Class is in session for LSU football’s standout freshmen

Brandon Harris is shirtless in the photo. His back is to the camera, and his arms are outstretched as if he’s mimicking an airplane.

He’s standing near midfield at Tiger Stadium, staring at the new south end zone structure looming before him.

Harris, one of the headliners of LSU’s 2014 signing class, posted the photo on his Twitter account in July.

It’s a sign of the times.

At LSU, it’s a surprise if highly touted freshmen don’t play. That’s the way coach Les Miles’ program is running lately: Sign them, play them, replace them.

The Tigers enter 2014 expected to play more true freshmen than ever. They signed the No. 2 class, and they intend to use them — and they have to in many ways.

“Sometimes you don’t have a choice,” said Gerry DiNardo, formerly the coach at Vanderbilt, LSU and Indiana. “If Les’ numbers are such that he has to, there’s really nothing you can do.”

LSU’s program is in such a state that true freshmen are vital to its championship-caliber existence.

There’s never been a more precarious time.

In the previous two years, 17 players have left the program for the NFL draft with at least one year of eligibility remaining. In the previous four years, a whopping 21 signees have transferred or been dismissed.

This year’s team includes just 13 freshman signees who are starting their fourth or fifth year at LSU.

The team is missing a whopping 25 signees — an entire recruiting class — from the 2010, 2011 and 2012 classes. Those players would be fifth-year seniors, true seniors and fourth-year juniors — players who would provide veteran leadership and experienced depth.

Isn’t this a concerning trend?

“I have great concern every year,” Miles said when asked this summer. “You have never seen me where I didn’t have great concern. That would be one (of my concerns).”

Top-10 recruiting classes help ease the massive amount of attrition. Miles has never had a group finish outside of the top 10 in team rankings on all of the major recruiting sites.

This year’s class — the most highly touted in Miles’ 10 years — might give the biggest boost of all.

On National Signing Day, even Miles admitted that the class was a “must” for his program.

The Tigers signed four players rated the maximum five stars — the most of any team aside from top-ranked Alabama’s six. They signed a whopping seven players ranked No. 3 or better nationally at their positions, according to 24/7 Sports’ composite rankings.

Harris, an early enrollee, knows what’s expected of this highly touted haul. He’s already well aware of LSU’s rabid fanbase.

“When I got here — this team won 10 games this past year — I’ll be honest with you: It’s like it was the Great Depression around here,” Harris said. “This team is used to contending for national championships and playing championship football.”

Harris is just one of many all-stars expected to make their mark as rookies in 2014. Running back Leonard Fournette enters with the illustrious title of being the top-ranked recruit in the land.

Malachi Dupre and Trey Quinn make up what many consider the best receiving duo in the nation this signing class, and five-star safety Jamal Adams might play more than any of the rookies.

How good is the class?

“I can tell you this: They will eventually get there,” Miles said. “This class is that style of class you can win a national championship with at some point in time.”

For now, they are needed to fill holes and add depth — like many other freshmen have done in the past.

Playing freshmen isn’t new to the Tigers. In fact, 12 true freshmen in the previous four seasons have played significant roles.

Where would LSU be had it not played these guys? The list: Defensive backs Tre’Davious White (2013), Jalen Mills (2012), Eric Reid (2011) and Tyrann Mathieu (2010); receiver Odell Beckham Jr. (2011); special-teams guys Colby Delahoussaye (2013), Reid Ferguson (2012) and James Hairston (2011); offensive lineman Vadal Alexander (2011); linebacker Lamar Louis (2012); and running backs Jeremy Hill (2012) and Kenny Hilliard (2011).

In all, 51 true freshman signees have played since 2010. The number’s only rising.

LSU redshirted just 17 freshmen the previous two years while playing a combined 29.

“It’s awesome,” said special teams coach Bradley Dale Peveto, who coached at LSU in 2005-08 before returning this spring. “Part of our tradition here is playing young players. We were doing that in 2005. Coach Miles has done it, really, throughout his career. We’re not scared to put them out there, train them and get them ready.”

There is a need for them this year more than ever.

Because of that aforementioned attrition, LSU’s depth at several positions could be considered slim. They include running back, fullback, quarterback, receiver, defensive tackle and cornerback.

A whopping 20 true freshmen are on LSU’s preseason depth chart.

The newbies are fine with this. It’s a big reason they sign to play in Baton Rouge, and Miles knows it. It’s a sales pitch on the recruiting trail.

“It’s helped us in recruiting,” he said. “Everybody recognizes that we will play freshmen.”

The coach has said at least 15 freshmen will play this season. That number may increase as coaches watch their star-studded lot practice during fall camp.

“The common thing is to single out Leonard, Malachi and even Brandon to some degree, but that entire class, I’ve seen a lot from all of them,” offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. “From what I’ve seen, all of the guys are what we thought they were. And that’s not always the case. I think in some cases, these guys were all we thought they were and then some.”

A smiling Cameron finished up: “That’s a good sign for us.”