The 10 months between last June and March was all the time the 2009 class needed to catapult their fair share of players into head coach Les Miles’ starting rotation.
The immediate playing time came to names like Derek Helton, a junior college transfer who was brought to Baton Rouge to take over the starting punter job.
Rueben Randle, a five-star prospect and the nation’s No. 1 ranked receiver, became the third name at wide out behind Brandon LaFell and Terrance Toliver, a pair of upperclassmen. He finished the year with 173 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
Russell Shepard, who went through both the spring and fall camps of 2009 at quarterback, rushed for 294 yards and two touchdowns – while never throwing a pass. In terms of relative success, his mark of 6.2 yards per carry was good for best on the team.
This spring, the LSU coaching staff moved Shepard – at his request – to wide receiver, where he has since earned the starting slot receiver spot. While his hands need work, Shepard’s speed and abilities in the open field make him look at home.
“I am going to catch more than I will drop,” Shepard laughed. “This summer, my work will be on catching the ball naturally. The lack of time spent catching passes over these past couple of years has hurt me, but I am starting to get better.”
Playing for both teams in last Saturday’s spring game, the rising sophomore totaled 117 all-purpose yards.
Not to be outdone, redshirt freshman Michael Ford carried the Purple team’s ground attack with 140 yards on 19 attempts.
“I thought Ford had some nice runs, the kind of runs where you use your eyes and make cuts and make people miss,” Miles said. “It's really kind of what we needed.”
In the two scrimmages prior, Ford went over 150 yards on a combined 30 touches. While the 230-pound Stevan Ridley and 204-pound Richard Murphy might easily be categorized into power and speed backs, Ford is shooting for somewhere in the middle.
“My role is going to be balanced,” he said. “I can block, catch, run between the tackles and take it outside. With Murphy out and the chance to be the number two guy, I went out there and fought and scrapped. I wanted to prove I deserved a shot at the field. The yards will come.”
One name that can make certain those yards pile up is the 5-foot-11, 255-pound Dominique Allen, who is headed for the starting job at fullback. While he came to campus at over 270 pounds, a slimmer Allen has the coaching staff’s full attention for the first time. As a result, Allen took the first-team reps throughout the spring.
While playmakers from the class are emerging at the offensive skill positions, don’t sleep on the defense. Less than 12 months removed from high school, as many as 10 names are in serious competition for spots in the two-deep.
Morris Claiborne, one of the least decorated players coming out of high school, made perhaps the quickest impact. After showing up to camp last fall as a high school quarterback turned receiver, the coaching staff switched the Fair Park High standout once more, this time to a permanent home at cornerback.
In seven appearances last fall, Claiborne recorded seven stops. This past spring he and Patrick Peterson worked out as the starting two cornerbacks, and after LSU’s Spring Game Peterson called the tandem the best in the SEC.
Josh Downs, a second name who made an immediate impact on first-year coordinator John Chavis’ defense, appeared in 11 games at tackle. Of his nine stops, 3.5 were for losses.
This fall, he and the line will have help from a crop of fellow 2009 signees. Sam Montgomery, Mike Brockers, Bennie Logan and KeKe Mingo have all had their shining moments this offseason.
On the ends, Montgomery led the team in tackling in two separate scrimmages, while Mingo was in on seven stops and one sack in the spring game.
For Montgomery, the excitement from the fan base is what he came to LSU for. At the same time, his focus remains as intense as ever.
“Gaining respect from Les Miles and the LSU fans is an awesome feeling, but I must stay humble,” he said. “The SEC isn’t going to give me the plays I want. I am going to have to go out and earn their respect.”
Brockers and Logan have also drawn praise from the staff for both their play on the field and commitment to physical development off of it. After veterans Drake Nevis and Pep Levingston, those names, plus Chris Davenport, are set to carry the line over the next few seasons.
The impact doesn’t stop.
At linebacker redshirt freshman Kevin Minter has essentially locked up the fourth spot, with Tahj Jones and Lamin Barrow, also 2009 signees, battling for the remaining positions on the two-deep.
In the secondary, coach Ron Cooper has his starting names set with Peterson, Claiborne, Brandon Taylor and Jai Eugene.
While they will be the starting safeties, neither Taylor nor Eugene showed up to the LSU campus at the position. That only adds to the growing anticipation for Craig Loston, the No. 1 safety in the 2009 class. Loston likely has the best ball skills of anyone in the group, and the Houston native’s redshirt freshman season should provide the platform to jump onto the conference’s big stage.
When you sit down to watch LSU play in 2010, be certain to take a glance at all of these players. One of the best signing classes in the school’s history, these young Tigers, mostly still in their teens, are poised to step into the spotlight quicker than any signing group in recent memory.
“The classes from LSU in the past usually weren’t asked to step up and really contribute until they had been in the program for a few years, but our class is special,” said Shepard, who continues to reference himself as the leader of the group, something that began when the signees were juniors in high school. “We realize we have to do it at a young age, but we are more talented than most guys our age. We can do it.”