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Joe McKnight and the Class of 2007

Just a few quick notes here that touch on a lot of issues involving recruiting.  As most of you probably know, Joe McKnight has declared himself eligible for the 2010 NFL Draft, after a 3-year college career that he himself admits was only "OK". 

A little retrospective is in order.  The 2007 signing class was considered a recruiting bonanza for LSU, headlined by 5-stars Chad Jones and Terrance Toliver and backed up by over a dozen other players who were considered to be future stars or solid players.  It was supposed to be a class that was destined to win championships.  Players like Drake Nevis, T-Bob Hebert, Jarrett Lee, and others formed the heart of this class and the future was very bright.  Well, the class won a national championship, but in 2007 very few of those players were significant contributors.  Since then, ho-hum. 

The wet blanket thrown on the class was the defection of All-American, consensus top 5 player in the country, Joe McKnight from John Curtis High School.  He was long considered a lean to LSU.  He was going to be the crown jewel of the Class of 2007, a dynamic, highly athletic player who could potentially be an All-American and even a Heisman candidate at any of 3 different positions: running back, wide receiver, or cornerback.  (I still, to this day, believe his best position would have been cornerback, but that's a whole other column).  He was also going to be a game-changing return man.  Books were written focusing (in part) on his recruitment and what it could mean.

For whatever reason, he ended up spurning LSU's advances and went to the University of Southern California, in an apparent bid to replace Reggie Bush, whose college career is the stuff of legend.

What happened with McKnight and the entire class of 2007 illustrate virtually every point about recruiting that can be made.

1.  Recruiting rankings can be very deceptive and should not be taken as gospel truth.  McKnight's career at USC was solid.  He was a legitimate starting running back when he was healthy.  He made a number of big plays, was relied upon heavily, and if not for his lofty expectations entering school, his career at USC would probably be considered successful.  But it wasn't what people hoped.  He was not even close to the game-changing player that a Reggie Bush was and he was never seriously discussed as a Heisman Trophy candidate at any time in his career past the midway point of any given season.  The same can be said of the rest of LSU's Class of 2007.  Terrance Toliver was not the instant impact player that some fans expected, though he became highly productive this year.  Chad Jones has been kind of up-and-down, making a few spectacular plays (including game-changing plays against Mississippi State in 2009 and against Alabama in 2007), but has struggled to be the consistently dominant presence that was promised early. 

As for the rest of the vaunted class of 2007, have any of those players really fairly exceeded expectations?  Maybe Drake Nevis.  OK, Josh Jasper has.  Anyone else?  Joe Barksdale was a blue-chip recruit as a defensive lineman, but was quickly moved to offensive line and has been, like Joe McKnight, OK.  Others, like Jarvis Jones, Ernest McCoy, Kentravis Aubrey, Phelon Jones, Sidell Corley, and others, have left the program for one reason or another.  Some of those were supposed to be big-time recruits.  Granted, it's still somewhat early in the careers of these players, at least of those who remain, but it is fair to say that most of these players, from what was considered a fantastic signing class, are not destined for All-SEC honors, with Nevis, Jones, and Toliver possibly excepted.  One or two others may surprise us as well, but the point remains: don't believe the hype.  Poseur calls it "New Toy Syndrome". 

There are inherent uncertainties in projecting the future careers of young players.  Personally, I think these recruiting services are becoming less accurate year by year.  Each year, it seems that the established powers are getting high recruiting rankings almost by default.  After all if Texas (or USC, or Ohio State, or Alabama, or Florida, or any other big school) wants a player, that player must be something special, right?  Right?  I think the Class of 2007 got a ratings boost because it was LSU, at a time when LSU was perceived to be a powerhouse who wouldn't recruit anyone besides the best.

2.  It is VERY important to pick the low-hanging fruit.  For all of Joe McKnight's disappointment, he sure would have been a useful player for us.  If nothing else, he would have been a better return man than anyone we had on our roster.  For all of Trindon Holliday's press and novelty appeal, his career as a return man was ho-hum, and he was not a big threat to make a huge return.  He made a couple, but McKnight as a return man would have improved LSU in each of the three years he would have been there.  He arguably would have been our best running back as well, or at least would have split those honors with Charles Scott.  While McKnight would have failed to meet expectations at LSU, he would have improved the team.  Losing a guy from our backyard who would have improved the team is a big loss.

And who knows, if someone at LSU could have convinced him to switch to cornerback, it could have improved that phase of the game in 2008 and 2009 and made a huge difference in the fortunes of the team.

It is rare you get an opportunity to showcase both the importance of recruiting and the dangers of overemphasizing the importance of recruiting at the same time.