It sunk in for Travin Dural after the first few games of the 2014 season, after he saw the struggles from a group of first-year receivers, after the dropped passes, miscommunication and wrong routes.
Dural felt guilty about the way he had felt months earlier, when he celebrated the departures of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., a pair of school record-breaking wideouts who left LSU as juniors bound for the NFL draft.
“I was happy,” he said with a smile. “Got to move up on the depth chart!”
Only a few months later did he realize their absence wasn’t such a good thing.
“Once the season started, I kind of said, ‘OK, maybe ... it’s a little harder than I thought,’ ” Dural said, including himself (then a sophomore) among a group of young receivers who lagged during a disappointing 8-5 season. “We needed those guys to learn from for another year. Two years ago, my first year starting, Malachi (Dupre) was a true freshman. Trey Quinn was a true freshman, and D.J. Chark was a true freshman. It was kind of rough that I was the only one who had played. It showed in the passing game.”
LSU experienced years of this at, just about, every position group.
Take, for example, that same 2014 season, when the Tigers lost Landry and Beckham. Two defensive linemen and two running backs off that same team also left early for the draft. After the 2012 season, LSU lost six defensive players: three linemen, a linebacker and two defensive backs.
In all, 23 juniors or redshirt sophomores — the size of an entire signing class — left for the NFL draft in a four-year stretch, starting after the 2011 season.
The trend has stopped — for one season, at least. Junior lineman Jerald Hawkins was the only player to leave early this offseason, the first time since 2010 that the Tigers didn’t have at least two early departures.
What does that mean for the 2016 team? More experience at starting positions, older players at backup spots — they call that “depth” — and a boost in leadership.
The unusually large senior class — 14 scholarship players — and a handful of highly touted juniors are key ingredients to the 2016 Tigers. It’s why coach Les Miles’ team enters this season in the top 10 — if not the top five — in a half-dozen preseason rankings. It’s why ESPN's "College GameDay" will open the 2016 season shooting live from outside of the Tigers’ season-opening venue, Lambeau Field, and why media members picked LSU second in voting for the overall Southeastern Conference champion.
Similar projections were made a year ago, but this LSU team is cut from a different cloth. This team is loaded with the one thing that has been missing for at least three years: experience.
“It’s a little different,” senior linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. “Not too many young guys out there (at practice), a lot more experience. We’re special.”
They’re also old, relatively speaking.
LSU is expected to open the season with more senior starters (10) than it has had in six years. The Tigers should start about 18 upperclassmen, the most since 2012 and the second-most in Miles’ previous 11 years.
“The seniors, the guys that came back, (Ethan) Pocic, Beckwith and (Tre’Davious) White — those guys are the leaders, man,” new running backs coach Jabbar Juluke said. “They’ve taken this team and are leading this team in the right direction.”
Pocic, Beckwith and White are the highest-rated juniors to return for their senior seasons. Defensive linemen Lewis Neal, Christian LaCouture and Tashawn Bower decided against leaving early as well. The same goes for receiver Travin Dural.
“We kind of wanted to leave our mark,” said Dural, a member of the 2012 class who redshirted. “I came before them, and I knew what it felt like to lose, have a real, real good team and lose. They kind of felt the same way. We all had the opportunity to leave, but we all made a decision to come back because, you know, we felt like we still have something to accomplish here.”
In reality, they stayed for their own reasons.
Medical issues affected the draft statuses of three of them: Dural (hamstring), LaCouture (forearm) and Pocic (hip). Bower missed three games last season with an ankle injury, and freshman Arden Key usurped him in the starting lineup — both of which damaged his draft status.
Neal is a unique player. He recently began an investment firm and owns a share of a barber shop. He’s in no rush to leave Baton Rouge before completing his education.
Beckwith and White — both projected as second- to third-rounders — coordinated their decisions, communicating with each other daily during a two-week period in January.
“We could change the culture here at LSU, guys leaving every year,” Beckwith said. “We talked about it.”
A culture change may hinge on decisions from members of the next class. The 2014 signing group was ranked No. 1 for several weeks and finished second nationally, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.
Five members of that class are projected starters, including three at key offensive positions: running back Leonard Fournette, quarterback Brandon Harris and receiver Malachi Dupre. There’s defensive lineman Davon Godchaux, too, and safety Jamal Adams, whom many scouts expect to evolve into a first-round selection.
“We thought that was going to be one of our better classes that came through,” said Corey Raymond, LSU’s defensive backs coach. “They haven’t just proved it on the field, but they’ve proved it off the field, becoming good leaders. When you have a great class like that, it’s not about the great cast of players, it’s about, ‘Are they great leaders off the field?’ "
Who will stay among that group? That question won’t be answered until mid-January, the deadline for declaring for the draft.
Maybe the answer to that question hinges on results of the College Football Playoff.
“We won’t ever live up to the hype until we win a national championship,” Dupre said. “I know the other guys feel the same way. We came in here and had the same common goal. Our time here won’t be complete until we do that. We’ve done a pretty decent job so far on the field. We expect bigger things this year — nothing less than a national championship.”
Fournette’s days are numbered. Barring an unforeseen event or injury, he’s playing his last season of college football. At one point last year, ESPN analyst Mel Kiper projected the New Orleans native as the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, if he had been eligible.
The decisions of others from that 2014 class — Dupre, Adams, Godchaux, etc. — will or won’t continue a change in culture at a program that admits to selling the promise of three-years-and-the-NFL to prospects while on the recruiting trail.
It’s all contingent on winning it all, Dural echoed.
“I think it’s in the process of being changed,” he said. “We won’t change until we win a national championship. It’s in the process of changing.”
Junior defensive lineman Greg Gilmore, a member of the 2013 class who redshirted, said the Tigers are “so close” to a title. The return of a giant senior class is a solid start.
“That might be the deciding factor, just those guys’ leadership,” Gilmore said. “We’ve got talent everywhere, but just that leadership.”
THE OLD GUYS
LSU has one of its largest senior classes in several years. It has 10 senior starters, the most since 2009, and 18 upperclassman starters. That’s the second-most under coach Les Miles and the most since 2012.
Regular season record
Starters in previous years are based on the team’s official Week 1 depth chart in conjunction with the actual starters in the season opener. Starters in 2016 are projected by The Advocate. (Christian LaCouture and Corey Thompson would have been the 11th and 12th senior starters before injuries in preseason camp.)
Projected starters by class
Where did the seniors come from?
Mostly from the 2013 signing class. Sixteen players of that 28-member class are still with the program, but six of them redshirted. Three players from the 2012 class are fifth-year seniors. Colin Jeter, a signee out of junior college in 2014, gives the Tigers 14 scholarship seniors, excluding kicker Colby Delahoussaye.
2013 class — still here
DB Tre’Davious White
OL Ethan Pocic
LB Kendell Beckwith
TE DeSean Smith
OL Josh Boutte
DL Tashawn Bower
DB Rickey Jefferson
DL Christian LaCouture
DL Lewis Neal
LB Duke Riley
2012 class — redshirted
K Colby Delahoussaye*
DB Dwayne Thomas
DB Corey Thompson
WR Travin Dural
2014 class — JUCO transfer
TE Colin Jeter
* — It’s unclear whether Delahoussaye is on scholarship
The Tigers are led by seniors, but eight juniors are also expected to start. Three of them are leaders at key offensive positions — quarterback, running back and receiver — from a highly touted 2014 signing class.
2014 class — still here
RB Leonard Fournette
QB Brandon Harris
WR Malachi Dupre
S Jamal Adams
DL Davon Godchaux
2013 class — redshirted
FB John David Moore
OL K.J. Malone
DL Greg Gilmore
LSU has lost just four players early over the past two seasons. That’s 14 fewer than the Tigers lost in the two seasons before that.
OL Jerald Hawkins
DL Danielle Hunter, DB Jalen Collins, LB Kwon Alexander
DL Anthony Johnson, DL Ego Ferguson, WR Odell Beckham Jr., WR Jarvis Landry, OL Trai Turner, RB Jeremy Hill, RB Afred Blue
DL Barkevious Mingo, DB Eric Reid, OL Chris Faulk, RB Michael Ford, DL Bennie Logan, LB Kevin Minter, DL Sam Montgomery, DB Tharold Simon, RB Spencer Ware, P Brad Wing
DL Michael Brockers, WR Rueben Randle, DB Morris Claiborne
RB Stevan Ridley, DB Patrick Peterson
DB Chad Jones
DL Ricky Jean-Francois
** — includes RB Alfred Blue, who passed on a fifth year of eligibility
* — excludes Tyrann Mathieu, who was dismissed before the 2012 season