By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Ed Orgeron knew full well upon accepting the job as LSU’s head coach that the gig came with a mandate to beat Alabama. For better or worse, his tenure will partially be defined by what happens every first Saturday in November, both this season and in the years to come.
It’s a daunting challenge, but one he’s embraced since Joe Alleva removed the interim tag from his dream job.
“You are judged by that game. That’s the nature of the beast. I welcome it. I bring it on. I can’t wait till the day we beat those guys. That’s the benchmark,” Orgeron said at his introductory press conference last November.
“Now, we have to recruit better. We have to get players that are very similar to the benchmark of this conference. We have to get coaches that can coach at that level. We have some coaches on the staff that can. We have to have the mindset that we can go out and beat those guys.”
Within that answer Orgeron outlined his plan to elevate LSU to the elite status enjoyed by Nick Saban and his machine-like program. It started with hiring an elite staff, which Orgeron says he’s done, but everything depends on recruiting at Alabama’s level, especially along the offensive and defensive lines.
For Orgeron, everything is seen through the lens of recruiting. When asked about players on opposing teams, he’ll often recall the ones he himself recruited and how badly he wanted them to sign. When asked about other coaches, he’ll recall times they crossed paths on the trail.
So when Orgeron looks at the root cause of LSU’s six-game losing streak to Alabama, the rivalry he’ll enter for the first time as LSU’s full-fledged coach on Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, he sees a failure to keep up in 365-day-a-year war that is recruiting.
The inequality along the offensive and defensive lines for the once-evenly-matched foes has never been more apparent as LSU finds itself a three-touchdown underdog, according to Las Vegas.
Alabama is its usual dominant self, averaging nearly 300 yards per game on the ground while leading the nation in rushing, total and scoring defense. LSU, meanwhile, is poised to continue starting two true freshmen along the offensive line and has at times played with just four available defensive linemen.
“We’re a little ways away,” Orgeron said Monday, asked how far his roster is from where it needs to be at the line of scrimmage.
“Remember, this is his 11th year there,” Orgeron added. “This is my first, okay?”
But just how far are LSU’s talent levels behind the “benchmark” that Orgeron and Co. are striving to reach? And as Orgeron navigates his first full cycle as LSU head coach, does he have the Tigers on the right path toward narrowing the gap?
A deep dive into the respective linemen hauls signed by LSU and Alabama since Saban returned to college and a peak at future talent coming down the pipeline provides some insight.
Part 1: Assessing the Damages
Starting with Saban’s first recruiting class (2008), we charted how many 4- and 5- star offensive linemen (tackles, guards and centers) and defensive linemen (tackles, strong and weak side ends) signed with LSU and Alabama in each cycle, as well as where those players ranked in the 247Sports Composite Rankings.
Keep in mind that recruiting stars and composite rankings don’t tell the complete story. Plenty of lesser-recruited players have gone on to great careers and plenty of blue chip prep stars have turned out to be busts. But this can be useful for assessing how much talent the programs are accruing in the trenches.
The differences were stark — at least on one side of the ball.
Alabama has out-recruited LSU — and practically every other program, for that matter — on the offensive line.
The Tide have landed the No. 1, 2 or 3 overall offensive linemen in the 247Sports Composite Rankings six different times in 10 recruiting cycles under Saban. They’ve done their best work at tackle, where Alabama has singled 5-star players Alex Leatherwood (2017), Jonah Williams (2016), Cam Robinson (2014), A’Shawn Robinson (2013), Cyrus Kouandjio (2011) and D.J. Fluker (2009). A’Shawn Robinson later switched to defensive end.
Overall Alabama has signed 26 4- and 5-star offensive linemen during the Saban Era. 12 of those ranked among the top-10 offensive linemen in their respective classes, according to the 247Sports Composite.
Blue chip offensive linemen — tackles, in particular — have been more of a rarity for LSU since landing La’el Collins in 2011 and Ethan Pocic in 2013. They’ve signed 21 4- and 5- star offensive linemen since 2008, three of which graded in the top 10 of their class.
Roster attrition has played a central role in the talent gap along the offensive line. Of the seven 4- and 5-star linemen LSU signed between 2014 and 2016, only four remain in the program. Starting right guard Maea Teuhema transferred during training camp, the fifth scholarship lineman to leave the program since the start of last season.
“I think the coaches are bringing in quality guys every year, and we’ve just got to keep on building depth,” junior center Will Clapp said. “You can’t be thin along the lines in the SEC. You’ve just got to recruit the right guys and get guys to buy in and stay around. When you have a bunch of guys transfer, it’s difficult to be deep at a position. Keeping guys in and getting guys, that’s the biggest thing.”
However, there’s reason to believe LSU is already trending in the right direction.
True freshmen Saahdiq Charles and Ed Ingram, presently LSU’s starting left tackle and right guard, respectively, have held their own in Southeastern Conference play. They’ve made the kind of mental mistakes that’re expected from rookies, but they look like the building blocks for an imposing offensive line.
“Those guys coming in starting as freshmen can be the type of offensive linemen that we need,” Orgeron said. “I love all our guys, okay? But those are physical guys, have the physical stature that it takes to be able to block these guys. Are they ready to block these guys as freshmen? It’s pretty hard. We need to continue getting guys like that.”
Shifting sides of the line, the talent migration has been much more even. LSU, particularly since Orgeron joined the staff as defensive line coach in 2015, has recruited at an elite level when it comes to the defensive line.
Dating back to 2008, Alabama has singed 31 4- and 5-star defensive linemen, with four of them grading in the top 10 of their respective class. LSU has signed 29 such linemen with eight grading within the top 10.
Orgeron landed Arden Key just weeks after his hiring and signed Rashard Lawrence in 2016. Both are All-SEC caliber stalwarts on the current defense. Ed Alexander, signed in 2016, has made contributions and has a bright future. LSU added elite edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson on National Signing Day 2017.
Landing JUCO defensive linemen Isaiah Buggs, who signed with the Tide, would’ve helped further bolster the line, but LSU is well equipped to deploy a quality 3-4 front. The schematic shift in itself helps LSU’s recruiting efforts along the defensive line go further than it would have in years past.
Reinforcements are already on campus in the form of Texas Tech transfer Breiden Fehoko and freshman Tyler Shelvin, who’ll both be eligible to play next season. Fehoko in particular has received rave reviews for dominant showings in practice and scrimmages, including the Tiger Bowl during the bye week.
“Those are guys we brought in to play in the 3-4 defense to win in the SEC,” Orgeron said. “But we need to continue to recruit better, get bigger and faster on the line of scrimmage. This is a big man’s game. This is where the game is won.”
Part 2: Chicken or the (goose) egg?
It’s difficult to parse how much of Alabama’s recruiting dominance in the trenches is a byproduct of all the winning they’ve done as opposed to vice versa.
Winning is Alabama’s recruiting pitch of choice when it comes to attracting blue chip talent, and the Tide have practically cornered the market when it comes to the SEC with four conference crowns in five seasons.
Every prospect that visits Tuscaloosa enough will eventually get an up close and personal viewing of Saban’s expansive ring collection.
“The championship rings, that’s what they were emphasizing a lot,” said LSU cornerback Kevin Toliver, who was also recruited by Alabama. “They kept saying ‘We win championships here, and if you want to be a champion, you’ll come here.’ That was really it.”
“That’s a thing that a lot of coaches do, actually,” Clapp added. “Like when I first met Les Miles, he had all his rings laid out like ‘Let’s get you one of those.’ Stuff like that. Every coach does that. He had all his rings on display and bowl watches.”
Clapp, like so many players on either roster, was recruited by both LSU and Alabama in high school. He went to LSU and Alabama camps before his junior season at Brother Martin and received scholarship offers from the two SEC West powers in rapid succession.
The son of an LSU great, most expected Clapp to commit right off the bat. He didn’t, taking visits to Alabama and LSU — he remembers being on the sideline at Bryant-Denny Stadium when Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M upset the Tide in 2012 — and played his junior season uncommitted before eventually pledging to the purple and gold and shutting down his recruitment for good.
“I liked those guys (at Alabama), but my dad played at LSU and Frank Wilson is a hell of a recruiter. So it really wasn’t much of a battle,” Clapp recalled.
“I would say that recruits take note to winning programs. You want to be a part of winning programs. I came to LSU because I love it, but I also came to LSU because they’re a winning program. Recruits take notice of programs like LSU and Alabama. They want to be a part of that.”
Here’s an interesting question of what has to come first: does LSU need to recruit on Alabama’s level in order to beat the Tide or must LSU snap that pesky five-year drought if it wants to recruit on Alabama’s level?
According to one recruiting analyst, keeping things competitive in Tuscaloosa on Saturday as a 21-point underdog should be enough to keep recent momentum on the trail moving in the right direction.
“If LSU goes to Alabama and loses a respectable game this year, I don’t think it hurts them with these 2018 kids or the 2019 kids at all,” said Sonny Shipp, the publisher of Geaux247. “But they’ve got to make it a ball game. If it is, coaches can say ‘We’re only missing a few players, and you’re one of them.’
“So I don’t think they have to necessarily beat Alabama to win on the recruiting trail, but if they go to Tuscaloosa and lose 49-3, then that creates some potential problems. That shows there’s a much wider gap than what the LSU coaches are pitching to these kids.”
It’s much easier to sell being the final pieces of a championship puzzle than it is a brick in the foundation of something that has a long ways to go.
Part 3: Home is where the help is
While the 2017 haul of Charles, Ingram and Austin Deculus is certainly a step in the right direction, what LSU does on the offensive line for 2018 and 2019 will prove pivotal in closing the offensive line gap with Alabama.
Doing so will depend on a two-prong plan, according to Shipp, a resident LSU recruiting insider. The first step, as Orgeron has repeatedly said publicly this season, will be to find help at the junior college level that can pay immediate dividends in 2018.
Their top target is Badara Traore of ASA College in New York, who is considered the top JUCO tackle in this class. The 6-foot-8, 315-pounder originally hails from the Bahamas and has stated his desire to play in the SEC.
“They have him tabbed as a plug-and-play guy,” Shipp said. “He’ll be a January enrollee, so he could be there for the spring, and they feel like he’d have a good chance to step in and fill one of those tackle spots should Toby Weathersby decide to test the NFL waters.”
LSU has also offered 320-pound guard Damien Lewis of Northwest Mississippi Community College. According to Shipp, both will make official visits to LSU during the weekend of the regular-season finale against Texas A&M.
“That’ll let them see the atmosphere on campus right before the early signing period begins on Dec. 20,” Shipp said. “Those are guys that they have circled that could come right in and give them some of that immediate playing time.”
It’s the 2019 cycle that’ll be most telling as recruiting analysts are predicting the strongest crop of in-state Louisiana talent since the 2014 one headlined by Leonard Fournette, Cam Robinson, Speedy Noil and Gerald Willis.
Louisiana appears to be particularly loaded in the trenches for 2019.
Amite defensive tackle Ishmael Shopsher is the No. 2 overall player in the 247Sports Composite. 5-star offensive guard Kardell Thomas of Southern Lab is already an LSU commit. LSU also holds a commitment from Texas tackle Kenyon Green, the No. 2 offensive linemen in the class.
With so much in-state talent up for grabs, the 2019 cycle will be something of a referendum on whether Orgeron and his Louisiana-first approach to recruiting will prove a sufficient deterrent to other marquee programs looking to poach the state’s fertile grounds.
For better or worse, that’ll mean out-recruiting Alabama on the trail. The Tide have been the most prominent pluckers of in-state talent, whether it be the aforementioned Robinson, Landon Collins, Eddie Lacy or a host of others.
|The Ones Who Got Away
|Notable Louisiana natives who held LSU offers but signed elsewhere
|Rating (247 Composite)
LSU and Alabama are presently going head to head for two of Louisiana’s elite 2018 prospects, defensive back Kelvin Joseph and wide receiver Terrace Marshall. That’s not unique to this cycle by any stretch of the imagination.
“To me, the true barometer is going to be 2019. It’s going to be a very strong year in Louisiana,” Shipp said. “If LSU is able to keep all those guys at home, that means Ed Orgeron has put a dent into all those other schools that’ve been coming into Louisiana.”
He continued: “I don’t think it’s all going to get fixed in this 2018 class, but when you start looking at 2018, 2019 and that 2020 season, I think that’s when they’ll catch up with that depth on both sides of the ball.”