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Opinion: LSU’s 2019 class Was One of the Best, if Not The Best, Recruiting Classes. What Happened???

This was supposed to be the class that propelled Ed Orgeron forward. It was going to be the one that saved his job, and it did for a time. Shoot, the players even won a national title as freshmen. The class launched a run of three consecutive top-six classes and the assumption became that talent would never be an issue at LSU.

Less than three years after this class came together, Orgeron was out as LSU’s head coach. And now, four years removed, the 2019 class that once seemed so promising can be looked back on as one of the strangest failures. It was a group filled with high-profile misses, off-the-field issues and untapped potential.

One could argue only two or three out of 25 players became clear, multi-year success stories. Only about eight signees ever played major roles for an extended time. Every signing class is going to have a chunk of misses. That’s normal. What makes the 2019 LSU class stand out is the way it happened.

Nine of the 11 top-200 prospects were either gone or not playing major minutes by their third seasons in Baton Rouge, which is usually when classes like this are supposed to be the backbone of a roster. The biggest long-term successes were a kicker — an elite kicker, but a kicker nonetheless — and two three-star corners who never made an All-SEC team. The biggest star — Derek Stingley Jr. — was one of the biggest successes in recent LSU history as an All-American in the 2019 title season who also missed large stretches of the next two seasons due to injuries while the program collapsed.

The lessons from the 2019 class in part explain the failures of the Orgeron era and the early successes of the Brian Kelly regime. It was a class that featured highly rated players but didn’t seem to include the necessary vetting to ensure character or the disposition to work hard and develop.

Meanwhile, the first two Kelly classes have had an unmistakable focus on character and “traits,” on having a solid culture and players who want to develop. The rebuild Kelly has had to do comes from the issues of the 2019 group.

So let’s look back and see what we can learn.

Exciting but transferred out

OLB Marcel Brooks (No. 32, No. 2 OLB): By the time the 2019 title season ended, Brooks counted as maybe the most exciting young player in the program not named Derek Stingley. As a freshman, he immediately earned a role in the third-down pass-rush unit and had a key sack to beat Florida. But even before Brooks signed, there were maturity concerns. By June 2020, Brooks entered the portal and transferred to TCU, where he’s struggled to find a role and had injury issues.

DT Siaki Ika (No. 138, No. 13 DT): Another major hit in 2019 as the backup nose tackle, a position not easy to play as a true freshman, he showed star power under former defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. A clear expectation existed that he’d be an All-SEC force in 2020 after Tyler Shelvin opted out. Instead, LSU’s switch to a 4-3 neutralized Ika’s strengths, and he hit the portal midseason. It’s hard to throw blame around on this other than second-guessing Orgeron’s strong push for a four-man front. Ika transferred to Baylor, where he’s been All-Big 12 and an All-American. The expectation is for Ika to be a first- or second-round pick this spring.

Bittersweet but still beloved

CB Derek Stingley (No. 3 overall, No. 1 CB): Stingley has the most difficult legacy to look back on, something The Athletic examined last spring. He is obviously a success as a consensus All-American in 2019 on the championship team. It was widely accepted Stingley was the best corner in the country as a true freshman and would have been the first corner taken in the 2020 draft. But the next two years were plagued by injuries, which led to inconsistent play, all as LSU went 11-12 over two seasons. Stingley left the team following a midseason injury in 2021, and his final two years are looked back on as an odd time. Stingley never became the generational LSU legend he seemed slated to become, but this was still a home run signing.

Clear success

K Cade York (No. 4 K): Considered a big get when he came in to replace Cole Tracy, he exceeded any and all expectations. York broke LSU scoring records, won a national title, made an All-America team and hit multiple game-winning field goals in 2020 and 2021, including the famous 57-yard field goal through extreme fog to knock off Florida in 2020. He was so good he went pro after three years, which is rare for a kicker, and nobody in Baton Rouge blamed him.

CB Jay Ward (No. 518, No. 50 CB): Ward went from a late-rising three-star prospect to a three-year starter at multiple positions ranging from outside corner, nickel and safety. He never earned major accolades or made an All-SEC team, but Ward was a physical, rangy presence who could fly around the back end while still blowing up runs in the box. Yes, the fact that he is one of the three biggest successes is likely a sign of the limits of this class, but Ward also shouldn’t be overlooked.

Jay Ward had 40 solo tackles in 2022 and could be considered a clear success of LSU’s 2019 class. (John Reed / USA Today)

Clear misses (for various reasons)

OL Kardell Thomas (No. 97, No. 4 OG): Thomas was a five-star prospect for nearly his entire high school career and somebody Orgeron knew he had to land. When he did, it was a massive coup for Orgeron to get Thomas, Stingley and fellow five-star John Emery. But by the end of Thomas’ high school career, there was already concern about his weight issues and lack of flexibility. He fell in the rankings, and that foreshadowed his LSU career. He started two games in four years and was just never what people expected.

CB Maurice Hampton (No. 129, No. 14 CB): Arguably the biggest win of LSU’s February signing period, the two-sport star turned down a $1.8 million signing bonus to play professional baseball, deciding to follow his dreams at LSU. Amid massive expectations, arguably even more so in football, Hampton struggled at both sports in Baton Rouge. He was far down the secondary depth chart by spring 2020 and far down the baseball depth chart by midseason. He left LSU midway through that first baseball season and now plays baseball only at Samford.

OT Ray Parker (No. 154, No. 14 OT): Another marquee signing at a position of need, things went poorly from the moment he arrived. He had academic and vision issues before being arrested and kicked off the team in fall 2020 amid charges of beating his girlfriend and kicking her dog.

ILB Donte Starks (No. 159, No. 10 ILB): The four-star New Orleans linebacker had academic issues that led to him missing his first preseason at LSU. A few months later, Starks was arrested on charges of illegally possessing a concealed handgun and trying to run from police. He then went to junior college and ended up at Southern.

QB Peter Parrish (No. 313, No. 11 dual-threat QB): To add to LSU’s off-the-field issues, Parrish was accused of rape in 2020 and was kicked off the team. He transferred to Memphis and played this past season at East Mississippi Community College.

OT Thomas Perry (No. 451, No. 36 OT): A three-star legacy addition, Perry got injured his first year and never cracked the rotation in Baton Rouge.

ILB Kendall McCallum (No. 541, No. 27 ILB): Another Aranda signing, he never made his way up the depth chart and went the junior college route before landing at Jacksonville State.

TE TK McLendon (No. 47 juco): LSU flipped McLendon to defensive end his first year, and by spring 2020 there was buzz that he’d be LSU’s starter. He surprisingly entered the portal in August 2020 and has become an All-ASUN edge rusher for Eastern Kentucky.

LS Quentin Skinner (No. 4 LS): Considered one of the top long snappers in the country and a replacement for the previous eight years of the Ferguson brothers, he lost the snapper job and LSU had to bring in ECU product Slade Roy to improve the spot in 2022. Skinner entered the portal shortly after.

Nice, solid players

RB Tyrion Davis-Price (No. 139, No. 8 RB): This is a tough category because it’s primarily players who had nice stretches or saw the field often but weren’t cornerstone athletes. Davis-Price is maybe the most difficult. He was a three-year contributor who ran for 1,003 yards in 2021. But for the first two and a half years of his career, he was an average back who ran for about four yards per carry. Then, he suddenly ended his career on an absolute heater with an LSU record 287 rushing yards against Florida and 863 yards in his final seven games.

OG Anthony Bradford (No. 206, No. 13 OG): For three years, Bradford seemed slated to fall in the Kardell Thomas camp. The staff loved Thomas’ upside, but he consistently had weight issues and struggled to adjust to college. He clearly turned a corner in 2022 under Kelly and offensive line coach Brad Davis, starting 12 games on an SEC West title team. He just declared for the NFL Draft.

Anthony Bradford and Charles Turner were solid players from the 2019 class. (Jerome Miron / USA Today)

CB Cordale Flott (No. 610 overall, No. 60 CB): Maybe Flott deserves to be in the clear success category, or maybe he’d be there if he stayed for another year. I could be convinced he was a clear success. He was a consistent starter who had great quickness in the slot and just made the playoffs with the New York Giants. He showed more physicality in 2021 and became a strength. He’s mostly in this category because his best play came during the 11-12 two-year stretch and he didn’t stay to win more like Ward.

(There’s a theme that some of the most successful players in this class like Flott and Ward were under-the-radar signings by former LSU cornerbacks coach Corey Raymond, now at Florida.)

DE Soni Fonua (No. 43 juco player): An afterthought for much of his career, Fonua was a sneaky great player in Baton Rouge. He didn’t accumulate stats, but he was a reliable run-stopping defensive end in 2021. He entered the portal in spring 2022, and it appears he never found a next stop.

OC Charles Turner (No. 568, No. 8 OC): An athletic development piece, he became just that as a versatile utility lineman who rotated in at center, guard and tackle before earning the starting center job in 2022. Turner has limitations — and LSU is recruiting centers in the portal as we speak — but he is a smart player who does his job.

Just didn’t work out

DT Joseph Evans (No. 666, No. 55 DT): Evans is a shame more than anything. He got constantly flipped back and forth between the offensive and defensive lines and looked good playing defensive tackle in 2020. He left the team in 2021 due to personal issues, came back under Kelly and then transferred to UTSA over the summer, where he had 3.5 tackles for loss.

ATH Devonta Lee (No. 166, No. 8 ATH): Another player who tried to find a home. Lee was a hybrid safety-receiver who switched to linebacker for a stretch in 2020 under Bo Pelini before going back to receiver. Amid stories about Lee’s upside and his ability to win jump balls, he never showed it in a game and transferred to Louisiana Tech.

The untapped potential

RB John Emery Jr. (No. 13, No. 2 RB): Emery’s story is incomplete, but it’s also fair to call his career an underachievement (so far). The five-star Louisiana native was a landmark signing, but he struggled his first two years and missed his entire junior year to academic issues before becoming a solid rotation back in 2022. He still hasn’t become the phenom most wanted, but he showed flashes with eight touchdowns on 504 total yards. He’s returning for 2023, and maybe he’ll take that leap.

WR Trey Palmer (No. 112, No. 18 WR): Palmer had similarities to Emery, a speedy top-150 talent who generated buzz, yet never showed he could be a reliable receiver at LSU. He left LSU last offseason and thrived at Nebraska with 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns.

ATH Raydarious Jones (No. 376, No. 20 ATH): Jones was always more of an upside play, so it’s tough to call him a disappointment, but the staff was giddy about the three-star prospect when he signed. The high school quarterback struggled to become a rotation corner at LSU, though, and he was academically ineligible for the entire 2022 season.

Final thoughts

This class wasn’t outright bad so much as it rated as incredibly strange. The most productive players were generally low-star prospects who found roles and did their jobs. The best career came from a kicker. The best talent struggled to stay on the field, and it’s hard to gloss over how LSU signed 11 top-200 players but only Davis-Price was still playing a role by midseason 2021.

This class played a large part in why LSU played the 2022 Texas Bowl with under 40 available scholarship players and why Kelly had to rebuild the program during his first two offseasons. Still, it was also a class with some crucial players who helped get LSU back on track like Ward, Bradford and Turner. But when those are some of the best successes, something went wrong.