Jermauria Rasco lumbered toward the back of the line of hulking bodies, peeled off his helmet, lowered his 262-pound frame to a knee, raised a water bottle and took a swig.
Fifteen seconds earlier, the LSU defensive end slowly lifted himself off a blue exercise mat after splatting a blue tackling dummy meant as a stand-in for a poor running back who crosses the junior’s path.
With Rasco sporting a green jersey, Wednesday’s drill on the muggy practice field is as close as the Shreveport native will come right now to contact after shoulder surgery this spring cleared up an aggravated shoulder injury suffered back at Evangel Christian Academy.
It’s a fitting scene: a peek at potential greatness with evidence largely produced behind closed doors.
Rasco’s five-tackle, three-sack effort in the second spring scrimmage hinted that his promotion to the starting lineup was worthy, not solely a matter of circumstance. But going under the knife kept the would-be mauler and marauder of SEC backfields from showing his skills in the spring game.
So, the question persists: Is Rasco truly ready to replace one of the Tigers’ featured book ends: Sam Montgomery or Barkevious Mingo?
“It just happened that way, and we’re next up,” said Rasco, who had 10 tackles and a fumble recovery in spot duty after jumping senior Chancey Aghayere in the pecking order. “We’ve got to come in and compete every day, and we’ve got to be efficient. If anyone says the job just sort of fell in our lap, that’s not the case. We’ve got to work for it.”
If that proclamation isn’t bold enough for you, well, it’s appropriate for the men vying to top the Tigers’ depth chart.
Danielle Hunter, who is 6-foot-6 and 241 pounds, represents the speed element on the opposite end but is equally soft-spoken in tone and measured in his words. Along with Rasco, the duo’s statements don’t have the pizzazz as the combo known as Sonic Sam and KeKe.
Junior Jordan Allen, recovering from a torn ACL suffered against Washington last season, is a thoughtful native of West Monroe who in the spring said their absence had allowed him to focus on deepening his grasp of scheme and become technically sound.
Instead, the bulk of the personality — and snappy monikers — shifts inside to tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony “Freak” Johnson.
The men in the middle bristle at the notion that LSU, which hasn’t ranked worse than No. 26 in total defense nationally since 2008, is poised for a drop-off.
“Every day, we come to play with that little chip on our shoulder,” Ferguson said. “It’s like people don’t think we can do it this year. We want to prove everybody wrong.”
In contrast, Hunter, a four-star prospect out of Katy, Texas, succinctly summed up his feelings on his ascendency after being relegated to special teams as a freshman.
“After one year of waiting, it’s about time for me to show up,” he said. “We’re short at end, so I’ve got to play this season.”
The absence of bravado — and seeing Rasco and Hunter making good on lofty recruiting rankings — has created a vacuum in the discussion of whether LSU’s ability to yield an annual bumper crop of linemen can continue uninterrupted. Granted, Rasco already has kept Tigers fans and coaches on edge, waiting until signing day two years ago to mutter a few thank yous in Evangel’s gym before slipping off a suit jacket to reveal a LSU jersey.
But Rasco, rated the nation’s No. 8 end recruit, quickly fell into the assembly line along Skip Bertman Drive: Sit, bulk up, learn the system, then get select game reps as a sophomore before pushing for a starting spot in Year 3. That’s how Mingo, Montgomery, tackle Bennie Logan and end Lavar Edwards became stalwarts.
None of this was kept from Rasco, either.
“You just sat on the bench, and it’s the most humbling thing that happened to me,” he said. “Everybody says you have to wait your turn. Nobody wants to wait coming out of high school, but I’m glad that I had the chance to learn from those guys.”
But he also understands that doubts won’t lift until he shows he can produce on a level similar to his predecessors.
“Going into the spring, everybody had doubts about us because of the big class that left,” Rasco said. “Tradition never graduates. We’re always bringing in guys for the D-line, and right now is my time.”
Case in point: The pair of defensive ends who signed up in February could try to push their way on to the field early. Since Monday, freshmen Tashawn Bower, rated by ESPN as the No. 11 defensive end prospect in the country, and Lewis Neal have worked in the varsity’s morning practice. They’re viable contenders to work into the eight-man rotation.
“It’s been kind of different for me because it keeps me on my toes,” Rasco said. “You never get comfortable. Whenever we were here in the summer, we did a lot of D-line work, and it opened my eyes. These guys are ready.”
And even if they haven’t been on display for mass consumption, Rasco is ready to showcase his wares.
“My time is close,” he said. “It’s up to me to take advantage.”