Kardell Thomas was probably going to Texas.
That was the chatter, at least. The five-star offensive lineman from Southern Lab remembers the social media stir that sprung from his visit to Austin in February 2016, when new coach Tom Herman offered Thomas a scholarship, when Thomas flashed the "Hook ’em Horns" hand signal in a photo that went straight to Twitter and had LSU fans wondering if the Baton Rouge native would really leave.
Texas was “a strong thought,” Thomas says today — a thought that faded in the months leading into his official visit with LSU, when Ed Orgeron showed him a PowerPoint that compared percentages between the Tigers and Longhorns, the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12, illustrating if players made the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman team, their NFL draft stock shot up.
Coach O was talking early playing time.
Orgeron broke down the depth chart — something Thomas, a guard, said he hadn’t seen any other head coach do — and laid out his pitch plainly: You’re my guy. You have to be ready. I know you’re going to make an impact on this team.
Thomas had made his decision. He turned and saw LSU’s recruiting board on the wall. He recognized names at the top of the list: Dunham School cornerback Derek Stingley; Marcus High (Texas) outside linebacker Marcel Brooks; Southern Lab running back Tyrion Davis.
Thomas had played with Davis and Stingley, and he’d attended camps and college visits with Brooks. He knew each of them well.
Thomas turned back to Orgeron: “I’ll get these guys to come and play.”
At that point, Thomas became a de facto leader in LSU’s 2019 recruiting class.
College coaches around the nation are scrambling to fill up their recruiting boards before the early signing period begins Dec. 19, and for th…
It’s a phenomenon that has played out publicly in the age of social media: A top recruit commits to a program, then leads the battle cry to draw other top players under his program’s banner.
Its easy to see why this is useful for college coaches, who are hamstrung by a bevy of rigid NCAA recruiting rules.
“(Recruits) have points of access that coaches don’t have,” said Barton Simmons, 247Sports’ national recruiting reporter. “Coaches can send a guy to an All-Star event, All-American events, 7-on-7 events and say, ‘Hey, we really want this player. See what you can do.’ And that happens. And there’s been commitments that hinge on roommate assignments at All-American games.”
It happened when Todd Kelly and Jalen Hurd rallied Tennessee’s 2014 recruits to become the nation’s No. 7-ranked class, according to 247Sports. The next year, Texas had the nation’s No. 10 recruiting class when Charles Omenihu and Malik Jefferson helped lasso other Longhorns.
Call them player-recruiters. Call them bandleaders. Orgeron calls them “bellcows,” and he said during Tuesday’s news conference that “you’re always looking for that type of guy.”
“(You’re looking for) guys of stature,” said Orgeron, who cannot speak about specific recruits because of NCAA rules. “Guys that are very intelligent. Guys that say, ‘I want to come to LSU and this is my school, and I’m not going nowhere else.’ And they start recruiting the class.”
That pretty much defines Thomas — a 6-foot-3, 356-pounder nicknamed “Mr. Pancake,” a player whom Dunham’s Stingley described as “the nicest dude off the field.”
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Thomas has befriended and exchanged phone numbers with elite recruits at All-Star events, and he has promoted LSU on his Twitter account.
On Tuesday, Thomas did a 10-minute interview with WNXX-FM, 104.5 in Baton Rouge, and Southern Lab coach Darrell Asberry told The Advocate he could see Thomas becoming a commentator on ESPN one day.
“He understands life is a business,” said Asberry, a Baton Rouge native who spent nine years as a college head coach at Texas Southern and Division II Shaw University. “He understands how to communicate with people.”
But just how much does a “bellcow” actually help improve a recruiting class? Do other recruits really listen?
“It really affects the relationships we have,” said Southern Lab’s Davis, the nation’s No. 8 running back. “They’re going to trust your word.”
Davis received his first SEC offer from Alabama, and why wouldn’t he have been tempted to join the Crimson Tide — a program that has churned out four active NFL running backs, including the New Orleans Saints’ Mark Ingram?
But once that LSU offer rolled in, Davis said Thomas was in his ear: Don’t go to Alabama. Stay here and win a few national championships. We can be like Jeremy Hill and La’el Collins. Maybe even better.
Davis, who had grown up an LSU fan, committed to the Tigers.
Devonta Lee leaped for a 35-yard touchdown reception Friday inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
In March, Brooks, the linebacker from Marcus High in Flower Mound, Texas — the nation’s No. 3 outside linebacker — attended LSU’s Junior Day at Tiger Stadium. He walked with Thomas onto the field and gazed up at the massive concrete bleachers.
“He just told himself, ‘I can see myself playing here,’ ” Thomas said. “I just told him: ‘This could be you. These people can be screaming for you.’ ”
Brooks committed to LSU in April.
Stingley, who had re-opened his recruitment after initially committing to LSU in 2016, started to notice the trend.
“I was just seeing what all (Thomas) was doing by being committed,” said Stingley, the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit. “How he was pulling in people and putting a name for himself. I noticed that, and it made me want to be a part of it.”
Stingley committed to LSU in June.
Ed Orgeron said he is "fired up" about LSU recruiting, the morning after one of the Tigers' biggest victories on the recruiting trail.
There are several others Thomas keeps close contact with, including Taulia Tagovailoa, the younger brother of Alabama's star quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, who is committed to the Crimson Tide.
"I don't care what anybody says; I feel like Taulia's coming (to LSU)," Thomas insisted.
“Momentum in recruiting is real,” Simmons said. “Ultimately, all recruiting is — it’s about building relationships and creating an environment that the kids are comfortable in joining. And so, if you’ve got a class that’s sort of recruiting itself ... if you’ve got players that are taking a real initiative, in terms of building that brotherhood and building that relationship throughout the class, that’s pretty meaningful, and it can create that momentum.”
Sounds a lot like the business world, doesn’t it? Maybe a little like a scene out of “Glengarry Glen Ross” — Always be closing!
But this is no sly sit-in. No, Thomas said; recruits can sniff insincerity from a mile away.
Even though Thomas has traveled across the country, visiting campuses from Florida State to Penn State, he doesn’t try to compare those programs to LSU with other recruits, and he doesn’t repeatedly send them glowing reviews about LSU football.
“You can’t, because then people will feel like you don’t really care about them; you just care about them coming,” Thomas said. “If I’m going to be real, I’m going to be real.
"If I feel like I’m close to you, I’m going to talk to you. I’m going to tell you the truth about the school, and we’ll get into that. And that’s what makes people want to come and connect with me, because it’s like, ‘He’s going to be truthful, no matter what. He’s not going to lie to me. He’s going to tell the truth.’ ”
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Thomas said Alabama native George Pickens, the nation’s No. 7 wide receiver, once asked him: “When’s LSU adding a quarterback?” Thomas had no reply — until Central High’s (Alabama) Peter Parrish, the nation’s No. 13 dual-threat quarterback, committed to LSU in June.
Pickens remains committed to Auburn.
And Thomas knows when to lay off. He said he and the nation’s No. 1 defensive tackle, Amite High’s Ishmael Sopsher, “don’t really talk like that.” He gives distance to Sopsher — who is being heavily recruited by both LSU and Alabama — and recognizes that it’s more of “a mental decision rather than a heart decision” for him.
And a quick scroll through Thomas’ Twitter account shows that he gets equally excited for peers that express interest somewhere other than LSU.
Last week, Thomas retweeted a photo of four-star linebacker Christian Harris (committed to Alabama) receiving his All-American Bowl jersey.
Thomas also retweeted a post from Cedar Hill (Texas) High offensive tackle Courtland Ford, which said he “had a great time” at his official visit at LSU last weekend. A few days later, when Ford posted that he’d received an offer from Tennessee, Thomas commented: “Congrats bro!”
“That’s basically what people don’t realize,” Thomas said. “Anytime you’re blessed to go to the Floridas, Alabamas, that’s big. I don’t care where people go. I just want to see them make it. We all went through the same thing, waking up, working out, going through harsh days. It’s paying off for us, and I love to see people get what they put in.”
It’s all part of a personality that Stingley said makes Thomas endearing. His passion for LSU and the game of football is genuine.
His father, Karl, played at Jackson State and transferred to LSU, where he never played, and when the family settled in Baton Rouge, Karl coached Thomas’ traveling football team, the Oakside Panthers.
Thomas idolized LSU’s All-American nose tackle, Glenn Dorsey, who he said possessed that "it factor" — that “no matter if he was just taking on a double-team, he was impacting the game.”
It’s something that Thomas — a lifelong dweller in the trenches — has worked to emulate.
“When I get on the field, I want people to be like, ‘Oh, look at Kardell. He’s going to do something electrifying,’ ” Thomas said. “If it’s running down the field with whoever the running back is, or if it’s picking up a fumble and running — even if it’s a hard crackback hit, I want to be known in the same way QBs and wide receivers are. Something electric’s going to happen.”
Thomas even struck a Heisman pose for a photograph while on an official visit at LSU last weekend. Thomas posted the picture on Twitter, which shows him in a full No. 70 LSU uniform, with the caption "Kardell For Heisman."
The sight of an offensive lineman making such a statement drew some playful jeers; but Thomas insists the picture was no joke.
"People got this whole persona of O-linemen being just O-linemen," he said. "You've got to stick out, and you've got to stand out. If you (are) regular, people are just going to treat you regular."
It's the sort of explanation that might inspire another recruit. Less than two weeks away from the early signing period, perhaps that was partially the photograph's intention.
Thomas has announced he will sign Dec. 19 — the first of three days in early signing.
And who knows who else may sign with Thomas?
Something electric might happen.