Change of direction: LSU’s Ali Gaye has been a constant in evolution of program to SEC West champions

Fifth-year senior Ali Gaye's one of 17 seniors No. 6 LSU will honor prior to Saturday's 8 p.m. home game with UAB. FILE PHOTO

Resilience began early in life for LSU’s hulking 6-foot-6 defensive end Ali Gaye.

It’s no surprise that after a tumultuous two years with the Tigers, Gaye returned for a fifth season and has reaped the benefits of a No. 6 national ranking, an 8-2 season and Southeastern Conference Western Division crown. They have already qualified for the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta on Dec. 3 against Georgia.

Gaye certainly doesn’t take those plaudits for granted. He’s regarded amongst the team’s leaders, serving as a guiding force of change this season, but still recalls the climb of two seasons of tumult, a combined record of 11-12 and a Texas Bowl fiasco that didn’t suggest the best was yet to come.

“It was a rough couple of years my first two years here,” said Gaye, one of 17 seniors that will be honored Saturday for Senior Night before the UAB game at 8 p.m. “Coming in, this is what I expected to be around. The kind of players and teammates and coaching staff and to be able to do what we’re doing this season.

“Coming in I’m thinking they just won the national championship in 2019, how are we going to do that next year,?” Gaye added. “It didn’t happen the next two years. My goal was to be a national champion and I’m hopeful we’re going to keep working and someday get there.”

When Gaye runs onto the field at Tiger Stadium for the final time, he’ll join his parents, who will witness their son playing at home for the first time. He’ll also welcome his sister, aunt and brother-in-law.

“I’m excited, it’s a special day,” Gaye said. “It’s coming down to my last few games as an LSU Tiger. It’s been special. I’ve been grateful to have been here and play alongside some great players, be around a lot of great coaches. This is a cherry on top. To have them there will be special.

“They’ll be able to understand what’s going on,” Gaye said of his parents. “As long as they see me out there, they’ll know he’s out there doing this thing. It’s special to have them down for that night.”

Gaye’s parents will be able to witness the composition of a young man hardened by his previous experiences to evolve into the person he’s become, complete with a degree from LSU.

Born in The Gambia, Gaye immigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of 12 and settled in Everett, Washington. He played organized football for the first time at 14, excelled to earn a scholarship and signed with the University of Washington.

Because he didn’t meet entrance requirements, Gaye then signed with Arizona Western College which disbanded its program after one year. He transferred to Garden City Community College in Kansas, earned All-Jayhawk League honors and signed with LSU after the Tigers had completed a magical 15-0 run to a national championship in 2019.

COVID-19 restrictions had been put in place for ’20 season, reducing LSU’s schedule to SEC games only and the capacity of game shrunk considerably because of social distancing measures.

Gaye earned a spot in LSU’s starting lineup immediately and produced a memorable outing in his game despite a rather forgettable contest. He registered three tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and broke up three passes, but the Tigers were scorched by Mississippi State’s KJ Costello’s SEC-record 623 yards and five touchdowns in a 44-33 setback.

He went onto to earn second-team All-SEC honors on a 5-5 team. His second season wasn’t much better, lasting only four games before season-ending shoulder surgery limited him to 19 tackles and 2 ½ sacks.

Instead of leaving for the NFL Draft, though, Gaye opted to return for a fifth season and play for first-year coach Brian Kelly.

The smile on his Gaye’s face is a testament to his perseverance during a trying two-year span of not only losing games, but the crumbling of what was once a winning culture.

“I didn’t put any wins or losses on this team,” Kelly said. “I put, ‘I want to play hard, I want to be better in November, I want to teach them how to win’. I think we’ve hit all of those markers, and that’s kind of where I wanted this program to be. I think we’re at where we should be at this time.”

Kelly’s restored LSU back to its previous stature among the SEC’s best programs, largely on the shoulders of players such as Gaye who helped reinforce the tenants of hard work and accountability. The Tigers (6-1 in SEC) wrapped up the SEC West title in last week’s 13-10 road win over Arkansas and finish out league play at Texas A&M on Nov. 26 at 6 p.m.

“It’s a major turnaround,” Gaye said. “You see what coach Kelly’s staff has done. It took all of us buying into his culture and everything he’s trying to instill in us. Everyone buying in was a key, and him having a culture that’s going to change this program into a winning culture, and that’s what he’s done so far. We’ve been pretty successful with it.”

Gaye’s not among the team’s top tacklers, ranking 11th overall with 25 total stops. He’s picked up four tackles for loss, 1 ½ sacks and forced two fumbles.

He’s been credited, though, along with the rest of LSU’s interior line, more for occupying blockers and paving the way for linebackers such as Micah Baskerville, Harold Perkins Jr. and Greg Penn III to rank 1-2-3 on the team in tackles.

It hasn’t diminished the importance of Gaye on the field, and especially off of it. He’s been a shining light for a team that’s experienced a resurgence under Kelly with no intention of looking past either UAB or Texas A&M.

“The job’s not finished,” Gaye said. “All the confetti is cool and all, but we set out a job to accomplish and our accomplishment is not just the division. We’re trying to go higher, and this is a step along the way.”

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