Losing 23 players early to NFL draft hurts LSU depth, so who’s next? _lowres

Former LSU defensive end Danielle Hunter (99), now with the Minnesota Vikings, had another monster day in a Week 16 loss to the Green Bay Packers with six tackles, 1.5 sacks, two quarterback hits and one tackle for loss. A second-year pro, Hunter is third in the NFL with 12 sacks. (AP File Photo/Ann Heisenfelt).

The thought has entered Tre’Davious White’s mind more than once.

What if defensive end Danielle Hunter, a junior last season who left early for the NFL, had stayed at LSU for his senior year? He’d get to learn under pass-rush guru Ed Orgeron.

Orgeron has transformed an LSU line from a disappointing unit that produced 19 sacks last season to a team strength that’s rolled up 21 through eight games. He’s made a little-known former defensive tackle, Lewis Neal, into a Southeastern Conference sack monster.

“It’s always amazing to think back. Think about a guy like Danielle having a year with Coach O,” White said of the long, rangy and athletic Hunter. “You’ll never know how it’ll end up because they’re gone but to have them around now ... ”

White trailed off, but many LSU fans could finish that statement.

Hunter might have helped No. 9 LSU (7-1, 4-1 SEC) beat Alabama and could assist the Tigers during a rough November stretch that continues Saturday night against Arkansas (5-4, 3-2).

Days after the 30-16 loss at Alabama, many are attempting to wrap their minds around this: LSU has lost five straight to Bama.

How? Losing 23 players early to the NFL draft over a four-year span doesn’t help. That’s like losing an entire recruiting class — a highly touted one, loaded with five-star talent.

Coach Les Miles’ team is currently experiencing the repercussions of such an exodus: The Tigers are thin in spots and are playing young players in key roles.

They are starting a true freshman at cornerback and defensive end and two first-year players on the offensive line — a unit Bama exposed Saturday. Their two linebackers — Kendell Beckwith and Deion Jones — rarely leave the field.

Both linebackers have played every defensive snap of a handful of games this season, including Bama. In the second half, the Tide wore down a Tigers defensive front that rotates just three players regularly.

The numbers show the depth issues. LSU’s defense has allowed 10 points in the first quarter this season and just 64 in the first half of games. They’ve given up 124 points in the second half.

Hunter and linebacker Kwon Alexander, a junior who also left for the pros after last season, could have helped. Jalen Collins, a third early departure last year, is also missed. LSU’s secondary has battled communication problems and injuries.

“You can always say, ‘What if?’ or, ‘What they would be accomplishing if they were here?’ ” receiver Malachi Dupre said. “At the end of the day, those guys are having so much success (in the NFL).”

As the calendar turns closer to January, the question always beckons among a fan base accustomed to losing juniors to the pros: Who’s departing early this season?

The list of draft-eligible starters is a long one, but just three are currently projected in the top three rounds of the draft, according to CBSSports.com: Beckwith, cornerback Tre’Davious White and receiver Travin Dural, a fourth-year player who redshirted.

Beckwith is slotted for the second round, White the first round and Dural the second or third round. CBSSports.com has White as its fourth-best cornerback in the draft, and Beckwith as its second-best inside linebacker.

The trio was in agreement during interviews this week: It’s far too early to think about the future.

When will it be time?

“After we win the national championship,” said a smiling White. “I didn’t come here to go three years and out. I came here to get an education, try to be the first grandchild of my grandma’s to graduate college.”

White is the fourth-oldest of eight grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

But will the first-round talent pass up a multi-million dollar signing bonus? Jalen Mills did last season. He wasn’t a first-round projection, but Mills would have likely signed for a good chunk of cash like Hunter.

Hunter, picked in the third round, could be a first-round projection this year in line to sign a contract of more than $10 million — at least three times as much as the $2.9 million deal he signed this year with the Vikings.

Mills returned for a senior year that was cut in half after he fractured his ankle during preseason camp. He played in his first full game of the year against Alabama.

Any regrets in staying?

“None. I know the game I play. It?s a physical game,” he said. “Who’s to say that if I went to the NFL, the same thing could have happened?”

Mills admits he had somewhat planned to turn pro early. And then Miles visited his home in Texas to re-recruit him, something the coach did with most of his draft-eligible players in January.

“Right after we played Notre Dame, it kind of hit me. A dream that I always had could come true, or I could come back and the dream of winning a championship at LSU could come true,” Mills said. “As soon as that final game hit, I remember everybody was already in the locker room. I remember just looking at the field like, ‘I could turn a dream into a reality, or I could come back and give my all for LSU.’ ”

Mills is far from the only one who has such a dream. Dupre, a highly touted wideout from New Orleans, admits that coaches use the three-and-done trend to their advantage on the recruiting trail.

Come play for LSU and you’ll be ready for the NFL in three years, they say. After that third year, if you’re not a first-round projection, they then urge you to return.

“It’s kind of contradictory, but at the same time, they respect me and they root for the guys who move on the NFL,” Dupre said. “I don’t know if the coaches or players look back and say, ‘What would they do if those guys were still here?’ ”

Miles says he doesn’t. At the same time, the coach bristles in a way when he’s reminded that he’s lost 23 players — most of them key starters — in a four-year span. It’s a frustrating topic for the coach.

More players have left early at LSU than any other college football program. “How am I to keep them,” he asked a group of reporters recently.

The school pays for insurance policies for many draft-eligible players, Miles said. LSU has some of the finest facilities nationally, he adds.

“The issue is … how do I keep that class?” Miles said. “Wish I knew exactly how to punch those buttons.”

READY OR NOT?

Draft-eligible starters for LSU and their current NFL draft projection, according to CBSSports.com:

Position Name: Projected round, Position Rank in Class

LB Kendell Beckwith: Second, No. 2 (ILB)

CB Tre’Davious White: First round, No. 4 (CB)

WR Travin Dural: Second-third rounds, No. 8 (WR)

LT Jerald Hawkins: N/A

C Ethan Pocic: N/A

DE Lewis Neal: N/A

DT Christian LaCouture: N/A

DB Dwayne Thomas: N/A

S Rickey Jefferson: N/A

SENIOR STATUS

Senior starters for LSU and their current NFL draft projections, according to CBSSports.com:

Position Name: Projected round, Position Rank in Class

RT Vadal Alexander: Second round, No. 2 (OG)

DB Jalen Mills: Second-third rounds, No. 2 (FS)

LB Deion Jones: Fourth round, No. 13 (OLB)

TE Dillon Gordon: N/A, No. 21 (TE)

LB Lamar Louis: N/A, No. 37 (OLB)

*possibly eligible for a medical redshirt

SEE YA

Early departures at LSU since Les Miles took over in 2005:

2015: 3

2014: 7**

2013: 10*

2012: 3

2011: 2

2010: 1

2009: 1

2008: 0

2007: 1

2006: 0

2005: 0

**Includes RB Alfred Blue, who passed on a fifth-year of eligibility.

*Excludes Tyrann Mathieu, who was dismissed before the 2012 season.