When asked his personal goals for the upcoming season, LSU senior linebacker Jared Small didn’t rattle off a list of specific metrics such as tackles, sacks or fumble recoveries.
Instead, Small delved deeper, choosing to remain connected with the fabric of the team that he says has improved with the addition of six new assistant coaches, including three on the defensive side of the ball.
“Just to get the team better,” Small said during Monday’s Zoom call with Baton Rouge area media. “Football’s a team game. I can’t do anything by myself. For me to go anywhere, the team’s going to have to go. Making sure each and every one of these guys are ready come game 1 in L.A.”
When LSU opens the 2021 season on Sept. 4 at UCLA at 7:30 p.m. CT, expect to see the 6-foot, 209-pound Small playing a variety of roles either on special teams or defense.
The former walk-on from Catholic High has patiently waited his turn. Small learned from such standouts as Devin White, Jacob Phillips and Patrick Queen – all of which were NFL draft choices – to the point where LSU coach Ed Orgeron rewarded him with a scholarship and the opportunity to contribute in his final season.
“Learning from those guys and Coach O’s always drilling into us the LSU standard of performance,” said Small, who has one tackle in 16 career games. “This is my fifth year. Being around that, I know what it took. After all of those years gathering all of those abilities, I just took them and put them into play.”
Small arrived at LSU without any fanfare, encouraged by his coaches at Catholic High to join LSU’s program as a walk-on when he didn’t have much interest from college coaches.
After playing his entire junior season on the junior varsity team, Small’s reaped the benefits of additional weight gain and improved speed to become a starter at linebacker for Catholic in 2015.
“Jared was an extremely hard worker when he was at Catholic,” said former Catholic High coach Gabe Fertitta, now a first-year assistant at the University of Louisville. “He was extremely dedicated to the weight room and was a late developing kid. He’s an unbelievable kid and we are extremely proud of him.”
Catholic went undefeated with future LSU signees Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Aaron Moffitt, a team captured the Division I state championship with Small a fixture on the team’s defense at linebacker. He went earned first team All-District 5-5A honors and was also selected to the All-Metro team.
Small’s play, though, didn’t move the needle with college recruiters and began attending LSU where he redshirted as a freshman in 2016.
“He did not have much available in terms of scholarships after his senior year,” Fertitta said. “He played an excellent season but did not get many looks from colleges. To be honest, we all encouraged him to walk on at LSU, but in terms of sheer size and talent, I did not think he would be able to stack up with the physical specimen-type players that LSU recruits every year.”
Small worked himself into a limited role on special teams where he played in four games in 2018. During LSU’s magical run to a 15-0 record and national championship in ’19, he registered his lone statistic – an assisted tackle – in five games.
Small’s value to the program increased to the point Orgeron rewarded him with a scholarship after the competition of the 2020 fall camp.
“It was great,” he said. “I’m from Baton Rouge, growing up in Baton Rouge it’s every kid’s dream to run out and play in Tiger Stadium. With that being the end goal in mind, I just stayed with it.”
He got into a career-high seven games during last year’s COVID-shortened 10-game SEC season, playing in three of his team’s five wins over Vanderbilt, Florida and Ole Miss, but again didn’t record any statistics.
Small’s time to shine came during the team’s spring game in April.
With the Tigers thin at linebacker, having lost Jabril Cox to the NFL draft, and missing starter Micah Baskerville (academics) and junior college signee Navonteque “Bug” Strong (injury) and without Clemson transfer Mike Jones Jr. until the fall, there was the opportunity of a lifetime of which Small took full advantage.
He compiled a game-high 14 tackles, including nine unassisted stops, to with along with 1 ½ tackles and returned an interception 34 yards.
“That’s a guy that comes to the building every day, and he is just ready to work,” LSU senior Damone Clark said of Small. “You know, he always waited till his time, and I said this was his day to show everybody what he can do. I couldn’t be prouder of Jared, and how hard he’s been working. And just like, by being patient, that’s probably one of the hardest things. He just went out there and provided the energy, and we played off each other, and when I say it feels good.”
Orgeron was also quick to praise Small after his performance in the spring game and said he expected him to be in a playing role this fall.
Four months later, nothing’s changed that sunny forecast.
“This is my fifth year, being around that long you pick up on a bunch of different key aspects that what you need to do to thrive at LSU,” Small said.
Small credited his further development throughout the offseason, including a pivotal summer, to first-year coaches such as defensive coordinator Daronte Jones and linebackers coach Blake Baker. He said it was their ability to teach LSU’s new 4-3 defense that created a sense of belief and inspired Small to work harder, given what he felt was a legitimate chance to play this season.
“You’ve got to know there’s an end goal in mind,” Small said. “You’ve just got to keep working on it each and every day.”