Recruiting is never a difficult task for LSU.
The Tigers are the only "Power Five" conference school in this talent-laden and football-mad state. The Tigers reel in top-10 classes yearly and crack the top three on occasion, pulling in highly touted in-state prospects who grow up dreaming of playing in purple and gold.
In many ways, this giant that Nick Saban awoke in the early 2000s feeds itself with homegrown Louisiana talent: a plethora of receivers, defensive backs, defensive linemen, offensive linemen, running backs and, at times, a kicker or two.
But there are two position groups that this football factory has been short on: quarterback and, lately, linebacker.
Quarterback just happens to be what many believe is historically the program’s weakest position. But linebacker is a position of need for a third straight signing class.
Less than two months from signing day, LSU enters the final stretch of Ed Orgeron’s first recruiting class with one linebacker committed — and without a highly touted middle linebacker.
“The position is a worry,” said Mike Scarborough, publisher of TigerBait.com, the Rivals website covering LSU recruiting. “It’s such a need position.”
LSU’s linebacker depth has been a point of contention for a couple of years now, ever since the program signed none in 2015. The Tigers have signed just three linebackers in the past three years, and one of them transferred.
There are only three scholarship inside linebackers on the projected 2017 roster. One of them is a converted safety who rarely has played, and another will be a true sophomore who signed in February as a running back.
For a third straight signing class, the need is clear: linebackers.
“Everyone is going to be watching the quarterback recruiting just because it’s an important position, but the top priority is definitely the linebackers because of how they’ve recruited there the past few years,” said Shea Dixon, recruiting reporter for Geaux247, the 247Sports.com site covering LSU. “They’re sitting at one linebacker right now, and I think they’ll take as many linebackers who want on board just because of depth.”
LSU’s linebacker recruiting is in such a troubling state that the issue made its way into court documents. Former coach Les Miles, while deposed this summer, blamed former defensive coordinator John Chavis. A month before LSU signed a 2015 class without a linebacker, Chavis left for Texas A&M in a stunning move that has resulted in a now-21-month-old lawsuit.
“We put John in position to recruit some significant guys,” Miles said in the deposition, according to a transcript obtained by The Advocate through a public records request. “And when John was no longer our defensive coordinator, we lost several guys on our board.”
“Who?” the attorney deposing Miles, Jill Craft, asked the coach, with Chavis in the room during the deposition.
“Well, I can just say this,” Miles answered. “I think we signed not a linebacker.”
Chavis’ departure is not the sole issue to blame for this pickle. Kevin Steele, Chavis’ replacement, stayed for just one year and, like his predecessor, left for an SEC West rival (Auburn) after the Tigers' bowl game — and just a month before signing day.
“Steele came in and people hoped he would be a savior (in recruiting linebackers), but he only stays for a year and leaves before signing day,” Dixon said. “They weren’t able to finish that class out.”
LSU signed one linebacker in the 2016 class: John Ehret's Michael Divinity. Devin White, out of North Webster, signed as a running back and enrolled early before moving to linebacker in spring practice.
The challenging timing of the exits of Chavis and Steele, each of whom served as linebackers coach and was the primary recruiter at the position, is just one of a plethora of reasons to explain the linebacker depth problem. The issue goes much deeper, down to the roots of this football factory.
Louisiana led the nation, per capita, from 2008-13 in players who signed with Football Bowl Subdivision teams, according to an SBNation study. And last year’s signing class included more four- and five-star players (21) per capita than any other state, The Advocate found.
Louisiana churns out football players like no other — except at linebacker, lately, and quarterback.
Just 11 Louisiana quarterbacks signed with major college teams in a span of 11 signing classes from 2005 to 2015. That’s one per year. As for linebackers, 20 of them signed with "Power Five" programs in four signing classes from 2013 to 2016 — six per year for a position group that’s heavily used.
Recruiting analysts point to high school teams placing their best athletes — often college-ready linebackers — at more impactful positions, like quarterback or running back.
“Good example: Kendell Beckwith,” Dixon said of the Tigers' standout senior linebacker. “He played quarterback in high school. These guys are big and can cover, but they end up playing quarterback on their high school team to give the teams the best chance to win.”
“People still say to this day that Kenny Hilliard would have been a better linebacker, and he’d be playing in the NFL at linebacker,” Scarborough said of the former LSU star. “When you’ve got that 6-2, 230-pound guy in high school, you probably have him at running back.”
This is not to say Louisiana does not produce NFL linebackers. It does, and it has recently. Beckwith, out of East Feliciana, is projected as a second-round NFL draft pick this spring, and the Atlanta Falcons took LSU's Deion Jones (Jesuit) in the second round last year.
Louisiana just doesn’t produce linebackers as frequently as it does other positions. The decline in LSU’s linebacker stock coincides with a lack of production from the state.
In 2012, Louisiana produced nine linebackers ranked in the top 50 nationally at their position. The next four signing classes produced a combined 13. The Tigers offered scholarships to seven in-state linebackers in that touted 2012 group; they offered six in-state linebackers over the next four classes.
The Tigers have looked beyond the state’s borders for linebackers, and it has not gone well.
Since 2013, LSU has offered scholarships to 53 linebackers from outside of Louisiana. Only one, Clifton Garrett in 2014, signed with the program. Garrett, an Illinois native, transferred after playing in three games as a freshman.
There were two near-misses, both players who at the last minute chose their home state schools over LSU. In 2015, Leo Lewis, the top-ranked inside linebacker in the nation out of Mississippi, picked Mississippi State. This past class, Erick Fowler, the seventh-best outside linebacker, dropped his verbal pledge to LSU a day before signing day and chose Texas.
LSU has scholarship offers out to 35 linebackers for 2017.
Three are from Louisiana.
“In the years the state’s not producing at linebacker or defensive line or offensive line, can you go out of state and take a kid that Florida or Florida State covets on the D-line or linebacker and get him?” Scarborough said. "That’s the question.”
Alabama continues to be a thorn in LSU’s side in recruiting.
The Tide has verbal commitments from the top two linebackers in Louisiana: Dylan Moses, a Baton Rouge native who transferred in the spring to Florida’s IMG Academy, and Chris Allen of Southern Lab.
Allen and Moses are ranked in the top 10 nationally at their position. This is the first time Louisiana has been home to two top-10 linebackers in a single class since that highly touted haul of 2012. That year, LSU missed out on the top-10 duo of Shiro Davis (Texas) and Denzel Devall (Alabama).
“To be honest, right now, if we’re looking at these two guys, I think the coaching change had a lot to do with it,” Dixon said of Moses and Allen. “That’s not a knock on O. Both were close with Les. I think Bama made a run after Miles was fired. They were seeing uncertainty.”
Orgeron and his staff are trying to flip them both, but they’re running out of time. Moses, the top-ranked outside linebacker in the class and a one-time LSU commitment, plans to enroll early in January. The former University High star visited LSU this weekend. Allen, who committed to Bama two weeks ago, visited LSU three times in the spring.
Allen gave Alabama a commitment from four of the nation's top eight outside linebackers in the class. The rich continue to get richer. But how?
“They’re like Duke and Kentucky in basketball,” Scarborough said. “Look at the Instagram photo (Moses) put out recently: He’s standing over a coffee table with Saban and on the table is the jewelry boxes opened up showing the championship rings they’ve won. It’s like LSU and (the self-proclaimed nickname) 'DBU' getting defensive backs. It feeds itself.”
Linebacker isn’t only a position of need for the Tigers. It’s a position of great significance in coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense. Aranda wants “tough, smart, dependable” linebackers, he said Friday on WNXX-FM, 104.5.
He suggested that he needs smart, instinctual linebackers to combat the growing number of shifty, speedy spread schemes in the college game. Aranda expressed his frustration with LSU’s win at Texas A&M, when the Tigers allowed three fourth-quarter touchdowns against the Aggies' spread scheme.
“That fourth quarter, there’s motions and shifts. People will not just line up, let you get your cleats in the ground and (let you) come downhill on them,” he said. “To make those adjustments, linebackers are right in the middle of it. I see safeties in the same vein. They have to be football smart, understand the game.”
Three in three
The Tigers have only signed three linebackers over the previous three signing classes. One of them, Clifton Garrett, transferred after his freshman season. Devin White, a 2016 signee, signed as a running back before moving to linebacker.
Class of 2016
Class of 2015
Class of 2014
Donnie Alexander, Clifton Garrett
LSU’s linebacker signing classes coincide with the linebacker production in Louisiana, as you might expect:
* — Devin White, now a linebacker, signed as a running back.
State by state
LSU often looks out of state for linebackers, especially over the previous four signing classes. The Tigers mostly look to California and Florida, and just one out-of-state player (Clifton Garrett), out of 53 offered, signed with LSU:
Players offered (signed w/LSU)
'Power Five' picks
The decline in LSU’s linebacker stock coincides with a lack of production from Louisiana. In 2012, the state produced nine linebackers ranked in the top 50 nationally at their position. The next four signing classes produced a combined 13. Here's the rundown since 2012 of Louisiana linebackers and the "Power Five" conference schools they signed with:
National position rank
OLB Michael Divinity
OLB De’jon Harris
OLB Giovanni LaFrance
OLB Pernell Jefferson
OLB Jonathan Picone
OLB Kenny Hebert
National position rank
OLB Marshall Wallace
OLB Arthur McGinnis
ILB Kendrick Jackson
OLB Dwaine Thomas
OLB Tyrin Ferguson
National position rank
ILB Kenny Young
OLB Donnie Alexander
ILB Jaevon Walton
OLB Chris Bradley
National position rank
OLB Kendell Beckwith
ILB Melvin Jones
OLB Darian Claiborne
OLB Duke Riley
ILB Lyn Clark
O. Perry Walker
National position rank
ILB Denzel Devall
OLB Shiro Davis
OLB Lorenzo Phillips
OLB Ronnie Feist
West St. John
OLB Lamar Louis
OLB Otha Peters
OLB Deion Jones
OLB James McFarland
OLB Trey Granier
^ — transferred at some point, many to a lower-level program
LSU's current linebackers
LSU’s 2017 roster as of now is set to include eight scholarship linebackers, including the one linebacker signee currently in the 2017 commit class. Many of these players are hybrid outside linebackers/defensive ends, with just three of them being traditional inside linebackers:
ILB Devin White, So.
ILB Donnie Alexander, Sr.
ILB Devin Voorhies, Sr.^
OLB Michael Divinity, So.
OLB Ray Thornton, RFr.
OLB M.J. Patterson, Sr.^
OLB Corey Thompson, Sr.^
OLB Patrick Queen, Fr.*
* — commitment
^ — Signed with LSU as something other than a linebacker before moving positions
Note: Hybrid defensive end/outside linebackers like Arden Key and Isaiah Washington are not included in this list. Only LSU’s F-linebacker and the two inside positions, Mack and Rover, are included.
Top Class of 2017 linebacker targets
LSU has 35 scholarship offers out to linebackers, but many of these players were offered under Les Miles. Here are the top targets among them, according to recruiting experts:
National position rank
OLB Dylan Moses
IMG Academy (Fla.)
ILB Monty Rice
James Clemens (Ala.)
OLB Chris Allen
OLB Willie Gay
ILB Jacob Phillips
E. Nashville Magnet (Tenn.)
ILB Will Ignont
OLB Levi Jones