Even Ed Orgeron, known as one of the most aggressive and effective recruiters in college football, was awed by what Austin Thomas did in the 2017 recruiting cycle.
Recruiting off campus for the first time in his career, Thomas, LSU’s general manager, secured a pair of Tennessee prospects and two of the Tigers’ highest-rated players in the Tigers' class: safety JaCoby Stevens and inside linebacker Jacob Phillips.
“All Austin,” Orgeron said. “He got Jacob Philllips. I knew (Austin) was going to be good, but those results are phenomenal. I didn’t know we were going to get those results.
“Very rare to get two five-star recruits to come to LSU your first go around (at off-campus recruiting).”
Even Thomas doubted it would happen, and so did his wife, Brittney.
Thomas was lying in bed when Phillips called him to alert him of the news. Thomas expected to hear the recruit announce that he's sticking with the Sooners.
“He called and said that he wanted to come to LSU and he wanted to call and let Coach O know. And I said, ‘Hey, we’re excited to have you.’ My wife thought something was wrong.”
A group of New Orleans high school coaches reassured LSU coach Ed Orgeron that they do not p…
Phillips' flip was, arguably, the most critical event of LSU's 2017 recruiting cycle, given the Tigers' lack of depth at inside linebacker.
Phillips, a U.S. Army All-American and the top-ranked inside linebacker according to 247Sports, recorded 245 tackles, including five for losses, and four interceptions through his junior and senior years at East Nashville Magnet.
At 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds, Phillips has prototypical size for a middle linebacker and was receiving attention from college coaches well before he was properly rated, said 247Sports director of recruiting Steve Wiltfong.
“He’s coming in physically ready to go,” Wiltfong said. “Baron Browning at Ohio State and Jacob Phillips are two of the elite looking linebackers in the country, from just a physical stature standpoint.”
Phillips was one of three linebackers the Tigers signed this cycle, with Georgia inside linebacker Tyler Taylor and Livona's Patrick Queen, in hopes of shoring up a somewhat depleted position.
They signed just three inside linebackers over the past three years, and Duke Riley and Kendell Beckwith are off to the NFL after standout senior seasons. It leaves only three inside linebackers from the 2016 roster: Devin White, Donnie Alexander and Devin Voorhies.
Add in that LSU missed on a pair of Baton Rouge native linebackers — Bama signees Dylan Moses and Chris Allen — and the Tigers needed that pledge from Phillips.
“I talked a lot of football with him, talked a lot of about the depth chart and opportunity to play,” defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said of recruiting Phillips. “I think we do a good job of coaching linebackers here. I try to paint the difference and the linebacker play. Austin’s part was reaching out and getting to know mom and dad and people around mom and dad and getting them comfortable with us.”
Tyler Taylor knows Dave Aranda is serious about him playing early as a freshman.
It also established Thomas as one of the most formidable recruiters in the country. He was the primary recruiter for Plaquemine safety Todd Harris and the secondary recruiter for Mississippi quarterback Myles Brennan and Texas edge rusher K’Lavon Chaisson.
The recruiting site 247Sports ranked Thomas as the 11th-best recruiter in 2017.
Upon his hiring as interim coach, Orgeron promoted Thomas to general manager, a catchall title for Thomas’ various roles with the team that aren’t publicly outlined. Shea Dixon, who covers LSU recruiting for 247Sports, said he believes Thomas plays a part in “everything from the evaluation side of things to the personnel side of things to even the search for new assistant coaches.”
LSU is uncertain if Thomas will continue recruiting off-campus. He's only able to do so through a waiver from the NCAA, granted to LSU largely because of the position a midseason firing put the staff in. Thomas recruited in place of the Tigers’ 75-year-old defensive line coach, Pete Jenkins.
“There are other general managers out there. Arizona, for instance, has a general manager (Matt Dudek),” Dixon said. “But I think that nobody’s doing it at the level or with the success that Austin has been able to to pull off.”
Ed Orgeron continues to secure his new coaching staff.
Though his approach may have been the same, Thomas’ recruitment of Stevens was different than the recruitment of Phillips, whose family had to pay their own way for an unofficial visit to LSU in January. Even his own high school coach, Brian Waite, who spoke glowingly of coaching Phillips and how the linebacker handled the recruiting process overall, believed Phillips should have remained committed to Oklahoma.
Phillips could not be reached for comment on this story.
“He really hated to make the de-commitment,” Waite said. “He was married to those guys for 3½ months, but he made a decision that was important to both he and his family and his future.
“I’m a married man; I believe in the word ‘commitment,’” Waite continued. “Once you’re committed to something, you remain committed to it. But unforeseen circumstances arose, and there was a change in his opinion and where he wanted to go.”
Phillips visited LSU at camp last summer and had the Tigers in his top five, but he verbally committed to Oklahoma at a school ceremony in October. Dixon said Phillips had a close relationship with other members of the Sooners’ recruiting class, but Thomas’ connections to Nashville kept the door open for the Tigers. He maintained contact with Phillips through the end of the football season, allowing LSU to intensify its push when the December open contact period began.
Thomas’ pitch to Phillips and his family was the same as it was to Stevens.
“What I told them from the beginning is," Austin said, "‘I’m going to be open and honest. I want you to do what’s best for you. All I’m going to do is I’m going to give you the information on LSU and let you guys make a decision. I’m not going to talk about Oklahoma. I’m going to talk bad about anybody else. What I want to do is I want to develop a genuine relationship with each one of you — mom, dad, Jacob. From there, you guys as a family will decide what’s best for you. All I’ll do is support you.' At the end of the day, it came down to that relationship.”
Ross Dellenger contributed to this report.