MOBILE, Ala. — Lloyd Cushenberry III mulled over the NFL draft grade he received.
"Go back to school," it told him. Go back, finish your senior season and try again in 2021.
LSU's starting center considered this brief recommendation. He considered it long enough to view it as another challenge, another naysayer in a career that's been full of them.
The Gonzales native was an undervalued recruit at Dutchtown High, a lineman who thought he was going to Mississippi State until LSU called the day before national signing day with a scholarship offer.
Even once in Baton Rouge, Cushenberry was questioned. Going into the 2018 season, LSU coach Ed Orgeron had his reservations about starting the young center because of his size and whether he'd be able to handle a nose tackle one-on-one.
But he became LSU's starting center in 28 straight games. He became a leader who was the school's first offensive lineman to wear No. 18. He became a second-team All-American who helped turn the offensive line from a liability in 2018 to the Joe Moore Award winner in 2019, given to the nation's top O-line.
On a national championship program that shattered school and NCAA records, Cushenberry learned that the recommendation that mattered most rested in his gut.
He could do the same in the NFL.
"I know it's a different level," Cushenberry said, "but I've been counted out since high school. I was the last signee. I feel like I can make it on this level, and I can prove myself."
He announced his departure for the NFL two days after LSU's 42-25 victory over Clemson in the College Football Playoff National Championship game.
Cushenberry received a phone call of affirmation the next day: He was invited to the Senior Bowl by the All-Star game's executive director Jim Nagy.
It's not common for juniors to be invited to the weeklong event in Mobile, Alabama, where NFL coaches and scouts and agents crowd hotel hallways and the sidelines at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
Juniors must have graduated by December. There must also be room enough on the rosters of the two teams in the event, which have been filling up throughout the 2019 season.
Cushenberry, once a last-minute signee, became a last-minute Senior Bowl addition, along with his teammate, right guard Damien Lewis, who said he accepted his invitation last Friday.
The two LSU products made up the core of the Tigers' offensive line, starting in every game since the beginning of the 2018 season. Now they make up half of LSU's attendees at the Senior Bowl — tight end Stephen Sullivan and deep snapper Blake Ferguson are the others (cornerback Kristian Fulton withdrew due to reported fatigue and a family issue) — and are determined to elevate their draft stock like they lifted their program.
"Every day we've got to come out and compete and show people we can play at a high level," Lewis said Tuesday. "It's just coming out here and making plays, showing we can compete."
And the draft grade recommendation Cushenberry zoomed past like a yield sign?
That came from the NFL's College Advisory Committee, an evaluative group independent from the NCAA and its schools that's intended to increase the percentage of "NFL-ready" players in the draft.
The committee gives out three simple ratings to underclassmen: potential first round, potential second round or neither, which is essentially a recommendation to return to school.
It's a somewhat accurate evaluation, according to NFL reports. In 2017, 40 underclassmen who received a go-back-to-school grade entered the NFL draft anyway. Three were drafted in the first or second round, 27 were drafted in the third round or later, and 10 went undrafted.
Not terrible odds.
But it's enough to give a player pause.
Cushenberry said he didn't enter the 2019 season thinking he'd be leaving early. He tried not thinking about it at all. Once the season started coming to an end, he couldn't ignore it any longer. He talked with his family, with offensive line coach James Cregg, with Orgeron.
Once LSU won the national championship, he'd made up his mind.
"I felt like everything I went to LSU to accomplish I did," Cushenberry said. "Graduated. Won a national championship. Became a leader. Helped change the culture. I just felt like I owed it to myself to come on this level and try to prove myself here."
Just as he had to prove to Orgeron that he was more than a last-day signee, Cushenbery will have to prove he's more than his draft grade indicates.
The advisory committee is made up of scouts from sanctioned NFL organizations — in other words, the same type of guys (if not the same guys) who will be watching Cushenberry perform this week in Mobile.
Tuesday's practice was a good start. Cushenberry worked through drills with the "South" team, coached by the Cincinnati Bengals staff. He held his ground in a blocking drill against South Carolina's projected first-round defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw. He'll practice twice more, on Wednesday and Thursday, before Saturday's game at 1:30 p.m.
Cushenberry vs Kinlaw. ELITE rep from Cushenberry. pic.twitter.com/RjCBKAMGNC— Matt Valdovinos (@MVScouting) January 21, 2020
"I feel like I have to prove that I'm a smart player," Cushenberry said. "I can pick up things fast, and I'm a physical player that's going to finish through the whistle and I can do anything you need as an O-lineman."