Michigan landed the nation’s No. 1 player.
Texas made a Texas-sized 11th-hour push, including talking a longtime commitment out of playing in Baton Rouge.
Alabama cleaned up, as usual.
But let there be no debate: On this 2016 national signing day, there was no bigger winner than LSU coach Les Miles.
LSU emerged from college football’s annual talent tussle with a consensus top-three recruiting class. It fell short of the national No. 1 ranking so many Tigers fans craved and that looked for so long like it would be theirs, but LSU tied a record by signing 19 players off the ESPN 300 ranking of the nation’s top recruits. That’s 19 of the 23 players it signed overall, more even than ESPN No. 1 Florida State or No. 2 Bama. (Both had 16.)
In any recruiting season, that would be a remarkable haul, requiring literally years of effort spent in tens of thousands of miles crisscrossing the country. But considering what Miles and the LSU program have endured the past three months, LSU’s class is one of the most amazing achievements in this or any recruiting year.
Three months ago, LSU was unbeaten and ranked No. 2 in the first College Football Playoff rankings. Then the bottom fell out: an unprecedented (in the Miles era) three straight losses to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss. Losses that lit a campfire under Miles’ chair and ignited nationwide speculation and debate over whether he would be back as LSU’s coach in 2016.
The Tigers beat Texas A&M in the regular-season finale. Miles got a reprieve from LSU’s administration, then another bounce-back win over Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl.
But soon a coaching exodus began. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele left the day after the bowl for Auburn. A few weeks later, Frank Wilson, LSU’s recruiting coordinator and chief string-puller on this glittering class, fulfilled a longtime dream and became head coach at Texas San Antonio.
So Miles brought in Dave Aranda from Wisconsin to run the defense, one of the hottest young coaches in the college game, a coach who made a favorable impression on more than one defensive prospect left wary by Steele’s departure. They and the rest of LSU’s staff held their talent-laden class together with linebacker Erick Fowler’s signing-day defection to Texas (he’s from just outside Austin) and an earlier switch by quarterback Feleipe Franks to Florida the only major losses. This while holding onto all but one of seven seniors who considered leaving early for the NFL, decisions that leave LSU with a bumper crop of 18 returning starters for 2016.
“This is a team that can win it all,” Miles said before thousands of fans at the Bayou Recruiting Bash at the River Center. Telling them what they want to hear, of course, but Miles believes in his message.
There are going to be ups and downs on national signing day. Fowler flaking on LSU hurt the Tigers in an area of critical need; LSU signed only one true linebacker in Michael Divinity of John Ehret. But the Tigers compensated with a big in-state keep in Rummel cornerback Kristian Fulton, regarded as the No. 1 prospect in an exceptionally deep year for Louisiana recruiting.
LSU’s class could have unraveled along any number of seams, but Miles held it together admirably.
“I think there’s a great cooperative spirit there,” Miles said. “I think the staff understood what needed to be done, and I think Austin Thomas (the administrative assistant who took over Wilson’s duties) did a great job in helping direct and put guys so that we didn’t go by a home visit that needed to be made. I think we were really pretty good there.”
Miles got Fulton to stay close to home and play for LSU, otherwise known by reputation as D-B-U (Defensive Back University) for all the players it pumps into the NFL. After Franks split, Miles filled the doughnut hole in an otherwise tasty class with Zachary quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr., a heady, underappreciated if undersized gamer who chose LSU over Harvard among other schools. (Yes, Harvard.)
“He looks pretty tall to me,” Miles said of the 5-foot-11 Scott.
Why did they come? Why did the recruits stick with LSU when Miles looked like the captain of a sinking ship? There are many reasons: proximity to family, opportunity for playing time, tradition, facilities and curriculums, a dozen other factors.
For Drake Davis, the four-star receiver prospect from Baton Rouge who finished his high school career at the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, the reasons were twofold:
One, this is home.
Two, Miles has the personal touch that made a big impression on the highly touted young man.
Davis recounted a recruiting visit to LSU on the website ThePlayersTribune.com how he bet a friend that Miles would hug him when he saw him standing on the sideline in Tiger Stadium.
“Ten bucks says he shakes your hand,” Davis’ friend said to him. “No hug.”
Davis got a hug.
“Les Miles is a hugger, bro,” Davis wrote.
He’s a survivor, too. And the way he’s won the past 10 weeks bodes well for him and his football program.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.