SLU’s Roberts turns to junior colleges, FBS transfers to build instant winner
In late September, Marquel Combs passed the time before a tutoring session playing NBA 2K and munching on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich before leaving his dorm room at Kansas.
Told late in preseason camp he would redshirt, Combs took a wait-and-see approach three weeks into the season. Now, early on a Wednesday evening, the nation’s top junior college defensive prospect had his release and suitors lining up.
Polishing off his snack, Combs’ phone buzzed. On the other end, the drawl of Southeastern Louisiana University defensive coordinator Pete Golding greeted him, while his target got quickly to brass tacks.
“I told them I was trying to drop my classes,” Combs said. “I asked them whether they could get me any.”
Turns out, through a rare loophole in musty NCAA bylaws, the Lions could heed that demand. Before Golding hung up, though, the assistant made a blunt declaration.
“I’m going to stay on you,” Golding said.
Four days later in his hometown of Memphis, Combs pledged loyalty to the Lions (10-2), a program revived just 15 years ago and a No. 4 national seed preparing to host Sam Houston State (8-4) at 7 p.m. Saturday at Strawberry Stadium in first trip to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
In the past two seasons, Lions coach Ron Roberts has turned over half the roster and imported recruiting classes heavily reliant on junior college and Football Bowl Subdivision transfers, which included a 37-player signing group in February that netted five starters.
“We’re looking at the guys where we can upgrade in spots and get better in spots that will help us win Southland Conference and national championships,” Roberts said Tuesday. “We don’t just want to compete for the sucker.”
First, however, Roberts ripped the roster down to figurative studs, shedding 43 non-seniors from the ranks over the past two seasons.
Figurative purges aren’t uncommon after coaching changes. Schemes change. Position switches occur. Personalities clash. And a player’s skill set doesn’t match a template.
Or, as Roberts said, the demands in the classroom and weight room put in place by a new staff might be too much for some to meet.
“There were some kids that just couldn’t make it for what you’re asking them to do,” Roberts said. “If you can’t do those things, then you don’t belong here. Some of them can’t.”
All of which seems odd in a state that produces a bumper crop of talent. Yet there are still hurdles to convince that talent to fill SLU’s needs. Winning three games and going winless in the Southland until the final week of the 2011 season did little to bolster their pitch, either.
“We lost probably six or seven local kids on our board that either opted to go somewhere else far away or a junior college,” Roberts said. “Last year, it was the same thing. There are four or five kids here that are getting away.”
A crowded marketplace doesn’t help, with FBS programs in South Alabama, Southern Miss, Tulane and Louisiana-Lafayette along with three in-state Southland schools — all within a 150-mile halo.
So, Roberts uses the usual tactics. If the local talent leaves the state, he taps the junior college market, filling 27 of 60 slots the past two seasons with those transfers. SLU has turned to the fertile JC system in Mississippi for talent, but also tried to build a pipeline to the West Coast.
The Lions imported 11 players from eight programs in California’s crowded two-year college system.
“There’s just so much talent out there that gets overlooked because there’s so many of those schools out there,” Lions recruiting coordinator Brandon Lacy said. “Everybody can’t hit every campus or practice out there. There’s so much talent, you can’t (get) it all.”
Take starting defensive end Jacob Newman, whose seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss are second on the team. The 6-foot-2, 275-pounder was an all-conference player at College of the Sequoias but had only a smattering of Division II scholarship offers.
And Newman proves the other boon of Roberts’ reliance on junior colleges — ready made linemen.
With the tempo deployed on both sides of the ball, SLU covets depth in the trenches. Ideally, each unit plays an average of 70 snaps per game, meaning Roberts needs a deeper pool of hulking 300-pounders to pick from. The other issue: Not many are adept in concept pass protection schemes, or much less exposed to them.
“It’s so tough to get kids of that caliber on a yearly basis,” Roberts said.
Still, signing nearly 40 players — a figure that included 18 junior college and four FBS transfers — isn’t average.
“Last winter was crazy,” said John Long, who oversees SLU’s NCAA compliance efforts. “I’ve never seen that many guys constitute a mid-year signing class.”
Cursed as it is, the NCAA’s 419-page book of bylaws helped SLU pull off the renovation job.
First, rules on financial aid allow the school mid-year signees to be an initial counter in a recruiting class for either the current or next academic year, Long said. Translated, the Lions can balance classes while bringing an influx of bodies.
And if a player, for example, fails to qualify academically and does not receive financial aid, then he does not become an overall counter toward scholarship limits.
But the process also proved a boon in the case of Combs, the Kansas lineman.
Under NCAA rules, Combs’ decision to transfer to an FCS program meant he did not need to sit out a year. The fact he didn’t play a down for the Jayhawks helped, too. He wouldn’t violate a bylaw forbidding playing for two schools in a year.
Finally, if Combs could be admitted for Term 2 classes, or rather the second half of the first semester, as a normal student, then he would be eligible. After a NCAA review, Combs was deemed eligible. He arrived during the Lions’ open week in early October.
“It’s a unique one,” said Lacy, a Kansas alum who was tipped off early on Combs. “I’ve never been a part of one like that.”
Bending and contorting to the extremes, though — plus a mantra of offering ample playing time — can prove alluring to the six FBS transfers on SLU’s roster. Meanwhile, Combs, who fielded offers from up to 51 other programs, said a drop down didn’t dissuade him.
“Everything you can imagine, I’ve seen or been offered,” he said. “That’s what I was looking for — a place where I could be myself and love to play the game.”