”

Or the College Football Playoff semifinal in Atlanta when Burrow threw seven TD passes in a 49-point LSU first-half en route to a 63-28 blowout of Oklahoma.

“Most of the time, our O-line doesn’t look at the scoreboard until we walk off at halftime,” Deculus said. “We looked up and said `Damn!’”

Finally, there was a 42-25 national championship game win over defending national champ Clemson in New Orleans at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

“It seemed like one of those football movies where everything was falling into place,” Deculus said. “When we ran out on the field just before kickoff, the energy was crazy. They brought Tiger Stadium there. I felt like we had the power of the entire state behind us. I knew we weren’t going to be denied.”

Deculus played all 81 offensive snaps and then celebrated by flopping on the confetti-covered field and pretending he was a snow angel.

Last year, he played every snap in 7 of 10 games of a .500 season that seemed doomed before it even started with the preseason defections of the Tigers’ best playmaker (2019 Biletnikoff Award winning receiver Ja’Marr Chase) and best defensive lineman (Tyler Shelvin).

“Going 5-5, it’s no one’s fault,” Deculus said. “Us players, we play with our hearts. The coaches coach their hearts out. And at the end of the day, the chips didn’t fall in their hands.”

Also, finding the same chemistry and trust in LSU’s three new starting QBs during 2020 that the O-line previously had with two-year starter Burrow was tough to duplicate, especially since COVID cancelled almost all of spring practice and a chunk of off-season work.

“There was such a relationship between Joe and the O-line that if we saw something during a game that he didn’t see, he would trust us to make the call,” Deculus said. “And if he saw something we didn’t see, we trusted him to make the call.”

This year, with a full spring and off-season and with six new assistant coaches, the camaraderie and energy is palpable.

“A complete spring and getting all these workouts has given us time to build relationships,” Deculus said. “Not just as a team, but within the positions being able to work together, from the wide receivers to the quarterbacks, to the O-line to the running backs, to the D-line to the linebackers.

“You’re really seeing that chemistry grow.”

Two relationships that Deculus will miss disappeared in July without warning.

LSU starting left offensive tackle Dare Rosenthal transferred to Kentucky after supposedly being scheduled to sit out a portion of the upcoming season as punishment for allegedly failing a series drug tests because of marijuana.

Also, O-line coach Cregg was fired by Orgeron (no public reason) and replaced by Baton Rouge native and Arkansas assistant Brad Davis.

“I had 3 ½ years of Coach Cregg and it’s always sad to see a guy like that go,” Deculus said. “He’ll always have a place in my heart and he’ll do great things wherever he goes.

“At the end of the day, one door closes and another door opens. Coach Davis is a very stern coach. He’s going to put that foot down.”

Win or lose, Deculus is determined to enjoy his “second” senior season, which unofficially started with the league’s Kickoff Media Days.

He discovered he’d been picked to attend along with cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. when Orgeron texted him, “Get ready for Media Day, get your hair cut.”

Deculus’ girlfriend trimmed about three inches of his flowing locks and likely helped him put together a sharp ensemble to wear.

“For the longest time, I liked to talk to the media but I was more afraid to talk to the media,” Deculus said. “My main thing is I don’t like listening to myself talk.”

But maybe some of LSU’s younger players should. If there is one thing Deculus has accumulated in his Tigers’ career, it’s perspective and the understanding what it takes to be successful on a college level.

“You need to be coachable,” he said. “The coaches are there to help you achieve your potential.

“And I learned when I used to work out with old bodybuilders and former NFL players in Houston that the worst words you can use are `comfortable, content, satisfied.’

“As an athlete, you always want to improve and critique yourself. The moment you’re satisfied, you’re going to lose your spot.

“Finally, you need to listen to the guys who have been there and know what it takes.”

Deculus has been there and back and is ready to go one more time.

“And the end of the day, I’ve just got to do my technique,” Deculus said. “Because if I don’t, they’re going to put my name all over social media saying I allowed a sack.”

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Ron Higgins

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