In the days since LSU’s disappointing 10-3 season concluded with a disappointing last-second loss to Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, the roster of veteran Tigers returning for next season has shrunk on an almost-daily basis.
A record 10 underclassmen — 11 if you count cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, who was kicked off the team in August—– have chosen early entrance into the NFL over continuing their LSU careers.
The departures — most of them long expected and accepted, some more curious — have invited questions as to whether the program is headed in the wrong direction and is driving away talented players almost as quickly as it recruits them.
But as the days-long rain continued to fall outside of his office Thursday, head coach Les Miles said the sky is not falling with it.
The LSU program is poised to continue to compete at the highest level, and the early departures, though more than even he anticipated, will be mitigated next month when the Tigers sign another star-studded recruiting class filled with players likely to graduate to the NFL before getting their LSU diplomas.
It comes with the territory.
“I like the state of the program,” Miles said in his first interview addressing the underclassmen leaving. “I like the fact that we send guys to the NFL early and recruit guys with the potential to go to the NFL early.”
Many of the underclassmen’s departures were fait accompli as soon as the bowl game ended Dec. 31. Defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery are projected to be first-round draft picks. Linebacker Kevin Minter, the team’s Most Valuable Player, and safety Eric Reid, a consensus All-American, figure to be drafted in the early rounds, as could defensive tackle Bennie Logan.
Running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford were stuck in a logjam in a talented backfield with a limited opportunity to improve their NFL stock by playing another year in college.
Cornerback Tharold Simon and offensive tackle Chris Faulk — a potential early pick before he suffered a season-ending knee injury in this season’s opener — appear to be rolling the dice more than the others. Punter Brad Wing, who was suspended for the bowl game for violating a team rule, was the only third-year sophomore to declare early.
“I could go down every guy and I could tell you that the reasons are personally compelling,” Miles said. “Were they my decisions? No, but frankly I understood them.
“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.”
Miles said it’s hard to pinpoint “the right round to leave early for,” but the reality is any player taken after the second round will receive minimal guaranteed money.
On the other hand, the players also see a former teammate such as running back Stevan Ridley, who left early after the 2010 season, was drafted in the third round and is now the leading rusher for the New England Patriots.
“Some guys think they may never be most optimally positioned for the NFL and this may be the best that they’ve got,” Miles said. “It may be bad but they think it’s the best that they have.”
Miles said he points out the value of getting a degree before leaving for the NFL as well as trying to educate the players on whether leaving early might cost them money in the long run by preventing them from increasing their draft stock with another year of development.
“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, (though) very little (is) guaranteed, that that’s not really good money,” Miles said. “It’s hard to explain, 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.”
Miles said he knew when he signed the highly regarded classes of 2009 and 2010 that many would leave early. Faulk, Ford, Logan, Minter and Montgomery redshirted in 2009 and were joined by the next year’s class, which included Mathieu, Reid, Simon and Ware, all of whom contributed in the Cotton Bowl victory at the end of the 2010 season.
He said he expects the new class to have a similar impact.
“We anticipated the departures, to a certain extent, and we recruited guys right along that we anticipate would come in have a great opportunity to play very early and play big roles on next year’s team,” Miles said. “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.”
Miles said he anticipates bringing in 27 new players, many of whom he suspects someday will come to him with the news of their early departure.
“I want every guy that I recruit to be a first-round draft pick,” Miles said. “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.”
Miles said he expects this group to be “a watershed for college football.”
“I think everybody’s going to be kind of looking to see how they do,” he said. “I think there will be other junior classes looking at guys going, ‘I wonder how that all works out?’ ”
Miles dismissed the notion that the program has regressed since the historic 13-0 run during the 2011 regular season, which was followed by a 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.
He cited a seven-point loss at eventual BCS champion Auburn in 2010 that prevented the Tigers from playing for the Southeastern Conference title and a berth in the BCS title game. He also mentioned a last-minute 21-17 loss to Alabama this season, in which a couple of gambles by him failed as LSU squandered a late lead and another opportunity to play for the SEC title and BCS title berth.
“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,” Miles said.
The Alabama loss clearly still bothers Miles.
“If the head coach could have found a way to get a first down and eliminate about the last minute-30, I think we’re competing for the national championship again this year,” Miles said. “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?”
Miles was asked if he blamed himself for the latest loss to Alabama.
“I want to serve my team and my coaches and the people that show up in that stadium,” he said. “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.”
Miles admitted there’s “a need to execute this offense in a more effective manner.” He added, “that’s something we’re all looking to get accomplished.”
Asked if there might be any potential changes to his coaching staff, Miles said: “As you know, I’m not about to answer that question.”
Miles said it’s possible “a number of guys” could transfer, but he wouldn’t elaborate.
Once the new recruits arrive and the draft has passed and it’s time to prepare for next season, Miles said he expects things to look different.
“I think we’re close,” he said. “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.”