“It’s not political.”
With those words, Ishmael Sopsher, the defensive tackle from Amite, Louisiana, prefaced his decision to sign with the University of Alabama. He was the big piece of the puzzle, metaphorically as well as physically, in the Crimson Tide’s late signing period activity.
Nick Saban wanted defensive linemen and he got them, six in all, all rated as four- or five-star prospects, all good enough on film or at camp to have passed the Saban eye test. Two, including Sopsher, joined the class Wednesday. As Sopsher said, there’s nothing political about that, just the annual replenishing of a program’s life blood.
But we live in a political world, and for reasons beyond his control, Sopsher also became a symbol. To put it another way, when the governor is involved in your recruitment — to be fair, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards characterized his involvement as “indirect” — then it is definitely political.
LSU, a program that loves to draw lines in the sand, definitely tried to draw one around Amite. The issue wasn’t so much that Sopsher was the No. 1 prospect in Louisiana. Most recruiting services ranked cornerback Darryl Stingley of Baton Rouge and running back John Emery, who had committed to Georgia before joining the Tigers’ early class in December, above Sopsher.
The difference, whether anyone in Baton Rouge articulated it in just this way, was that, for a year or more, Sopsher was being recruited heavily by Alabama. He was considered a Crimson Tide “lean,” an hour or so from the LSU campus. Stingley, even Sopsher’s teammate, Devonta Lee, were not perceived in the same way. They were big — but only Sopsher was big enough to be a battlefield.
In a way, the buildup was similar to the one that surrounded the Alabama-LSU game last November, a growing mix of expectations and hope that this, finally, would be the time that Saban would be stopped. Ed Orgeron and his staff embraced that. They made an all-day, full-staff visit to Amite in the run-up to signing day.
It’s a Louisiana characteristic that they don’t back down, not at the dinner table, not in the stands, not at a party and not in recruiting. To the extent that it was possible, the Tigers brought the full-court press.
Sopsher didn’t waver. In the glare or television cameras, in a gym that had just exploded when Lee, his teammate, had committed to LSU, Sopsher handled the situation with grace and dignity.
If he had wanted to troll the LSU fan base, Sopsher could have had his brother Rodney dress as an SEC referee. Then, when Ishmael reached for an LSU hat, Rodney could have thrown a flag, called Birmingham on his cell phone and then taken the microphone and said “the ruling on the field is overturned” as Ishmael then put on the Alabama visor. That would have made for an all-time epic Signing Day announcement, but it wouldn’t have been very classy and the Sopsher family opted for class.
Saban took the same approach when asked about Sopsher on Thursday.
“I was really proud of Ish,” Saban said, talking about the entire long recruitment. “We challenged him and he accepted the challenge. We challenged him to come here and face the competition and become a better player, a better person. I think that was one of the things that really struck a chord with he and his family.”
Sopsher also struck a chord in his remarks at his ceremony. (Another point, to be fair: his high school classmates and the guests on hand greeted his decision sportively, no chorus of boos but applause instead.)
“What I like about coach Saban is that he never pressured me to come to Alabama,” Sopsher said. “He wanted me to see everything for myself.
“Nick Saban is such a great man.”
LSU, which ended with a top-five class, won’t be mortally wounded. The day just had to sting a bit, in the same spot where the stinging has been persistent.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0225.