The first time he was thrown into the Big Cat drill at LSU spring practice, Anthony Johnson wondered what he had gotten himself into.
One of the nation’s highest-ranked prep football prospects out of O. Perry Walker in New Orleans, Johnson decided to enroll early at LSU so he could take part in 2011 spring practice.
But here he was, surrounded by a bullring of jostling, yelling new teammates, staring face-to-face with then-junior offensive tackle Alex Hurst, 330 pounds of brute force bent on not suffering the embarrassment of being taken down by a freshman no matter how decorated that freshman was.
“I had to be humbled a little bit,” Johnson recalled. “I came in as the No. 2-rated player in the country, and my first Big Cat was against Alex Hurst.”
Johnson didn’t elaborate, but one is left with the impression his first wrestling match with Hurst didn’t go in his favor.
Still, Johnson said, leaving high school early to enroll at LSU and get in that early spring practice was well worth it.
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d do it,” said Johnson, who goes into his junior season an almost certain starter at defensive tackle.
Johnson’s early career path is emblematic of what has the makings of a growing trend in recruiting: enrolling early.
As recently as 2008, LSU had just one midterm enrollee: Patrick Peterson. Whether he parlayed an early college start into the success he has since enjoyed is debatable, but after earning consensus All-America honors in 2010 — along with winning the Bednarik and Thorpe awards — Peterson was the fifth overall pick in the 2011 draft by the Arizona Cardinals.
Perhaps arrive early, leave early is the new standard for top LSU prospects.
The Tigers had five early enrollees last year — Vadal Alexander, Ronnie Feist, Reid Ferguson, Jeremy Hill and Lamar Louis. All saw significant playing time with Alexander, Hill and Ferguson becoming starters at right tackle, tailback and deep snapper, respectively.
While the Tigers had a record 11 players leave early for this year’s NFL draft, LSU may have counterbalanced that with eight early enrollees, the most in recent memory.
The list includes Neville wide receiver John Diarse and fellow receiver Avery Peterson (Patrick Peterson’s younger brother), junior-college offensive tackle Fehoko Fanaika, quarterbacks Anthony Jennings and Hayden Rettig, defensive end Christian LaCouture, offensive lineman Ethan Pocic and junior college tight end Logan Stokes.
While first-year players start off limits to the media at LSU, the players who were recently in their shoes spoke on their behalf about the decision to leave home early for college.
“I think it was a big advantage, honestly,” Alexander said. “I knew they had two great All-American tackles at LSU, but you never know.”
Alexander’s decision and fate led him to start nine games in 2012 as a true freshman when left tackle Chris Faulk went down in week two with a knee injury and Hurst left the team in October.
“You learn a lot about the offense in the spring,” Alexander said. “You go through the spring and learn about the playbook, then let your talents speak for themselves. I think being in (last spring) helped me.”
It isn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision for a player. To be able to graduate a semester early, Johnson said he had to start getting his academics in order as a sophomore. Instead of electives, he took core courses so he would be qualified to leave early.
Still, the transition was huge going from being able to dominate fellow high school players to playing against and behind players on the verge of heading to the NFL.
“Physically I was always gifted,” Johnson said. “But mentally, that’s where it got me. Guys knew secrets I didn’t know, and they could cut me off this way or that way, or pull me down pass blocking. Guys like T-Bob (Hebert) and Will Blackwell and P.J. Lonergan, they taught me a lot.”
Players who decide to enroll early are a win-win for the school they choose, as they’re less apt to change their minds in the recruiting process. Plus they’re already enrolled and locked in to a school a month or so before the national signing period begins.
“Those guys are generally pretty good students,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “And they get their academics in position well in advance. That’s very positive for us. We encourage guys who want to come in and compete early. It gives them the chance they need to assimilate the offense, defense or special teams (duties) they need.”
Being ready for the Big Cat drill is another matter, though.