As LSU heads into the open week, I figure now is as good of time as any to try and put down some thoughts on Les Miles and where we stand as a program. While it's true enough that this may be a discussion better reserved for the offseason, considering two huge games remain, of which two victories or two losses could heavily tilt the overall outcome of this season, I will justify assessing now by the fact that I genuinely think LSU winning those games would be a bit of a surprise. Not because LSU is incapable of winning those games, but after 9 games, we have a pretty good idea of what this team is, and that's a team that is defensively poor, offensively inconsistent and overall solid, but not great. That makes winning on the road against the best team in the nation seem unlikely, and beating a team that's likely our equal, in doubt.
Now, before assessing, let's make a few things clear. Firstly, I actively support Les Miles. I do not believe this to be born of delusional optimism, but I can acknowledge my own bias. In all matters Les, I tend to lean optimistic. That should be known and acknowledged. Secondly, LSU is currently is no position to fire Les Miles. It's simply not a feasible answer to any problem. Not at this point. Not right now.
All that said, I'm a strong believer in continual self-assessment and the need to constantly seek to improve. The title of this post is Assessing Les Miles, so it's not a well-intentioned plea for everyone to realize how silly "FIRE MILES" sounds. It's not even a matter of fact, "Well, I'm glad you feel that way, but let me tell you how it really is," post. It's an assessment. Or at least an attempt at one.
So here we go. A multi-part series that will give a whole sale evaluation of Les Miles.
Les the Recruiter
Recruiting is the lifeblood of every great college football program. We can quibble over the merits of the star system in recruiting, but the fact is there's a strong correlation between those who recruit well and those who consistently win big.
Based on evidence, there is a lot to like here. Since 2005, LSU managed the following Rivals.com Team Rankings: 22, 7, 11, 2, 6, 6, 18, 6. That averages out to about a 9th ranked finish every season. If we toss out the outlier of the 2005 recruiting class, we're landing, on average, 7th nationally each season. It's a strong number, but maybe lower than anticipated, considering the constant admiration regarding our talent level. In response to this, I see two theoretical outcomes: A) LSU's recruiting classes, specifically the heavy number of Louisiana players, are consistently undervalued. Or B) Les Miles and the coaching staff are developing and finding talent at a much better level than they are credited. For now, we will ignore B), though it's likely the true explanation is a meshing of the two. So what then, do these recruiting classes look like. Let's go year by year.
2005: This is obviously a broken class due to Miles late hire and the loss of Saban. Still, Miles late recruiting efforts netted Brandon LaFell, Trindon Holliday, Ricky-Jean Francois, and Ryan Perrilloux. Ignoring the failure that was Perrilloux, Miles found three significant contributors in the short weeks since January 2, 2005 when he was hired. The class finished with just 13 players and only Ciron Black, Al Jones (Rahim Alem), Lyle Hitt, Darry Beckwith and Chris Hawkins significantly contributed of the Saban-recruited bunch.
2006: Miles first full effort was regarded well amongst national analysts, but featured a heavy number of non-contributors. Four stars like Matt Allen, Shomari Clemons, Charles Deas, Ricky Dixon, Derrick Odom and Zhamal Thomas all busted and never contributed for a variety of reasons. The crown jewel of the class, Al Woods, never lived up to his lofty 5-star status. Nor did 5-star Keiland Williams. Interestingly, the best two players in this class were both out of state players and HS teammates: Kelvin Sheppard and Perry Riley.
2007: This class not only ranked well, it performed well. Of the 27 commitments, the following players became significant contributors: Joseph Barksdale, Will Blackwell, Ron Brooks, Demetrius Byrd, Josh Dworaczyk, T-Bob Hebert, Josh Jasper, Chad Jones, Mitch Joseph, Jarrett Lee, Drake Nevis, Stevan Ridley, and Terrance Tolliver. 13/27 may not sound god, but finding that number of contributors in a single recruiting class is a wild hit.
2008: This is a class of highs and lows, but I nudge it to more good than bad simply because of the inclusion of Patrick Peterson, who is arguably one of the most important recruits in LSU history. The class also yielded Ryan Baker, Chase Clement, Lavar Edwards, Karnell Hatcher, Alex Hurst, Jordan Jefferson, P.J. Lonergan, Deangelo Peterson, and Brandon Taylor.
2009: If 2008 started the ball rolling for LSU recruiting nationally, 2009 locked it in as an expected recurrence. The 2nd ranked class in the nation brought in 5-stars Russell Shepard, Craig Loston, Chris Davenport and Rueben Randle. While only Randle came close to matching that hype, Shepard and Loston play significant snaps, in the very least. The stars of this class can mostly be found on the defensive side of the ball: Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo, Kevin Minter, Morris Claiborne, Bennie Logan, and Lamin Barrow. The offensive standouts were Michael Ford and Chris Faulk. It's a class of unquestionable success.
2010: Following up on an outstanding 2009, the 2010 represents a slight step backward, but hardly a fall into irrelevancy. This class completed the outstanding secondary we fielded in 2011, nabbing Eric Reid, Tyrann Mathieu and Tharold Simon. Other contributors: Alfred Blue, Kadron Boone, J.C. Copeland, Travis Dickson, Ego Ferguson, Elliott Porter, Spencer Ware, D.J. Welter, and Brad Wing.
2011: This is probably the last class we can make any type of assessment of, due to the youth of the 2012 and 2013 players. For 2011, we landed practically every offensive stalwart you'll see on the field Saturday. Odell Beckham Jr., La'El Collins, Kenny Hilliard, Jarvis Landry, Terrance Magee, and Trai Turner. Jeremy Hill was originally a member of this class as well. That's 2/5 your OL, your top QB, RB and WRs... all in one class. Not to mention these guys: Micah Eugene, Freak Johnson, Ronald Martin, Jermauria Rasco, and Quentin Thomas. This is a case of a class likely outperforming it's already strong rating.
2012-2013: It's too early to give an accurate assessment of contributors from these classes, but here's a few names we're already seeing heavily: Danielle Hunter, Kwon Alexander, Vadal Alexander, Travin Dural, Reid Ferguson, Jerald Hawkins, Jamie Keehn, Jalen Mills, Corey Thompson , Dwayne Thomas, Christian LaCouture, Rashard Robinson, and Tre'Davious White. There's a host of other names from these who've also seen snaps this year, but I limited the list to those we see the most. Early signs point to both of these classes, particularly the wildly underrated 2012 bunch, will outperform their ranking.
So then, where does that leave us? Obviously citing major contributors doesn't give us a full picture, because, at the end of the day, you have to play someone. At least a few of the names I mentioned above aren't players we'll generally remember fondly, regardless of whether they played significant snaps or not. Being a "starter" doesn't mean as much if the guys you are beating out simply aren't very good or ready to play.
We can use NFL talent as a barometer. It doesn't tell the whole story, but it's at least a decent component to evaluating talent level. Since 2006, 25 LSU football players have been drafted. That's 5 players a signing class, or roughly a fifth of the signing class each season. I don't want to extend the effort to see how that compares to other programs, but I'd guess it's at or near the top. That number should only increase with the 2014 NFL Draft, as LSU features a host of draft eligible players.
The Hits and Misses
By nature of the human element, there will always be misses. Players bust, at every level, for all manner of reasons. The important thing is not that you never bust; it's that you take action to correct busts. If you recruit a 5-star quarterback, but can clearly tell in his first two years that he'll never materialize, don't wait until he's a Junior to recruit his replacement. Be aggressive and fix the problem. When you are LSU, you have the luxury of being able to lure top players on a yearly basis. So from a talent evaluation and recruiting stand point, what are the areas we've excelled in? And what are the areas we've struggled?
QB: Major failure here. Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee, though both highly rated, were not good. The first QB Miles recruited, Ryan Perrilloux, likely would have been very good, but off the field issues lead to his dismissal. Chris Garrett, and Jerrard Randall both transferred out. Zach Lee opted to play professional baseball. Stephen Rivers has already been passed by a true freshman. If you want to count Russell Shepard here (and i'm not sure you should), that would be another missed evaluation. That leaves Zach Mettenberger as the lone success story in eight years, and even he will only have had one strong season.
RB: High level of success. We've featured a heavy rotation of backs almost every year under Miles. Charles Scott, Jacob Hester, Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard, and Jeremy Hill have all taken turns as leading backs during the Miles era. Even if some of these backs didn't live up to "5-star" expectations, it's hard to argue that they are not a super success.
WR: Mixed bag. This one gets a little chicken-or-the-egg treatment, as LSU's passing game woes likely prohibited a strong level of success. That said, I'm also a big believer in talent winning out, and really talented players will find a way to succeed, even if it's on the next level. By that measure, only three LSU WRs are currently in the NFL: Rueben Randle, Russell Shepard and Brandon LaFell. Of those three, Shepard is fighting for an NFL roster spot, on his second team already, while Randle and LaFell are solid, but not special players.
NFL careers isn't the only indication of success, but the numbers posted by the others throughout their careers speak for themselves. That said, the production of Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. this season raise this from a major miss to something more middling.
TE: Big miss. Whether by design or poor evaluation, the role of the TE as a pass catcher has completely disappeared in the LSU offense. Richard Dickson was the late "major" contributor and his season high receiving total was 375 yards. DeAngelo Peterson was never anything more than a workout warrior. Chase Clement and Mitch, glorified offensive tackles. Travis Dickson's shown some flashes, but still never become a consistent factor. Dillon Gordon and Logan Stokes are the new Clement/Joseph.
The one hope is DeSean Smith, a highly talented true freshman, but we haven't seen him play in weeks after being heavily involved early in the year. Smith and the incoming Jacory Washington should be able to help elevate this position, but it's not been good otherwise.
OT: Mostly positive. Ciron Black, Alex Hurst, Chris Faulk, La'el Collins, Joseph Barksdale, have all played a lot of good minutes for LSU. Offensive line has not be a true sore spot for LSU during most seasons of the Miles tenure. Collins only recently moved to tackle, but we're all well aware of his talents. I still question the logic, or lack thereof, of not moving him to LT last year, but so it is.
We have missed on a fair number as well. Evan Washington is now a reserve guard and will likely be a career backup. Chris Davenport was a failed DT and then OT, and transferred out. Greg Shaw was never anything more than a reserve. Jarvis Jones and Stavion Lowe were both booted for behavioral issues. The vote is still out on Jerald Hawkins, who has really struggled in recent weeks. Not a ton of draft picks here, either. I think it's a positive job overall, but not overwhelmingly so.
OG/C: Much like the tackles, we've had a series of solid, dependable players up front, but few studs. There's been quite a few recruiting misses here as well: Matt Allen, Steven Singleton, Ernest McCoy, Mark Snyder, Zhamal Thomas, Cordian Hagans, Clay Spencer, and Carneal Ainsworth. The primary interior linemen in the Miles era have been Josh Dworaczyk, T-Bob Hebert, Will Blackwell, P.J. Lonergan and Josh Williford. Though those four certainly had moments of success, I wouldn't call them studs either.
DE: Great success. Let's start with the misses: Sidell Corley, Kentravis Aubrey, Chancey Aghayere. That's it. Rahim Alem and Pep Levingston were solid starters, that should be considered a net positive. But it's Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo that make this a major win. Both were phenomenal players throughout their careers. Toss in Lavar Edwards as a sub, and that's a pretty good job at the position. Current ends Rasco, Hunter and Allen all flash at times as well.
DT: Good success. This one could probably be great, depending on your thoughts on the players. Michael Brockers was a phenomenal job. Drake Nevis was a good get. Bennie Logan was a great find. Freak Johnson has been good, but probably not as good as advertised. Ego Ferguson, similar to Freak. The rest? Just a bunch of guys. Al Woods was a bust, but not an awful one. Chris Davenport was a total bust. Josh Downs is the only other name on the list we've seen much from.
LB: Average or below. Not an abject disaster, as Kelvin Sheppard, Perry Riley and Kevin Minter were all very good players and now playing in the NFL. The rest? Eesh. Derrick Odom got booted. Jacob Cutrera was a career backup. Ryan Baker was good, then average. Kyle Prater, Luke Muncie and Kellen Theriot never turned out. Lamin Barrow's up and down. Tahj Jones can't stay healthy, nor keep a starting spot. Kwon Alexander looks the part, but hasn't put it all together. There is hope with strong recent recruits, but it's largely been a miss in the Miles era.
CB: Smashing success. Without a doubt, the best position we've recruited under Miles. Peterson, Claiborne, Mathieu, were all superstar talents. Guys like Simon, Brooks, and Mills are good players. Then the crop of youngsters now, and it's looking awful strong. There are busts: Ronnie Vinson, Jai Eugene, Phelon Jones. But corners at LSU are as good as they've ever been.
S: Solid. Chad Jones and Eric Reid were big hits. Brandon Taylor is still one of my favorite players ever because he was just so solid. Craig Loston's been up and down. Karnell Hatcher wasn't terribly good. Stefoin Francois was a bust, that we moved to LB by his career's end. We haven't seen much from the other youngsters, but there are some stud safeties in this year's class, namely Ed Paris.
There's really no way to deem the recruiting efforts of Miles and staff as anything but phenomenal. We're pumping out NFL talent, we're bringing in highly ranked classes, AND we're unearthing a solid number of underrated contributors, which speaks to a good level of evaluation. LSU, right now, is maybe in the midst of their strongest recruiting class, ever. There's still a lot of dominoes left to fall, but there could be around 6-8 five star talents in this class alone, which is usually the type of class you can build a National Championship around.
If there's a strong reason for objection, it's that we've failed monumentally at recruiting QBs. Mettenberger is the lone bright spot. I do have extremely high hopes for Anthony Jennings, though. LSU NEEDS Jennings to be a hit, if for nothing else, to attract other future talents. I like Brandon Harris in this year's class as well, so things are, hopefully, looking up in that area.
Usually in recruiting, there's a clear cut top 2-3 classes, and then the classes from 4-11 are really all pretty equal. LSU is falling squarely in that 4-11 range consistently. As a fan, that's not a spot you can be too upset with. Could LSU do better, on a yearly basis? I don't know. In recent years, we've been extending our national reach, pulling players from Illinois, Ohio, California, and New Jersey. Being that we feature prominently on the national stage, we should continue to see such growth, as LSU fans will be popping up all over the country, instead of regionally, as we've seen in the past. And we're not doing so at the sacrifice of in-state recruiting, either. We continue to land the best in the state, with a few notable exceptions. Now, those exceptions are both from recent years, so could that be cause for concern? You hope not. It would NOT be a good thing if Alabama was able to come into Louisiana and take one of the best players every other year.
Overall, you have to like where we stand. If you're evaluating Les Miles as a recruiter, it's something you can only be positive about.