- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- LSU fans fill Tiger Stadium to see the greatest Saturday night show in college football. But the recent Tigers teams taking the stage have seemed better suited for Tuesday matinées.
LSU might as well have placed signs outside the gates the past two seasons: Performing the role of All-American/All-SEC selection tonight is an insanely gifted but raw first- or second-year player. While every premier program uses unproven understudies in spots vacated by NFL-bound underclassmen, none has had a more depleted cast than the Tigers. LSU lost 10 underclassmen to the NFL draft after the 2012 season and seven more following the 2013 campaign.
We know what these Tigers were the past two seasons: 18-8 overall, 9-7 in the SEC, third- and fourth-place finishes in the SEC West Division, 1-1 in bowls. But what could they have become with a fuller roster? Tigers fans aren't the only ones mulling that question.
"You do for about 30 seconds," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said, "and then you realize nobody cares. I should say everybody cares because everybody’s thrilled who has to play us. You recruit a guy for four years, you have him for three and then he signs an NFL contract for four.
"So we get him the least. It's fascinating."
Running backs coach Frank Wilson, also LSU's recruiting coordinator, calls the situation "bittersweet." NFL development is a huge selling point for the Tigers. So is the chance to play immediately.
"Kids don't say, 'I'm looking to come there so I can redshirt,'" Wilson said. "They want an opportunity, and fortunately, we're a place that can give them that, which also can be unfortunate because we don’t get to have them for the fourth year in some cases."
It's part of the deal with LSU's fast-tracking culture, and, as Cameron noted, no one feels sorry for a program to which much is given. Few programs have as many high-end recruits living near its campus. Fewer programs have a stronger reputation for taking talented players and making them NFL-ready.
The expectations remain as high as the talent level, especially as the years mount since the Tigers' last national title in 2007. But the urgency to win has been accelerated by the NFL countdown clock.
"Our guys are all ascending players," Cameron said. "We don’t have a lot of guys who are going to top out when they leave here. That’s not the LSU player."
This season could be different. Two dates on which LSU had made major news the past two offseasons -- the NFL draft early entry deadline in January and pro day in March -- were quiet. The Tigers had only three underclassmen jump to the draft: linebacker Kwon Alexander, cornerback Jalen Collins and defensive end Danielle Hunter. Six others announced they would be back for another season at LSU, returning 152 combined starts to the 2015 roster.
One of the returnees, offensive lineman Vadal Alexander, watched March 27 as LSU held a pro day that, by its standards, was a bit of a snoozer.
"At times, you were like, ‘Man, I probably could have been out there,’" Alexander said. "But once I thought about it, I stayed for a great reason: to win a national championship. That's a big difference than the past. You have a lot more experience, a lot more seniors, a lot of guys that could have left that stayed."
Safety Jalen Mills said he and several other potential early entries discussed their options and ultimately decided the gains they could make as college seniors, both for themselves and for the program, outweighed the uncertainty of the draft. Of LSU's 10 early entries in the 2013 draft, only three -- defenders Barkevious Mingo, Eric Reid and Kevin Minter -- went in the first two rounds. Three went undrafted.
Last year's group fared better -- five of the seven Tigers underclassmen were drafted in the first 92 selections. But another, Anthony Johnson, went undrafted.
"Guys are starting to realize that if you're not a first-round draft pick or early second, you're better off coming back," Cameron said. "[NFL teams] aren't going to renegotiate that [initial] contract. They love you in the third or fourth round. If you would have stayed, you would have gone in the first or second, and that money is dramatically different."
Because they stayed, LSU's team makeup is different. Although some of the team's best players are still three-and-out candidates (running back Leonard Fournette, cornerback Tre'Davious White, safety Jamal Adams), there's more leadership, from Mills in the secondary to Travin Dural with the wide receivers to Alexander and Jerald Hawkins with the offensive line.
"One thing I've realized with teams winning and moving toward the national championship, you have to have veterans," sophomore wide receiver Malachi Dupre said. "You have guys who ... go into that last season very confident in their abilities, knowing they could have went to the NFL but came back to face college guys.
"They're going to be ready to dominate and lead us to some victories."
LSU still will lean on younger players and freshmen from another Top 10 recruiting class this season. Wide receiver D.J. Chark and cornerback Ed Paris, both true sophomores, were among the standouts during spring practice.
But Wilson hopes it's more like the 2010 season, when Reid and Tyrann Mathieu played significantly in the secondary but "a lot wasn't thrust on them."
New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele wants to spoon-feed young Tigers players as much as he can, especially with the pace and exotic formations employed by many opposing offenses.
"It’s almost like a basketball game or a soccer game -- it’s continuous," Steele said. "It's now a lot more in the players' hands. That means simplifying things, not being as broad, not trying to be in the perfect defense or perfect call every time.
"A little bit of it is making sure that they can play fast, but the flip side of that is that they can play early."
LSU might have the right mix of young talent and graybeard guidance to make a College Football Playoff run, but it still needs a quarterback. Junior Anthony Jennings and sophomore Brandon Harris competed for the second straight spring, which featured a surge in pass attempts but no clear separation. The passing game, which last season ranked 118th nationally in completions per game (10.62), remains the team's primary concern.
The Tigers have big-play threats at both running back (Fournette) and receiver (Dural, Dupre, Chark) and eight returning starters from the SEC's top-rated defense. Head coach Les Miles likes both lines, LSU's potential in the kicking game, the speed-experience mix at linebacker and the overall skill in the secondary -- "Maybe as talented as we've had," he said.
"I like us," Miles said. "If we stay healthy, those things that are in somewhat disrepair, if we get those things in order, we’ll be a damn good football team."
The last damn strong Miles team went on to win it all.
Whether LSU is a national title contender remains to be seen, but the Tigers once again look like a team worthy of the Saturday night stage.
348dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf