"Bigger people beat up little people." - Chip Kelly
For all the praise and hype thrown toward Kelly for his super athletic, speedy squads, the man himself explicitly expresses a preference for big ole hog mollies. Of course, Kelly's speaking less about big chunks on the gridiron than taller, longer types, but the principle is there. Our enemies to the east, in T-Town, illustrate a similar preference for size, even over speed. In recent years, Saban's began to try and recruit smaller, more athletic types to help combat spread offenses, which he notoriously struggles against.
Since hiring Chavis, the LSU defense trends toward the smaller (read: not small) more athletic types rather than big, hulking bodies. Not that we're trotting out 260-pound defensive tackles and such, but generally speaking our players tend to be leaner, functionally strong and athletic. Chavis likes his defenders to be able to run around. That said, the finest defenses in his coaching career tend to feature a monster tackle that's able to command double teams and let those other athletic guys run around and make plays. It's not oft discussed, but the dominance of Michael Brockers in the middle of that 2011 defense may have been just as important as Tyrann Mathieu's wild, game-changing plays or the stellar play from Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo both. Brockers' dominance in the middle even helped cover for the gaping lack of a middle linebacker in that defense.
Could Travonte Valentine be the next hulking tackle for John Chavis?
LSU's defensive tackle recruiting in 2014 narrowed on one primary target: Gerald Willis III. Opinions range on whether Willis will ultimately wind up on the inside or outside in college, but LSU saw him as a havoc-making DT all the way. They courted other def. tackles, but made it clear that Willis was the apple of their eye. As the recruiting process wore on, things seemed more and more tenuous, though LSU still believed themselves to be in the driver's seat with his recruitment. At the Under Armour All-American game, Willis pledged to UF, but the staff had already gone to work impressing Travonte Valentine, a dominant DT in his own right. Valentine spent the week at the U.S. Army All-American bowl, impressing scouts in attendance. Upon arrival in San Antonio, he formally decommitted from Miami, which many consider a positive sign for LSU.
Then, he set about proving his recruiting process served as no distraction. Day one he emerged as the most impressive player on the East squad:
The Miami commitment (who also is looking at LSU) showed dominant streaks at times and was a handful to block. He measured in upon arrival at nearly 6-foot-3 and 338 pounds, but can flat-out move for a prospect his size. It appeared he showed up with something to prove for sure, but regardless of effort level, guys his size simply don’t move like this and don’t have the quickness he does if they aren’t elite prospects at defensive tackle. If the Canes hold on to him (he said Sunday he was firm, but there is definite smoke where the Tigers are concerned), he could be a starter very, very soon in Coral Gables.
He was touted again on Tuesday as one of the best 11 and as the best def. lineman on the East squad. It's clear a highly motivated Valentine showed up in San Antonio and ready to prove a point. By the week's end he declared LSU his leader and followed that up with a January visit that solidified any lingering questions. Al Golden and staff made a last minute attempt to get him to Miami for a visit, but Valentine no-showed. By signing day, the writing was on the wall. Grantland did a cool little feature on his signing day party.
Valentine's recruitment was a bit of an adventure prior to LSU's involvement, with pledges to Florida, Louisville, then Miami before finally deciding on LSU. That attracted a fair amount of sour grapes from Miami fans, who I think are still mad we beat their ass nearly a decade ago. Due to his HS schedule he cannot arrive to LSU until later than the other freshman, which are already on campus. He claims here he would arrive on June 6th. But 247 followed that up with a report that he won't arrive until mid July. Good to keep an eye on this one, as he is considered a risk to not qualify.
Valentine is a composite 4-star DT, rated a .9672 overall. He's widely considered a top five defensive tackle in this signing class and one of the top 75 players in all of America. He tallied 85 total tackles in 2013, 31.5 tackles for loss and 16 sacks against clearly inferior competition.
110 - 101 = Franchise Player. One of the best players to come along in years, if not decades. Odds of having a player in this category every year is slim. This prospect has "can’t miss" talent.
100 - 98 = Five-star prospect. One of the top 30 players in the nation. This player has excellent pro-potential and should emerge as one of the best in the country before the end of his career.
97 - 90 = Four-star prospect. One of the top 300 players in the nation. This prospect will be an impact-player for his college team. He is an All-American candidate who displays pro-potential.
89 - 80 = Three-star prospect. One of the top 10% players in the nation. This player will develop into a reliable starter for his college team and is among the best players in his region of the country.
79 - below = Two-star prospect. This player makes up the bulk of Division I rosters. He may have little pro-potential, but is likely to become a role player for his respective school.
Tale of the Tape
Weight: 325 pounds
There's no real information available about his testing times and measures, but that's not altogether surprising. Valentine is a big hoss and weighs every bit of that 325 pounds, if not more. I imagine staying in top shape will be something he battles throughout his career.
Anytime LSU recruits a big man, the first thing I always ask is, "Yeah, but does he play big?" Let's take to the tape.
Strengths: Size, Raw Power, Explosiveness, Confidence
Weaknesses: Agility, Inconsistent, Pass Rushing, Bad Body Weight
Size: Valentine is just a naturally big kid. He carries some bad weight, but he's still a broad shouldered guy that carries a lot of weight pretty naturally. He's thick all the way through, which will make him a natural 1-tech. He's got the bulk to be a plug in the middle and command double teams.
Raw Power: Valentine isn't just large. He's powerful. You can see at 1:37 that he takes on a pair of blockers, continues driving one back into the backfield, wraps up the ball carrier and gets the TFL. 1:50 you see what he can do on a pure bull rush, just driving his man back into the backfield with ease. 2:09 flashes his explosiveness, but also his power when he plays with a good pad level. He gets under the blocker and drives him into the backfield. 2:15 shows he's not so easy to move off the ball either. Three guys sure tried, though. The 2:24 again, he just bulls his man into the backfield.
Explosiveness: Now being big and powerful aren't particularly surprising for a prospect his size. But I think what truly distinguishes him as a prospect is that he's surprisingly quick off the ball. His combination of size/power and quickness out of his stance makes him near unblockable at times. Don't get me wrong, Valentine isn't Glenn Dorsey out there, but plays like the one at :55 don't show up for everybody. How about 1:10 where he uses a quick first step and a swim to blow by his would-be blocker? 1:45 is another fine example of his explosion off the ball and quicker than anticipated first step. 2:47 as well. It's that mesh of power and explosion that makes him dangerous. He will make more plays in the backfield than you would think.
Confidence: Less film here, but Scouts at the Army All-American game said the only thing bigger than his level of play was his level of talk. Check out this interview, which provides this great quote:
Double teams, I love double teams. I'm in love with double teams. I like triple teams too. I like when three people on me. I smack 'em off me and I make tackles.
So, he doesn't lack in confidence.
Agility: Shocker, this isn't a guy that's gonna turn and make dozens of tackles down field. Guys like Bennie Logan or Ego Ferguson were super successful being active and pursuing plays. I don't think it's lack of effort or hustle, it's just not his skill set.
Inconsistent: Let me be very clear here, this is not about effort. I've seen some questions about his effort, but from the tape I've seen and AA practice reviews I've read, there's really no reason to wonder about that. He plays hard. The question is introducing the down-in and down-out consistency in technique. At his best, he fires off low and hard and can easily move people around. I think he suffers a bit because the level of competition is just not very high. He was able to dominate without having to perfect his technique. Going forward, that won't work. He will need to master all the technique things, things he shows a predisposition for, if he wants to become dominant.
Pass Rushing: He shows flourishes, flashing an occasional swim or impressive bull rush. But much like agility, this simply isn't his game. I think he'll be more of a player who collapses pockets from the interior with bull rushes rather than one shooting gaps and causing QBs to scramble. He'll free up others to do damage, as well.
Bad Body Weight: Not sure what he's currently weighing, but he did mention before that the LSU coaches would like him to slim down a bit before arriving. His body could be reformed a bit, but I also look at him and think he's not that far off. He's certainly got a belly, but he's not altogether slobby. But can you imagine this guy at a finely cut 320 pounds?
Bonus: Apologies to the victims, but check out 5:14 to see Valentine operate as a blocking FB.
Valentine really bonded with some of the other Miami, Florida area players on our roster, including 2014 signee John Battle, but also Maquedius Bain and Rashard Robinson. When asked, he stated the number one reason he chose LSU was "family" before naming those three. If you fast forward to about 9:00 in this video, which was presumably filmed some time in advance, Valentine makes his decision, despite stating he made the decision morning of Signing Day. Regardless, it's not as if he'd be the first recruit to be disingenuous on signing day.
Realistically, there's just a lot to love about Valentine. He is probably one of my favorite signees in this class. There's not a defensive tackle on the roster that features this type of skillset. Others can be functional, even very good run-stuffers, but Valentine has a very unique upside. He's big with underrated athletic ability.
Can he play right away? Yes. Will he? I don't know, but I lean toward no. If Valentine can get himself qualified, and show up in shape, there's a still a chance he can play in 2014. Like I said, there's no DT on the roster like him. He might just be the most talented interior defensive lineman we have when he gets on campus. And that's no minor compliment.
Don't forget how good a John Chavis defense can be when it features a big ole hoss in the middle that can eat up blockers and let all those great athletes roam. Valentine can be that and more. He can give you some penetration and plays in the backfield. I also think he's the type of guy that can emerge as a major leader for the defense, considering his outspoken personality.
High End: All-American. Outland Award Trophy contender. Travonte Valentine can be as good as he wants to be.
Low End: If he can't qualify, there's a risk he's never a factor. That'd be the lowest of ends.
Realistic: I don't see a ton of low end here. If he makes it on campus, this guy is a multi-year starter for us and a potentially dominant force in the middle. Big time talent.