The defending national champs will need some new faces to play key roles this fall
The SEC sets a ridiculously high bar on the gridiron, especially in the West, where divisional titles are nice, but the teams are really playing for conference and national championships. With a national title drought that extended back to the 2007 season and an eight-game losing streak to rival Alabama looming overhead, the LSU Tigers surpassed all preseason expectations winning a school-record 15 games in 2019 lifting a national championship trophy after trouncing Clemson 42-25 in the Sugar Bowl. But can the job just accomplished be replicated with the aid of the incoming 2020 class?
Before the satisfaction of being national champs wears off, LSU is already looking ahead to the 2020 season, which brings in a new crop of talents ready to claim their own gridiron glory. The Tigers suffered heavy losses across the board with nine early NFL entrants from their championship-winning team, putting a greater emphasis on true freshmen to step up in key roles.
The Tigers signed 24 commits in the 2020 class, a mix of three five-stars, 14 four-stars, and seven three-star prospects for the fourth-ranked haul in the nation — third in the SEC behind No. 1 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama. Knowing what LSU lost, here's a look at the key players with the potential to make their mark once the ball is teed up against UTSA in September.
Elias Ricks, CB
The loss of senior corner Kristian Fulton stings far less with the arrival of five-star Elias Ricks, who is already in Baton Rouge. Ricks is no stranger to playing against elite talent after winning back-to-back MaxPreps high school championships with Mater Dei (2017-18) before transferring to Florida powerhouse IMG Academy. The Ascenders ended their 2019 season ranked seventh nationally with Ricks locking down his side of the field. At 6-foot-2, 192 pounds, Ricks is the real deal. Paired with All-SEC and Freshman All-American corner Derek Stingley Jr., the Tigers' secondary will be elite for years to come. Expect Ricks to earn a starting spot from the go.
Arik Gilbert, TE
In LSU’s new passing offense, the tight end is an integral part of the scheme. Once the 2019 season was over, Thaddeus Moss, son of NFL legend Randy Moss, declared for the draft. Moss was the second-leading receiver from the tight end position in the SEC, hauling in 47 passes for 570 yards with four touchdowns. If Gilbert can live up to the five-star hype coming out of Marietta (Ga.) High School, there is a role for him to succeed within the offense. Aiding in Gilbert’s ability to help in Week 1, he is an early enrollee.
Jordan Toles, SS
Losing a two-time consensus All-American in Grant Delpit early to the NFL hurts, but Toles, a four-star Maryland talent, has the talent to help the Tigers move forward. Toles roamed the secondary for St. Frances Academy helping his squad to an 11-1 record with the lone loss coming on the road to Mater Dei. Toles will battle Mo Hampton and Kary Vincent Jr. for the role opposite returning second-team All-SEC safety Jacoby Stevens.
Ali Gaye, DE
The most glaring need on LSU's defense last season was a dominating edge rusher who could also play the run. Can Gaye, a highly touted junior college transfer, be that guy? The LSU coaching staff knows their needs and who can fill them, and Gaye's experience and size (6-6, 270) should give him an opportunity to be a counted-upon addition to the success of the team right away. The former Washington signee (2018) hit his stride during his sophomore season with Garden City (Kan.) Community College by tallying 44 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and a pass breakup, while blocking two kicks.
Phillip Webb and Antoine Sampah, LBs
LSU lost three starting linebackers off their 2019 squad (K'Lavon Chaisson, Patrick Queen, and Jacob Phillips), so this is a position group that could feature one or more newcomers. That's why Webb and Sampah are both listed here as the incoming true freshmen could be called on early to help the Tigers make it through another difficult SEC schedule. Both four-stars, Webb is from Georgia while Sampah hails from Virginia. Webb tore it up for Lanier High School, producing 91 stops in 11 games with 24 tackles for a loss, 13 sacks, and 29 quarterback hurries. Sampah, an Under Armour All-American, has all the tools to be an elite player in the box for the Tigers. Both will have a lot of ground to make up over the summer months to be ready for the SEC grind this fall.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.