Nearly every day in the last week has brought news of one or more LSU football players choosing to leave the program early for the NFL.
The record number of early departures — 10 from this year’s team, 11 if you count former All-America cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who was kicked off the team in August — came on the heels of a last-second 25-24 loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the end of a disappointing 10-3 season.
Throw in the still-not-forgotten 21-0 flop against Alabama in the 2011 BCS Championship Game and even though it has barely been a year the Tigers completed an historic 13-0 regular season, it’s easy for their fans to wonder if one of the elite football programs in the country has suddenly gotten off track or might be headed in the wrong direction.
Head coach Les Miles sat down with The Advocate on Thursday to discuss the state of the program, the early departures, recruiting, this past season and other topics.
Here’s a transcript from the interview:
Miles: First of all, we recruit guys who specifically want to get a degree, want to be trained to play championship college football that would then also train them to play a pro style — offense, defense, special teams — and be able to showcase their abilities and go on to the NFL.
I think that that is a very logical transition for our guys. I think it’s an unbelievable number of juniors that leave. I think it speaks to the style of recruiting that we’ve had and I think it also speaks to the style of development and capabilities that these guys have.
I think each guy’s situation is completely different, specific to them and them only. The decision is truly theirs and not mine. I give them as much information as I possibly can and then systematically I support that decision, some with a very, very open opinion and a very strong opinion. But then, once the decision is made, it’s their decision and it’s their responsibility.
I think it’s kind of a unique thing in the fact that I think this will be a record of sorts for juniors coming out early. I think there are several different mechanisms going on here. I can tell you some of the reasons. Some of them are all based differently but I think by and large the decisions that were made were very understandable and we wish them the very best.
I think some guys are looking forward to having great and long pro careers and some guys are trying to optimize a lower position in a draft spot and maximize the number of years they get to be there. It’s an interesting thing. All of these guys, each guy, has a goal to play in the NFL. Irrespective of whether you’re the style of guy that can go in the first 10 picks or you’re the style of guy that’s going to go mid rounds to late but it’s been the goal of mine to be an NFL player and you know what? A lot of our guys get a chance to play in that league.
I think there’s a smart and orderly direction to a quality decision that a lot of our guys have gone through. It’s difficult to put the right round to leave early for. Some guys think they may never be most optimally positioned for the NFL and this may be the best that they’ve got. It may be bad but they think it’s the best that they have. That being said, we’ve described their scenarios as best we can and it’s really their decision. It really is.
I don’t think there’s any question that irrespective of what happened to Ty that he was probably going to be out this year anyway. It just falls into that number. I make the point that a degree is awfully important and you give nothing up, you’re still going to have the same marketability to the NFL that you have this year plus you have your degree, especially those late-round guys.
I also say that frankly I don’t want to give a deal to the NFL. I think that certain guys that leave early take the opportunity this time as opposed to positioning yourself in the NFL draft at a higher level sometimes costs guys money sometimes taking the opportunity early costs them long-term financial reward, but it’s very difficult to explain to a guy that has the potential to earn $300,000 a year, $500,000 a year, $600,000 a year, very little guaranteed, it’s hard to explain to him that that’s not really good money. It’s hard to explain to those guys because I think it’s really good money and I would have liked to have made that in a year when I was coming out of college. Certainly I did not, but there’s an opportunity cost that to some guys I have been successful in displaying and some guys not.
In the new draft the first two rounds is the only place where the guaranteed money is significant. From that point forward they’re paying a league minimum and the slots are much less and when you get to the back end obviously the guaranteed money is really very little.
I want our guys to go into the NFL. The first thing I want to do is this: I want every guy that I recruit to be a first-round draft pick. I want every guy that I recruit to have the opportunity to play a long, extended career in the NFL. I’d like to develop them. I’d like to make sure that they got their degree. I’d like to set them up in a position so they could say I can use the NFL or I can not use the NFL to have a great career and a great life and frankly I think this group valued an NFL career.
I can tell you they won 23 games in two years and there’s reason to believe that they could match up and play with anybody in the country. It’s an interesting thing. I watched the (BCS Championship) and in the last game there were a lot of guys that won national awards and were very spectacular players in college and I think our players match up as good as any.
Q: We all knew that you would lose several underclassmen, but would you have anticipated this many when the season ended?
Miles: No, I wouldn’t have, to be honest with you. We’ve recruited to that potential. This recruiting class will fill very specific recruiting needs that our team has and very much like Tharold Simon’s and Eric Reid’s freshman year. We’re expecting freshmen to play very significant roles. The good news is we have very talented first teams The reality is we’ll look forward to some very talented young newcomers to play some very significant roles next season.
We anticipated the departures to a certain extent and we recruited guys right along that we anticipate would come in and have a great opportunity to play very early and play big roles on next year’s team.
Q: Have you had to tweak some of your targets based on unexpected departures?
Miles: We would have had to have tweaked it if that big a number had not gone but since that big a number has gone we’re right in position to add to a team that’s got a nice talent core but yet needs some very strong, very capable, very talented newcomers to make an impact.
I could go down every guy and I could tell you that the reasons are personally compelling. In other words decisions that they needed to make. Were they my decisions? No, but frankly I understood them.
There’s a point in time where guys want to be elite. The good news is our guys, guys like Stevan Ridley who was a third rounder and is now starting for the New England Patriots they see some very positive examples where guys leave the program very, very capably and even though they weren’t drafted highly they were still very capable to play and I think there’s a, when Kiki (Mingo) and Sam (Montgomery) and (Kevin) Minter and some of those guys start stepping out and saying we’re leaving there’s a feel like “I know those guys, I can play with those guys and I’m as capable as those guys and Stevan Ridley and dang it and there’s a prevailing attitude here – which I don’t want to change – that they can and to be very honest with you if they say that they think that they can I’m inclined to say I agree.
Q: Do you find it’s easier for them to zero in on guys who succeeded without being drafted real high than on guys who left early and it didn’t work out, a rose-colored glasses kind of thing?
Miles: If you go back and look at Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey and LaRon Landry there are a number of guys who played their final year and just made great decisions and then a guy like Ciron Black comes back and his knee had been injured from when he was in high school and really he failed the physical.
I guess what I’m trying to say to you is they pick their own example if you will. Some guys have a real long-term view of them and they recognize it’s not about the NFL it’s about them and them being the best they can be and if the NFL wants them the NFL will draft them and if the NFL doesn’t want them then they’ve gotten their degree.
That ability to me is one of those things where you don’t really know that about a guy until he gets in a position like this to make a decision.
Q: You sign guys knowing many of them will leave for the NFL and plan for that that with other recruiting classes. But with this many leaving and you positioned to handle it or will this be a step back.
Miles: Only time will tell there. The year that we won 11 and won the Cotton Bowl (2010) there was a very strong nucleus of true freshmen that played significantly. I think in this class we have a number of guys that as true freshmen will play significantly.
It’ll be interesting. I think our guys will be a watershed for college football. I think everybody’s going to be kind of looking to see how they do. And then whether or not they’re as good as the Big Ten juniors or the Pac 12 juniors. I think there will be other junior classes looking at our guys going, “I wonder who that all works out.
I understand for some guys it’s time for them to go. We’ll recruit those guys that can play in NFL early. We’re also going to advise them don’t give the NFL a deal. We’ve advised them strongly that way.
I can advise them and support them and by and large arguably we are one of the teams that produces players for that league. If you look in the past I think there was a point in time where there were 60 LSU players on NFL roisters. I think there’s a chance that there’s 10 more or 11 more coming.
Q: Can you use this to your advantage in recruiting by telling guys they have a chance to start right away?
Miles: Here’s what we do. It’s not necessarily even that they need to come in and start right away, but what they end up doing is they’ll be trained and when they’re trained and they’re better the great majority of our guys that we’re recruiting we’re recruiting to a talented style of player. We’re not just recruiting guys. Guys can’t come here and play. They’re really good players. Those guys come in and they spend some time with our coaches and they get them trained and then they get to play and when they get to play in the style that we’re accustomed to then they get to start.
I’ll give you an example. There were three true freshmen in my secondary starting as true freshmen against A&M in the Cotton Bowl. I think that could happen again.
Q: Might you have to lean on the offense a little more at the start of next season because it will have more experience returning than the defense will?
Miles: I don’t know. We’ll see. The key is to play well enough in all three phases to win it. Certainly we’re working to do that and we think the personnel on offense will potentially be better than it was last year and that the personnel on defense with graduating a couple of defensive ends, a mike backer and a corner, not to mention a safety, we’ll have guys who will be able to step in and handle those spots.
I don’t think we ever planned a side of the ball to dominate the other side. Certainly if there’s a place you want to have a dominant side it’s defensively. We were pretty good on special teams. Hopefully we’ll make vast improvement in the offense. If the defense plays like they have I kind of like where we’re at again.
Q: Speaking of the offense, do you plan any changes in your offensive staff’s responsibilities or philosophy?
Miles: I think there’s a need to execute this offense in a more effective manner. I think that’s something we’re all looking to get accomplished. I don’t know if you call that change or not. We’re working toward that eventuality.
Q: Are you considering any changes on your offensive staff?
Miles: As you know I’m not about to answer that question.
There’s time involved when you change a quarterback. The things that you’re doing offensively to try and get that quarterback into the rhythm and flow of a game frankly it takes a little more execution in the passing game. So we’ve got to do that — protection from start to finish.
The real interesting thing about the offensive line is when you lose three starters on the offensive line, one of which (guard Josh Williford) is going to be a great player and is a little nicked into the back end of the year and really just came on line to play in the bowl game.
It takes some time for some of those guys. We didn’t have any freshmen playing for a long time and then those two freshmen (Vadal Alexander and Trai Turner) stepped in and didn’t play like freshmen. They played extremely well. At some point in time they needed to play young again and they did. Considering the number of starters lost and the attrition that this team accomplished as much as it did is pretty special.
Q: When you look at the last 12 months — not playing well in the BCS championship, blowing the late lead in the bowl game, not playing for the BCS title this year — there’s a perception that this program might have taken a step back since that 13-0 regular season (in 2011).
Miles: You have to think that when you were ahead of Alabama late in the game (this season) on third and 10 if you cover the screen and he throws it away it’s fourth down or when it fourth and 16 against the Chick-fil-A team, which we all know is a pretty strong football team, you’d have to think there’s an opportunity for us to win two more games.
Forget the Clemson game. You finish the Alabama game and we may have played in the BCS (title) game so the idea that people are not going to allow for a small variance against some of the best teams in the country I think their expectations may be just a little overshot and to me this program has played for the national championship every year at least in the last three. No question the last three.
(In 2010) it’s 17-17 with 7:51 to go against Cam Newton’s Auburn team at Auburn with the ball. I remember the drive and I understand how it went. We beat Alabama that year and if we had beaten Auburn at their place I think we’re playing for the national championship that year. Then we’re 13-0 and played in an extra game and while we’re playing in that extra game, winning the conference championship the team that we were preparing for (Alabama) was sitting on the sideline and freaking just eating their stomach up and they were going to play extremely well. It seems to be me being 13-0 and then being 13-1 and playing for in the BCS championship game we were competing for the national championship. .
If the head coach could have found a way to get a first down and eliminate about last minute, 30 (against Alabama) I think competing again this year but I think people lose sight of what’s really going on. We’re playing against the finest teams in the country and you know what? We had every opportunity to win and I think that’s kind of where you want your program to be, don’t you?
It’s an interesting thing. I think we’re close. Some people would like to say, “they’re further away. But that’s perception. It’s not in the hearts and minds of the guys that are playing back in here.
Q: Do you blame yourself for the Alabama loss?
Miles: I have a way of internalizing things that I want to serve my team and my coaches and the people that show up in that stadium. I always want me to give us every opportunity at victory and I think we did to a certain extent, but I’d like to have a couple of calls back. So I fell short. Blame me for that.
Q: Is Zach Mettenberger definitely the starting quarterback or will he face competition in the spring and fall?
Miles: I think it is absolutely his job to lose. He comes in, takes it to another level, improves in how his eyes are and I think it’s going to be very difficult for somebody to overtake him.
Q: Are you anticipating anybody transferring out of the program?
Miles: “I think at this point in time in a year a number of guys could transfer, but nothing I’m prepared to share.
Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Miles: If you had to look at three years ago, the recruiting class we brought here three years ago, you would have to say that the recruiting class that we have on the board right now that has committed to coming here that they show up on this campus they should have the opportunity to do everything that that very special recruiting class of three years ago did.
I guess what I’m saying is I like the state of the program. I like fact that we send guys to the NFL early and recruit guys with the potential to go to the NFL early.
I’m looking forward to fielding this football team. I think we’re going to have a good football team.