Grant Delpit climbed into the family car thinking he was going on a weekend vacation to Memphis. Most of the family thought the same. They packed a few bags, a few belongings — nothing so much out of the ordinary that would indicate there was an immense danger brewing in the Gulf of Mexico.
Delpit's father was in the kitchen of their New Orleans home, trying to convince Delpit’s grandmother she didn’t need to put her family’s pictures above the cabinets.
It’s not going to reach that high, he told her.
She looked at him.
Put it there anyway, she said.
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Delpit sat next to his infant sister, Grace, as the car arrived in Memphis. The family visited Graceland. Beale Street. Delpit was 6 years old and thought he would soon be returning to his friends.
Then, the family saw their house on television — the roof, rather, protruding from a lake of dark, murky water.
Delpit’s grandmother’s pictures were the only family mementos not destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
For the first month of the college football season there has been no more compelling story than the LSU Tigers.
It took nearly a year for the family to buy a new home in Houston, and they tried to keep Delpit active by enrolling him in a flag football league.
Delpit was the smallest thing out there, a terrier that had never been able to sit still. The Delpits had season tickets to New Orleans Saints games — a subscription they kept even in Houston — and they’d try and wear young Delpit out by letting him run up and down the Superdome ramps before kickoff. Delpit never seemed to tire, weaving between patrons in his tiny Saints uniform. He believed he would one day play safety for LSU, like Tyrann Mathieu, and for the Saints, like Kenny Vaccaro, who were two of his heroes.
Now, Delpit is being compared to just about any great defensive back that has worn purple and gold — from Mathieu to Jamal Adams, who now plays for the New York Jets.
The 6-foot-3, 203-pound strong safety has been one of the most dynamic players during No. 5 LSU’s 5-0 start this season. Delpit is tied for the team lead in both sacks (three) and interceptions (two), and he leads the team with 6½ tackles for loss.
“I think he’s done a great job of keeping up the tradition and also making a name for himself,” said Mathieu, now a safety with the Houston Texans. “Not living in other guys’ shadows. I think everybody’s watching him for sure.”
Delpit recorded 2½ tackles for loss, a sack and an interception in LSU’s 45-16 win over Ole Miss last Saturday, and while he was surrounded by a semicircle of reporters during postgame interviews, inside linebacker Devin White shouted “Grant Delpit for Heisman!” until Delpit sheepishly shooed White away.
“It’s a little early for that,” Delpit told the reporters.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron called Delpit “a dominating player” on Monday — a versatile defender in Dave Aranda’s defense, who can be placed deep in coverage to shut down wide receivers, dropped even with linebackers to stop the run, or blitzed off the edge to sack the quarterback.
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Delpit chases down plays with reckless abandon, perhaps most illustrated against Ole Miss, when Delpit leaped several feet to deflect (and nearly intercept) a pass after rushing off the left edge.
It’s a character trait that’s been a part of his game ever since he was a 5-foot-6, 130-pound freshman at St. Thomas High in Houston.
“If you were getting tackled, you were getting all 130 pounds,” said Rich McGuire, Delpit’s defensive coordinator at St. Thomas. “He was never holding anything back. He knew his ability. That’s why he was aggressive.”
Delpit seemed to always have a natural athletic ability. He'd learned how to effectively swing a baseball bat by the time he was 4, and when his father suggested to the Carrollton Boosters in New Orleans that Delpit may be too advanced for T-ball, the league said they were going to keep Delpit within his age group.
The first ball Delpit hit off the tee, he hit a line drive that popped the pitcher square in the face.
The league moved Delpit up, afterward.
John Battle, LSU’s fifth-year starting free safety, said Delpit possesses that “magnet to the ball” quality he’d seen in Mathieu, who finished fifth in the 2011 Heisman Trophy voting and won the Bednarik Award as the nation's top defensive player after making dynamic, highlight-reel, game-changing plays all season. Even before plays, Battle said he can see Delpit sense something and start creeping in a certain direction before the snap.
Four key facts to know as No. 5 LSU visits No. 22 Florida on Saturday in Gainesville, Florida.
He’s up to something, Battle says he thinks. Yeah, he’s up to something.
Delpit intercepted Ole Miss on the second play of the game, ranging from the middle of the field to snag the ball on the sideline. Battle compared the play with an interception he saw Adams make against Alabama in 2016 on the third play of the game.
“(Adams’ interception) was film study,” Battle said. “He knew the set. He knew to cheat over, and he took off. With Grant, it’s more a natural thing for him.”
'You could see the transformation'
“He may kill me for this,” Donnie Abraham began, “but adversity early on made him a better player.”
In the fall of 2016, Delpit had enrolled at IMG Academy — a boarding school in Bradenton, Florida, which attracts from across the nation and produces some of the biggest prospects in college football.
Abraham, who was Delpit’s defensive coordinator at IMG, told the story about the Ascender’s second game of that season. IMG beat Centennial (California) 50-49 in a slugfest that was branded Game of the Year by MaxPreps.
It was far from the game of the year for Delpit, however.
“That was the first time he’s been, as they say, put on ESPN,” said Abraham, who was an NFL cornerback from 1996 to 2004 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets. “It took him a week or two to recover and to understand, ‘Hey, it happens you know? The best players in the world get beat. It’s how you respond. How you come back.’ Once he realized that it is OK, he responded.”
There were immense standards at IMG. “This place isn’t for everybody,” head coach Kevin Wright said. Players were up at 6:30 a.m., had position meetings at 7:45 a.m., walkthroughs an hour later, and then they were off to class.
The prestige of teammates heightened personal expectations. Delpit played defense with Isaiah Pryor and Marcus Williamson, who now play in the secondary at Ohio state, and Dylan Moses, the former University High standout who is now the starting inside linebacker at Alabama.
LSU has been both a substantial underdog and a substantial favorite this season.
And once Delpit accepted he was not a perfect player, Abraham said, he was free to make plays on the field.
Battle noticed the same growth last season, when Delpit replaced Adams as the starting strong safety as a true freshman. Delpit admitted earlier in August that he thought “the big stage got to me a little bit” in 2017, when he finished fourth on the team with 60 tackles.
“He was ‘I don’t want to mess up; I don’t want to give up the big play,’ ” Battle said. “He’s more of a risk-taker now. Like on that (Ole Miss interception)? He just took off. He just understands the game more also.”
Delpit’s understanding of the game deepened while at IMG, where players were forced to stand at the whiteboard during position meetings and draw up plays in front of their teammates.
“They had to get up on the board,” said Wright, who runs a 4-2-5 defense at IMG. “Had to draw up route combinations: two-by-two, open set, double-vertical concept, Cover 4. ‘What does everybody do in cover? Linebackers included.’ ”
“I don’t know if he was a film guy before. He was a film football guy after he got here.”
Of course, Abraham said, everyone struggles drawing up plays on the board when they first get called. But over time, the dry erase marker moved quicker, and the lines were drawn more confidently.
By the end of the 2016 season, when IMG went 13-0, Delpit led the team with six interceptions and was seventh with 47 tackles.
“You could see the transformation in him, getting more comfortable,” said Abraham, who now lives in Florida after coaching defensive backs at Illinois in 2017. “Every week, there was a growing confidence in him that you could see.”
Depth on the offensive line arrived at the right time for LSU, which will face its toughest defensive front of the season Saturday at Florida.
Delpit was selected to the Under Armour All-America Game, then he enrolled early at LSU in the spring of 2017. When the Tigers opened the season against BYU, Delpit started as a true freshman.
"He was balling out," said sophomore cornerback Greedy Williams, who said the secondary calls Delpit 'Baby Mal,' after Jamal Adams. "How can you not put a kid on the field that started catching interceptions and making all the tackles? He even had more tackles than (All-American linebacker) Devin (White) in the spring game.
"Just watching him perform at that high level, we knew he was ready. All he needed was the playbook. And for sure, we got that in him and he's balling out now."
At a Baton Rouge Rotary Club luncheon in August, Orgeron made a hint so subtle, patrons may not have picked up on the clue over the clatter of their silverware.
“Dave (Aranda) has a lot of tools that we haven’t used yet,” Orgeron said with a grin. “In about two weeks out, you’ll see a little more movement, a little more blitzing than we’ve done in the past.”
Sure enough, Delpit was unleashed against then-No. 8 Miami in the season opener at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where LSU bolted to a 30-point lead in a convincing 33-17 win.
Delpit, who had fully recovered from a broken collarbone he suffered in spring camp, led the team with two tackles for loss and recorded a sack, capturing a share of the spotlight on the nation’s only televised college football game of the night.
Battle said LSU’s 22-21 win at Auburn is when “it went off for” Delpit, who cut in front of his receiver on the second play of the game to intercept Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Delpit recorded a career-high 10 tackles against then-No. 7 Auburn, solidifying his status as one of the most influential players on a defense that ranks 12th nationally with 15 points allowed per game.
Delpit’s breakout season continues into Saturday’s game at Florida — the program that most feuds with LSU’s claim on the title of Defensive Back University.
Delpit has connected with his school's and his unit's own alumni, Adams and Mathieu, on Instagram, requesting advice to improve, which will help keep the tradition alive.
“We talk all the time between messages and stuff,” Mathieu said. “He reminds me a lot of Jamal Adams. A lot of energy. A lot of passion. Always wants information. Always wants to feed off guys, learn from guys. That says a lot about him, and I can tell that by the way he plays.”
Here's some perspective from the Florida Gators' sideline. Five questions with Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel.