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Early playing time and early exits: The dilemma of LSU's recruiting strategy

HOOVER, Ala. – Les Miles made the proclamation on Wednesday with a mix of pride and resignation. “We do lead college football,” the LSU coach said, “in three‑and‑outs.”

Had Miles been talking about his defense, he would have described dominance. Had he been talking about his offense, he’d have described futility. Instead, he was talking about his roster. And that’s what makes it complicated.

Since winning the SEC title and playing for the national title in the 2011 season, 21 Tigers have forfeited their remaining college football eligibility to enter the NFL draft. Those aren’t all juniors who played as true freshman and left after three seasons on campus. A few of those players redshirted and left after their fourth season. But all left LSU eligibility on the table. The Tigers do lead the nation in that category since the 2012 NFL draft. And it isn’t even close. SEC West rival Alabama is second with 10. Florida State, Stanford and USC are tied with nine. On one hand, the number indicates that LSU has had a lot of talented players. On the other, it means LSU has remained perpetually young while most of its peer programs have occasionally enjoyed the benefits of solid veteran leadership.







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The Tigers must deal with youth again this year. They’ll probably start true freshmen at receiver and in the secondary. Given the lofty comparisons offered on Wednesday, they’ll almost certainly start one at tailback. “Michael Jordan wasn’t coached into being Michael Jordan,” Miles said, answering a question about newcomer Leonard Fournette. “Michael Jordan expected himself to do something special. That’s the kind of player Leonard Fournette is.” The Tigers might even start a true freshman at quarterback. If they don’t, their only other scholarship option is a sophomore.

So how did LSU wind up losing more than twice as many early departures as anyone else? The obvious reason is that Miles and his staff have recruited good players. Most of the decisions to leave Baton Rouge weren’t ill-advised. Of the 21, 17 players were drafted. Fourteen of them were drafted in the first three rounds. But Miles believes there is an attitude within the program that causes some players to jump earlier than they should. He thinks it began with Stevan Ridley, who was selected in the third round (No. 73 overall) by the Patriots in 2011 and played his way into a starting job by the 2012 season. “Suddenly,” Miles said, “everyone at LSU knew they could start and play for years and make all the money.”

But was it that sudden? Under Miles, LSU has actively recruited the kind of players who can make an immediate impact. No position is sacred, and true freshmen arrive on campus knowing they can win a starting job. Many have. As true freshmen last year, Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson emerged as future stars in the secondary. Jennings, meanwhile, filled in for injured starter Zach Mettenberger in last season’s Outback Bowl.

In 2011, when LSU went 13-0 before falling to Alabama in the BCS title game, the defense lacked true freshman starters. But receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was the No. 2 receiver as a true freshman. Meanwhile, Miles loads the special teams with the best freshmen, and he has no qualms about inserting them immediately on the two-deep depth chart. “It has helped us in recruiting,” Miles said. “Everybody recognizes that we will play freshmen. We’ll train them. We’ll prepare them. And those guys that are talented, we’ll put them in position to go on the field as a true freshman. Everybody says, ‘You’re going to play as a freshman.’ Wrong. But guess what? At LSU, we really know what we’re saying.”

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The LSU staff wants players who come in with enough swagger to unseat a veteran. After the Tigers whipped Washington early in the 2012 season, defensive coordinator John Chavis summed up the attitude quite effectively. “We play a lot of people,” Chavis said. “We don’t recruit guys to redshirt. If you’ve recruited the right kind of people, they’re not going to be here for four years anyway.”

And they aren’t, which is a double-edged sword. LSU’s reputation for cranking out NFL draftees draws in the top recruits, but it also keeps them from staying when they prove to be as good as advertised. A guy who can snatch a job from a junior as an 18-year-old will be confident he can outshine a mediocre draft grade at the NFL Combine.

Miles has no issues with a player who stays three years and leaves to become a first- or second-rounder. “That is the dream,” he said. “Isn’t it?” Miles begins to question decisions when players leave based on grades in the third-round or lower. Wednesday, Miles listed the questions he wants players asking as they make their decisions.

  • Do I sell myself for this much less by leaving and getting drafted lower?
  • Do I sell myself for this much more by staying and potentially playing into a higher draft spot?
  • What is the utility of a college degree?
  • What is the utility of an insurance policy that pays out for a career-ending injury?

Miles cited the example of former LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson, who returned to school after receiving a third-round grade and played his way to the top of the first round. Miles did not mention former USC quarterbacks Matt Leinart or Matt Barkley, both of whom plummeted down draft boards after returning for their senior seasons. Miles admits players also must consider their families’ financial situations, but he warned against the blind belief that leaving earlier to get to a potential second NFL contract is the right move. “Those guys that leave in the third round, the fourth round or the fifth round so they can get to the second contract, I think they’re underplaying their value,” Miles said.

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When discussing these decisions, Miles stops sounding like a football coach and starts sounding like an economics professor lecturing on opportunity cost. “I’ve done a bad job,” he said, citing the paucity of players he’s convinced to stay. “I need another economics professor to stand in for me.”

Miles also knows he has to be careful saying any of this. LSU’s reputation as an NFL-prep factory that puts true freshmen on the field entices top recruits. If he were to develop a reputation for being unfriendly to players who wish to enter the league, it would hurt the Tigers on the recruiting trail. So Miles tries to marry his enthusiasm for the likely first-rounders with his skepticism for the likely third-rounders.

Whether the trend was inspired by Ridley or the LSU staff’s emphasis on getting the best freshmen on the field as soon as possible, it’s a nearly impossible one to buck. LSU is the place to get on the field early. It’s also the place to leave early. That’s why the Tigers will rely upon another group of true freshmen this season. And it’s why, if those freshmen live up to their recruiting hype, they’ll probably be gone in three years – whether or not LSU has built enough of a veteran core to win a championship. Such is life for the nation’s leader in three-and-outs.