LSU football team adapts to three-year cycle

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Ole Miss defensive back Quintavius Burdette fumbles a punt as LSU safety Corey Thompson (12), LSU safety Ronald Martin (26) and LSU linebacker Deion Jones (45) go after the ball, with Jones coming up with ball Saturday Nov. 17, 2012, in Baton Rouge.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- Ole Miss defensive back Quintavius Burdette fumbles a punt as LSU safety Corey Thompson (12), LSU safety Ronald Martin (26) and LSU linebacker Deion Jones (45) go after the ball, with Jones coming up with ball Saturday Nov. 17, 2012, in Baton Rouge.

A significant number of familiar faces will be missing when the LSU football team reports to campus Sunday for Monday’s start of preseason camp.

In addition to the nine significant contributors who are gone simply because they ran out of eligibility, an unprecedented 11 players who reported at this time last year won’t be on hand even though they didn’t exhaust their eligibility. They all chose to bypass their final season — in the case of punter Brad Wing, his final two years — to make an early entrance to the NFL.

But there’s no visible concern among the coaches and players who will comprise the 2013 Tigers. The departure of more non-seniors than seniors from last year’s team isn’t common, but neither was it totally unexpected.

More and more, the traditional four- or five-year stay for top recruits is becoming less common at top-flight programs such as LSU’s and others in the Southeastern Conference.

The Tigers’ annual addition of recruiting classes littered with college-ready prospects, and their ability to develop those prospects, mitigates those early losses. It doesn’t hurt either when incoming players — such as eight in this year’s class — can enroll in January and get a head start.

Redshirts are becoming less common because coach Les Miles prefers to play recruits right away, as long as they prove they’re ready. And if playing early leads to stars leaving early, so be it.

Frank Wilson, LSU’s recruiting coordinator and running backs coach, said Tigers coaches are finding more high school players prepared academically and athletically to succeed right away.

“You used to have more players redshirted as true freshmen so they could get acclimated to college,” Wilson said. “It might be their third year before they would get the chance to play. But that’s changed with the success of some of the SEC schools and some of the noteworthy schools in other parts of the country.

“We would love for everyone to play four years, but if they have maxed out their NFL draft potential before that, then it’s up to them and their family to decide if it’s time to move on.”

Wilson said Miles stresses to players that they will have the opportunity to graduate and win championships and that “one without the other is incomplete.”

Though Wilson said “probably the majority” of incoming players still need a transition period, the Tigers recruit with the expectation that top players will contribute right away, be prepared to step into more prominent roles if those ahead of them leave early, then perhaps exit early themselves as a three-year cycle becomes more common.

Wilson has said LSU “won’t miss a beat” because the past few recruiting classes have provided the talent to keep the program among the nation’s elite. But there is skepticism outside the program as to how well the Tigers can withstand the losses.

LSU, which played for the BCS championship after a school-record 13-0 regular season two years ago and was the preseason No. 1 team in the USA Today coaches poll last year, was picked 13th in the same poll this season. The Tigers, who were picked third in the SEC West, were the lowest of the six conference schools in the poll.

Doubts about the Tigers’ chances of contending nationally are understandable, but they’re based on lack of experience — not lack of talent.

While the near daily departures of key players to the NFL in January concerned many LSU fans, Miles took comfort in the fact that the cupboard was far from bare and a major restocking was about to take place.

It wouldn’t be surprising if a few players who sit atop the depth chart for the first time this fall wind up leaving early for the NFL after the season.

“The standard has been set,” Wilson said.

The Tigers prepare for expected early departures — and the occasional unforeseen one.

“We’re never surprised,” Wilson said.

When three key players from the team that lost to Alabama in the 2011 BCS title game left early, replacements were ready. Cornerback Morris Claiborne left, and junior-to-be Tyrann Mathieu already had established himself as an All-American. Then, when Mathieu was dismissed from the team last August, Jalen Mills stepped in and was named a freshman All-American after starting all 13 games.

When defensive tackle Michael Brockers left, Bennie Logan stepped in and not only filled Brockers’ shoes on the line but followed in his footsteps as an early NFL entrant.

When Rueben Randle left, Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. were poised to become the top receiving threats — which they were last season — after contributing as freshmen.

After last season, when junior ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery departed along with senior tackles Logan and Josh Downs, the Tigers were left with no returning starters on the defensive line. But tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson already have made an impact, ends Jermaurio Rasco and Danielle Hunter are being groomed and freshman Christian LaCouture had already enrolled.

Linebacker Kevin Minter left early after being the team’s MVP last season, but four freshmen — Deion Jones, Lamar Louis, Kwon Alexander and Ronnie Feist — already had played in a combined 36 games, including seven starts. And Kendell Beckwith has the look of another SEC-ready freshman.

When left tackle Chris Faulk left early despite missing nearly all of last season with a knee injury, La’el Collins was ready to move back to tackle from guard. Other unexpected losses led to redshirt freshman guard Trai Turner and freshman tackle Vadal Alexander quickly becoming fixtures on the right side.

Two halfbacks — Spencer Ware and Michael Ford — left early, but freshman receivers John Diarse and Avery Peterson could move into the backfield for depth if needed.

Cornerback Tharold Simon’s early departure opened the door for Jalen Collins, who got his feet wet in 13 games as a freshman last season. Jeryl Brazil and Tre’Davious White figure to do the same this year.

Junior Ronald Martin was groomed with the expectation that strong safety Eric Reid would leave early — which he did — and Corey Thompson’s special teams experience as a freshman last season has him primed for 2013.

The Tigers are so precise in their recruiting that when Wing, a strong-legged Australian, opted for the draft after being suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl, they merely turned to another strong-legged punter — and another Aussie to boot — in Jamie Keehn.

The lines between class designations have been blurred: Freshmen and sophomores become starters and leaders as juniors and seniors become pros.

In past media guides, LSU has listed its newcomers as a separate group after the returning players, a traditional deference to seniority. But in this year’s guide, the newcomers have been integrated with the veterans — symbolic of how the program operates on the field.