Guarding the Best: Former MRA Patriot to play for college football championship
MADISON - Millions of college football fans will tune in to Monday's National Championship game between LSU and Clemson in the Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans.
Most everyone's eyes will be on LSU's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow or its splendid tailback Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but not Madison-Ridgeland Academy offensive line coach Kenny Williams and his wife Lauren.
Their eyes will be fixed — as they have been the past three years — on the LSU offensive line. More specifically, on the guy wearing No. 77, former MRA Patriot Saahdiq Charles.
At 6-foot-4 and 295 pounds, the 20-year-old junior will be hard to miss.
"He's the best lineman I've ever seen in person," Williams explained. "He's just this huge kid who can move like a cat."
It's funny, but that was Williams initial assessment when Charles stepped into the coaches' offices at MRA in the summer before the 2015 season. Charles, then preparing for his junior season, had just transferred from St. Joseph Catholic School in Madison. He was an instant star at MRA.
"He walked in the door and I just saw this giant of a man who was just this young dude," Williams said. "You look at him and think ‘Man, this guy is different.' It wasn't just his height and weight, his traps and calves are just bulging, then you see the way he bends and runs and you think ‘My goodness.'"
With Charles leading the way up front, the MRA offense took big strides. Not only did he clear the lanes for a running game that averaged better than 6-yards a carry over two seasons, but Davis trusted Charles enough to protect his son Hayden, who started at quarterback, from the blindside.
MRA improved from 9-4 in 2014 to 10-3 in Charles' junior year. Two of those losses came against Jackson Prep, and the second of those was a 51-13 loss to Prep in the MAIS Championship. It was a disappointing end to the season, but with Charles paving the way, the Patriots averaged better than 40 points a game despite losing Hayden to injury halfway through the year.
"He had a big impact on us immediately," Williams said. "He was a monster."
Charles didn't just use that ability on the football field, either. When he went out for soccer, the coaches thought he would be too big to actually play a role on the team. Once they put him in the goal and watched his reactions, they knew they had a player.
Charles ended up first-team All-MAIS as a keeper.
"He's probably the best athlete I've ever had," MRA head coach Herbert Davis said. "In terms of his physical size and strength and his ability to move, I've never had another guy like that."
Charles' performance during his first year at MRA set up a recruiting battle for the four-star prospect headed into the following spring.
Former Clarion Ledger preps reporter Will Sammon remembers calling Herbert Davis about Charles when he was putting together that newspapers' annual Dandy Dozen list.
"He was a borderline guy for us," said Sammon, who now covers the University of Florida for The Athletic. "He he was obviously a huge talent, but it was hard to tell how it would translate because he was lining up across from other players from the MAIS level and just dominating guys left and right."
Davis told him in no uncertain terms: if he didn't put Charles on his 2016 Dandy Dozen list, he would end up regretting it.
Sammon said he weighed his options before placing the highly sought-after recruit on the list, which included Gatorade Player of the Year Cam Akers and this year's leading SEC rusher, Mississippi State's Kylin Hill.
"I was right about Saahdiq deserving that honor," Davis said, looking back. "It's easy to say it now, but I just knew how special he was going to be if he could stay healthy."
Headed into his senior year, Charles held offers from 10 schools, including several Southeastern Conference powerhouses. But there was one offer he cherished above all others - a scholarship offer from Louisiana State University.
Like so many kids whose family was displaced by Katrina, the New Orleans native grew up an out-of-place Tiger fan. His mother and grandmother had brought him to Northeast Jackson at the age of six following the storm, which wiped out the Mississippi Gulf Coast and put the Big Easy underwater.
MRA went 9-4 in Charles' final season - another season defined by injuries to key players, including the starting quarterback. Again, they lost to Prep in the state championship game.
Following the season, Mississippi State and then-coach Dan Mullen made a huge push to sign Charles. But their efforts were for naught. On May 24, 2016, Charles fulfilled his life-long dream when he signed his letter of intent and faxed it to LSU, a decision he called "tougher than what many people would think."
The rest is history - Charles earned enough playing time in his freshman season to earn an all-freshman team nod from the Southeastern Conference. He started 10 games at left tackle as a sophomore, including a 36-16 win over then-No. 2 Georgia in which he played every snap.
With a start in the national championship game next week, Charles will have started eight games as a junior. Earlier this month, the Tigers' offensive line was named the winner of the Joe Moore Award, which is given annually to the top front line in college football.
Charles, who LSU has not made available for interviews since earlier in the season, also has another big decision to make following Monday's game.
As a draft-eligible junior, Charles could elect to come back to LSU for his senior season or enter the 2020 NFL draft. If he does elect to turn pro, most draft projections have him as a late-second to early third-round pick. If selected in that range, Charles would command a contract between $4 million and $7 million with a signing bonus ranging from $1 million to $3 million.
As always, his former offensive line coach at MRA is there to provide some advice.
"It's exciting to think about the money he could make," Williams said. "But I already told him that whatever happens, he should take care of himself and his mother first. I just reminded him that his family members are the only people he's responsible for."
Charles will cross that bridge when he gets there. But first, there's a game to be played.
"One thing's for sure," Davis said. "He's got a cheering section here at MRA."
Kickoff in the national championship is set for 7 p.m. and will air nationally on ESPN.