ATLANTA — Kevin Minter has been ahead of schedule academically and behind his schedule football-wise since arriving at LSU three years ago.
But those tracks merged during a memorable junior season that will conclude when Minter and the Tigers face Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl on Monday night.
Minter emerged from the shadows to become one of the top defensive players in the country and along the way picked up his diploma in sports administration while leading LSU to a 10-2 record.
“It all kind of coincided,” he said. “When I was having a little trouble with my schooling, you could tell football was slipping at the same time. But when you have everything organized in your life, I feel like football comes a little easier.”
Minter seems to have a firm grasp on his education and his football career. After Monday’s game, he will decide whether it’s time to graduate to the NFL or stick around and enroll in graduate school while he plays one more year for the Tigers.
He wasn’t on the NFL’s radar coming into the season, having started just 11 games in two seasons, but he became a full-time starter this season and earned team MVP honors.
Minter led one of the top defenses in the country while earning first-team All-Southeastern Conference and second-team All-America honors. He had a team-best 111 tackles, including 13.5 for loss.
“Since I got here, my mother was telling me, football is big, but at the same time you’re coming here for a degree,” Minter said. “She stayed on me from the time I walked on campus. It was very important to me because I wanted to make her happy and, at the same time, it was something I wanted to achieve.”
Minter said his mother, Willie Mae Hollis, had been preaching to him about getting a degree from the time he was little — before football even entered his life.
Hollis said Minter’s experience when he began learning karate as a 5-year-old helped give him the discipline needed to stay ahead of the curve academically while excelling in football.
Minter played football in the ninth and 10th grades at a small school in Lilburn, Ga., outside of Atlanta. He was so much better than the players around him that his teams — on the junior varsity and varsity — were almost totally dependent on him to compete. When he was forced to miss a game because of a broken finger, the team seemed defeated before it took the field.
That incident showed Hollis that she needed to find an environment that was more conducive to Minter’s development. So she said she “rushed” to put her home on the market and moved about five miles to Suwanee so Kevin could enroll at Peachtree Ridge High School and play football there.
“He was just about the only player excelling on the field,” Hollis said. “It was just too much. He didn’t want to leave, but I knew as driven as he was that he would do better at another school.”
Kevin started receiving interest from college football programs around the country and eventually narrowed his list to five — Georgia, Florida State, Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU.
Minter said he was struck by coach Les Miles, defensive coordinator John Chavis and the atmosphere on the LSU campus during his recruiting visit to Baton Rouge. His mother was won over when Miles mentioned Kevin getting his degree before discussing his role on the football team.
“I met about 10 coaches and, after meeting all of them, coach Miles was the only one I felt comfortable putting Kevin in his care,” Hollis said. “I knew he would be taken care of.”
Minter worked overtime academically as a senior in high school so he could enroll early at LSU, but he redshirted as a freshman and was beginning his fourth semester when he played his first game.
“It was important that he was patient,” Hollis said.
Minter figured that out right away.
“Coming out of high school, you’re riding high,” he said. “I was thinking I was going to play early, but the fact that it didn’t happen kind of hits you in the face a little bit, but it made me humble myself and work a lot harder.
“I realized coming up here I didn’t know everything. I thought I knew everything, but I obviously didn’t. I had to learn concepts, coverages, all that type of stuff.”
Minter said his first practice was an eye-opening experience.
“Everything was moving a lot faster and quicker,” he said. “The linemen were just coming at me as soon as the ball was snapped. It was all surreal, and I was like, ‘Man, I can’t believe everyone is moving this fast.’ I had to really wake up.”
Minter said he set his mind on trying to become the type of linebacker that starting middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard was.
“Watching Shep, it was like, ‘Man, I’ve got a long ways to go,’ ” Minter said. “Shep was calling certain things, seeing certain formations, knowing exactly what the play was going to be. I really had to take a look at myself and say, ‘I need to get to this level.’ ”
Minter’s first game as a redshirt freshman was the 2010 season opener against North Carolina in the Georgia Dome, where he had played in the state championship game two years earlier.
“You could see I was in and out of that game because I was kind of messing up a little bit,” he said. “It was a reality check. I had to get into it. I thought I was good then.
“Obviously I wasn’t.”
Minter played sparingly in five games and had a hand in 15 tackles that season. Last season, he started 11 of 14 games and made 61 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, as he shared middle linebacker with senior Karnell Hatcher.
During the offseason, Minter dedicated himself to being an every-down player.
“I stayed in the office with (Chavis), trying to pick his brain and studying a lot of film on my own,” Minter said. “I worked on a lot of coverage stuff, a lot of drops because I felt like I was kind of lacking in that.
“I wasn’t in for the dime packages or the nickel packages last year. It was very important to me. I wanted to be the guy that’s on the field. I have to be on the field. They need me on the field. I wanted to be what Kelvin Sheppard was.”
Minter said the final piece to the puzzle was getting up to speed mentally.
“That was the only thing I was really missing,” he said. “I always had the size and the strength. That’s what Shep always told me: ‘You’re one of the strongest on the team, one of the fastest on the team. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be on the field. The only reason why you’re not on the field is because you don’t have it up top.’ ”
But Minter did have what it took “up top” — he just had to apply it to football.
“If he didn’t have the scheme and (Chavis), he’d still be a great player,” outside linebacker Lamin Barrow said. “But (Chavis) being here and adding to all the attributes he already has made him like an All-American.”
On a defense with more dynamic players and personalities, Minter has become the leader.
“What happens to guys like that is, the rest of the team sees the success that they’re having and emulates it,” Miles said. “Emulates the practice, emulates what they’re doing on and off the field — who they are as people — and you don’t even have to say, ‘follow me’ or speak loudly. It’s just understood: Do it like Minter’s doing it.”
Minter got his degree a couple of weeks ago and shortly thereafter received the MVP award at the senior football banquet. He said he was surprised to hear his name called.
In fact, he hadn’t even attended the meeting at which the players voted.
He was busy studying for a final.