Published 12:00 am Monday, January 9, 2012
By ROBIN SHANNON
With high schools in St. John, St. James and St. Charles parishes no more than an hour from the campus, the River Region has contributed its fair share of talent to LSU football teams. Most of those former Tigers have no shortage of opinions on the 2011 squad.
Some, like Quinn Johnson and Tyson Jackson of West St. John High School and Jai Eugene of Destrehan High School, played in an era not far removed from the current period of dominance by the Tigers.
Others, like former East St. John High School three-sport athlete and current Riverside Academy Athletic Director Timmy Byrd, played on talented but inconsistent teams. Although they played in different eras, all four agree the current team is arguably the best ever.
“It is the most talented team that has ever played for LSU,” said Byrd. “The combination of speed, size, discipline and coaching is unmatched. This team has a built in expectation of winning every time out. There has been no letdown.”
Byrd said high expectations are nothing new at LSU. As a true freshman quarterback in 1981, Byrd got his first taste of playing time for an LSU team that was high on expectations and talent but short on wins.
“We had some exceptional talent,” said Byrd. “But we underachieved. We had three wins my first year. We had some improvement in my sophomore year, going 8-3, but we had another let down at the Orange Bowl against Nebraska at the end.”
Byrd played in 10 of the Tigers’ 11 games his freshman season with the most memorable moments coming during early games against traditional national powers that included Notre Dame and Alabama.
“I got into the Alabama game in the second quarter for a drive that started on our 2 yard line,” he said. “I was able to get us down to about the 35 of Alabama. I threw a touchdown pass that would turn out to be the only score in that game.”
Byrd’s years at LSU were spent playing alongside starting quarterback Alan Risher, who went on to play two years in the USFL and two more years in the NFL. He said Risher was among 35 players in those years to go into the professional ranks.
“I was there with guys like Eric Martin, Dalton Hilliard, Mike Montz, Gene Lang and Jeff Wickersham,” Byrd said. “We had a good coach in Jerry Stovall, but we just couldn’t get the wins.”
Fast-forward to the 2000s, the beginning of a new era in LSU football, an era where head coaches Nick Saban and Les Miles have built a program that competes for national championships nearly every year.
These are the teams that included Johnson, Jackson, Eugene and others. Teams similar in stature to the current squad. All three played on a team that has won a title, and all are familiar with the championship routine.
“I can tell you that every last one of them is bursting with excitement,” said Johnson, who was a junior on the 2007 BCS championship team. “At this point the layoff has gotten to them, and they are completely prepared and ready to play.”
Jackson, also a junior on the 2007 team, said although the layoff between the final regular season game and the bowl game is nerve wracking, it serves as a great opportunity to get some must needed rest.
“A lot of guys get banged up during the season,” Jackson said. “They have time now to heal up and get right to play again.”
Jackson and Johnson said a title game, especially one as anticipated as Monday’s, comes with countless outside distractions. Both agree the coaches do an exceptional job of keeping the distractions out.
“The key is keeping the schedule consistent, like it is a regular game,” Jackson said. “They players know it is not, but there are routines that all players go through in a season. When the coaches keep to a routine, the players stay focused.”
Johnson said Miles, in talking with players, doesn’t bring up the negatives and accentuates the positives.
“He always talked about controlling the ‘controllables’ of a situation,” Johnson said of Miles. “He always said there are outside forces that are bigger than any one player, but if you focus on your responsibility, the rest comes natural.”
Eugene, who was a redshirt freshman in 2007, said the 2011 squad’s ability to weather diversity has impressed him, adding that Miles’ ability to manage distractions comes from his off-field persona.
“Coach Miles is family first, and that’s what his team is to him, family,” Eugene said. “Every decision he’s made this season has been the right one. He analyzes all of the facts before making a call. He puts players in position to be successful both on and off the field, and when someone does that and cares about you like that, all you can do is be successful. It’s easy to play for someone when you know they care.”
Although all four believe the 2011 team is something very special, opinions differ, albeit slightly, about the outcome of Monday’s game.
Byrd said both LSU and Alabama have had solid seasons and both will come out focused ready to play. He said that he can see LSU pull out the win, but he wouldn’t be surprised by an Alabama victory.
“Both teams left points on the field last time out,” Byrd said. “Both teams are coached by the top coaches in the nation, and both will be prepared. It could go either way.”
The younger generation, though, see things slightly different.
“Losing is not a possibility,” Johnson said regarding LSU. “This is a must win situation, and they will win.”
Jackson said the game will come down to which team can run the ball with the most consistency, something LSU did well the first time.
“I don’t see this game coming down to a field goal,” Jackson said. “Points will be scored, and LSU will score them. I like a game that is 21-10 LSU.”
Eugene said the game will likely be a 17-14, or 20-14 type of game. He likes the skill on defense for both sides but added that LSU has been through too much to be let down.
“I think they’ll be prepared to win on Monday night,” Eugene said. “There is no question about it