The NFL Draft and spring football has come and gone and now we hit what I like to call the Gulf. The May/June/July stretch where there’s no real football news — or at least no good news, anyway. Aside from recruiting, everything is either player arrests/transfers or regular season speculation.
In some ways, it’s a time to breathe. At least for me. Some beer posts, some recipes. The preseason preview mags will start to come out in June — Bill C’s previews are my go-to for substance, but it’s nice to have Phil Steele’s mag around to have a source of info, stats and rosters that isn’t on a computer screen. And I have a few books to get through, including Bill C’s 50 Greatest and the Hal Mumme bio.
There’s lots of time to think about the future, both this season and beyond, especially with a new head coach in town. Here are five big picture thoughts for the next five years:
The past four months have featured many of the small transformations that Ed Orgeron has been working to push through the LSU football program. The Draft, and the massive attrition of underclassmen has been one such target for change, and the story of juniors Davon Godchaux and Malachi Dupre falling to the fifth and seventh rounds will, naturally, serve as a lesson and a teaching point going forward for other underclassmen.
Out of this year’s crop, two players were told “yes, it is a good idea for you to enter the draft this year,”; Leonard Fournette and Jamal Adams. The rest were advised to stay — and Coach O and football ops director Derek Ponamsky also worked with NFL scouts to provide a more detailed report on what areas of their game to improve on. And even with Adams and Fournette, Coach O and the rest of the staff still laid out a plan for them to stay, because they want as many of these players as possible to understand the option and its benefits (and Tre’davious White’s story will be a part of that moving forward).
Before, previous director of football ops Dean Dingman had some…let’s call them, interesting ways…of relaying draft information. One such story relayed to me with defensive end Danielle Hunter, was that he was told “you have a second-round grade, but [Dingman] thinks you really need to come back. What NFL team is going to draft an end with 1.5 sacks?” Hunter took it as an insult and was out the door.
In recruiting, there’s an increased emphasis on a “shadow staff,” which helps coaches focus more on the trail day-to-day and less on the more tedious parts of their coaching duties. LSU doesn’t have Alabama’s budget for the analyst portion, but there’s already been a larger commitment to it. That also helps forge better relationships with high-school coaches, including in portions of Louisiana where they’ve frayed a little bit over the years. Les Miles had become a little too over-reliant on staff members like Sam Nader and Charlie Baglio. And while those two are very good at their jobs, recruiting is a process that has become exponentially more complicated in the last 10 years, especially on the periphery with street agents, “uncles” and the like circumventing the high school coach in the process in middle and even elementary school for the top prospects.
Outside of the support staff, Orgeron has done a great job of bolstering what was already a pretty strong group of coaches. How he maintains that moving forward over the next five years will likely tell the tale of the Orgeron Era. Dave Aranda’s profile as a defensive coordinator is about as high as it could get right now, and a head coach opportunity is inevitable, but from LSU’s perspective, the good news is that Aranda is going to be very selective. One scenario to keep an eye on: Wisconsin. Paul Chryst is more than safe as the Badgers’ head coach, but there are some interesting scenarios on the horizon. One that’s jumped out to me involves Notre Dame and Wisconsin — Brian Kelly doesn’t seem very long for the ND job, and after a few years of a spread offense, the Irish faithful may want to swing the other way and go after a pro-style specialist like Chryst. And if there’s one thing we know about Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, he’s not about to match a lucrative offer for one of this coaches.
And if Chryst moved on to South Bend, you’d have to think Aranda would be on the list of potential replacements.
And if Matt Canada does the job he’s expected to, head coaching opportunities will follow as well. His alma mater, Indiana University, could be a school to watch: the Hoosiers just fired Kevin Wilson, who was relatively successful, amid allegations of player mistreatment (the Teflon Pope Urban Meyer immediately hired Wilson as an assistant without so much as a hint of pearl-clutching) and replaced him with defensive coordinator Tom Allen. And while Allen is very well-regarded in a lot of circles, you still must assume such a scenario is tenuous. Especially when an alumnus becomes one of the hottest offensive coordinators in the country.
Among the other assistants on this staff, keep an eye on Dennis “Meatball” Johnson. He proved to be one of LSU’s more valuable recruiters in this cycle, landing K’Lavon Chaisson, and is currently No. 2 in the 247 Sports rankings with five commitments, including stud edge defenders Adam Anderson and Jarell Cherry. He can also point to a pretty solid on-field product with the improvement of Tashawn Bower down the stretch last season. Minor, yet telling anecdote: at LSU’s coaches clinic, Coach O introduced the coaching staff, with each member getting some degree of ovation from the high school coaches in attendance — the ovation for Johnson was right there with Steve Ensminger and Pete Jenkins, two of the most known commodities on the trail (seriously, if you’re a defensive line coach in this country, chances are you’re running a drill Jenkins invented). That’s indicative of the relationships he’s building in the coaching community.
Replacing good assistants are the key to longevity for any coach. Orgeron will be no different. Of course, he’ll have to win enough from the outset for that issue to even come up down the road.
For 2017, I look for the Tigers to just be...better. Not necessarily in a way that’s quantifiable in a win-loss record. They’ll face five SEC road games, plus nine- and ten-win non-conference foes like BYU and Troy, plus a Syracuse team that looks like it could make a bowl in year two under Dino Babers. The margin between 9-3, 10-2 and 11-1 in the regular season will be a tight one. Playoffs or any sort of championship would probably take a couple strokes of luck or a major leap in play from Danny Etling at quarterback. I still believe he’s fine, but I don’t know if fine gets you over that big crimson peak right now.
And that’s still relevant. Right now, LSU plays in the same division as one of the bluest of blue blood programs, with more resources and an infinite will for deploying them, led by one of the greatest coaches of all time, enjoying success at a level that most of the other all-time greats never even touched. For the immediate future, it remains possible for LSU to be one of the five or six best teams in the country and still out of the conference title picture. That’s a reality that LSU fans have to learn to accept before we can ever truly begin to get beyond it.
Getting beyond that will take time. As I’ve discussed before when it comes to recruiting, LSU can make a nice start by trying to keep the Tide out of Louisiana, but overcoming their obvious rock-star appeal, or the network Alabama has built, won’t happen in one year. Right now, LSU is in pretty solid position, early in the process. There are still a lot of dominos waiting to fall in terms of commitments, plus a few current members of this class that will climb in the rankings.
Another off-field concern, in the big-picture sense, will be the continuing diversification of revenue for LSU. It’s a necessity in the state’s current fiscal environment — yes, the athletic department receives no state funds, but it’s presently tasked with helping to cover that hole for the university, and that’s no small drain — and in the current business environment with regards to the recent upheaval at ESPN, which owns the SEC Network. Things like the proposed beer garden are a start, but you have to wonder what else is out there for LSU in terms of licensing or branding opportunities. The content-based marketing model employed by a company like Vox Media may very well be on its way to college athletics department websites soon as well. Joe Alleva has always been skeptical as to whether the SEC Network’s current returns will sustain. If they don’t, it will be interesting to see how programs seek out revenue streams beyond the basics that programs have been used to.
A lot can happen in five years. Hell, this site alone is a different place than it was in the spring of 2012. There are a lot of dominos stacked up in the college football: more conference realignment, the evolving revenue model and a regulatory and labor model that just may not be sustainable. How they fall will be one of the more interesting games that we’ve ever watched.