Picture it: Three football prospects, all from the same high school, are sitting on the lobby steps inside LSU’s football operations building.

They’re not alone. LSU coach Ed Orgeron is there with them. Almost simultaneously, the three players express their commitment to sign with the Tigers next year.

The thing is, this really did happen. Just ask defensive tackle Davin Cotton, a witness and integral part of this unusual event, which unfolded last Saturday on campus.

“We didn’t decide it together at that moment, but we had thought about it,” Cotton said. “We didn’t plan on it. It just happened.”

All the more interesting is the school the prospects attend: Evangel Christian, a north Louisiana football powerhouse and a team that hasn’t produced three total LSU signees in 17 years.

The nonbinding, verbal pledges don’t guarantee their signatures. The trio can make their decisions official next February on national signing day. For now, their commitment to a school about 250 miles from home sends a message — and for some sparks a debate.

Is LSU, behind its new coach, aggressively recruiting north Louisiana?

“Yes, I do get that sense,” said Mickey McCarty, longtime coach at Neville High in Monroe.

The Orgeron-led Tigers appear to be diving into the I-20 corridor to resurrect a competitive territory that has not always been kind to the program. But is that perception real? Does LSU actually struggle to get players north of Alexandria? And has a certain Southeastern Conference rival made the region part of its footprint?

The Advocate studied 30 years of LSU recruiting in north Louisiana and analyzed data from the past decade in an attempt to answer those questions.

The numbers don’t lie. They paint a picture of a territory that doesn’t produce the bulk of the state’s top players — and whose best players, because of location and for other reasons, head out of state more than any other region in Louisiana.

LSU signed nine north Louisiana players in the past six classes. That’s a fall-off from the 1990s and mid-2000s, when the program signed an average of 3.5 north Louisiana prospects in each class.

Just once in a 24-year period, from 1988 to 2011, did LSU not sign at least one player from north Louisiana. That has happened three times recently: 2012, 2015 and 2017.

Explaining the numbers isn’t easy. North Louisiana high school coaches and recruiting experts have different opinions.

New Orleans’ talent resurgence since Hurricane Katrina has captured LSU’s attention, some say. The talent drop-off at north Louisiana powers like West Monroe and Bastrop could be behind some of it, too, others say. Turnover on the LSU coaching staff — specifically, with assistant coaches assigned to north Louisiana — is another hurdle, coaches say.

Some people point to the nationalization of college football recruiting. Former coach Nick Saban, in his early 2000s stint at LSU, made the Tigers more of a national recruiting brand, turning the school’s attention to out-of-state areas like Texas and Florida.

While LSU began to look out of state, other programs have entered, dipping into talent-laden Louisiana — especially north Louisiana, a region locals admit isn’t as strongly affiliated with LSU as the southern parts of the state are.

Because of all this, LSU’s recruitment of north Louisiana, especially the Monroe area, has developed into a hotly debated subject over the past half-decade. It’s often described as the one place where the Tigers don’t possess a stranglehold on high school talent.

It's also a place that Orgeron seems focused on fencing — building a giant, mythical wall to keep out you-know-who.

“The elephant in the room is coach Saban and his staff,” McCarty said. “They’ve picked up a lot of good players from up here.”

“Coach Saban is relentless. Alabama recruits hard at who they pick out,” said Brad Bradshaw, former head coach at Bastrop for 19 years and now the Morehouse Parish athletic director.

“Coach (Les) Miles was a great recruiter. I’ve dealt with coach Orgeron. He’s a great recruiter," Bradshaw continued. "I don’t think that it’s the truth that they can just come in here and get who they want. Our kids know — it’s still got to be about fit. Sometimes we hear the same thing: that LSU doesn’t want our kids, that they want New Orleans kids. We love LSU here. We also love coach Saban and what he’s done for our kids at Alabama.”

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Saban’s foray into the northern part of the state is well-documented.

Naturally, the Alabama coach zeroes in on the area’s best talent. Since 2012, 14 north Louisiana prospects have ranked in the top 20 in the state rankings — about two per year. Eight signed with LSU. Four signed with Alabama. Texas and Notre Dame each signed one.

From 2008-11, another 14 north Louisiana players ranked among the state's top 20. LSU signed all but one of them.

Those in-state prospect losses to Saban weren’t huge, recruiting analyst Mike Scarborough said, aside from one: West Monroe’s Cam Robinson, the No. 2 player in the state in 2014 and, as an offensive tackle, a guy who plays a vital position.

“Cam Robinson was the blow,” said Scarborough, publisher of TigerBait.com and a recruiting analyst in the state for more than 20 years. “He’s worth five or six recruits.”

It all boils down to perception with in-state recruiting.

“Regardless of how (the recruits) turn out in the end, you don’t want the perception that the doors are open,” Scarborough said. “You don’t like the perception that you’re getting raided. It’s like all of your windows and doors are open and a tornado is coming through.”

LSU’s low numbers of north Louisiana signees over the past half-decade isn’t attributed to only Alabama. An increasing number of highly rated prospects are in the higher population centers of the south, experts say.

“The last classes, you go down the list, it’s going to be a lot heavier on south than north Louisiana,” said Sonny Shipp, 247Sports.com's recruiting analyst who has worked in the state for nearly 20 years. “I do think you’re starting to see New Orleans and south Louisiana more and more overcome the effects of losing so much of the population as a result of Katrina.”

South Louisiana's hurricane recovery is only part of explaining the shift.

LSU’s pipelines from West Monroe and Bastrop have slowed significantly. The Tigers signed 20 players from West Monroe or Bastrop from 1998 to 2009. LSU’s past six signing classes have included no players from either school.

West Monroe lost longtime coach Don Shows in 2013, a possible reason for that pipeline’s end, Scarborough suggested. Bradshaw’s initial stint at Bastrop ended in 2009, the last year the Tigers signed a player from that northeast Louisiana program.

That also coincided with an even more significant event in that town — the closure of International Paper’s mill, then the area’s largest employer. The closure cost the region 550 jobs.

“We lost a lot of kids,” Bradshaw said. “It’s been a strain on our community. (Enrollment is) way down. We used to have 900, and now we have 700-and-something. It’s steadily going down.”

The cultural divide between north and south Louisiana doesn’t necessarily help LSU. The expansive, rural gap between Interstate 20 and Interstate 10 is another obstacle.

The travel time from Baton Rouge to Evangel, for instance, is about four hours — similar to drives to the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Arkansas, Oklahoma and a host of programs in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“We’re in a little corridor — the ArkLaTex — where Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas meet,” Evangel coach and former LSU player Byron Dawson said. “Geographically, there are more options (for players). This is a very competitive area for (LSU).”

The same goes for the opposite side of the state, heading east down I-20.

“Up in our area, other schools feel like they’ve got a little better of a fighting chance. We get hit by multiple schools from multiple states coming into our area,” McCarty said. “A big difference in the north and southern part of the state, particularly Baton Rouge and New Orleans, kids here aren’t nearly as dyed in purple and gold. They’re a little more open-minded in this area.”

For Cotton and his Evangel teammates, it was all about the Tigers. It was also about staying together. Cotton, inside linebacker Micah Baskerville and safety ArDarius Washington have played together since they were 9, Cotton said.

They didn’t commit to LSU for any other reasons than they wanted to continue playing together and the school felt like home during the program's "Boys from the Boot" event that they all attended.

They’re joined in LSU’s commitment class by former Bastrop defensive end Travez Moore, who's currently playing at a Mississippi community college.

So four of LSU’s nine Class of 2018 commitments are from north Louisiana? That’s right.

"Does it say that LSU put the fence back up? No, I don’t think it says anything like that," Shipp said. "But it does point to those relationships and how good of a job (tight ends coach Steve) Ensminger does in Shreveport. They can go to Monroe, the problem areas, and point to Shreveport and Evangel about getting those kids. They can point to north Louisiana about fixing that perception.”


The best of the north

Over the past 10 years, 28 players from north Louisiana were ranked among the state’s top 20 players in their class. LSU signed 21 of them. Alabama signed five. 

Name

High school (town)

Signed with

State rank

2017

DT Phidarian Mathis

Neville (Monroe)

Alabama

4

2016

DT Rashard Lawrence

Neville (Monroe)

LSU

2

LB Devin White

North Webster (Springhill)

LSU

7

CB Andraez Williams

Calvary Baptist (Shreveport)

LSU

13

S Cameron Lewis

Wossman (Monroe)

LSU

18

2015

OT Jerry Tillery

Evangel (Shreveport)

Notre Dame

5

2014

OT Cam Robinson

West Monroe (West Monroe)

Alabama

2

S Hootie Jones

Neville (Monroe)

Alabama

6

QB Brandon Harris

Parkway (Bossier City)

LSU

7

2013

CB Tre’Davious White

Green Oaks (Shreveport)

LSU

1

WR John Diarse

Neville (Monroe)

LSU

7

DE M.J. Patterson

Winnfield Senior (Winnfield)

LSU

18

2012

OLB Shiro Davis

Woodlawn (Shreveport)

Texas

2

ILB Denzel Devall

Bastrop (Bastrop)

Alabama

3

2011

DE Jermauria Rasco

Evangel (Shreveport)

LSU

4

ATH Paul Turner

West Monroe (West Monroe)

LSU

18

2010

DE Jordan Allen

West Monroe (West Monroe)

LSU

4

TE Nic Jacobs

Many (Many)

LSU

9

ATH Jarrett Fobbs

Huntington (Shreveport)

LSU

11

2009

WR Rueben Randle

Bastrop (Bastrop)

LSU

1

DT Chris Davenport

Mansfield (Mansfield)

LSU

2

DT Josh Downs

Bastrop (Bastrop)

LSU

5

OLB Barkevious Mingo

West Monroe (West Monroe)

LSU

7

WR Kenny Bell

Rayville (Rayville)

Alabama

11

ATH Morris Claiborne

Fair Park (Shreveport)

LSU

17

2008

WR Chris Tolliver

Rayville (Rayville)

LSU

3

OT Matt Branch

Sterlington (Monroe)

LSU

6

TE Tyler Edwards

Ouachita Parish (Monroe)

LSU

8

Other players LSU signed from North Louisiana who were not ranked in the top 20 in the state: OT K.J. Malone, Cedar Creek (2013); WR DeAngelo Benton, Bastrop (2008).
*Only players to whom LSU offered scholarships. Rankings used are 247Sports composite.

Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter, @RossDellenger.