Roach Baylor

Texas defensive end Malcolm Roach rushes the passer against Baylor.

AUSTIN, Texas — The Baton Rouge native fidgeted on a tall cushioned chair in a suite overlooking Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium while a huddle of reporters asked about his hometown team.

It was a Tuesday afternoon, and in four days, Texas defensive end Malcolm Roach was going to watch the No. 6 LSU Tigers (1-0) run through that burnt orange end zone, fielding a defense riddled with future NFL draft picks.

The circumstance begged the question: Why didn't Roach, a Longhorn team captain and Lott Trophy watch list member, end up with them?

"How serious did you consider them?" a local reporter asked. "Just wasn't home?"

Roach peeked up, rubbing his leg with his right hand.

"The fact was they didn't want me," Roach said.

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No, LSU never offered a scholarship to the 6-foot-3, 290-pound Madison Prep Academy graduate, who was a four-time All-State selection before being named honorable mention for Big 12 defensive freshman of the year in 2016.

Former LSU offensive coordinator Cam Cameron visited him frequently, Roach said, but instead, the Tigers' 2016 recruiting class filled up with future starters like Ed Alexander, Rashard Lawrence and Glen Logan. Others signees, like Caleb Roddy and Sci Martin, eventually transferred from the program.

There were questions at the time about what position Roach would play, his father said, and indeed, Roach has shifted between linebacker and defensive line throughout a career that has included injury and a coaching staff change.

But now, the senior has solidified his spot on the defensive line, where Texas defensive coordinator Todd Orlando expects Roach to excel in his aggressive, attacking scheme.

Truthfully, Roach, 21, said he never thought he'd be in the "predicament" of wondering why LSU didn't offer him.

His childhood dreams were filled with visions of playing football for Southern, where his father, Mike, was an All-American linebacker, or for Grambling State, where Mike was the defensive coordinator from 1997 to 2004.

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But it was Grambling from the beginning. Shortly after Malcolm was born, Mike remembers taking his baby son on the team's road trip to Hampton University in New York, and the coaching staff took turns holding Malcolm on the plane.

Malcolm watched games from the sidelines, sat in on film studies and traveled on coaching clinic tours. He watched Grambling win three straight Southwestern Athletic Conference championships in the early 2000s under former head coach Doug Williams, while his father's aggressive 4-3 defense bombarded opposing offenses.

Young Malcolm sat among gigantic defenders as his father drew out schemes and formations in team meetings.

"Growing up, I had no idea what they were talking about," said Roach, who recorded two tackles, one for a loss, in a 45-14 win over Louisiana Tech last Saturday. "I hear the terminology now, and it's the first thing I think about. I heard that when I was 3-years old, 4-years old (I was in there), not even knowing what I was around."

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Malcolm had a rather unconventional path to playing football himself: One of his first sports was actually gymnastics, something he continued all the way into middle school.

Malcolm was a big kid, Mike said, a surprising sight for people to see excel in tumbling exercises and rope climbs from the floor to the ceiling.

Having trouble imagining that?

Try this: Malcolm's first varsity football game was in the fourth grade. 

Yes. The fourth grade. Malcolm was a nine-year letterman.

Mike was the head coach at Southern Lab by then, and since the school included all grades from kindergarten to 12th grade, Malcolm was technically eligible (a rule that has since been limited by the LHSAA to further restrict elementary students from competing in varsity events).

"He played special teams," said Mike, who coached Southern Lab from 2004 to 2010. "If we were blowing somebody out at Southern Lab and if it was a smaller team, we'd play him at a little linebacker. He made a couple tackles."

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Oh, and at about 5-foot-5, Malcolm could hold his own.

Mike remembers when former LSU safety Chad Jones moved from New Orleans to Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina.

Jones, who won a national championship as a safety (2007), College World Series as an outfielder (2009), and Super Bowl XLVI with the New York Giants, arrived at Southern Lab practice and went through drills as a running back.

"We put Malcolm in to get his chance, and he knocked him down," Mike said. "We had to say, 'Hey, Chad's the best player on the team!'"

Mike had to keep his eye on Malcolm, who would try and sneak into the weight room and lift weights with the high school kids. One time Mike had to issue a warning when he found Malcolm benching the bar: "Man, you're going to stunt your growth. Don't fool with these weights."

Malcolm grew soon enough, and Williams offered him his first scholarship when he was in the ninth grade.

"Well, yeah," said Williams, a former Super Bowl MVP quarterback for the Washington Redskins who coached Malcolm's older brother, also named Mike, from 2011 to 2013. "I didn't know how long I was gonna be there. Little Mike played for me. I told him, 'You're going to play for me too when you get old enough.'"

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But by the time Roach left Southern Lab to finish high school playing for his father at Madison Prep, it was clear he was going to be a Division I player with the offers that were rolling in. Among them were SEC schools like Arkansas, Mississippi State, Missouri and Tennessee — a list that made the absence of LSU all the more puzzling.

"I think he wanted to be wanted, I'll say that," Mike said.

Former LSU defensive line coach Brick Haley landed at Texas when the Les Miles staff dissolved after the 2016 season ended, and he shared Malcolm's film with former Longhorns coach Charlie Strong.

Strong invited Malcolm to Texas' summer camps, Mike said, and when the family's schedule filled up with other schools' camps, Strong called to offer a scholarship without ever having seen him in person.

In 34 games and 11 starts over the next three seasons, Malcolm recorded 94 tackles, 13½ tackles for loss and five sacks while playing behind former Big 12 Charles Omenihu.

And after recording five tackles in the 2018 Big 12 championship game against Oklahoma and four more in the Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia, Malcolm has another chance to show his worth.

"I think he wants to have a good game," Mike said. "Show that he can play with the SEC... I think he wants to prove he can play with the best. I think he's proven that already."

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Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.