For the first time in school history, LSU started two true freshmen at offensive tackle. Two teenagers just months removed from high school bulldozed a hole for an LSU score against the highly touted Mississippi State defensive line in an SEC game, and none of this was jarring to them. They just danced.
Both freshman tackles thrived, with Pro Football Focus grading Campbell No. 1 and Jones No. 4 of all SEC tackles Saturday. It appears they will continue to start.
When they met their families after the game, Campbell and Jones found their mothers wearing buttons with their numbers, 66 and 50, inside of purple and gold hearts. Holly Campbell made them and exchanged them with Tanika Jones. The families have become close as their sons became best friends during their recruitments.
Emery Jones, who stayed home in Baton Rouge to attend LSU, called his mom Monday night to say, “Will asked when can he come to the house so you can cook so he can eat real food.”
“I’m gonna cook y’all a meal, but listen,” she said, “We can’t do this too many times. I can’t afford to feed both of y’all.”
It’s a friendship and tandem that bodes well for the future of LSU football under Kelly. From the day the coach arrived in Baton Rouge, he made it clear he had to improve the offensive line, a weakness for LSU for much of the past decade. Kelly has been renowned for developing top players in the trenches. “If you’re going to have any success, you have to strengthen the offensive line here,” Kelly said.
And Kelly’s first signing class — much of which was recruited by former coach Ed Orgeron — was built with that front in mind. Campbell was one of the headliners, a five-star from Monroe, La., who turned heads immediately as an early enrollee. By the time spring practice was over, Campbell was LSU’s starting left tackle. Nobody batted an eye. He was the hype machine well documented for years.
But then there’s Jones. Around this time, 247Sports rated him the No. 349 player in the country. Then he dominated the camp circuit while thriving at local power Catholic High. Within a year, he’d be ranked No. 150 overall and finish No. 110. Still, the 6-foot-6, 335-pound athlete with impressive athleticism would take some time, right? How many freshmen on the line are ready to play right away? Let alone two?
Word kept spreading though, that the staff loved Jones, that he thrived in workouts, then practices.
With starting guard Anthony Bradford out last Saturday, LSU went to Jones instead of turning to one of its veteran tackles.
“I would say he exceeded expectations,” Kelly said.
And after just one game, LSU’s line looks more vital in the present and the future.
Emery Jones Sr. always told his friends one day he’d watch his son play from the 50-yard line of Tiger Stadium. He and Tanika always were sure Emery Jr. — or EJ — would achieve great things.
They had suffered a miscarriage shortly before Tanika became pregnant with EJ. Emery Sr. had two daughters, so when Tanika showed him the ultrasound, he yelled, “Oh my God, I have a son!” And anywhere anyone saw Emery Sr. saw EJ right by his side. “That was my husband’s pride and joy,” she said.
But Emery Jones Sr. died in 2011 from a heart attack. His son had to take on new roles.
“EJ is like our protector,” Tanika said.
Jones took it upon himself to watch over his mother and younger sister. He’s the type to send good night and good morning texts. He’ll check in to make sure Tanika has her Life360 app on so he knows where she is, and when she’s home later from work, he’ll check to make sure she’s OK. She jokes she doesn’t know if he thinks he’s her dad.
“It transfers onto the field,” Tanika said. “He’s a protector, and his job is to protect the quarterback. And he takes that seriously.”
After his father died, Jones became a task-oriented hard worker who woke up before his mother was awake to run or lift weights. “He’s that person who behind the scenes is training when nobody is looking,” Tanika said.
Saturday, he looked natural. Per Pro Football Focus, he held up well against Mississippi State’s aggressive defensive front, not allowing a single pressure. He was seen in the background of one red-zone run blocking a defender so aggressively he drove him 10 yards away to the ground like a scene from “The Blind Side.”
The most memorable play, though, was when LSU allowed a Mississippi State punt returner to break through with an open field in front of him. The only defender left was Jones, the 335-pound lineman. Most assumed it was a given touchdown.
Jones chased down the returner, broke into a stance, and saved the day with the athletic tackle.
In the stands, a woman yelled at that moment to Tanika, “That’s your boy.”
“I looked, and he was on the 50-yard line,” Tanika said. “I was like, ‘My husband is here. He watched his boy play.’”
Louisiana might be one of the most talent-rich states in the country, but for whatever reason, it hasn’t developed top-tier offensive tackles. That has shown in LSU’s inability to develop great offensive lines, let alone tackles. Campbell earned the highest rating for a Louisiana offensive tackle since Cam Robinson chose Alabama in 2014. Campbell was the highest-rated lineman to commit to LSU since La’el Collins in 2011.
But it wasn’t just Campbell that made the 2022 class so essential for the future of the offensive line. It was Jones. It was New Orleans tackle, Bo Bordelon. It was Lafayette center Fitzgerald West Jr. Together, they represent the most promising quartet of LSU offensive line signees in years, and all four came from Louisiana.
“This year, it’s a rose in the concrete,” Campbell joked in 2021.
Landing big recruits is one thing, but both Campbell and Jones thriving this soon is another. Gaining valuable experience early in their careers will likely pay off when LSU is ready to compete for larger things.
It helps that they’ve also become so close, with Campbell, Jones and five-star quarterback Walker Howard becoming good friends even before Jones committed. Tanika said the two tackles push each other and add energy, with Campbell always in Jones’ ear to keep working, even when he wasn’t starting Day 1 like Campbell.
“There’s some people you meet in life that make an impact, and I think EJ and Will will forever be life friends,” Tanika said.
As for the “rose in the concrete,” it’s still growing. Louisiana also has two more top-200 offensive tackles in the 2023 class, and both are going to LSU. Zalance Heard (from Campbell’s Neville High) is the No. 53 player in the country, per the 247Sports Composite, and New Orleans tackle Tyree Adams is No. 179 overall. LSU is in the rare position to keep developing great in-state tackles.
For now, Campbell and Jones lead the way. Campbell already looks like he can live up to the expectations of becoming an SEC star. Jones appears ahead of schedule.