Rashard Lawrence stood in front of a partly cracked locker Monday night. The bent metal folding chair, which did the damage during LSU's pregame motivation ritual, stretched over the top. The Tigers defensive end held a fuming cigar in one hand, a cell phone live-streaming his championship celebration in the other.
"Special moment," Lawrence said, a nasal strip stretched from cheek to cheek. "Special group of guys. We got it done."
Cigar clippings were scattered on the locker-room floor, a haze of smoke flooded the air and LSU quarterback Joe Burrow emerged with a stogie …
The cigars that draped from each players' lips, Lawrence said, came courtesy of "The Mailman," otherwise known as Basketball Hall of Famer Karl Malone — the father of former LSU offensive tackle KJ Malone.
LSU's fourth national championship in school history?
That came courtesy of the players roaming the locker room, the ones who helped No. 1 LSU (15-0) thump No. 3 Clemson 42-25 in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Believe it, LSU fans! The Tigers are the 2020 College Football Playoff champions.
It was a night of fulfilled promises.
Back in 2016, when LSU coach Ed Orgeron was coaching defensive line and Lawrence was a five-star recruit at Neville High, Orgeron lulled one of the state's top prospects away from Ohio State with a premonition: Rashard, one day you're going to be the team captain on a national championship team.
Four years later, Orgeron was proven right.
"I believed him, but I didn't believe him," Lawrence said. "It was one of those things where you take a chance on the head coach, and it worked out."
Joe Burrow completed the greatest season by a quarterback in college football history and led LSU to the College Football Playoff National Championship, completing his childhood dreams.
But there was another promise. Perhaps it was more of a recruiting pitch. A year ago, Lawrence weighed leaving early for the NFL draft after capping his junior season with a Defensive MVP performance in LSU's Fiesta Bowl victory.
In stepped fellow defensive lineman Breiden Fehoko. He was the first LSU player to declare he was returning for his senior season, and he began a campaign that even drifted to social media to retain teammates like Lawrence.
"You only get one chance at winning a college football national championship," Fehoko said he told Lawrence. "Why not do it?"
In 2020, perfection has a name.
Again, Lawrence listened.
Fehoko sat in the locker room corner, eyeblack smeared across his face, a Hawaiian lei sprawled on the clothes behind him.
He was surrounded by the seniors who helped buck LSU's recent trend of underclassmen leaving early for the pros. Before their decisions, 34 such players since 2012 had left early for the draft.
Among those who returned: starting cornerback Kristian Fulton, a potential first-round selection in the NFL draft, and linebacker Michael Divinity, who finished 2019 with three sacks and four tackles for loss.
"I felt Coach O should give me a little payment for recruiting," Fehoko joked. "Now that I'm done with LSU and I don't have to deal with compliance, I feel I should be paid for recruiting purposes. I can say that probably and know I won't get NCAA eligibility taken from me.
"Yes, without a doubt I'm going to take all the credit in bringing (Lawrence) back, every senior you see here back. And I'll probably accept check, cash, PayPal, Venmo, Cash App — however the coaches want to pay me for doing that."
Together, they built a championship foundation, Fehoko said. They established "the standard, what it looks like" for the future.
And speaking of the future...
"We've got guys coming back," Fehoko said. Defensive linemen like "Glen Logan, Neil Farrell, Tyler Shelvin."
Two of LSU’s defensive playmakers treated the 30-pound College Football Playoff trophy quite different.
Fehoko intentionally cleared his throat before saying Logan's name, and he looked immediately at LSU's starting defensive end, who was changing at the locker next door.
Logan shook his head and smiled.
Fehoko was already recruiting again.
"I expect these guys to come back and lead one of the top defenses in the country," he said.
There will be plenty of players weighing similar decisions that Lawrence made. Only one starter on defense is unable to leave for the pros — true freshman cornerback Derek Stingley — and sophomore wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall are the only starters on offense who can't leave for the NFL.
Gone are the senior starters: Heisman Trophy quarterback Joe Burrow. Starting guards Adrian Magee and Damien Lewis. Lawrence and Fulton.
The rest are juniors or redshirt sophomores who have been on campus the minimum three years that grants them eligibility for the NFL.
One of them, starting inside linebacker Patrick Queen, was asked whether he was going to return while sitting next to Orgeron during the post-national championship news conference Tuesday morning.
"I'm not really sure yet," said Queen, who recorded 85 tackles, 12 tackles for loss and three sacks in 2019. "Got to go home and talk to my parents and Coach O, do everything the right way. But LSU is always going to be capable of doing what we did this year. We've got great players, great coaches. As long as we believe in each other, we'll be able to accomplish anything."
Trevor Lawrence had never lost a game in college.
Queen and fellow starting inside linebacker Jacob Phillips are both juniors. Phillips leads the team with 113 tackles, and if both were to leave, LSU would be without two of its top three tacklers.
Sophomores Damone Clark and Micah Baskerville would be the most tenured behind them. Clark had 50 tackles — used often in defensive coordinator Dave Aranda's blitz packages — and Baskerville had 15.
"(Queen) has a decision to make," Orgeron said at the podium Tuesday morning. "I don't know what it's going to be, but I'm going to try to. Right after this, I'm kind of hitting him on the knee right now to stay. But I've got to recruit these guys."
It's also possible outside linebacker K'Lavon Chaisson, projected by some mock drafts as a potential first-rounder, would leave early. True freshman Marcel Brooks filled in for Chaisson when he was battling injury at the start of the year, and it's possible junior outside linebackers Ray Thornton and Andre Anthony will be back for their senior season.
And what of the secondary?
Stingley returns. All-American and Thorpe Award winning safety Grant Delpit is projected to be a first-round draft pick and is expected to leave early. But then there's juniors like safeties JaCoby Stevens and Kary Vincent — players who have had dynamic moments but could also be swayed by Orgeron and benefit their stock with another season.
Either way, there's still depth remaining. Todd Harris was the starting free safety when he suffered a season-ending knee injury against Northwestern State, and the junior is expected to receive an extra year of eligibility. True freshmen Cordale Flott and Mo Hampton also saw significant playing time, filling depth out as safeties.
Somewhere on the list of goals Ja’Marr Chase posted on a mirror in his home included winning a championship.
It's hard to imagine LSU's offense can fully replicate its record-breaking season in 2020, especially with Burrow gone. Backup quarterback Myles Brennan played in spots in 10 games, completing 24 of 40 passes for 353 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Starting center Lloyd Cushenberry and tackles Saahdiq Charles and Austin Deculus are all juniors, as are tight end Thaddeus Moss and dynamic wide receiver Justin Jefferson, whose 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns receiving were eclipsed only by Chase.
After Jefferson, Chase, Marshall and Moss, junior Racey McMath is the next leading receiver with 17 catches for 285 yards and three touchdowns.
The depth on the offensive line is slightly more experienced, if only because Ed Ingram rotated consistently at left guard and once started as a true freshman. Plus, true freshmen Anthony Bradford and Kardell Thomas were both top 15 recruits within their positions before they arrived in Baton Rouge.
"It's going to be difficult to replace these guys," Orgeron said. "But you know, you're at LSU, you should be able to do it."
A video has surfaced on social media of former LSU star Odell Beckham Jr. appearing to hand out cash to LSU players moments after the national…