With the commitment of Russell Shepard last week, it seems like as good of a time as any to discuss an aspect of Les Miles' recruiting that has not been much discussed. Les Miles seems to be more-and-more passing on players with character problems in favor of players with real leadership skills, and I think this will pay off for LSU in the long run.
What do I mean by "character issues"? Well, for one, I think he is shying away more and more from kids who are far away academically from qualifying. This year, by all reports, even very good players are getting passed over if their academics aren't in order. We can all point to examples of kids who have not qualified in the past, such as DeAngelo Benton, that Miles has taken. And that's fine. Grades are not the end-all, be-all of character, but bad grades are a risk factor.
This year, we are reportedly turning away quality football players whose grades aren't up to snuff. Well, I think that may be too strong of a term. We aren't "turning them away". We're telling them to go back to the classroom and show that they can do what they need to do to get qualified and THEN they may get an offer if we still need them. This reportedly happened to Russell Shepard's teammate Hasan Lipscomb, in-state offensive linemen Chris Faulk and Carneal Ainsworth, in-state linebacker Tahj Jones, and possibly others. Les Miles is asking these guys to show that they can improve their grades before he will accept a commitment from them.
Miles has gone in the opposite direction from recruiting a bunch of very talented prima donnas who think they can coast through life. He seems to have concentrated on finding guys who can graduate high school early and get with the team as quickly as possible. After dipping his toe into the early-enrollee waters with Joseph Barksdale in 2007, he seems to have jumped into those water enthusiastically now. One member of the 2008 class, linebacker Kellen Theriot, is currently participating in Spring Practice, and many thought that all-everything cornerback Patrick Johnson would be able to as well, but his clearance from the NCAA came too late to enroll early.
For the 2009 class, Miles already has commitments from two players who expect to enroll in January of 2009: quarterback Russell Shepard and athlete Dexter Calhoun (more on him another day). There may well be more than that.
Not every coach likes to get players in early. I remember that Nick Saban allowed it, but at the same time discouraged recruits from enrolling early. I don't remember all the reasons for it, but I respect that opinion, even if I disagree with it.
He's also staying away from players who have gotten into trouble. One very high profile Louisiana kid, who will go nameless here, is apparently getting the cold shoulder from us in part because of an arrest in his recent past.
Miles is concentrating not only on guys with the grades, but also guys with leadership skills. You hear Michael Ford talk and you can just tell this kid oozes leadership. The same is true of Russell Shepard. Reports out of some quarters said that Patrick Johnson was like a magnet for other athletes. Even star athletes, with their understandably enormous egos, looked up to Patrick Johnson and considered him a natural leader.
Why is Miles concentrating so hard on getting leaders and high character guys? Well, I think one explanation is probably fairly obvious to anyone paying attention. I think Ryan Perrilloux has probably added a lot of grey hair to Miles' head since his recruitment in 2005, and because Perrilloux was the only quarterback recruited in a 3-year stretch, he is kind of stuck with him now unless he wants to bite the bullet and play a Jarrett Lee or Andrew Hatch. I think Miles is very good about learning from mistakes, and he doesn't want to get stuck again having to rely on someone who is fundamentally unreliable.
It's not all negative reenforcement, however. I think you only have to look at the 2007 season and see what leaders and high-character guys like Jacob Hester, Kirston Pittman, Ciron Black, Darry Beckwith, and Glenn Dorsey can do for a team. As is becoming evident from the coverage of the NFL draft we're seeing, that team may not have been as talented as many people thought. We may have only two players (Dorsey and Doucet) drafted on the first day, when many people early in the season believed that Ali Highsmith, Craig Steltz, and Chevis Jackson could all be high picks as well, and believed players like Beckwith and Tyson Jackson might be tempted by big dollars to leave early, where now it looks like they may not have been high picks had they come out. That team won with a combination of talent and leadership, and Les Miles is smart enough to learn from that and put his learning into action.
If this continues, this is going to be one of the great classes in LSU history, both on Signing Day and into the future.