Back in August, Grant Delpit sat inside LSU’s practice facility surrounded by hype.
He had represented LSU at Southeastern Conference media days, earned the coveted No. 7 jersey after a unanimous All-American season and landed near the top of mock NFL draft boards. Coach Ed Orgeron called him the best defensive player in the nation.
Delpit, a safety, understood the expectations filling his junior year. He needed to lead LSU’s defense. He hoped to prevent a drop-off in his performance and earn unanimous All-American honors for the second straight season.
By the end of the year, Delpit wanted to cement his legacy so future LSU defensive backs received comparisons to him. He aspired to leave LSU as one of the greatest players in school history, but more than anything, Delpit longed for a national championship.
“It's a lot of goals, but really, the one goal to get your name etched in stone is you've got to win it all,” Delpit said during preseason practice. “You've got to do everything you can to make it to New Orleans in January.”
The next four months did not pass like Delpit expected — he played through injuries, missed tackles and changed positions — but Delpit has reached New Orleans, the site of the College Football Playoff National Championship, where No. 1 LSU will play No. 3 Clemson on Jan. 13.
With his once-sprained ankle feeling healthier, Delpit has stabilized LSU’s defense the last three games. This season has challenged him, but in one week, he can end it how he wanted.
“Grant Delpit is a top-10 pick, and he's playing like it right now,” senior defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence said. “Whenever he got healthy, this defense kind of took off.”
The injuries began before LSU’s first game and stretched through the schedule. Delpit missed more than a week of preseason practice with an undisclosed injury. He was treated for cramps against Texas. He played through pain against Vanderbilt. He busted his lip against Utah State and went down late against Florida.
After LSU beat Mississippi State in mid-October, Orgeron said Delpit had overcompensated for nagging shoulder pain. Delpit denied it. His performance had lagged, but he didn’t want excuses.
Delpit’s parents said he has not played a game at full health this season.
“It was about being available for his team, being a leader on his team and even if he wasn't 100%, you weren't going to know it,” said Delpit’s mother, Endya. “He wanted to be out there and perform to his best.”
In the midst of the injuries, Delpit’s role changed after junior safety Todd Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury during LSU’s third game. Delpit had to play further from the line of scrimmage, reducing his chances to blitz and stop the run.
With Delpit covering the deep portion of the field, junior safety JaCoby Stevens played closer to the ball, much like Delpit did last season.
“Whatever position they put me,” Delpit said, “I'm going to play it.”
For awhile, Delpit tried too hard to repeat his sophomore season. He missed tackles. He felt pressure. He played over-aggressive instead of letting his instincts take over. Delpit criticized himself, but he eventually relaxed, leading the team in tackles with 11 against Mississippi State. He felt comfortable again.
A week later, Delpit sprained his ankle during LSU’s win over Auburn. He struggled through the next two games as the sprain stunted his lateral movement and speed.
“It was hard, especially being in the middle of the field at free safety, with a bum ankle,” Delpit said. “It's hard because it's a lot of running.”
LSU’s coaches and athletic trainers insisted Delpit not play against Arkansas. He hated watching from the sideline, but the rest helped.
Delpit felt close to full speed when he returned to the lineup. Then, LSU played two of its best defensive games this season against Texas A&M and Georgia in the SEC Championship, allowing 17 combined points.
“I think you saw it when he finally got healthy,” quarterback Joe Burrow said. “He was being tough all year and battling through injuries. He got healthy toward the end of the year, and that was kind of the turning point of our defense.”
Inside the College Football Hall of Fame less than a week after the SEC Championship, Delpit and his family waited for the announcement of the Jim Thorpe Award winner.
Despite the injuries and decreased stat line — Delpit has 56 tackles, one sack and two interceptions, all lower than his sophomore year — he remained in contention for the award. Delpit had wanted the honor, given to the best defensive back in the nation, since his freshman season. He thought he deserved it last year, his father said.
As they sat through the awards show, Delpit’s mother felt her heart pounding inside her chest and wondered if people watching on television noticed it. Then, Delpit received the award. He bowed his head, collected himself and hugged his mother.
Almost one month later, the moment still feels surreal. For Delpit, it felt like winning the Heisman Trophy. The honor helped cap his season and recognized his character, but Delpit’s priority remains further ahead in New Orleans.
When Delpit was young, before his family evacuated to Houston because of Hurricane Katrina, he ran up and down the ramps inside Mercedes-Benz Superdome. His parents owned Saints season-tickets, which they renewed in Houston, driving to home games every year. Delpit sometimes joined them as he got older.
“All the fans knew him because he would run non-stop,” Delpit’s father said. “They would say he's going to play in the Superdome one day.”
Delpit’s college career began in the Superdome, where LSU played its 2017 season opener against BYU, a game moved from Houston because of Hurricane Harvey. Delpit recorded two tackles that day, beginning one of the most successful careers by a defensive back in school history.
Three seasons later, Delpit may end his career in the same building. He has not made a decision on the NFL Draft, instead focusing on the national championship.
Healthy and comfortable, the accomplishment Delpit wants to define his career — more than the Thorpe Award, the No. 7 or the unanimous All-American recognition — remains within reach.
"That's one of the reasons he went to LSU," Delpit's father said. "He said, 'I want to win a national championship.'"