In response to his lengthy academic suspension, Emery said he cut people from his life who didn’t have his best interests in mind, took responsibility for his actions, sought advice from people with similar experiences and went to therapy, at least for a few months.
His voice was soft and filled with longing.
“I haven’t played a game in a year,” Emery said. “I’m just so ready to play.”
Everything pointed toward a return then, but despite meeting LSU’s expectations since coach Brian Kelly arrived, Emery served another two games to open the season because of lingering issues tied to his original suspension. He later told The Jordy Culotta Show he found out at the end of the spring.
Those two games have passed, and Emery will, at last, dress out this weekend in the Southeastern Conference opener against Mississippi State. Six hundred forty-three days will have gone by since he last played Dec. 12, 2020, against Florida, a game in which he had four carries.
“We’re excited about getting John back, certainly,” Kelly said. “I’m excited for him. It’s been a long run for John in terms of getting a chance to get out and play for LSU. He’s worked hard to get back into this position. Now he gets an opportunity.”
LSU kept Emery involved in practice the past few weeks to have him ready for the SEC opener, giving him reps with the backups. He’ll rejoin a backfield that rotated Penn State transfer Noah Cain, sophomore Armoni Goodwin and redshirt junior Josh Williams during the first two games.
The rotation will likely continue throughout the season unless someone emerges as a true feature back. Kelly once said “Leonard Fournette is not in that backfield,” and without a marquee option, LSU plans to use the four players in situations depending on their skill set.
“Let’s be careful now,” Kelly said. “He’s been off for a while. To put a lot of expectations on him in the first game, we certainly can’t do that. We’ve got other backs that have done really well. But he will be part of the mix, and make no mistake about it, we’ve seen his capabilities in camp.”
With the full SEC schedule ahead of him, Emery has the chance to finally put together a complete season. There have been flashes in his career, but the former five-star recruit has never put together a sustained stretch of productive games.
At first, Emery struggled to adjust to major college football. An admitted lack of focus and problems with his vision required LASIK surgery marred his freshman year. He had a disappointing sophomore campaign. Then, when he seemed poised for a breakout in 2021, the NCAA ruled him academically ineligible.
“I really grew up a lot throughout this process, especially since last year,” Emery said this spring. “I want to become a better person and a better man, on and off the field.”
LSU’s coaches raved about Emery throughout the spring. Kelly said he had done everything asked of him. Emery looked explosive, and he powered through contact instead of bouncing his runs to the outside, even when he had a sprained ankle during the spring game.
“When you’re doing things off the field correctly,” Emery said, “it correlates on the field.”
On the field, LSU could use another option in the running game. Quarterback Jayden Daniels led the attack in the season opener against Florida State by rushing for 114 yards. Most of them came on scrambles.
Without large holes, the running backs combined for 39 yards on 13 carries in the loss. Kelly said then the entire offense needed to work on timing with so many new players.
“We’ve got to get all those pieces working together,” Kelly said last week.
Their stats improved against Southern. Goodwin averaged 7.1 yards per carry and scored twice. Cain gained 51 yards and scored. Williams also found the end zone. But Mississippi State, which has an experienced defensive front, will provide a more challenging test.
Without enough data against significant teams, Kelly hasn’t reached a definitive conclusion on the state of the run game yet. Over time, he’ll judge the effectiveness based on success rates. He wants LSU to average 4 yards per carry and convert third downs of less than 3 yards at a high percentage.
“The picture is not really clear yet in terms of where we are,” Kelly said. “I think it’s probably too early to make those decisions. Getting Emery back, a back of his caliber, I think helps in that assessment as well.”