BATON ROUGE, La. — With Travonte Valentine’s career path, it only made sense for his first play in an LSU uniform to take place in totally unexpected fashion.
Valentine was chilling on the sidelines at Lambeau Field — a heck of a welcome to college football in the first place — waiting his turn to get on the field on LSU’s second defensive series of the game. Instead, he only had to wait a couple plays when starting defensive tackle Greg Gilmore’s helmet popped off during a play, which by rule requires him to return to the sidelines to sit the next one out.
As Gilmore turned towards the sidelines, Valentine heard the unmistakable Cajun-infused growl of defensive line coach Ed Orgeron.
“‘Valentine, get in!’” the sophomore recalls hearing. “I already had my helmet on. I was focused. I was ready. That was it.”
No newcomer to LSU came with more noise surrounding him this offseason than Valentine, though not all of it was necessarily good. His well-documented journey began when he was kicked out of the program by Les Miles in spring 2015, then continued when he hop-skotched across the country to a pair of junior colleges. He then sweated out passing extra summer school courses before he could rejoin the Tigers for practice late in August.
It is unprecedented for Miles to bring a player back into the program in quite the manner he brought back Valentine, but the 355-pound nose tackle has the ability to be an uncommon player.
“I really suggested that he invest in himself and that he needs to make a change in his life for him,” Miles said last week. “And really I did not necessarily see his return.”
From the moment he set foot at Arizona Western Junior College in Yuma, Arizona — a place so sparse and stiflingly hot that the Marine Corps found it ideal in training Marines for Iraq — Valentine had Baton Rouge on his mind.
“I’ve been saying I wanted to come back here as soon as I touched down in Yuma. ‘I’m coming back to LSU,'” Valentine said. “I felt like I left something here. I ain’t wanted to go out like that.”
“Going out like” that was a dismissal for multiple team violations that remain undisclosed.
“I made some bad situations. I can’t explain too much of it,” Valentine said. “It’s a lot. And I regret a lot of it.”
Being away from the palatial facilities of an SEC program and overall beauty of LSU’s campus opened Valentine’s eyes to what life was like if he didn’t shape up.
“Being there and being here — I’m not saying it’s a total downgrade — but it’s different from being here,” Valentine said.
That return seemed further away than ever when Valentine was dismissed from Arizona Western after six games last season following his arrest on disorderly conduct charges on Oct. 15. But the charges were dropped, and he transferred to Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. It was there that he finally got his life on track.
“(Arizona Western) was the wrong school to go to. When I went to Mississippi Gulf Coast, I was focused and going to class,” Valentine said. “It really was preparing me to go to any school I want to.”
And that, of course, was still LSU.
“I had to prove to (Miles) I could put in the work, stay away from the bad habits I used to do,” Valentine said. “Just really keeping positive.”
It worked out. Though due to his late arrival to camp, Valentine is nowhere close to being in proper physical condition.
“I’m at 355. My goal is to be 330 in four weeks,” he said. “I need to eat good, eat healthy. Run more every day. Listen to the trainer. It’s about preparing your body. Your body is a temple.”
Valentine had some impact in his platoon with Gilmore, finishing with three tackles. But it’s nowhere near what he is capable of.
“It was my first game playing at a national college level. I felt I handled it pretty well, but my grade for me is a C,” he said. “I can do a lot better than that.”
Once the pounds go down, Valentine says the tackles will go up.
“I study my playbook every day. Study film every day. I’m really focused and really ready,” he said. “I don’t think there’s catch-up at all. I know what I’m doing. It’s just a matter of getting the weight down.”