By Ron Higgins
Perception: most coaches in the Southeastern Conference must have previously played or been an assistant in the league to make them a perfect “fit” as an SEC head coach hire.
Reality: head coaches of 10 of the 13 national championships won by five SEC different schools since 2003 starting with West Virginia-native Nick Saban at LSU weren’t Southern born and bred.
Three of LSU’s four national championship teams were coached by “outsiders” — Saban and Ohio natives Paul Dietzel (1958) and Les Miles (2007).
And there’s Ed Orgeron, LSU’s Cajun-born head coach who guided the Tigers to the 2019 national championship and a 15-0 record. After 5 1/2 seasons, he had no plan for sustainability after reaching college football’s mountaintop and was fired during the last season with a $16.8 million buyout in his back pocket.
LSU athletic director Scott Woodward went shopping for a head coach that was the total opposite of Orgeron – a stable veteran who had a consistent track record of success from a powerhouse major college program.
His hire of Brian Kelly, a Massachusetts native, fit everything Woodward wants in a coach — an ultra-experienced proven winner, someone with 32 seasons as a head coach, the last 12 at Notre Dame, where Kelly won 75 percent of his games, including averaging 11 wins per season the last five years with two College Football Playoff appearances.
All Kelly has heard since he replaced Orgeron are questions about whether he’d fit into a Deep South program at a place where he hadn’t even visited until he was hired.
“I think fit is about the ability to run a program at the highest level,” Kelly said. “I’ve done it for 32 years. I’ve had success at Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Central Michigan, wherever I’ve been. Running a program and then player development, I think, are the most important things.
“I don’t think that (fit) needs to be geographical in a sense. I’ve gotten to love where I’m at in Baton Rouge. I love the people. They love football. They love family. They love food. That fits me really well. I guess I should have been in the South all along.”
His LSU coaching staff hires, starting with McNeese head coach and former LSU assistant coaching legend Frank Wilson, have been spot on. He and his new staff managed to land the nation’s 7th best recruiting class for 2022 and the Tigers’ Class of 21 2023 commitments is ranked sixth nationally.
In a 1 1/2-month span running from July 1 through mid-August, Kelly and staff picked up 15 commitments, including five-star rated wide receiver Shelton Sampson, Jr. and 10 four-star commits, including five rated in the Top 10 nationally at their respective high school positions.
“We really didn’t get the opportunity to develop the strong recruiting relationships during the February/March recruiting period,” Kelly said. “We were putting a staff together in January and February, so we had to make up for lost time, and you have a very short period of time to build those relationships. The continuation of those relationships started to form and I think we did a really good job.”
Once on the LSU campus, Kelly connected with his new locker room of players in several ways including his system of self-accountability.
“Coach Kelly has increased our focus, accountability and attention to details,” LSU junior middle linebacker Mike Jones said. “We were very detailed last year and throughout my whole college experience, but I haven’t seen it done to this close of a perspective.
“We do a wellness questionnaire every day recording our workouts or practice. You check in and get your vitamins every day, you check in for your meals every day. You check in with your weight every day. And although those may seem like a lot of things, it builds trust; it builds accountability.
“I now know all the guys we’re going to be playing with I can trust whenever it (games) starts because I’ve trusted them every single day while we’ve been doing this for months and months.”
Sophomore wide receiver Jack Bech from Lafayette described Kelly as “a CEO [who] moves chess pieces, [is] very strategic in everything he does and knows what he wants and when he wants it.”
Defensive coordinator Matt House, who was linebackers coach last season for the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, said coaching under Kelly has been a treat.
“It’s easy to coach under him because everything is defined,” House said. “The vision is defined, the workdays are defined, the attention to detail that you need as a program is defined.
“As assistant coaches, that makes your job easier. Very little guessing. I’ve been at some places where you kind of feel your way. You can tell Coach Kelly has won everywhere he’s been because he’s got a great and detailed plan.”
Kelly is also a realist. Because LSU had just 39 scholarship players (because of injuries and players transferring) available for its 42-20 Jan. 4 Texas Bowl loss, he leaned heavily on the NCAA’s free-for-all transfer portal and signed 13 transfers.
Considering the Tigers return just five starters (two offense, three defense and no kickers), LSU wasn’t ranked in the USA Today AFCA Coaches and Associated Press preseason top 25 polls for the first time since 2000 (prior to Saban’s first season).
Kelly entered August’s preseason practice in a situation he has rarely been in.
“Generally, we’ve had a depth chart with guys penciled in (as starters),” Kelly said of his past coaching stops. “There’s not a lot of penciling in yet (at LSU). There’s some work to be done.”
So, with the Tigers’ Sept. 4 Superdome season opener versus Florida State just around the bend, here’s a positional look at Kelly’s first LSU squad.
(Coordinator Mike Denbrock, last job O-coordinator for the University of Cincinnati)
The battle for the starting quarterback has been one of the fiercest in preseason camp. The dynamic completely changed on Aug. 15 when sixth-year senior Myles Brennan (6-4, 234) decided to retire from football.
Brennan, who removed his name from the transfer portal when Kelly called him last December shortly after being hired, had played in just three games in the last two seasons because of injuries.
He had been spot-on as a pocket passer with his quick decisions and smart reads and had an excellent spring. But after a week of preseason work, he was third on the depth chart and made a decision to quit when he was told by LSU coaches he would not be the starting QB for the season opener.
The starting QB fight advanced to Arizona State junior transfer Jayden Daniels (6-3, 185) versus redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier (6-1, 190).
“It’s a healthy competition,” said Daniels, who in 29 ASU games passed for 6,025 yards, 32 TDs and 13 interceptions and rushed for 1,258 yards and 13 TDs.
Daniels seems light for an SEC caliber QB at 6-3, 200 pounds, but he’s the fastest of the Tigers’ QBs and a huge RPO threat.
This past spring, he was clocked running 21 miles an hour. This is a guy who finished with minus rushing yards just once in a game as ASU’s QB.
“We have a lot of athletes on the West Coast and the difference coming here (to the SEC) is the trenches,” Daniels said. “Everybody is bigger … you know, meaner. I just know that I don’t want to get caught. I don’t want to get tackled by those guys.”
He has vastly improved his passing accuracy through consistent footwork drills and looked much better in preseason scrimmages than he did in the spring.
“We’ve been taken with his footwork through the spring and the summer into fall camp, so it’s an ongoing process,” Denbrock said of Daniels. “What we’re trying to garner from getting his lower body rate is really the consistency necessary to throw the ball in a little bit more accurately.”
Nussmeier played in the NCAA max four games last season to retain his redshirt freshman status. He’s no longer simply the gun-slinging thrower he was a year ago when he completed 50 percent of his passes for 329 yards, two TDs and two interceptions.
“Getting to play some last year, especially in two SEC games, you learn a lot,” Nussmeier said. “The biggest thing for me has been to become more of a manager of an offense.
“I can take some shots (downfield) and make some different throws. But I can’t look to do that every play. I’ve learned to just manage the offense and move the sticks.”
Walker Howard (6-0, 185), a four-star true freshman from Lafayette St. Thomas More and son of former starting LSU QB Jamie Howard, is talented. He was a likely redshirt before Brennan quit and likely still will, though he will now see a bit of action if there are any non-conference games that turn into blowouts.
Denbrock, who has previously worked 14 years (seven years each at Grand Valley State and Notre Dame) under Kelly, said picking a starting QB is “as complete an evaluation as we can make.”
“This is leadership, this is knowledge of the offense, this is making the plays that are there to be made,” Denbrock said. “This is making the clutch throw. This is protecting the football. It’s kind of all-encompassing.
“Over the years we’ve had to play more than one guy (QB) in certain situations. I know he (Kelly) is going to make the decision that he feels [is] best for the football team.”
No LSU player is looking forward to this season more than senior running back John Emery, Jr. (5-11, 220).
Emery, a former five-star recruit from Destrehan High, played in 19 games in his first two LSU seasons in 2019 and 2020, rushing for 566 yards and seven TDs on 114 carries. His 103 rushing yards and three TDs on 12 carries in a 2020 win at Vanderbilt provided hints of his potential.
Last season, he was poised for a breakout year when he was unexpectedly ruled academically ineligible for the entire season just before last year’s season opener. An appeal to the NCAA failed.
“That is probably the worst thing I’ve ever dealt with in my life,” Emery said. “I just focused on becoming a better person every day and just growing as an individual. I honestly feel that I’m a better student of the game and becoming a power back. I used to be a shifty back and avoided a lot of contact. But now, I can do it all.”
It takes at least two solid RBs to navigate a 12-game and beyond season, and Kelly solved that problem by grabbing junior Noah Cain (5-11, 226), a Baton Rouge native out of the transfer portal from Penn State.
In three years with the Nittany Lions (he missed almost the entire 2020 season with a leg injury), Cain played in 24 games (starting eight times), rushed for 790 yards and 12 touchdowns on 192 carries and caught 24 passes for 154 yards.
“John embraced me being in the group,” Cain said of Emery Jr. “He and I have been competing but get extra work in together. We’re making each other better.”
The other RBs in the four-back rotation are sophomore Armoni Goodwin (5-8, 195) and junior Josh Williams (5-9, 200).
It wasn’t until the opening of preseason practice that Kelly got his look at preseason first-team All-American junior receiver Kayshon Boutte (6-0, 205), who missed spring practice after the second of two ankle surgeries.
Boutte’s game production is indisputable. In only 16 career games, he has 83 career receptions for 1,244 yards and 14 touchdowns with 5 or more receptions in 9 games.
“There’s just a lot going on trying to work to be back and I’ll say it’s a good feeling to be back and go out every day to practice,” Boutte said. “There’s a lot of talent in our receiver room.”
The LSU coaching staff made a strategic decision in switching sophomore Malik Nabers (6-0, 195) from a wideout to a slot receiver, feeling his athletic ability gives him an edge inside on 1-on-1 matchups.
“Guys are my size and with my leaping ability; it’s crazy,” said Nabers, who earned All-SEC freshman team honors last season when he had 28 receptions for 417 yards and four TDs.
The battle for the other wideout spot is between senior Jaray Jenkins (6-2, 200), sophomore Jack Bech (6-2, 213), sophomore Brian Thomas, Jr. (6-4, 210), junior Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Kyren Lacy and freshman redshirt Chris Hilton (6-1, 182).
Jenkins had 62 career catches for 966 yards and eight TDs (34 for 502 yards and six TDs last year). Bech had a team-best 43 catches for 489 yards and three TDs last season, splitting time at WR and tight end. In 25 games over two seasons at ULL, Lacy had 50 catches for 668 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Kelly is hoping for a breakthrough from Thomas Jr., who started nine games last season as a freshman and had 28 receptions for 28 catches for 359 yards and two TDs.
“At times he still thinks he’s a freshman, and he’s not anymore,” Kelly said of Thomas Jr. “We need for him to understand that it’s time for him to go in there and think like a starter.”
This position is truly in flux and needs to be settled because it has an increased pass-catching role in the Kelly/Denbrock offensive scheme.
Juniors Kole Taylor (6-7, 250) and Jack Mashburn (6-3, 237) and graduate student Nick Storz (6-6, 265) return from last season.
Taylor (19 career appearances, five starts) has 12 career receptions for 104 yards and a TD. Mashburn (15 career appearances, four starts), is a tremendous blocker with four career catches for 53 yards.
But the TE ace in the hole might be freshman Mason Taylor (6-5, 245), son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jason Taylor.
“He’s ready to help us win this year, he’s going to play for us,” Kelly said of Taylor.
It’s ironic that the only assistant coach Kelly kept from the previous LSU staff – Brad Davis – coached undeniably the worst part of last season’s team.
Obviously, Kelly understood Davis was hired late by Ed Orgeron in June after the sudden firing of James Cregg due to alleged NCAA rules violations. Also, Davis had to deal with an O-line decimated by preseason injuries, causing it to struggle all season with chemistry.
The fact the Tigers lost every starting O-lineman from last season because of graduation or the NFL Draft might be a bonus in 2022. According to Pro Football Focus, LSU quarterbacks were pressured on 34.2 percent of dropback passes (91st nationally and the Tigers ranked 99th in average yards before contact per rush (1.66 yards).
In spring practice, there was a lot of mixing and matching trying to find the right line combination, as well as cross-training linemen to play different positions.
The only thing really settled heading into fall practice was five-star freshman signee Will Campbell (6-6, 325), who had earned the starting left tackle spot.
“Will started on the third team (in the spring),” Davis. “After he elevated everybody around him, it took him a week to get to the first team.
Freshman QB signee Walker Howard said he knew Campbell would quickly climb the depth chart.
“I told everybody that he was the best (high school) player in the country last year,” Howard said. “There’s no doubt he’s a stud. I knew coming in he was going to start.
“He’s one (of the most) athletic people I’ve ever seen at that size. His work ethic is through the roof. He’s in there with the coaches trying to get better every single day.”
Campbell said the secret of his development is being coachable and playing violent.
“I just kind of took the coaching points from my high school coaches,” he said. “And when I would come up here to (LSU summer), I would listen to all the small things people (coaches) would tell me.”
After the first two weeks of preseason, a starting lineup seemed to have formed with Campbell, senior East Tennessee State transfer Tre’Mond Shorts (6-5, 340) at left guard, sophomore Garrett Dellinger (6-5, 320) at center, sophomore Florida International transfer Miles Frazier (6-6, 323) at right guard and junior Anthony Bradford (6-5, 345) at right tackle.
Dellinger, who played three positions last season, transitioned to center during the spring despite being held out of contact drills because of shoulder surgery.
“I’ve probably had over 150 snaps a day in single periods, after practice and walkthroughs,” Dellinger said.
Frazier and Bradford are paired together on the right side because they’ve been trained to flip positions.
“We like that Bradford has some really good feet, but Frazier has some length,” Kelly said. “They’re interchangeable.”
The O-line should have depth with 10 returning linemen with at least one start last season, including senior tackle Cam Wire (6-6, 295), junior center Charles Turner (6-4, 295), sophomore guard Xavier Hill (6-4, 318), sophomore tackle Marcus Dumervil (6-5, 305), junior tackle Marlon Martinez (6-4, 330) and junior tackle Kardell Thomas (6-3, 350). True freshman Emery Jones (6-6, 335) has also shone.
“The transfer portal created more daily competition,” Davis said. “It means you have to be at your best every day.”
(Coordinator: Matt House)
There’s little doubt LSU has exceptional defensive line talent, whether the Tigers line in a 4-3 or 3-4.
Starting defensive tackles sophomore Maason Smith (6-5, 300) and junior Jacquelin Roy (6-4, 315) are on the radar of NFL scouts. They are exceptionally strong, quick and athletic.
“We’ve gotten stronger, more mature,” said Roy, who has 48 career tackles, including 10 for a loss in 24 games (two starts). “I feel like the sky’s the limit.”
Smith returns from a freshman year in which he was voted a Football Writers Association of America first-team All-American. Playing in nine games with four starts, he recorded 19 tackles, five tackles for a loss, four sacks and one quarterback hurry.
“As a freshman, I was just getting put in the system,” Smith said. “I was making some plays, but it wasn’t who I truly am. From last year, I’ve grown up with technique and trusting my eyes and my power. I think this year will be a lot better.”
Sophomore Jacobian Guillory (6-2, 315) is also in the DT rotation. And sophomore Missouri transfer Mekhi Wingo (6-0, 295) pound-for-pound is one of the strongest players on the team.
If LSU plays a 4-3 front, there may not be a better defensive end duo than junior B.J. Ojulari (6-3, 250) and fifth-year senior Ali Gaye (6-6, 265). That pairing has accounted for a combined 37 career appearances (32 starts) with 122 tackles, and 28½ tackles for a loss, including 16 sacks and 17 QB hurries.
“We’re experienced; we should be the most dominant four in the NCAA,” Ojulari said. “And we’ve got a lot of younger guys stepping up to add depth. We want to be sterner at the point of attack.”
Freshman signee Quincy Wiggins (6-5, 275) has been lauded by Kelly for standing out in the preseason.
When LSU slides into a 3-4 look, Ojulari moves into an outside linebacker spot and appears to look extremely comfortable in that transition.
The Tigers’ other three starting linebackers appear to be locks — junior Mike Jones, Jr. (6-1, 230), sophomore Greg Penn III (6-2, 238) and University of Virginia sophomore transfer West Weeks (6-2, 238).
Jones transferred to LSU last season from Clemson so he could make the switch from outside linebacker to inside linebacker. He started the last five games after seeing sporadic action and closed the season with 34 tackles including 2 1/2 for loss.
“I feel like last year, even when I got comfortable, I still had to think about things,” Jones said “It wasn’t natural. Now, I still think about the little things, but I would say it’s more just a reaction. I don’t have to go into the mindset. I just play the game now.”
The preseason buzz about Penn’s improvement is palpable, and he credits the new coaching staff, from D-coordinator/linebackers coach Matt House to assistant athletic director for sports nutrition Dr. Matt Frakes.
“This new staff has really helped me take my game to the next level with the little things,” said Penn, who had 7 tackles as a starter in LSU’s Texas Bowl loss.
Kelly will also lean heavily on the experience of fifth-year senior Micah Baskerville (6-1, 228), who had 171 career tackles, including 18 for loss in 40 games (20 starts).
“I like his football I.Q.,” Kelly said.
Also, freshman signee Harold Perkins (6-2, 220) has turned heads consistently in the preseason as has junior Desmond Little (6-5, 230).
This group is where LSU hit the transfer portal hard.
Five of the Tigers’ top six cornerbacks are transfers — Oklahoma State senior Jarrick Bernard-Converse (6-1, 205), Ohio State graduate Sevyn Banks (6-2, 205), UL-Lafayette fourth-year junior Mekhi Garner (6-2, 217), McNeese State grad Colby Richardson (6-1, 190) and Arkansas senior transfer Greg Brooks Jr.
Bernard-Converse (47 straight starts with 216 career tackles, 23 passes defended) and Banks (14 starts, 43 career tackles) figure to start, though Bernard-Converse missed all of the spring with a leg injury and Banks hasn’t had much preseason contact coming off a hip injury.
Brooks was a three-year starter (31 starts, 112 career tackles, 12 pass breakups and four interceptions for the Razorbacks). Garner started 19 games in three seasons (63 career tackles, 18 PBU, three interceptions for the Ragin’ Cajuns) and Richardson had 42 career tackles in four seasons with the Cowboys.
“The concerns we had there are starting to be alleviated now by the production and play, not by wishing and hoping,” Kelly said of the cornerbacks. “I think there was a lot of wishing and hoping coming in, but we’re actually seeing production and consistency.”
Senior free safety Jay Ward (33 appearances, 14 starts with 104 career tackles, 13 PBU, five interceptions) started at three different positions last season. The battle for strong safety has been fierce between Arkansas senior transfer Joe Foucha (5-11, 208) and sophomore Major Burns (6-2, 187).
Foucha had 231 career tackles (11 1/2 for losses), 17 pass breakups and five interceptions. He started 33 of 44 games for the Razorbacks. Burns transferred to LSU last season from Georgia and started the first five games (25 tackles) before suffering a season-ending foot injury.
“Major brings a savvy to our defensive structure,” Kelly said. “He makes a lot of good calls. He’ll be involved quite a bit in what we do.”
(Coordinator: Brian Polian)
Pencil in Notre Dame graduate transfer Jay Bramblett (6-2, 202) as the starting punter. He averaged 41.9 yards in 164 career punts for the Fighting Irish with an average return for 4.5 yards. Just one of his punts has been returned for longer than 20 yards.
Bramblett’s backup is freshman redshirt Peyton Todd (6-5, 242).
With Cade York being drafted by the Cleveland Browns and Avery Atkins graduating, the placekicker and kickoff specialist positions are huge concerns. Over the last four years, LSU ranked first in the SEC in field goal accuracy (83.8 percent) and in kickoff touchback percentage (83.2 percent).
Freshman Nathan Dibert (5-11, 207), redshirt freshman Ezekeal Mata (5-11, 193) and Northwestern graduate transfer Trey Finison (5-10, 188) will battle for the PK/KOS duties.
The kickoff and punt returners haven’t been decided but will likely come from a group including slot receiver Nabers, cornerback Banks, redshirt freshman safety Sage Ryan (5-11, 203) and freshman signee Javen Nichols (5-9, 180).
The returning long snapper is sophomore Slade Roy (6-2, 225). Punter Bramblett is set to be the placekick holder.