Lloyd Cushenberry III has never been a guy who chased stars. The fact that he became one in his own right while helping LSU win a national championship in January is, in his own words, “a blessing.”
Up next for Cushenberry is the NFL draft that begins Thursday. It is the chance of a lifetime and the second-team All-America center is again betting on himself by leaving a year of college eligibility behind.
“What it came down to was this — I felt like everything I wanted to accomplish at LSU I did. I graduated, I helped win a national championship and became a leader,” Cushenberry said. “I felt like I owed it to myself to come on this (NFL) level and try to make a name for myself.”
The former Dutchtown High standout has heard from naysayers many times before. Cushenberry never offers lip service in return — he sets out to prove them wrong. When he received the NFL draft grade of “return to college” not long after LSU ousted Clemson in the title game, it was a challenge, not a deterrent.
The 6-foot-3, 312-pound Cushenberry has been overlooked and underestimated often. But he has always made the most of every opportunity along the way.
As a high school player, Cushenberry did not attend camps and combines that typically enhance a player’s star status. Instead, he chose to work out with his teammates and committed to South Carolina first and then to Mississippi State before flipping his commitment to the Tigers the night before signing day.
The three-star guy signed with LSU. Yes, Cushenberry, the last player added to the 2016 signing class, exits as an All-American.
“I talked to Cam Cameron several times that year and he always told me, ‘Coach, we’ve got four-star and five-star guys ahead of him, but he’s on our list,’ ” former Dutchtown coach Benny Saia, now head coach at Ascension Catholic, said. “A spot opened up, LSU took him and you see what happened. Lloyd did what he’s always done … he worked and proved he belonged.”
Cushenberry’s desire to achieve pre-dates his days as a recruit. A severely broken ankle freshman season at Dutchtown ended his pursuit of basketball and also put him in a wheelchair for several weeks.
“You see a guy in a wheelchair and you wonder if he can come back from that,” said former DHS offensive line coach Bill Jones, now an assistant at Episcopal. “But Lloyd not only came back, he was a starter on the varsity as a sophomore.”
A decision by Saia and Jones to get Cushenberry practice reps at center also paid off. But it took time, starting with a redshirt season at LSU. Cushenberry, the prototypical strong, silent type watched the guys in front of him on the depth chart — Ethan Pocic (Seahawks) and Will Clapp (Saints).
“Basketball was my first sport. Kobe Bryant was one of my favorite players. When Kobe came into the league, he talked to Michael Jordan and asked questions,” Cushenberry said. “He talked to the other older players and asked questions. That’s what I did at LSU. And that's what I will do after I get drafted.
“I always felt like I could prove myself no matter what college I ended up at. I knew I would put in the work. Ethan and Will took me under their wing. They showed me how to work on the college level — what to do in workouts and taught me how to break down film. I still talk to those guys and get advice.”
There were doubts before Cushenberry took over as LSU’s starting center in 2018 and started 28 straight games. Critics thought he was undersized. Being the first LSU lineman chosen for LSU’s No. 18 jersey honor cemented his status as a team leader prior to the 2019 season. As a lineman, he wore No. 79, but the No. 18 also affixed to his jersey was more than a symbol.
“I thought Rashard Lawrence would get it,” Cushenberry recalled. “He was very deserving. A senior leader who had come back from an injury. Once my name was called, it was emotional. I was speechless at first. But I took it to heart.
"I had to step up and be a leader at all times. I felt like everything I did was under a microscope. If the younger guys saw me on a list of guys not going to class or missing tutoring it would not look good. I had to do the right things on and off the field.”
Despite that initial “return to school” grade from the NFL, Cushenberry is now rated as the No. 2 center in the draft, behind Washington’s Nick Harris. He hopes the versatility to play guard makes him more attractive. Former LSU and NFL center Todd McClure, who played 13 years with the Falcons, is a Cushenberry fan.
“I love his hands, the way he moves his feet and the way he plays. Offensive linemen usually only get attention when they make mistakes. He doesn't make mistakes,” McClure said. “You need a leader there in the middle and he is a leader. And when you talk to the people at LSU, they tell you they love him even more as a person. What else do you need to know?”
Cushenberry works out each morning with another former LSU lineman, Damien Lewis. The duo runs on the levee and goes through a series of body-weight based workouts LSU strength coach Tommy Moffitt gave LSU players before the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down the campus. Afternoons are reserved for Skype and Zoom interviews with NFL teams.
Being projected as a second-round pick with teams like the Broncos, Chiefs and Falcons expressing interest is not a focal point for Cushenberry.
“There are some teams with needs for interior O-linemen. But it really doesn’t matter who picks me, it will be a blessing,” Cushenberry said. “Whoever picks me is going to get a guy who will give everything for the organization. I am going to come in day one and put in work. I want to help win some games.”