By Trey Mongrue
There is a reason why the LSU Tigers have, according to various web services, put together a top ten football recruiting class in five of the past six years.
Sure, there is the allure of playing in Tiger Stadium, competing in the best conference and possibly even contending for a national title. But above all else, there is the simple matter of immediate playing time. At LSU, players that aren’t even four months removed from attending a high school math class find themselves on the field and wearing purple and gold.
Just ask current LSU running back and former number one high school recruit, Leonard Fournette.
“Before we all came here, coach [Les Miles] came to us and told us that the young guys play big roles at LSU,” explained Fournette. “That’s what we’re here for.”
This year more than ever, Miles has stayed true to his recruiting pitch. With five games in the rear view mirror this season, LSU has trotted out 17 of the 23 freshmen that made up its 2014 recruiting class – the most to have ever played in Miles’ ten seasons as the Tigers’ coach.
In last weekend’s 63-7 throttling of New Mexico State, Tiger fans were shown that the future might now be the present with Fournette, wide receiver Malachi Dupre and quarterback Brandon Harris all turning in their best performances of their young LSU careers.
And with a game at Auburn now in the Tigers’ crosshairs, Miles needs these guys to keep it up.
“For us, a youthful team, we need these guys to come to life,” Miles said. “The running backs that we have, the receiving corps getting in gear and the quarterback position as it continues to progress, all of that development needs to happen.”
Considered to be the top three players at the most heralded positions on offense, the Louisiana-trio of Fournette, Harris and Dupre came to LSU with the highest of expectations thrust onto their shoulders.
Of course, they weren’t gift-wrapped anything just by showing up. Whether it has been the speed of the game, injuries or position battles, all three have experienced their fair share of growing pains.
As freshmen, that will likely continue, but last weekend showed just how potent the LSU offense can become when they are firing on all cylinders.
“Freshmen come here to play big roles and that’s happening for us.”
– LSU wide receiver Malachi Dupre
– LSU wide receiver Malachi Dupre
“The chemistry we have with one another is important,” explained Harris. “We’re from the state of Louisiana and glad to be playing for this team and these coaches.”
After having almost brought LSU back from the dead in the game before against Mississippi State, Harris was given another chance to assert himself in the ongoing quarterback after starter Anthony Jennings turned the ball over three times in the first quarter.
Just as he did the week before, Harris breathed life into an offense that was in dire need of a spark.
He completed 11 of his 14 passes for 178 yards and three touchdowns, the latter representing an LSU true freshman record. Of the seven LSU possessions that Harris was at quarterback, the Tigers found the end zone every time.
“My confidence is just continuing to be high,” Harris said. “I’m a young guy and I’m continuing to develop in certain areas. When my number is called, I’m just going to come out and do what I can do to help this team.”
If it wasn’t clear just how well things were going in, it was apparent on Harris’ final drive of the night when he turned a busted play into a two-yard rushing touchdown – his second of the night – by breaking a few tackles on his way to the end zone.
With last week’s performance Harris has now accounted for nine total touchdowns on the season. The five he tallied against New Mexico State alone equaled Jennings’ season total.
On Monday, Miles rewarded Harris by naming him the starting quarterback for this Saturday.
“He works hard everyday in practice,” Dupre said of Harris. “He came and showed his ability and made the best out of an opportunity that was given to him. As teammates we knew what he was capable of and he showed everybody else what he can do.”
Sharing a special bond with his fellow freshman, Dupre has been one of Harris’ favorite targets in the limited time that both have been on the field.
In the frenzied comeback attempt against Mississippi State, Harris and Dupre connected twice for two fourth quarter touchdowns. Despite that game ultimately being LSU’s first loss of the season, it was a good sign for Dupre who came to LSU as the top receiver in the country, but a couple of nagging leg injuries kept him off the field for the first few weeks.
Now fully healthy, he finally seems to be asserting himself as one of the Tigers’ top touchdown threats.
“I’m coming along well and I’m starting to get more opportunities to make plays,” said Dupre who came to LSU after winning a state championship with John Curtis High School in 2013.
“The beginning of the season didn’t go how I planned it. That’s part of football though and I’ve put that behind me.”
Against New Mexico State, Dupre once again shined with Harris putting the ball in his hands, leading the Tigers with 54 yards on three receptions, highlighted by a 27-yard touchdown catch.
“Me and Malachi worked out a lot together in the offseason and that has gotten us on the same page.” said Harris. “The reason why we had success passing the football is because we had a great running game. It made it easier to drop back and pass.”
And that’s where Fournette really makes the LSU offense turn.
As the nation’s top recruit, the amount of hype surrounding his first game against Wisconsin made it impossible for him to live up to the lofty standard that were set. As if it wasn’t hard enough for him to get acclimated to the college game.
“My first game, the pace was a lot faster than what I thought it would be,” said Fournette who ran for just 18 yards in LSU’s 28-24 win over the Badgers. “It is slowing down for me now.”
In each game since, Fournette has slowly become the bell cow of the LSU backfield. With his career-high 122-yard rushing performance against New Mexico State, Fournette has led the Tigers in rushing yards for four consecutive games.
But for a guy who said at the beginning of the season that he wanted to be in Heisman Trophy contention as a freshman, he is still yearning for more.
“I believe that I’m getting better, but I’m not saying I’m where I want to be,” he explained. “I know that I’m going to get better.”
With a couple of good performances under their belts, Fournette, Harris, Dupre and the rest of the LSU freshmen are now set to face something they have yet to experience – a Southeastern Conference road game.
With a trip to Auburn this weekend followed by a game at Florida, the crowds will surely not be in their favor and the intensity will be something that could certainly rattle them if any mistakes are made. However, and it could be attributed to freshman naivety, but the young Tigers seem up for the challenge.
“Freshmen come here to play big roles and that’s happening for us,” said Dupre. “We have some tough games ahead, but we’re ready for them.”