No college football coach will tell you it’s easy to win in Louisiana.
It’s hard to beat LSU at Tiger Stadium. It might be even harder to go into the Tigers’ backyard and recruit against the in-state powerhouse.
But Alabama has recruited in Louisiana better than any other out-of-state school. In the 10 signing classes from 2008-17, LSU signed 64 players in the top 10 of the 247Sports composite rankings of prospects from Louisiana. Alabama signed 15.
No other program signed more than two in that time.
“Alabama has been the only school that’s been able to come into Louisiana consistently and give LSU any trouble,” said 247Sports recruiting analyst Shea Dixon.
There’s no mystery why LSU has owned in-state recruiting for so long. It’s the only program in a Power Five conference in a state stocked with talented players. Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe and Tulane don’t compete with the Tigers for top recruits.
Most recruits in the state grew up as LSU fans. They all grew up surrounded by LSU fans.
“Most everybody in this state is an LSU fan,” West Monroe High School head coach Jerry Arledge said. “Most everybody expects football players to go to LSU.”
But not every player does. Alabama signed at least one top-10 player from Louisiana in nine of the last 10 signing classes. Alabama has signed at least one player from the boot-shaped state in all 11 of Nick Saban’s recruiting classes, and has another committed for the 2018 class.
“Every time we get a Louisiana guy to Alabama there’s always some out there saying you let down your home state,” said Crimson Tide defensive end Isaiah Buggs on national signing day. “They don’t want to see you succeed. From that point on you have to prove them wrong – that you can succeed anywhere you want.”
Nick Saban spent the first five years of the 21st century building a wall around the state of Louisiana as LSU’s coach. He’s spent the last decade tearing that wall down as Alabama’s coach.
“At one time, one of the reasons I was interested in going there when I was in the NFL, they did some survey on how many players per capita each state has relative to the NFL,” Saban said on National Signing Day in February. “And Louisiana was like fourth or something on the list. I said, ‘Well, there must be a lot of players in Louisiana.’ And I think there are.”
That’s still true. A survey by The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer this year found there were 60 current NFL players from Louisiana, sixth-most of any state. Louisiana produced the fifth-most NFL players per capita, ahead of states like California, Texas, Ohio and Mississippi.
Alabama has 10 scholarship players on its roster from Louisiana this season, tied for the most of any state other than Alabama. There are also 10 players from Texas. The Crimson Tide has more players from Louisiana than Florida (six) or Georgia (five).
Saban has a built-in advantage to recruiting the state. His five years as head coach at LSU left him with relationships and cachet that still resonated in that state when he arrived at Alabama in 2007. That’s especially true in areas like Monroe and the rest of the northern part of Louisiana.
“I think that it goes all the way back, 15 years ago or how many years ago that we went to LSU,” Saban said this week. “At that time LSU wasn’t getting a lot of the players in north Louisiana and we developed a lot of relationships, tried to turn that around. We still have a lot of good relationships. It’s a little closer to here than other parts of the state. I think they’ve got some great programs in north Louisiana, some great coaches.
“They’ve always had great players, historically through the years. We’ve been fortunate to get a couple of those players to come to Alabama and they’ve done a really good job for us.”
Cam Robinson was one of those players. Safety Hootie Jones, who earned a starting job this year, is another one. Robinson played at West Monroe High School, while Jones is from rival high school Neville.
“I just wanted to make my own legacy, I guess,” Jones said. “Just go somewhere else and venture out and go somewhere else.”
Alabama’s lone 2018 commitment from Louisiana is also from West Monroe; Slade Bolden plays quarterback but projects as a slot receiver at Alabama. Arledge, his head coach, said LSU offered Bolden and might have been his favorite, but the Tigers filled up at his position before he made his decision. He visited Alabama next and committed before the season.
“We’ve had kids go to a lot of schools and visit,” Arledge said. “Invariably, when they come back, the school that they’re most impressed with is Alabama.”
Other factors play a role. Some players aren’t recruited by LSU, like Cam Sims of Monroe. Recruiting is an individual decision for every player. Alabama has enough of a track record with Louisiana players that a recruit can see himself following a path set by the likes of Robinson, Jones, Eddie Lacy or Landon Collins.
“Everybody knows when Alabama gets some guys from Louisiana, they’re some dogs,” Buggs said. “That’s how I describe all Louisiana players who come here.”
Landmark signing class
The 2017 class was Alabama’s biggest haul from the bayou. The Crimson Tide signed three of the top five prospects in Louisiana: wide receiver DeVonta Smith, linebacker Chris Allen and defensive lineman Phidarian Mathis. Kicker Joseph Bulovas is also a Louisiana product.
Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses played his senior season at IMG Academy in Florida and was listed as the No. 1 player in Florida, but is a Baton Rouge native. He was offered by Les Miles in the eighth grade and attended high school at University Laboratory School on the LSU campus. Junior college defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs wasn’t listed in the Louisiana state rankings but is from Ruston, La. Among the six Louisiana players signed by Alabama this year, only Bulovas wasn’t an LSU target as well.
“It became an immediate question of, ‘What will Orgeron be able to do about this?’” Dixon said.
Losing Moses and Allen was especially galling. It was one thing to see players from northern Louisiana leave the state, but watching elite players in Baton Rouge go to Alabama was another.
The instability at LSU late last season was probably a factor in Alabama’s bayou raid. Many believe Moses would have signed with LSU if Miles had been retained.
“I’m from Louisiana, so we like to have a good connection with the coaches we’re playing for,” Buggs said. “So if a Louisiana guy never knows who he’s going to be playing for, if he’s not sure, if he’s not positive, then he may take another direction.”
LSU coach Ed Orgeron and the Tigers took note of Alabama’s success in Louisiana this year. LSU athletics director Joe Alleva said when he hired Orgeron that there was “no question in my mind he’s going to be able to recruit the state of Louisiana.”
The early returns look good for Orgeron. LSU already has 10 in-state commitments in its 2018 recruiting class and is in strong position with several other top recruits. Orgeron made the state a priority from the start, like Miles before him and Saban before that.
“LSU will always be Louisiana first,” he said at his introductory press conference.
The 2019 class in Louisiana could be a bigger showdown between Alabama and LSU. Four of the top 40 recruits in the nation in that class are in Louisiana. Both coaching staffs will have a full recruiting cycle to attract those players.
“We go after the same guys,” Orgeron said this week. “I’m glad we got some of the guys we got. We beat them on a couple guys. They’ve beaten us. Remember, this is his 11th year there. This is my first, OK?”
Moses, Allen and Buggs play a role for Alabama already. It’s possible to imagine a scenario in the coming years when Allen or Moses fills a gap behind Mathis or Buggs for a critical tackle against the Tigers. DeVonta Smith or tight end Irv Smith Jr., both Louisiana natives, could make a game-winning catch, with Bulovas supplying the extra point. Alabama cleaned up in Louisiana this spring, and LSU could feel the effect for years to come.
“The biggest thing that stings is the reality that you have to play against them once a year,” Dixon said. “They’re on another SEC West roster.”
A different road
Leaving the state still isn’t the typical road for Louisiana prospects. Alabama wins its share of battles in the state, but LSU’s roster remains loaded with Louisiana players.
It’s not easy to leave Louisiana. Buggs tweeted on Wednesday morning after he received “horrible messages from Louisiana fans.” His choice to go to Alabama is a message of its own.
Woke up this morning to horrible messages from louisiana fans how could you wish such bad things on players, like i just dont get it.
— Isaiah D. Buggs (@BigPooh_91) November 1, 2017
“It means a lot, to let everyone know that wherever you’re from, Louisiana or whatever, you can come here and play if they recruit you,” Buggs said in February. “You don’t always have to be an LSU guy, go home and play. Do something different for a time or change, so I just came over here to Alabama.”
Alabama could start as many as four players from Louisiana against the Tigers on Saturday, and four more should contribute in some way. There’s a path to success for Louisiana players to leave the state. That road leads to Alabama more than any other school.
“Everybody’s got their own path that they want to go down,” Hootie Jones said. “Some people like staying in the state, which I don’t blame them for. At the same time, you have to get out and explore the world.”
Alabama wins battles on and off the field in Louisiana: Saban is 5-1 against the Tigers in games played in Louisiana, and he Crimson Tide takes more players in head-to-head battles in Louisiana than any other college football team.
“It helps when you’re up there and the No. 1-ranked team in America,” Arledge said. “That has a lot to do with a young man’s decision. He wants to go to a place that’s winning consistently.”
The battles in Louisiana will keep going. Alabama knows it can win.
“I think we’ve been fortunate to get a lot of players, in the past, that have had success here, whether it’s Landon Collins, Eddie Lacy, Tim Williams, Cam Robinson,” Saban said in February. “We have a few players on our team right now that make a significant contribution from Louisiana. I think when players see other players leave the state and have success, it’s something they see as a place where they might go and have success themselves.”
Reach Ben Jones at firstname.lastname@example.org or 205-722-0196.