For many years the 2011 LSU Tigers were a mystery to fans and players alike.
How did one of the greatest seasons of all time shift into a team most remembered for a bewildering championship performance against one of its greatest rivals? And why couldn't the LSU football program escape from this large shadow cast by that 21-0 shutout loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS National Championship in New Orleans nearly a decade ago?
It wasn't until 2019 that old wounds healed for former players and fans alike. A perfect 15-0 season that featured a monkey-off-our-back victory in Tuscaloosa against that Crimson Tide team that's haunted the Tigers season after season eradicated a perfect season gone wrong. For the players on the 2011 roster that went from chasing history to chasing ghosts from their past, it served as a redemptive moment. And many celebrated the confetti falling down in the Dome after LSU's 42-25 National Championship victory against Clemson as if it were their own.
Add Will Blackwell to a long list of 2011 LSU Tigers who felt redeemed seven months ago.
Blackwell, who earned All-American status as an offensive guard in 2011, was part of one of the most impressive regular seasons in LSU history. That Tiger team went 13-0 after beating the eventual Rose Bowl Champions (Oregon), Orange Bowl Champions (West Virginia), Cotton Bowl Champions (Arkansas) and BCS National Champions (Alabama). It’s that last one that still stings, because after going 13-0, it was the Alabama Crimson Tide who kept that LSU team from going down as one of the greatest of all time. Eight seasons later, though, it was the 2019 Tigers that solidified an argument for greatest team ever.
“We like to say they lifted the curse,” Blackwell said. “It felt like there was some sort of voodoo they lifted. Of course it feels bad to be the only team to be in that building and not win it all, but to see what they did at Tuscaloosa and win like they did, it definitely gets the monkey off of our back. We’ve waited for it since (the 2012 BCS National Championship Game.)”
Long before Blackwell was ever a Tiger, and even before he took any visits to college campuses across the south, Blackwell was a ball boy for West Monroe High School in the glory days of one of Louisiana’s proudest high school traditions.
His grandfather Jerry Arledge was the defensive coordinator, as Arledge and head coach Don Shows built young men into formidable football teams that competed for state championships. Blackwell, who donned a West Monroe jersey on the sideline, looked like he belonged in more ways than one.
“Of course, one of the most amusing things was when the ball boys would travel with the team and we would go eat pregame meals somewhere," recalled Arledge, who now serves as the team's head coach. "We’d have people come up to Will and ask him what position he played. He’d say, ‘I’m in the fifth grade.'
"But you know it’s always very special when you have a son or grandson involved. You enjoy the thrill of victory together and the agony of defeat. He was one of those kids that was very emotional after a loss whether he was a ball boy or player. It was all still just as real to him. That’s what you want from your football players.”
The future West Monroe standout would eventually grow to be a 6’4”, 296-pound lineman, and Blackwell joked he probably wasn’t much smaller back in middle school. The desire to win was always the same, though.
The future LSU Tiger moved to the area and started first grade shortly after his parents got a divorce. Blackwell lived a mile from his grandparents, so in an attempt to help Blackwell’s mom, Arledge would take young Blackwell to practice at a young age. Arledge’s grandson was immediately hooked.
Blackwell was always thoughtful and eager to learn. There were times Arledge caught Blackwell looking over his shoulder as the longtime defensive coordinator crafted a game plan the entire West Monroe community would soon rave about days later. It donned on Blackwell at an early age that his grandfather created brilliant defensive schemes on the gridiron.
“He has one of those minds where he can draw up a blueprint and see exactly what a house is going to look like before it’s finished,” Blackwell said. “When he watches a game, he sees different dimensions when a lot of us are just watching the play on the screen. I think it’s a gift not everyone has.”
It's a gift Arledge still has. Just last season West Monroe allowed 8.8 points per game, which was the lowest average among high schools in the state. But he knows more than just X's and O's.
As good as Blackwell turned out to be — many remember the blue-chip defensive lineman he became in 2007 (ranked in Rival.com’s Top 100 for the Class of ‘07) — Blackwell admitted he needed an extra push. His grandfather was there to give it to him too.
“He knew that I was one of those kids that had to be motivated, so if you go up there and say you’re doing great or you’re doing awesome, it’s going to have a negative impact. But if you tell me I’m the worst tackler you’ve seen, I’m going to do whatever it takes to prove you wrong,” Blackwell said. “You’re grandpa saying whatever he has to motivate you, it can be disheartening. But the first thing on the way home he’d say, ‘You know that’s on the field, right? You know I love you.’”
Looking back, Blackwell remembers a lot of pouting during car rides home in his early days of playing under Arledge. But after his stellar college career at LSU, Blackwell has a different point of view than he did back then.
“I think it was one of the best things he ever taught me,” Blackwell said. “He taught me how to turn it on and turn it off. Playing at a place like LSU, especially on the offensive line, having the ability to do that was a huge advantage.”
Arledge can attest he wasn’t the most popular man in his own household back then. But whatever motivation tactics Arledge used inarguably worked.
“My wife and my daughter probably thought I was too hard on him, but he was the type of guy who had a great motor. You just had to get that motor moving in the right direction,” Arledge said. “Emotion is a great thing in football. You just have to learn how to control it and how to direct it.”
As Blackwell channeled that emotion, he drew offers from all around the country, and in his mind, Florida and LSU were ahead of the pack. Blackwell ultimately chose LSU for numerous reasons, and one of those involved his family getting to still cheer on the Rebels on Friday night before heading down to Baton Rouge to see him in action.
Blackwell went to LSU as a defensive lineman, but he soon approached head coach Les Miles about switching over to the offensive line. After making the transition, Blackwell earned a starting position at right guard ahead of the 2010 season.
As fate would have it, Blackwell suffered a broken leg on LSU’s first offensive play from scrimmage that year. He then missed the next nine games but made an incredibly fast recovery to get back on the field against Ole Miss in week 11.
“I just give credit to (head athletic trainer) Jack Marucci and the student trainers at LSU,” Blackwell said. “They don’t get enough credit for how much they help you mentally. A guy like me who is emotionally invested in the game, getting hurt like that in the first game was devastating. They made sure I went to rehab and did everything right. I had to comply and listen to what they said. I probably could’ve waited a few more weeks to come back, especially after watching tape, I didn’t do well. I was anxious to get back, though. At a place like LSU, you worry somebody is going to take your spot when you get injured.”
With a full bill of health, Blackwell thrived in 2011. Blackwell started all 14 games that season, and played a team-high 823 snaps. He also registered a team-high 112.5 knockdowns and helped anchor a Tiger offensive line that tied a school-record with 35 rushing touchdowns in a single season. The former Rebel finished his Tiger career on one of the best teams in school history as a First-Team All-American, however, that one loss at the very end of the season to Alabama took some time to get over.
“The whole thing felt like a storybook season up until those last 60 minutes,” Blackwell said. “All the guys that came in with that 2007 recruiting class — myself, Jarrett (Lee), T-Bob (Hebert) — we said we were going to do whatever it took to win a national championship.”
The 2011 Tigers might have come one game shy of that goal, and many members of that squad like Jarvis Landry have said they felt redeemed by what the 2019 Tigers did.
But in the eyes of Blackwell's grandfather, no redemption was needed. Arledge was always proud of the football player and man Blackwell became.
“He’s a proud daddy of a 2-year-old boy and 4-month-old girl,” Arledge said. “He’s a fine husband and daddy, and we’re so blessed and extremely proud of him.”