It isn’t an exact science by any means, but it is fun to talk about.
Every spring ESPN analyst Mel Kiper is front and center on any topic involving the best college players and the NFL draft. The graces and condemnations he bestows come with equal conviction and passion. Often wrong but often right too, both his hair and his off-season draft boards provide water cooler fodder for die-hard football fans itching for the coming of the fall.
Just days after the release of Kiper’s final draft board and the completion of the 2012 NFL draft, his first draft board for 2013 is now out, and LSU Tiger fans have even more than a new quarterback to salivate over going into the season.
Following the 2012 draft in which LSU defensive players Morris Claiborne and Michael Brockers were picked in the first round, bookend defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery were No. 3 and No. 5 respectively on Kiper’s list of top prospects released on Wednesday.
Mingo (6-5, 240) and Montgomery (6-4, 245) were a two-man wrecking crew for a Tiger team ranked #1 for most of the season until a loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. And it wasn’t just their physical statures that were so alike. Their 2011 individual numbers were eerily similar as they combined for 86 tackles – including 28.5 for loss — and 17 quarterback sacks.
“Me and Mingo complement each other very much,” Montgomery said on the eve of the national championship game in January. ”You have a guy like myself who’s power and speed, but then you have Mingo who’s very strong and quick.”
Montgomery and Mingo hope they follow the path of Andrew Luck, Matt Kalil, and Justin Blackmon, who were all listed in the top seven of Kiper’s first Big Board last year, and not players like Alshon Jeffery, who was No. 4 on the first Big Board and wasn’t drafted until No. 45 in the second round last month.
Claiborne and Brockers were not even listed. Nor was Heisman Trophy winner and No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III.
Montgomery earned First Team All-America and All-SEC honors and was named a Ted Hendricks Defensive End of the Year Finalist after finishing the season with nine sacks, good for third in the league and fourth on the LSU all-time list. Most importantly to NFL scouts, he proved that he had fully recovered from a season-ending knee injury against Tennessee in 2010.
Mingo was a track star at West Monroe High School before signing with LSU and still runs a 4.5 40-yard dash, a speed that many incoming NFL running backs boast of. His eight sacks put him right behind Montgomery and helped earn him Second Team All-SEC honors last year.
Said Kiper of Mingo: “Exceptional length, still adding refinement, but he’s well past a mere ‘athlete’ label. Very good pass rusher, able to use speed to get up the field and turn the corner.”
And of Montgomery: “Lacks the frame of a 4-3 DE at next level, but could still get there, because his frame can handle it. Athleticism and rush skills are there, underrated against the run.”
Mingo and Montgomery made a national splash in the opening game of the 2011 season when they time and time again ran down the Oregon Ducks’ speedy skill-position players, including media favorite LaMichael James. They continued to terrorize opponents all year, anchoring a defense that finished the season ranked No. 2 nationally behind Alabama in total defense and scoring defense.Montgomery is so competitive that he will take it right to his teammate and good friend on the field.
“He doesn’t really give hugs. He like, fights you,” laughed Mingo, talking about celebrations after big plays. “He’ll punch you in the chest, and he’s just crazy. So you run away. You get a sack and then you run.”
The off-season got off to a sluggish start in Tiger Nation, as the 21-0 championship-game loss to an Alabama team they’d already beaten in Tuscaloosa in the regular season left many fans disgruntled with the team, particularly with Coach Les Miles’ handling of the Jordan Jefferson-Jarrett Lee quarterback saga. Montgomery, however, is simply looking at the near miss in New Orleans as a catalyst for next season.
“It makes me want to play harder. It makes me want to get back to that same level of intensity. The same strength that I fought with last year I want to summon back up and start playing it from the beginning so I can get to Miami, so I can win me a title.”
The emergence of quarterback Zach Mettenberger will make LSU’s offense more explosive than it has been in recent memory, but it will still be the John Chavis-led defense and its power and speed that will provide the identity of this team.
“I take great pride in playing great defense,” Mingo said. “Being a defensive player, you don’t like points getting put on you. That’s our main goal.”
“As soon as we got done playing the last game we started working on our speed even more,” Montgomery said. “People are going to get smarter and people are going to know the plays more, so it’s going to increase the speed and the more dominant force of play when you know what you’re doing.”
The level of domination will undoubtedly hinge on the play of LSU’s star defensive ends, who have already begun discussing their individual plans for next season.
“It’s always a competition between us two guys,” Montgomery said the week of the spring game last month. “It’s always a competition with everything. When we’re just doing the little fun drills outside with the student day, we had a competition, but mainly, we’re trying to push each other to ten-plus sacks. I believe that honestly if we really put our mind to it, we can get twenty-plus sacks.”
Twenty-plus sacks will be enough to keep the Tiger defense one of the most feared in the country. A feared Tiger defense will be enough to keep LSU high in the national rankings all year. And that should win back any fickle Tiger fans and their good graces.
Montgomery and Mingo hope it also keeps them in Kiper’s good graces come draft time next April.