- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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BATON ROUGE, La. -- The way Les Miles sees it, rival programs that aren't hit as hard by the NFL draft might boast older, more physically developed talent since fewer players skipped town with college eligibility remaining.
“Or [they] have lesser players,” Miles said last week. “One of the two.”
The truth, of course, is that it's a bit of both for most of the teams that Miles' LSU faces annually.
Any program that targets elite recruits does so with the knowledge that they might bolt for the NFL after three years on campus. In fact, they recruit such players with the intention of playing them early if they prove they deserve a spot on the depth chart.
“If a great player can be in your two-deep, he plays,” Miles said of the hypothetical incoming freshman. “If a great player can't be in your two-deep, he's probably not a great player.”
The concept is simple. Players who aren't great tend to stick around longer than those whose physical abilities make them promising targets for NFL scouts. The tricky part for a college coach is convincing players who possess NFL potential to stick around long enough to maximize their talents and land a lucrative professional contract. That takes longer for some than it does for others.
LSU has fallen short in that department, which is why Miles hammers the point that players shouldn't give the NFL “a deal” by leaving school before they have proven themselves as sure-fire, early-round picks.
Some who left Baton Rouge early last year -- and a couple more this year might follow in their footsteps -- could have improved their stock by returning for another season in college. Instead, they made a risky decision to turn pro that blew up in their faces. While improving their draft stock, they also could have been helping LSU win football games had they stayed. Poor choices caused both parties to suffer.
Miles refuses to say that early draft entry has created a problem for LSU -- “It appears to me that we're winning a lot of games year after year after year. I think that will continue,” he insisted -- but the Tigers will provide a case study that bears watching.
After leading the nation with 11 early departures a season ago, LSU again leads the pack with seven this year. LSU's 18 early entries are 10 more than any school has ever had in a two-year period according to ESPN's Brad Edwards. Further, Edwards tweeted on Tuesday that LSU's 18 early entries are seven more than the entire Big 12 in that span and eight more than the entire Big Ten.
Honestly, how could that not create problems? Nobody, not even Alabama, is dealing with that kind of draft-created roster turnover.
Miles is a confident coach who believes that his coaching staff is capable of attracting enough high-level talent that they can plug in youngsters without missing much of a beat. LSU handled the attrition well for the most part in 2013, although last year's seven early departures off fearsome defenses from 2011 and 2012 clearly affected John Chavis' inconsistent unit in the fall.
It's only natural to wonder whether another veteran's defensive presence here or there might have made a difference in 2013 going down as a championship-caliber season instead of simply another solid fall under Miles' leadership.
Now it will be Cam Cameron's turn to rebuild, with five of the seven early departures -- including receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham and tailback Jeremy Hill, who combined for 3,985 of LSU's 5,893 offensive yards in 2013 -- coming on offense. And Cameron will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, as well.
Among the motivational signs in LSU's team meeting room is one that spells out the Tigers' team process. One line reads “Young guys must prepare to play big roles,” which is exactly what tailback Fournette -- ESPN's No. 1 overall prospect -- receiver Quinn and early enrollee quarterback Harris might have to do.
Fournette has two veterans in Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard to help him make the transition into college, but it will be an enormous disappointment if he does not play a leading role in the 2014 offense.
Quinn -- ESPN's No. 29 overall prospect and No. 3 receiver -- and other players who will have either signed with the Tigers last February or in a couple of weeks must also play big roles this fall. The Tigers have next to no experienced alternatives at the position.
And while rising sophomore Anthony Jennings got a head start on the competition by starting the Tigers' Outback Bowl win against Iowa, he can’t be crowned the 2014 starter just yet. Harris -- ESPN's No. 37 overall prospect and No. 2 dual-threat quarterback -- is among those who will challenge for the job.
Those players and more, who will officially become Tigers on signing day, are immensely talented prospects. That is why several will be included in the coaching staff's plans almost immediately.
“For years we've said that young guys that come into this program are expected not to be young guys,” Miles said. “They're expected to take their roles and play big roles in this program. That being said, we recruit to that. We recruit to those guys that see themselves stepping in and making big plays and playing a part.”
John Calipari's basketball program at Kentucky employs a similar recruiting philosophy and has also kept winning despite considerable attrition through the NBA draft. In both situations, however, it's reasonable to wonder whether the model is sustainable.
Calipari has won a national title but also fielded disappointing teams following considerable draft attrition at Kentucky. Year 2 of the closest comparison in college football -- Miles' LSU -- will tell us plenty about whether it can work on the gridiron.
2dAlex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf
3dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf