On Sunday morning LSU junior safety Craig Loston requested his Twitter followers stop asking him if he were going pro or staying for his senior season. Loston’s tweet surprised many because he seemed like one of the only draft-eligible juniors not mentioned as an early departure. Instead, LSU could have as many as 10 early entrants into April’s draft – an unprecedented number seven greater than any other season in Tiger football history.
With its underclassman exodus, LSU is positioning itself as the Kentucky of college football, selling recruits an advanced timetable to achieve millions. Kentucky’s basketball team, you might recall, had six players leave early for the NBA draft after it won the NCAA title in April 2012. All college football/basketball teams exist as farm clubs for their respective pro sports but these programs have set themselves apart as Triple A clubs.
While there’s nothing wrong with LSU coaches emphasizing this assembly line approach, the sheer mass of players leaving early in 2012 – both in talent and leadership – will present an interesting test case for college football. There is reloading, which all the great programs do on a yearly basis, and then there is RELOADING, which LSU and Coach Les Miles will attempt in 2013.
Here’s a breakdown of “LSU’s NFL Draft Exodus” and who I think will replace the Tigers departing early:
DEPARTING: Running back Spencer Ware
REPLACEMENT: Kenny Hilliard.
After scoring two touchdowns in each of LSU’s first three games in 2012, Hilliard failed to reach paydirt again. Super freshman Jeremy Hill, who broke the program’s freshman TD record with 12, and Ware each overshadowed Hilliard. Hilliard won’t replace Hill in 2013, barring injury, but he should fill Ware’s role as a short-yardage, power back. It remains to be seen if Hilliard has the receiving skills as Ware. Hill should remain the starter. Per Ware’s draft stock: I’ve seen him listed as a Top 10 running back. There might not be a running back picked in the first round. So in this draft, even if Ware is rated among the Top 10 at his position, that doesn’t mean he’ll hear his name called earlier than Round 4.
DEPARTING: Defensive end Barkevious Mingo
REPLACEMENT: Jermauria Rasco
Florida, Florida State, Alabama, USC. You name a program and they recruited Rasco in 2011. Since coming to Baton Rouge, Rasco has packed on almost 30 pounds but failed to make a major impact on the field. With the impending departure of Mingo and senior Lavar Edwards I’d expect Rasco to earn increased playing time. Quick note about Mingo: He recorded only 4.5 sacks as a junior, a major disappointment given his freakish athletic ability. He still projects as a high-to-mid first-round pick due to his 4.5 speed, but his production doesn’t scream first-round pick.
DEPARTING: Middle Linebacker Kevin Minter
REPLACEMENT: Lamin Barrow
LSU has three players with starting experience at linebacker – Barrow, Tahj Jones, and Kwon Alexander, each of whom have played outside linebacker. Will Les Miles move one to middle linebacker or elevate Minter’s backup, Ronnie Feist? I’d move Barrow because he’s their most experienced and productive player (104 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, five passes defensed), and because I believe in having your best players on the field. Otherwise, Alexander will be the first off the bench to give Jones and Barrow a breather. The loss of Minter should not understated. He emerged as the best player on a team stacked with NFL talent. Minter (130 tackles, 15 tackles for loss) had monster games in defeats against Florida and Clemson, and established himself, at worst, as a second-round pick.
DEPARTING: Cornerback Tharold Simon
REPLACEMENT: Jalen Mills
Mills will assume the mantle as LSU’s shutdown corner – a title held in recent years by first-round draft picks Patrick Peterson and Morris Claiborne. The 6-foot Texan started all 13 games as a freshman, and performed admirably, making 57 stops, defending seven passes, and recording two interceptions. LSU fans are hoping Mills can perform at an consistently elite level Simon never attained. Many will question Simon’s decision to go pro early. Clemson’s DeAndre Hopkins abused him for 13 catches in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. Despite having fantastic size, the 6-foot-3 Simon is too raw to go higher than late second round.
DEPARTING: Safety Eric Reid
REPLACEMENT: Ronald Martin
Martin came to LSU as a lightly regarded prospect. While he might not achieve second-team All-America status in 2013 as Reid did in 2012 but he should be a solid starter. The sophomore from White Castle, La., played in all 13 games and started one, finishing with 35 tackles and two interceptions. Here’s hoping he is whistled for less personal foul penalties than Reid, who at times looked more concerned with knockout blows than making football plays. Reid had a more up-and-down year than his accolades would suggest. It is possible he slides into the third round, a development that would make his decision to leave early look unwise.
DEPARTING: Punter Brad Wing
REPLACEMENT: Jamie Keehn
Anyone who watched Keehn punt against Clemson in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl knows the Aussie has the leg for the job. What remains to be seen is if he has the touch Wing had. Wing averaged almost 45 yards per punt, while landing more than one-third of his punts inside the opponents’ 20. Wing would have been a favorite for All-America honors in 2013 had a drug-related suspension not expedited his pro career. He should be the first punter taken, which could be anywhere between the fifth and seventh rounds.
LIKELY TO DECLARE
DEPARTING: Kick returner Michael Ford
REPLACEMENT: Jeryl Brazil.
Brazil has not set foot on LSU’s campus. Yet, his 4.3 speed should make him the team’s kick-returner in 2013 – if he can hang onto the ball. I’d expect Ford to leave if only because he might be fourth on the running back depth chart in 2013. Another tipping point: Ford struggled with eligibility issues in the past.
DEPARTING: Defensive end Sam Montgomery
REPLACEMENT: Robert Nkemdiche
Yep, I’m penciling the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in as Montgomery’s replacement even though he has not committed to LSU. The reason I like LSU to land Nkemdiche is the Tigers are in his final two with Ole Miss. Yes, Ole Miss has Nkemdiche’s brother, but LSU has the ability to win a national championship and develop Nkemdiche into a Top 5 pick in the three years. Ole Miss does not have that pedigree as a team or with defensive linemen. Should Nkemdiche choose Ole Miss or a dark horse like Alabama, I see Kendell Beckwith, Louisiana’s No. 1 recruit, beating out Danielle Hunter as a starting edge rusher. Incoming freshman Frank Herron from Memphis is also a possibility. Expect a sophomore or freshman here. Also: Is Justin Maclin still on the team? Per Montgomery: His draft stock slipped in 2012 due to inconsistent play that saw his sack total decline from 9 as a sophomore to 8.5 as a junior. He should be a late first-round pick, according to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper.
DEPARTING: Defensive tackle Bennie Logan
REPLACEMENT: J.R. “Ego” Ferguson
My own misgivings about someone being nicknamed “Ego” aside, I believe Ferguson can star alongside Anthony Johnson. Ferguson, much like Rasco, received a slew of offers as a high school recruit and has yet to justify the hype on the field. Increased playing time should provide him ample opportunity to shine. So should the prospect of other teams double-teaming Johnson, who had 10 tackles for loss in 2012. I doubt Logan will return. He’s being projected as a potential first-round pick. If he did return, LSU would have the country’s most talented group of defensive tackles.
DEPARTING: Craig Loston
REPLACEMENT: Micah Eugene
Eugene finished with more sacks and tackles for loss – 3.5 in each category – than Loston in significantly less playing time. The 5-foot-11 sophomore-to-be lacks the NFL preferred measurements that the 6-foot-2 Loston has but plays in a reckless manner reminiscent of a poor man’s Tyrann Mathieu. Given a full season, Eugene should prove himself a capable player against the run and a fearsome blitzer in defensive coordinator John Chavis’s rush-happy schemes. Should Loston go pro, which seems ill-advised but a mere formality, I have little idea where he will go, other than it would likely be behind Reid. Loston has yet to display the instincts nor tackling ability to start at safety in the NFL. He would be better served playing his senior season at LSU.