It was a night when Ed Orgeron’s worst fears were realized.
The LSU Tigers went to Mississippi State on Sept. 17, 2017, and got trounced 37-7 by the Bulldogs, in large part because their offensive and defensive linemen, thin on numbers and mostly inexperienced, got pushed around by a shockingly deeper and more physical opponent.
Despite that loss and an equally embarrassing 24-21 defeat against Troy two weeks later, LSU’s problems did not prove fatal. The Tigers went on to win six of their final eight games to finish a respectable 9-4 in Orgeron's first full year in charge.
But the other two losses, 24-10 at Alabama and 21-17 to Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl, further highlighted the Tigers’ issues at the line of scrimmage. It is not insignificant that both Bama and Notre Dame were in the College Football Playoff this season, an achievement to which LSU still aspires five years into the game’s new championship system.
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“We need to get more linemen on this football team,” Orgeron said after his team got stuffed in Starkville. “We need to get bigger, stronger, faster, and we need to have more depth. That’s why we are going to have to go into the junior college ranks.”
Being deficient on the lines is not a problem LSU fell into overnight. And it is not a problem Orgeron and his staff could rectify quickly. But LSU made being better and deeper on the lines a high priority of 2018 and 2019 recruiting classes.
Call it Project Lineman.
Our player-by-player breakdown of LSU's commitments, signees and the top targets remaining.
The numbers tell the story. Of the 22 signees who found their way to LSU’s campus in 2018, 11 were linemen. Going into the start of the traditional February national signing period, the Tigers have six linemen who signed in the early period in December and two more commitments.
Mesa (Arizona) Community College defensive end Soni Fonua, who committed to the Tigers over the weekend, is expected to sign Wednesday, but a report by 247Sports.com says four-star Ruston tackle Ray Parker will likely not sign with LSU and go the junior college route.
If that is the case with Parker, the Tigers will likely have four remaining spots under the 25-signee limit. LSU has, legitimately, nine targets remaining. Not surprisingly, several of them are linemen.
LSU has no bigger target, literally and figuratively, than 6-foot-3, 334-pound defensive tackle Ishmael Sopsher of Amite. True to his word, the battle for Sopsher will go all the way to the end, with LSU, Alabama and Oregon vying for his signature.
After an early signing haul in December that included three five-star athletes — Dunham School cornerback Derek Stingley, Destrehan running back John Emery and linebacker Marcel Brooks of Flower Mound, Texas — Sopsher is the key to LSU recruiting happiness in the new year.
The Tigers need Sopsher not only to address their depth issues on the defensive line — he is one of the top-50 rated players in the country and listed by 247Sports.com as the nation’s fifth-best at his position — but for the sake of perception in LSU’s ongoing pursuit of Alabama.
To this point Alabama has only one player in its top-rated recruiting class from Louisiana: University High linebacker Christian Harris, who signed in December. If LSU could hold Alabama’s recruiting count in Louisiana to that number, it would be a psychological victory for the Tigers in their continuing pursuit of a way to beat the Crimson Tide on the field for the first time since 2011.
LSU is also hoping for a late pledge from four-star Louisville, Mississippi, defensive end Charles Moore, a former Mississippi State commitment.
Even if Sopsher and Moore don’t become Tigers, Project Lineman will have paid off abundantly. On offense, the Tigers return 12 veterans (13 if suspended guard Ed Ingram returns to the team). Players like center Lloyd Cushenberry and tackles Saahdiq Charles and Austin Deculus, who will be joined by newcomers like Kardell Thomas from Southern Lab and Michigan’s Anthony Bradford, a pair of four-star guards.
On defense, getting Rashard Lawrence to return for his senior season was a huge boost, giving LSU nine returning veterans on its base three-man front. Ika and Fonua will join Haynesville defensive tackle Joseph Evans in the freshman class.
Nearly five decades ago, Petelo Kaufusi sent for his cousin in the Tongan village of Koloa.
Alabama under Nick Saban didn’t reinvent football to build its incredible decade of success, last month’s trouncing in the CFP title game by Clemson notwithstanding. The Crimson Tide just does the basic things to near perfection. That starts with blocking and tackling and dominating the line of scrimmage — essential building blocks of championship football.
LSU’s pursuit of more and better linemen will not guarantee championships.
But not making the effort would've virtually guaranteed failure.
Project Lineman has given the Tigers a good start.