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College  | Story  | 1/6/2023

Geaux-ing Up; LSU Opens at #1

Vincent Cervino     
Photo: LSU Baseball (LSU Athletics)
Heading into Year 2 in Baton Rouge, LSU Coach Jay Johnson has his Tigers in as good of a spot as they’ve been in years as they earned the preseason No. 1 ranking heading into the 2023 season. The Tigers have assembled what looks to be one of the more fearsome rosters in college baseball, returning SEC stars like Dylan Crews and Tre’ Morgan but also loading up on new transfer like 2022 Freshman of the Year Tommy White and 2022 John Olerud Award Winner Paul Skenes.

What does Jay Johnson think of the prestigious ranking? He tries not to put the wagon before the horse. “I don’t get too ahead of myself,” Johnson said in an interview with PG’s Vinnie Cervino, “we obviously play great competition.” He’s right too. The SEC had a nation-leading eight teams ranked in the Preseason Top 25 with seven of those eight ranked in the top 11.

LSU lost the highest drafted college player in the country last season in Jacob Berry (7th overall to the Marlins) but it looks like centerfielder Dylan Crews has a chance to surpass that mark. Crews has a chance to be only the third No. 1 overall pick out of LSU following Eric Hetzel in 1985 and Ben McDonald in 1989, along with being the highest drafted Tiger since Alex Bregman went second overall in 2015.

“It’s just the total package: elite talent and an elite person in terms of character, makeup, (and) competitiveness,” Johnson said, “Rarely do you see a guy that has that much ability and is in tune to get that ability out on a consistent basis.”

Crews is an example of the ripple effects felt across the baseball landscape because of the COVID-shortened 2020 draft. With only five rounds, plenty of high school kids fulfilled their commitment to school that otherwise would have signed, or as Johnson puts it, “Guys like him don’t show up on campus often.”

LSU certainly had the merits to be a top 10 team entering the season but there’s never a good reason not to get better when you have the opportunity, so it added the two biggest names in the transfer portal: Tommy White, formerly of NC State, and Paul Skenes, formerly of Air Force. “We’re replacing Jacob Berry and Cade Doughty (2nd round, Blue Jays),” Johnson said, “and there’s no better way to fill that than with a known commodity like Tommy White.”

White took the nation by storm last year, earning the moniker ‘Tommy Tanks’ en route to winning Perfect Game Freshman of the Year. White immediately became not only a sensation but one of the best hitters in the sport, slugging over .750 with 27 jacks. Johnson has been very impressed with White, but everyone knows about the power; what’s stood out to Johnson has been the glove work and pure hit tool.

“People are going to be very surprised at the defensive player that he is,” Johnson said, “the pure hitting ability gets overlooked because the power is special…he’ll help us fill that void in losing two of the best players in the country.”

The rest of the roster is surrounded by a supporting cast of returners led by Crews and first baseman Tre’ Morgan. “(With) Dylan Crews, Tre’ Morgan, Jordan Thompson, Ty Floyd, Josh Pearson, you have a really good core of returning players.”

Floyd is a name expected to compete in the starting rotation and that weekend staff could look very different from a year ago. Gone is Ma’Khail Hilliard, who made 16 starts, but a trio of transfers led by Skenes enter as highly touted prospects. “We’re excited to add Paul (Skenes), one of the best pitchers in the country,” Johnson said. “Thatcher (Hurd) has an incredibly high ceiling and Christian (Little) does as well.”

Floyd is one of two names on the mound, along with Cape Cod League star Grant Taylor, who Johnson seems most excited by in terms of their development this fall. “(There was a) real emergence on the mound with Floyd and Grant Taylor,” he said. The reason for the developmental gains of the pitching staff this fall? Johnson credits the addition of new pitching coach Wes Johnson, who LSU was able to lure back to the SEC from the Minnesota Twins.

Jay Johnson had to replace his two full time assistants this offseason as recruiting coordinator Dan Fitzgerald left to become the head coach at Kansas and pitching coach Jason Kelly left to become the head coach at Washington - both Power 5 head coaching jobs. If you’re sensing a theme you’d be right because as it is with the roster, LSU doesn’t rebuild, they reload.

Jay Johnson was able to lure one of the best recruiting coordinators in the country Josh Jordan away from Duke then made the big splash of grabbing Wes Johnson from the Twins. Jordan generally is regarded as a top recruiter, instrumental in the development of Duke’s program under Chris Pollard, and Wes Johnson was poached from Arkansas to the MLB ranks and is regarded by his peers as one of the brightest pitching minds in the country.

“I want to find the people that are the best at what they do,” Jay Johnson said. “Josh (Jordan) on the recruiting and catching side is outstanding; Wes is elite, might very well be the best pitching coach in all of baseball not just college baseball”

Even as the players change the goal stays the same: winning games and development. “We’re just trying to put all the pieces in place to help players live out their dream of being MLB players and go to Omaha and compete for national championships,” Johnson said. But just because the Tigers have earned the Preseason No. 1 ranking, the job isn’t finished. The SEC is still a vaunted gauntlet of stacked teams and Johnson knows he and his players are going to have to fight to finish the season at No. 1. “Nothing is going to be given to us,” he said. “We’re going to have to earn it.”