BATON ROUGE, La. — J.D. Moore is living every college football walk-on’s fantasy.
First, he earned playing time. Then, he earned a scholarship. Ultimately, he joined standout defensive end Christian LaCouture in wearing jersey No. 18. For an LSU football player, there is no greater prestige, and it’s the first time the honor has been shared.
Moore’s story of ascension is not his alone. SEC Country spoke to Moore about his path from wearing a triple-digit practice jersey to LSU’s most coveted number, as well as with two former walk-ons and two current walk-ons who are inspired by his leadership and success.
The optimistic realist
When Moore arrived at LSU from Ruston (La.) High School in 2013, he was under no illusion that he would see the field any time soon. In all likelihood, he would never play in an actual game. But that didn’t stop Moore, then an undersized tight end, from trying.
“Trying to play tight end at 215 pounds in the SEC, that’s not gonna work,” Moore said. “I tried not to get discouraged. I kept my head down and knew there was a long way to go.”
Nowadays, Moore’s upbeat demeanor is frequently mentioned by coaches and teammates. But he said there were plenty of days when that attitude was difficult to maintain.
“I was definitely a realist. … You have to have some level of optimism, but if you’re unrealistic, that’s when you feel you’ve been disrespected,” Moore said. “You have to realize the cards are stacked against you. That’s just the way it is.
“Some things may not be fair. Some guy might get an opportunity ahead of me just because of who he is, not because of anything I’ve done. Just because he was recruited. You have to have an attitude that’s willing to work hard regardless of what anyone is telling you. It’s tough.”
Moore worked through the tough days, moving to fullback his redshirt freshman year and climbing his way up the depth chart.
“There was a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, but it wasn’t huge,” he said. “There wasn’t a guarantee at all. So, I was really just working and imitating those guys that came before me, knowing they got playing time. For me, that would have been enough. I had an academic scholarship. To even get on the field would be reward enough.”
Though it wasn’t his initial goal, Moore won’t soon forget the moment he was awarded an athletic scholarship. There was no big announcement or a stunt that went viral on YouTube, just a simple meeting with then-head coach Les Miles.
“I really respected that he did it privately, away from the team. It meant just as much to me,” Moore said. “I appreciated his approach to that because he didn’t want to disrespect the work and contribution of other walk-ons.”
A genuine love for football
Two of Moore’s current teammates recently enjoyed similar unforgettable moments.
Following LSU’s final preseason scrimmage, coach Ed Orgeron called linebacker Jonathan Rucker and quarterback Caleb Lewis to his office. Like Moore, Rucker came to LSU in 2013. From the start, he knew Moore was someone he wanted to emulate.
“You couldn’t tell the difference between J.D. and the scholarship guys,” Rucker said. “It was all about how he carried himself. That’s how I want to carry myself.”
That trait ended up being important as he stuck with the program for four years without a scholarship, including the past two as a contributor on special teams.
“You have to have a genuine love for football,” Rucker said. “The genuine brotherhood is unlike any other, besides people talking about the military. I just wasn’t ready to give that up yet. I’m at LSU. Even if there is a glimpse of me getting to play, I’m going to hold on to that.”
Rucker began keeping a notebook with his football goals when he joined the team. He was tested immediately by the rigorous workouts of Tigers strength coach Tommy Moffitt. The journal entries back then were modest, with notes such as “stay on the team” and “survive another day.”
The checklist has evolved as he reaches each goal and continues to raise the bar. “I want to play” became “get a scholarship.” Heading into this season, his focus was clear — “play on defense.”
Now, the senior from nearby Ponchatoula, La., can scratch that one off his list.
Rucker played at inside linebacker in the season opener against BYU and got on the stat sheet with a tackle in the fourth quarter.
The man of faith
As Rucker left Orgeron’s office with a scholarship in hand, Lewis headed in.
“I saw him come out beaming,” Lewis said. “And I got kind of optimistic there.”
Optimism is clearly Lewis’ thing. Despite not having a scholarship offer from LSU, he enrolled early in the spring of 2015. Unlike Rucker, Lewis came all the way from Lakeland, Fla. He had to pay out-of-pocket tuition at the out-of-state rate.
“I think leap of faith is an understatement,” Lewis said. “Especially since, between my academics and athletics, I was awarded the opportunity other places. Divine intervention is sometimes overstated, but I do know my path was directed this way for a certain reason.”
After Orgeron offered Lewis a scholarship, the significance of everything he has accomplished since deciding to attend LSU hit him all at once. When he shared the news with his mother via FaceTime, she began to cry, and he broke down, too, in what he describes as “just really a cool moment.”
Not surprisingly, Lewis also views Moore as a role model.
“He’s a spiritual guide with [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] and a perfect example of how far you can get coming in and being a walk-on and just working,” Lewis said. “J.D.’s example and friendship and big brother-type [relationship] for me has really been great. I’m eternally grateful for him.”
More where Moore came from
Math is always working against the walk-on.
There are 105 roster spots, but only 85 scholarships available to distribute among those players. In many cases, they are offensive linemen — bodies needed for depth in practice, but unlikely to earn a varsity letter.
This season, juniors Turner Simmers and Jibrail Abdul-Aziz are two such examples. Early in training camp, the LSU offensive line was in a bit of a crisis. Starting right guard Maea Teuhema had just transferred to Southeastern Louisiana, and starters Will Clapp, Toby Weathersby and K.J. Malone were recovering from injuries.
Suddenly, players such as Simmers and Abdul-Aziz were being counted on to block against the Tigers’ first-string defense. But, of course, once the starters were healthy again, they were back to being grunts.
“You’ve got to be resilient,” Simmers said. “You have to be ready to be the low man on the totem pole maybe forever. You have to work.”
Neither Simmers nor Abdul-Aziz has any illusions that his football career will last beyond next season. Simmers is studying pre-med and sticking with football despite the difficulty in balancing the time demands.
“I don’t think it’s impossible,” Simmers said. “J.D. is the true reason I believe that. I mean J.D. is like a 3.99 in architecture, and this is his fifth year. He’s getting the grades. … You just really have to focus on it.”
Abdul-Aziz is an aspiring entrepreneur who has already started a business with his brother, Jamil, a walk-on freshman defensive lineman.
“There’s always a bigger picture to us walk-ons,” Jibrail said. “It’s a career decision. It’s about getting the education here at Louisiana State University but also gaining that knowledge being around such a great program and having a chance to earn a scholarship.”
To know he has that chance, Jibrail doesn’t need to look any further than No. 18.