A recruiting battle for north Louisiana is unfolding in Tuscaloosa _lowres

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU football coach Les Miles speaks to fans during the signing day festivities in February.

The first time Rashard Lawrence caught the eye of Neville coach Mick McCarty wasn’t on a football field — it was on the baseball diamond.

Lawrence, now a five-star football recruit at Neville in Monroe, was a middle school first baseman at the time and by far the biggest kid out there. McCarty remembers the massive teenager laying out for web gems on more than one occasion.

“He showed some flexibility and movement very uncommon for a kid his size,” McCarty said. “The ability to move with some acceleration and athleticism at his size is impressive.”

McCarty was familiar with him then having known the Lawrence family a long time.

McCarty worked in college at Sam’s Club with Lawrence’s father. And in high school he played against his uncle Oliver, who would one day break records as a linebacker at LSU.

So seeing the younger Lawrence tap into his pedigree didn’t catch McCarty by surprise.

“When he came to us as a high school student, he showed a will to work right away,” McCarty said. “He showed a desire to improve, and he’s continued that to this day.”

Now Lawrence is the No. 1 overall recruit in Louisiana for the 2016 class. He held dozens of offers from just about every major program by his junior year.

But there were two that quickly jumped to the top: LSU and Alabama.

The Tigers offered him in April 2014. Alabama followed suit a few months later. Now they are the teams to beat for this 300-pound defensive tackle.

This isn’t the first time these powerhouses have battled over a kid from Monroe. The history’s filled with players like John Diarse, Cam Robinson and Hootie Jones deciding between the two programs.

Of those, Robinson’s recruitment really sticks with LSU fans though.

Robinson was the nation’s best offensive lineman in the 2014 class. LSU and Alabama were always his top two choices, but he spurned the home-state school to head for Tuscaloosa.

LSU fans placed the blame on then-offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa, who recruited Monroe.

“We had a real good relationship,” said McCarty, who also dealt often with Studrawa. “I always thought highly of him ... but blame has to be laid on somebody.”

LSU and Studrawa parted ways after that season. Jeff Grimes assumed his place along the offensive line, and Bradley Dale Peveto took over recruiting in Monroe.

Ed Orgeron has also made that an area of focus in his recruiting efforts, and it’s helped tremendously.

“The addition of the ‘Ragin’ Cajun’ down there has really been a big bonus for LSU,” McCarty said. “He’s come in and showed great passion for the state.”

“We’ve spent a lot of time together,” Lawrence added. “I definitely like what he’s doing with the players and with the program.”

One of the first recruiting visits Orgeron made for LSU was to Neville. Although LSU hadn’t finished its 2015 class at the time, Orgeron wanted Lawrence to know where he fell on his list of priorities.

Their relationship has grown stronger in the year since. It’s a major reason LSU has a spot near the top of his list.

But it’s not a done deal that LSU keeps this one in Louisiana.

Lawrence will be in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, this weekend to see the LSU-Alabama showdown. He joins a star-studded group of recruits drawn to the spectacle of the big weekend.

Crimson Tide assistants Bo Davis and Billy Napier have built just as strong a connection with him as any coach on LSU’s staff.

He has also taken official visits to UCLA and Ohio State. He has heavy interest in Washington, too, because of family living near Seattle.

If history’s any indication, this recruitment will boil down to the SEC powers. Just don’t expect the same drama to follow Lawrence that’s plagued other prospects caught between the Tigers and Tide.

“He’s handled himself very well in the recruiting process,” McCarty said. “He’s remained pretty level-headed through it all.

“He’s really playing out his senior year with his teammates, while knowing he’s got a tremendous decision to make.”

And fans from Baton Rouge to Tuscaloosa are waiting for him to make it.