Louisiana recruiting confidential: Brian Kelly’s 1st year, who recruits the state best


People knew Brian Kelly could win. But could he recruit well enough to win titles?

The winningest active coach in college football came down to the Bayou, and the No. 1 question became his ability to connect with players in the south. Kelly won the SEC West in his first year at LSU, showing he can change a program, but what will determine what Kelly achieves over the next decade in Baton Rouge is whether he holds off top powers in accumulating talent.

Louisiana is a rare territory with the most talent per capita in the United States but only one Power 5 program there to capitalize on it: LSU. Kelly has said that’s a large part of the appeal of why he left Notre Dame for LSU in the first place. But in recent years, rival programs like Nick Saban’s Alabama, Texas A&M, Texas and others have been able to come in and grab a handful of the top players.

With LSU a year into its transition from Ed Orgeron to Kelly and the early signing period days away, Kelly has compiled a class with 10 Louisiana commits that ranks No. 5 in the country, per the 247Sports Composite, but a few of the best players in the state have committed to Texas, Alabama, Notre Dame and USC.

Meanwhile, Willie Fritz’s Tulane earned a Cotton Bowl berth with 11 wins. Louisiana Tech is trying to make inroads with new coach Sonny Cumbie. And don’t forget programs like UL-Monroe, Nicholls, McNeese, Southern and Grambling.

As part of a recurring series of state recruiting confidential stories, The Athletic talked to high school coaches around the state about Kelly’s approach, who is recruiting Louisiana best and which players deserve the most attention. Coaches were granted anonymity in exchange for candid remarks. Identifiable comments were removed to ensure anonymity.

Here is the panel:

Coach 1: Head coach in Baton Rouge area
Coach 2: Head coach in Baton Rouge area
Coach 3: High school assistant coach in South Louisiana
Coach 4: Head coach in Southwest Louisiana
Coach 5: Head coach in New Orleans
Coach 6: Head coach in New Orleans

What has been the difference between Orgeron and Kelly at LSU?

Coach 6: O was wild. There was nobody like him. When he came on campus, he’d be storming through the front. I think he was as aggressive as anybody. … It was just that energy. When we did seven-on-seven, he’d run on the field and tackle (the recruit).

Coach 4: Coach O was personable. He was more hands on. He would call the coaches every Thursday and just wish them luck. I’ve met coach O. I still haven’t met coach Kelly. Coach O would come to the school, and he’d talk to the janitors. He would talk to the guidance counselors and talk to every teacher. Talk to the kids. It made you feel like it was more of a relationship built. Whereas Coach Kelly and his staff, it’s more business approach.

Coach 6: You would get a text in the morning that (Orgeron) wanted to FaceTime at whatever time, and he did. He had his assistant and once or twice a week he might be walking around the office or might be out on the balcony, but he was going to talk to (the recruit).

Coach 5: Coach Orgeron was a Louisiana guy. He was a Cajun. So everyone supported him on that aspect. It’s just tough to even compare because Brian Kelly’s not from around here. I feel like the high school coaching community, when it was coach Orgeron, was basically pushing their kids there almost just to support Orgeron.

Coach Brian Kelly, shown with wide receiver Kayshon Boutte, and LSU went 9-4 in his first season. The Tigers play Purdue in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 2. (Kim Klement / USA Today)

Coach 1: From the outside looking in, I think the program was starting to get a little crazy. You know, just with the discipline stuff. I think all that was going on. I think that Kelly has kinda reined (in) some of those things.

Coach 3: Coach O was letting a lot of talent go. There was no reason why you’re letting Shazz (Preston) go to Alabama. You’ve got (New Orleans High School) Edna Karr kid Aaron Anderson going to Alabama. Travis Etienne, he goes to Clemson. LSU keep letting top talent go.

Coach 2: With coach Kelly, I was expecting some of the stiffness and some of the stuff they normally characterize him by, but I had a real conversation with him, and I was impressed by his ability to connect. I was prepared to be underwhelmed, and I wasn’t. … You could tell he was just genuinely interested.

Coach 6: I was super impressed with Kelly. It’s not the direct approach. O was so accessible as a head coach. It was different. But when Kelly came, he went around, met (school officials), sat in the office for two hours. “How are your classes coming? How’s this?” He was a pro. He was so tight.

Coach 1: I haven’t seen him all that much. We see and hear from the other (assistants).

Coach 4: I really haven’t talked to none of them, to be honest with you. I can’t get into ins and outs because I know they’re in their season and they’re doing some things that they need to be doing. So it’s more of a business approach. Different coaches do different things, and different things work. There’s more than one way to skin a cat. If that’s how they’re gonna do what they do, it doesn’t hurt us at all.

It’s a ladder. You’ll meet the position coach. You’ll meet the analysts. Then eventually you’ll get to the point you may meet the head coach.

Coach 5: I’ve interacted with him a few times. He came on campus. Coach Kelly was all in the classes, all in the teacher’s lounge, meeting the teachers and introducing himself. He’s a cool guy. Even when I was able to go up there. I shadowed him a little bit. Very organized. Very strategic in how he practices and things like that. But off the field, a very cool and laid back guy telling jokes, clowning around and stuff like that. I like coach Kelly.

With Kelly lacking Louisiana connections, how big of a role did his staff play during the transition?

Coach 5: When he came in, the high school coaches didn’t know him that well. So he had to bring guys in to basically be the glue with that connection. And he did a good job. He didn’t get all the top targets that he was supposed to get, but he has a few solid guys in this class.

Coach 1: He’s made some good hires to help with that, and I think it’s gonna pay off for him with big-time dividends. We’ve got a lot of young guys that are really good on our team that hold LSU pretty high.

Coach 3: What’s helping Brian Kelly is getting (associate head coach/running backs coach) Frank Wilson back on staff. Getting Frank back, because Frank is one of the best recruiters in the country. Frank knows Louisiana, especially New Orleans, inside and out. The receiver coach Cortez Hankton, he’s from New Orleans. He’s from here. So getting people from here that’s on the staff in higher positions, that helps him because they understand the Louisiana mind. They understand Louisiana kids.

It helped their street cred, because once they lost Corey Raymond to Florida, he was one of the best recruiters in the state, especially with DBs. That helps them because a lot of people know Frank. Everybody knows Frank. Frank recruited me when I was in high school. … Frank is gonna take care of you.

Coach 5: A lot of quote-unquote “street cred.” In the city of New Orleans, those guys are highly respected and appreciated. They can bring in anybody on campus. It’s a big thing, and they’re very loyal and they’ve taken care of a lot of kids in the past.

Coach 4: Coach Frank and I have a good relationship. (Quarterbacks) Coach (Joe) Sloan, I knew him back when he was at Tech. He and I talk a lot as well.

Coach 6: Joe Sloan is relentless. He’s that recruiter that’s gonna be the guy who is just on you. … He stands out because he’s the one who would call every night. Five o’clock. And he’ll be in that low voice because he uses his office. Constant check-ins. And they’re not all like that. He’s the recruiter. He’ll still call, “Hey, you wavering? Just let me know if you’re wavering. I’m here.” He’s on it. I think he’s a star. He’s an every man.

Coach 1: Joe Sloan was a good hire, especially for the Baton Rouge area in recruiting. I mean, I met him when he was at Louisiana Tech and he recruited us hard here. He’s really got good relationships with a lot of coaches in this area.

Coach 2: The thing that Joe does better than most guys I come across is he’s always on top of the academic piece. He doesn’t leave it to the backroom guys to hope that it’s right. He goes in there and he crunches all the numbers himself. He’s always done a great job with that going back a decade now.

Coach 5: (Kelly) has broadened his map. He’s reaching into a pool of guys that Orgeron wouldn’t get before. He brought in guys like Frank Wilson and Cortez (Hankton), (offensive analyst) Carter (Sheridan) in New Orleans and lures Louisiana kids really all over the state. So he’s put together a good staff as far as recruiting. That’s the main thing with LSU football. You’ve got to win the state, but then you’ve got to be able to go pick from other states. And they’re hitting good targets.

Coach 6: Let me tell you this, I think Cortez Hankton is a star. A star. When Georgia (where he formerly coached) was recruiting us, I thought he was the best recruiter. He’s a star in that offensive coordinator, head coach kind of way, the way he conveys himself. He is universally respected.

Does Kelly deserve criticism for losing three of the top five players in the state to out-of-state rivals?

The No. 1 player in the country, quarterback Arch Manning, and top-50 safety Derek Williams committed to Texas, and top-100 quarterback Eli Holstein is headed to Alabama. Still, LSU has now landed eight of 17 players in Louisiana ranked as four-stars or better.

Coach 6: It’s really not fair at all. … You are playing catch-up. And with a new staff, you have to reestablish so many relationships, and that’s tough.

Coach 1: I mean quarterback is tough. You’ve gotta be on them Day 1. So I think this year is almost like a pass in some ways. If they can just keep locking down everybody else and especially the other big positions and things like that, but everybody you get is a bonus right now. And they got a pretty good one in Rickie (Collins, a quarterback from Woodlawn High in Baton Rouge). We played Rickie a few times. He’s a little gem, and I think he can be perfect for what they need.

Coach 4: I mean, they’re still getting kids from Louisiana. Even when Coach O was there, there’s always a kid or two that may leave. We have so much talent in Louisiana, you have one or two kids that may or may not fit or may go through the cracks. But the kids they have committed to them are quality kids. They’ve done a good job holding onto the ones that are there.

Coach 1: If LSU can lock down six or seven of the top prospects and then goes out and gets other guys, that’s a pretty successful deal. What can’t happen is your one, two, three and four guys going somewhere else. The big guys, they’ve gotta lock down. If the four and five guys go somewhere else, that’s OK if you’ve got one, two, three, six, seven, eight.

Coach 2: I feel like their biggest issue, if you’re talking about a negative, is just trying to beat Saban for the hometown kids. It feels like he grabs one of the studs, at least, a year, going back to the Dutchtown guys that went there, some of the U-High guys. My perception as a high school football coach here is that gap is being narrowed between Alabama and LSU.

Coach 6: They did as good a job as they could, and they certainly recruited the state hard, but you can’t judge them on this cycle. Just because Louisiana is a nationally recruited area. And it used to be New Orleans, and now you look up and Baton Rouge and Shreveport area, there’s players all over. I was beyond impressed with them, though. I just think it will take a minute.

Coach 2: If a kid is not super impressed with what went on there this year, he’s got goggles on.

Who are some of top out-of-state schools and recruiters?

Even during the peaks of the Orgeron and Les Miles eras, it became normal for Saban’s Alabama and other SEC schools to grab one or two major targets from Louisiana.

Coach 6: A1 has been (defensive coordinator) Pete Golding of Alabama. His energy, he’s relentless. … He was in another coach’s office for two hours the other day. He went to Hammond High School. He coached at Southeastern. He knows the state well, and like Sloan, he knows how to just talk to coaches. He doesn’t walk in a room and just act above.

Coach 2: I mean he’s Saban, man. He’s Saban, and his reputation precedes itself. I think those guys are so thorough. With Pete … we have a long standing relationship. He’s a great connector, especially with coaches in this area. So when they walk in with that A on their chest, it means something.

Coach 4: Pete does a great job of being around and knowing how to come in here and say, “OK, I’ve got that A on my chest, but I also know how to build that relationship and can show you the guys that came from Louisiana and been great players, the Landon Collins, the DeVonta Smith and those types of guys. You can follow that same model. And you don’t have to worry about much turnover.”

Coach 5: Always Dave Johnson with Florida State. Brock Hays with Troy. Jabbar Juluke with Florida.

Coach 4: Pete always does a good job. Coach Terry Joseph and Blake Gideon at Texas. Coach Kevin Steele (of Miami) comes around here. Coach (Ron) Bellamy from Michigan, for sure. And of course Corey (Raymond of Florida).

Coach 6: Terry Joseph at Texas is phenomenal. Terry has the (Archbishop) Shaw (High School) connection, went to Louisiana Tech. He’s somebody who can go on any campus and have a connection.

Coach 2: Gabe Fertitta at Florida State and (head coach) Mike Norvell. Those guys do a good job. (Arkansas coach) Sam Pittman and those guys did a real good job, and of course the line coach was Brad Davis. I think when he came to LSU that was big part of some guys sticking around. Anthony Camp at Louisiana Tech recruits us and does an awesome job.

Coach 5: Tulane has really impressed me the last two years. They’re picking up their recruiting. The way they recruit is like a full staff. One week we’ll see (defensive analyst) J.J. McCleskey. The next we’ll see (Chris Hampton), the defensive coordinator. Another week, Coach Fritz just came on campus himself and kicked it with me. Coach Fritz is a real good coach.

Willie Fritz and Tulane cracked the New Year’s Six lineup. (Stephen Lew / USA Today)

Coach 1: Tulane does a good job on kids that they can get. That they can really get in there and help their program with. And you know what’s surprising? Grambling is everywhere right now. All over recruiting. We get recruited twice as hard by Grambling than by Southern. I don’t hardly ever see a Southern coach.

Coach 6: (Florida coach) Billy Napier has got Jabbar Juluke who is really on a rocket ship coming from Edna Karr. Then Dave Johnson at Florida State. Those guys are all-star recruiters.

Coach 2: I liked the way (Billy) came in. I liked the way he carried himself. I liked his quiet confidence. He’s a professional as well. I perceive that he’ll do well. Corey Raymond came here with him.

Coach 3: It really be Alabama. Mississippi State will come and take a few. Auburn will take a few. Arkansas took a few. Nicholls with coach (Tim) Rebowe. I know he recruits the river parishes and New Orleans and Baton Rouge hard.

Coach 5: Louisiana Tech’s coach Teddy Veal, receivers coach. Teddy’s been doing a real good job coming down here and getting some key guys, but also up north.

Coach 1: Louisiana Tech does an outstanding job. They get all over the state. Coach Cumbie I like a lot. He came in and I met him, and I think he’s a good guy. It’s gonna take a little bit of time to get his system in there and get it going, but I think he will.

If most programs make sure they have a Louisiana connection on staff, what does it take to actually get a recruit to leave the state?

Coach 4:  Not every kid says they want to stay home. A Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, there’s no better place to be in the country than that. But there’s some kids that want to get out and see different things. It may not be the LSU thing. It may be that I want to do different things or the fit is a little better. And some kids are really starting to do their research with social media now and all the ways you can go and look certain things up. These kids now are more educated. They can go out and look at things and be like, “I want to play for this coach,” or, “I want to play in this system,” or, “I want to be in this facility.”

Coach 6: A lot of it is the relationship piece in Louisiana. Not just the kid, but their family. Louisiana football is different. It’s a fraternity. It’s the river parish. It’s small families and close. It’s really getting to know the kid.

Coach 5: To get a kid from New Orleans, specifically, to leave the state is trust. New Orleans is a dangerous city. Some kids actually look to get out. But they’re not gonna leave and go somewhere where they don’t trust nobody. Most of the times it needs to be with a New Orleans native like a Dave Johnson or a Cortez Hankton.

Coach 3: It’s gonna take a lot. It’s gonna take more than “I want you to come here.” You’ve probably got a promise them a certain number, promise them a certain amount of playing time. It’s not like kids don’t wanna go to LSU.

Coach 1: Sometimes LSU has to slow play guys. They’re not sure they’ll have spots for them. They can’t just offer everybody, because people might say yes right away.

Coach 1: I did have a coach come in the other day and say, “I thought it would take Brian Kelly a little bit longer to turn this program around.” So because he turned it around so fast, they’re like “Here we go.”

Which high school players around the state have jumped out to you?

Coach 3: Trey Holly at Union Parish had a great year. Broke those records that unless running backs start getting carries in eighth grade and they’re running the wing-T, nobody is breaking that record. (USC commit) Tackett Curtis from Many (High School) had a pretty good year.

Coach 6: Tackett Curtis is the best physical specimen I have seen. I don’t know if Brian Bosworth is his dad or not.

Coach 4: Ju’Juan Johnson at (Lafayette Christian Academy). He’s definitely a great player. The running back who plays for St. Martinsville (Steven Blanco). He’s a big time running back for them. St. Thomas More, their quarterback was a big time player for them. Neville had a defensive end, No. 7 (Matthew Fobbs-White), he was a good player.

Coach 6: I still think Ju’Juan Johnson at LCA is unlike anything I’ve seen. I don’t know what he is, but his skill sets in terms of as a playmaker, he almost beats people by himself. He ran through people. He threw it all over. He’s physical.

Coach 5: Torey Lambert over at Brother Martin. He’s impressed me all year. It’s the kid at St. Thomas More (Christian McNees). … Very nice receiver. There’s a lot of talent down here in New Orleans, and when we go up north, there’s always one guy who can go. Oh, the kid Arnold Barnes at Booker T. Washington. The running back at Warren Easton, Fred Robertson, and he comes back next year too. Jai Eugene at Destrehan.

Coach 6: We played U-High (in Baton Rouge), their kid (Keylan Moses) is 6-foot-2, 210, he’s unbelievable. He’s already a four-star, and he’s a sophomore. The only question is what position he plays. And they have a freshman nose guard who is unbelievable.

(Top illustration: Sean Reilly / The Athletic)


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