In the days after they joined LSU’s staff, multiple coaches went to Isidore Newman and visited Nelson Stewart.
Brian Kelly came by the school with associate head coach and New Orleans recruiting guru Frank Wilson on a tour through the state. Recruiting coordinator Brian Polian arrived so soon after getting hired that all he had in the way of gear was one LSU pullover. Quarterbacks coach Joe Sloan called on his first day.
Every one of them talked about more than football. Kelly took an interest in Stewart’s career, his family and local food, asking questions to develop a relationship with the longtime Newman coach. Polian and Stewart discussed their kids. Sloan stayed in touch ever since, even though five-star Newman quarterback Arch Manning chose Texas over the summer.
“You can tell there was great attention to detail,” Stewart said. “Even little things.”
The conversations and similar ones with high school coaches throughout Louisiana have been vital to the future of LSU’s program. Kelly inherited a depleted roster, and even though he already has No. 10 LSU playing No. 6 Alabama for control of the SEC West this weekend, he remains in the early stages of an overhaul.
Ultimately, Kelly wants LSU to reach the consistency coach Nick Saban established at Alabama. Saban created a dynasty through recruiting top players, often dipping into Louisiana along the way. In order to get to that point, Kelly knows he and the staff have to recruit at a similarly high level.
Kelly thinks replenishing the roster will take multiple cycles. He prefers to sign and develop freshmen, but he expects LSU will use the transfer portal again at a couple positions this offseason.
While unclear which ones, he has said LSU needs depth on either side of the line. The Tigers may also need more defensive backs after signing several veteran transfers.
“We’re much better than we were last year,” Kelly said. “We’ll get better this year, and then hopefully in another year this is just about player development and bringing in freshmen.
“That’s stage two in terms of getting to where we need to be to hopefully get to that final narrative of upstaging Alabama. But we’re certainly not there yet.”
For Kelly, getting there starts with recruiting and evaluating Louisiana. The state produced the second-most NFL players (65) per capita on opening weekend rosters, and LSU doesn’t have to compete for them with another in-state Power Five team, one of the reasons Kelly took the job.
So far, LSU signed three of the state’s top-10 recruits in the last cycle, which often happens during a coaching change. It has four of the top-10 Louisiana prospects in the 2023 class, but the staff didn’t have time to catch up with a lot of them. LSU’s class is still ranked No. 7 because of national connections.
“This adage of locking down the borders is like being a lockdown corner,” Kelly said. “You know, there are no lockdown corners, OK? There are good corners, and there are corners that are elite. We can be elite in the state of Louisiana, and that’s what we need to do.”
Kelly emphasized focusing on the entire state. Missing in certain areas, particularly north Louisiana, became an issue near the end of former LSU coach Les Miles’ tenure, and the best players who didn’t choose LSU often picked Alabama instead.
The Crimson Tide signed five players from north Louisiana who ranked in the top 20 in the state in their class from 2012-2017, including crucial players like offensive tackle Cam Robinson and defensive tackle Phidarian Mathis. LSU signed seven during the same time period.
“Nick Saban was the architect of LSU’s (2003) national championship team, so when he got back to the college ranks, he went back to that recruiting ground,” said On3 national recruiting analyst Sam Spiegelman, who’s based in New Orleans. “He’s honestly never left.”
Recruiting experts and high school coaches in the area said the trend changed under former LSU coach Ed Orgeron and continued thus far with Kelly.
Within the last two classes, the Tigers dipped into Monroe for top-100 offensive tackles Will Campbell and Zalance Heard. Former teammates, they both played at Neville High. Campbell is starting at left tackle as a true freshman. Heard is considered the No. 6 player at his position, according to the 247Sports composite.
“If Alabama and LSU are both recruiting the same guy, before coach O, the chances of them going to Alabama were probably pretty good,” Neville head coach Jeff Tannehill said. “I think coach O narrowed the gap, and I think coach Kelly has closed the gap quite a bit. He’s tried to do everything he could to keep those kids in-state.”
Without ties to Louisiana himself, Kelly hired staff members who had connections. Wilson, a New Orleans native, was LSU’s recruiting coordinator for six years and coached at McNeese State. Sloan worked at Louisiana Tech for nine seasons. Offensive line coach Brad Davis grew up in Baton Rouge. Wide receivers coach Cortez Hankton is from New Orleans. Multiple key staff members, including director of recruiting JR Belton, were raised in Louisiana.
All of them have recruited the state for years at various levels. The ones who spent time at smaller programs know how to find unheralded prospects with upside.
“Those guys know to look in every nook and cranny in the state of Louisiana,” said Mike Scarborough, the publisher at TigerBait.com, “because they’re used to having to recruit the mid-major programs and find those diamonds in the rough that maybe doesn’t quite have the measurables.”
Time will tell how successful Kelly and his assistants are in recruiting the state. They have to navigate name, image and likeness and the transfer portal in a new era of college football. And they have to fend off rivals like Alabama.
LSU is using the game against the Crimson Tide as a major recruiting platform, hoping to convince players to commit or come back over the next few months. Multiple targets scheduled visits to watch the only top 10 primetime matchup of the season in Tiger Stadium.
One of the prospects in attendance will be cornerback Desmond Ricks. The five-star reclassified to graduate early from IMG Academy, making him one of the top uncommitted players in the 2023 class.
A handful of schools have a chance with Ricks. Among them are LSU and Alabama.
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