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LSU Football / Brian Kelly does a top-to-bottom reset

 It’s become common after any LSU practice to hear Brian Kelly say some variation of, “They’re still learning how to practice.” Or to hear an assistant say, “They’re still learning how we do things.” Or to hear a player say, “Man, it’s different around here now.” Because if there’s a theme from the first seven months of the Kelly era in Baton Rouge, it’s that LSU is undergoing an infrastructural reset from the ground up and attempting to rebuild its culture.

“Accountability” is the most repeated buzzword, and if one observed an offseason LSU workout they may have seen a group of players doing punishment workouts at midfield in front of everyone. That’s because Kelly implemented his “SWAT” team program with 10 high-character captains selected to lead teams in which points are earned for doing the right things and lost for things like showing up late to workouts, missing tutor sessions or not following nutritional plans. The 10 captains held a draft to pick their teams, in turn creating an accountability structure from Kelly to the staff to the captains who then try to hold their teammates to task.

In the first few weeks after Kelly’s hire, multiple rotation players hit the transfer portal with it being understood Kelly wasn’t going to tolerate players who had issues with failed drug tests, academics or punctuality. The mindset: LSU has been a rollercoaster program of extreme highs and troubling lows for two decades. Consistent word from the end of the Ed Orgeron era was of a program that let players get away with problems and didn’t get the most out of talent. Kelly was hired to turn LSU into a well-run machine.

“There’s no getting around it,” LSU quarterback Myles Brennan said. “If you don’t do (the right things) you’re going to get caught. Some guys may have previously been able to get through it. I think now they know we have to all be accountable to each other.”

In one of Kelly’s earliest LSU news conferences, he said, “When people ask me, ‘What do you know about winning?’ I talk about good habits. They’re all intertwined in some fashion.” And though many LSU fans clamored for a sexier hire or a young up-and-comer, maybe the No. 1 thing this exciting-but-volatile program needed was somebody to fix the boring things, to remove the unnecessary variables. Insert Kelly, who’s previously turned around programs at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame.

But this move is also about Kelly needing LSU. In all of his national interviews this spring, he acknowledged the one thing missing on his coaching resume: a national title. “I’m here to win a national championship,” Kelly told ESPN. “I came down here explicitly for that purpose.” And he believes LSU and the SEC is the place to do it.

But Kelly inherited a troubled situation, a roster that was so mismanaged it had only 39 players available for its Texas Bowl game on Jan. 4. Kelly entered the offseason with zero returning production at cornerback and an offensive line that had struggled for years, even predating Orgeron. Kelly had no choice but to add 15 transfers, in part to plug those massive holes but also to get the roster numbers back on track.

Kelly’s first season will be about managing two levels — a top of the roster filled with elite NFL draft talent and a middle/bottom not anywhere near where Kelly wants it. LSU has double-digit starters good enough to compete for an All-SEC team on the right night, but it also has well-documented concerns that could cost LSU on the wrong night.

Kelly isn’t expecting to win that national championship in year one, but he knows he has to get his program on the path to win one soon.

Offense

The story of this first offseason will be the Tigers’ high-profile quarterback race, but Kelly himself would say the No. 1 focus offensively is taking LSU from a program that’s struggled to recruit and develop offensive linemen to one that can make it a strength going forward. Kelly has been one of the best head coaches in college football at developing offensive lines, and LSU has seen good rosters struggle because the front couldn’t protect the quarterback or create holes in the run game. The starting QB won’t matter if this isn’t addressed.

“When we came in here, I think we all knew that one of the areas was a must that if you’re going to have any success, you have to strengthen the offensive line here,” Kelly said. “It’s been a point of emphasis, and we’ve got to run the football. If you’re going to win the SEC West, you have to be able to run the football. We’re not here to bang the drum and say we’ve arrived. There had to be some semblance of — we’ve made progress in that end and I think we can say that we did and emphasized it.”

First, Kelly added two transfer linemen in freshman All-American Miles Frazier from FIU and senior Tre’Mond Shorts from East Tennessee State. Both will compete for spots, likely at guard, but perhaps the most important addition was five-star freshman Will Campbell. As an early enrollee this spring, Campbell was impressive and became the clear starting left tackle. Not only is he physically developed — 6-foot-6, 310 pounds — but Kelly said, “I just think it’s an emotional maturity that is rare as a freshman that’s made him a guy we can plug in as such a young player.”

Campbell proving himself at left tackle opened everything up, allowing Shorts and Frazier to focus on competing at guard in addition to Cam Wire, Garrett Dellinger and Marcus Dumervil competing at right tackle. Dellinger and Marlon Martinez, two young players who turned a corner last fall with offensive line coach Brad Davis, seem likely to earn time somewhere. But because they’re versatile, they can compete at center, guard or tackle. Center will certainly be the most wide-open battle, with Martinez likely competing with veteran utility guy Charles Turner. The other X-factor in all of this is redshirt junior Anthony Bradford, an uber-talented prospect who has struggled with weight, discipline and injuries. There’s optimism he’s made strides, and if he does he’s good enough to start at guard or tackle.

But quarterback, of course, is the dominant story. Kelly convinced sixth-year senior and former starter Myles Brennan to return from the portal, and instead of handing Brennan the job, Kelly also added three-year Arizona State starter Jayden Daniels. Along with redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier — a former top-100 recruit — and five-star early enrollee Walker Howard, the LSU quarterback room is loaded. The problem? Only one can play.LSU QBs during spring practice (from left to right): Garrett Nussmeier, Myles Brennan, Jayden Daniels and Walker Howard. (Gus Stark / LSU Athletics)

It’s understood that Howard will redshirt this year, but Nussmeier had perhaps the best spring of anyone with his special arm talent and playmaking ability on full display. That made it a true three-man battle. After Brennan, Nussmeier and Daniels all had impressive spring games, Kelly said, “We didn’t clear up anything with the quarterback today — we probably made it more difficult.”

There’s optimism around LSU that all three quarterbacks are good enough to lead LSU to a solid season, but the decision will tell a lot about how Kelly wants to build the program. Brennan is perhaps the most trustworthy (plus he threw for 370 yards per game in three SEC starts), but he has durability concerns. Daniels is a big-name transfer whose elite mobility could help neutralize offensive line concerns, but his passing accuracy has been inconsistent. And Nussmeier shows special talent, but he’s young and as a freshman showed there was work to be done with his decision-making (although that’s improved this spring). Will Kelly choose stability or upside as he starts his transition year?

The sure thing about this LSU roster may be the skill talent. Junior receiver Kayshon Boutte was in the Biletnikoff Award discussion before a gruesome ankle injury suffered midseason at Kentucky, and he’s back healthy this summer after two surgeries. LSU has high-upside talent and depth behind him in reliable senior Jaray Jenkins (62 career catches) and a quartet of exciting sophomores in Jack BechMalik NabersBrian Thomas Jr. and Chris Hilton, all of whom showed flashes of brilliance as true freshmen. Add in Louisiana transfer Kyren Lacy, and LSU is seven deep in terms of SEC-caliber outside receivers. That will be crucial as the O-line takes time to develop. Tight end, on the other hand, is wide open. Kelly has acknowledged it’s currently unsettled, but he was happy with junior Kole Taylor’s growth this spring.

The final wrinkle is what LSU expects from highly-touted senior John Emery Jr., the former five-star running back whose career has seemingly never taken off due to academic issues, discipline and slow overall development. He was the talk of spring, looking like a potential All-SEC back and doing the right things off the field. “I’m really proud of the progress (Emery has) made since my short time here in making that happen,” Kelly said. “And I think we’re going to see him play for us this fall because of that. And that’s all on him, right? He had to make that decision, and good for him.” Behind him will be a combination of explosive sophomore Armoni Goodwin, versatile junior Tre Bradford and physical Penn State transfer Noah Cain. Running back should be stable this season.

Key stat to know: Even with Tyrion Davis-Price breaking the LSU single-game rushing record with 287 yards against Florida, LSU still ranked No. 13 out of 14 in the SEC in total rushing yards and yards per rush. LSU gained nearly three quarters (73.7 percent) of its rushing yards after contact, per PFF, the second-highest rate in the SEC, further showing the need for the offensive line to improve to help the overall offense.Tigers returning production

CATEGORYPERCENT RETURNINGTOP RETURNER
Passing yards10Nussmeier, 329
Rushing yards15Williams, 108
Receiving yards75Boutte, 508
OL starts37Bradford, 5
Tackles50Baskerville, 83
TFLs42Ojulari, 11.5
Sacks55Ojulari, 7
Interceptions50Ward, 2

Defense

The LSU defense is sort of the inverse of the offense. It’s loaded up front with arguably the best defensive line in the SEC when healthy. The problem is a thin and uncertain secondary that will be made up almost entirely of transfers.

On the line, LSU brings back two potential first-round picks on the edge in senior Ali Gaye and junior BJ Ojulari. Gaye only played four games last season due to injury, but he’s proven he can create havoc with his athletic and long-armed 6-foot-6 frame compiling 2.5 sacks in those four games. Meanwhile, Ojulari had seven sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss as a thin-but-extremely-athletic weapon on the outside. With new coordinator Matt House — from the Kansas City Chiefs and Kentucky Wildcats — now running the defense, the hope is to get even more out of Ojulari by moving him between 3-4 outside linebacker and 4-3 end.

“His athleticism lends him to be able to move around and do some different things,” House told the Jordy Culotta Show, “which is exciting and as a coordinator that’s what you want. That’s how you can become multiple.”

Inside, sophomore Maason Smith has a chance to be one of the breakout stars in college football. As a true freshman, he earned starting time up front and led LSU in pressure rate after the games he played at defensive tackle. When injuries struck, he was athletic enough to move to defensive end and serve as a run-stopper on the edge. Now, the 6-foot-5, 298-pound freak is set to be the foundation of LSU’s front. If he has the kind of year some around LSU expect, he could be a Bednarik Award candidate. Around Smith, LSU has two highly-touted redshirt sophomores in Jaquelin Roy and Jacobian Guillory competing at nose tackle. The Athletic’s Dane Brugler mocked Roy as a potential first-round pick, with his ability to both stop the run and rush the passer. But Guillory might be a more natural fit as a nose tackle in a 3-4, so seeing how House uses Roy will be fascinating. The depth behind those top five guys is strong, with Freshman All-SEC transfer Mekhi Wingo from Missouri and sophomore Saivion Jones having impressive springs that put them in the mix to earn steady playing time.

Linebacker has evolved from a major question mark in December to a position of stability, even if it’s still unclear what the pecking order may be. LSU returns senior starter Micah Baskerville, but it appeared former Clemson transfer Mike Jones Jr. and sophomore Greg Penn emerged this spring in the two starting linebacker spots. Jones came on strong to end last season when former defensive coordinator Daronte Jones was allowed to run his schemes and gave Jones playing time. Penn is a high-upside young player who former star Damone Clark claimed will be an All-American at LSU. Penn was often seen flying sideline to sideline at practice and laying out running backs in the flat. But behind them, there’s Baskerville — a longtime reliable option — plus two young transfers in West Weeks (Virginia) and Kolbe Fields (South Carolina). And on top of all of that, there’s five-star freshman Harold Perkins, the No. 8 overall recruit in the country, per the 247Sports Composite. The best part for House is he gets to ease Perkins’ elite talent in without throwing too much at him in year one.

“From the outside, you just see the gameday talent pop,” House said of Perkins, “but there’s a process to see that talent pop within the team. And that’s something he’s done a great job of embracing.”Jarrick Bernard-Converse was named first team All-Big 12 at Oklahoma State last season. (David Stacy / Getty Images)

Defensive back is the big question mark, more specifically cornerback. On one hand, you could argue LSU added four quality players at corner who appear to address issues that plagued the secondary in 2021. On the other hand, it’s difficult to be confident a unit comprised of transfers will make a seamless transition. Jarrick Bernard-Converse was a four-year starter at Oklahoma State who became an All-Big 12 corner last fall for one of the top defenses in the country. Arkansas transfer Greg Brooks Jr. is a three-year SEC starter who has looked like an immediate upgrade at nickel. Those two have provided reason for optimism. Louisiana transfer Mekhi Garner has plus physical tools at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, but there’s concern about whether he’s quick enough to play corner in the SEC. After seeing some inconsistency in the spring, LSU added Ohio State transfer Sevyn Banks. On talent alone, Banks is a no-brainer addition who could be an early draft pick if things go well. The problem is he’s had health issues including a troubling hip injury last year, but Kelly said the medical team gave him a green light.

In a perfect world, a starting corner trio of Bernard-Converse, Banks and Brooks is a pretty solid SEC group. The question is whether they can be the best versions of themselves in a new system, and if one or two go down the depth behind them is unproven. Sage Ryan is a five-star sophomore who is a great backup for Brooks at nickel, but the outside corner backups lack experience and pedigree. One might wonder if LSU would move Brooks outside and promote Ryan at nickel if need be.

Safety, meanwhile, is a deep and stable spot for LSU. The Tigers bring back both starters in Jay Ward and Major Burns and added three-year Arkansas starter Joe Foucha. Foucha adds a physical, in-the-box style LSU didn’t have last year, and added competition and depth between those three is a bonus. Then, Matthew Langlois, Derrick Davis and Jordan Toles are three young backups who had good springs and are pushing for time on the field.

Key stat to know: LSU pressured opposing quarterbacks (sack, hit or hurry) on an SEC-high 34.9 percent of dropbacks last season, the 14th-highest rate in the FBS, and that came with Gaye and Smith missing major time. That was especially crucial for a Tigers secondary that ranked 112th in the FBS in pass efficiency defense on dropbacks in which the QB was not pressured (161.4).

Special teams

For the first time in a long time, everything about LSU special teams is going to feel new. All-American placekicker Cade York is off to the NFL. Kickoff specialist and punter Avery Atkins graduated. Long snapper Quentin Skinner is gone, and return man Trey Palmer transferred to Nebraska.

Kelly brought in Notre Dame punter Jay Bramblett, who will compete with sophomore Peyton Todd (the former No. 1 punter recruit), with most expecting Bramblett to earn the job. Kicker will have an open competition, but LSU added Kohl’s No. 2-ranked kicker in the country, true freshman Nathan Dibert. Dibert is considered the frontrunner for the spot. LSU also added transfer Slade Roy from ECU to slide into the open long snapper spot.

Kelly has remained vague about the return game, saying LSU has several skill players who could do it well. Malik Nabers and Chris Hilton have been mentioned, and Emery was slotted to return at one point in the Orgeron era. But that remains an open spot.

Opposing Scouting Report

An SEC West assistant who is familiar with the Tigers said he believes LSU has an extremely talented roster that is difficult to pin down.

“That roster for the last 2-3 years has been so in flux, so it’s hard to get a good read on who is in and who is out. They had trouble keeping that roster intact. But from top to bottom, that roster is really good and we thought it was better than (most in the SEC). The thing that sticks out is they have a lot of good, talented wideouts. Last year a lot of those young guys were thrust into action, probably a little bit before they were ready, so they should probably be even better this year. I really like Boutte. We thought he was the best one of the group. We didn’t even talk much about (Jaray Jenkins) but he turned out to be one of their most productive guys. They’re just really, really deep and really good.”

The assistant feels the skill players will help put LSU’s quarterback in a position to succeed, no matter who ends up winning the job.

“They’re going to have a chance to be very explosive. Whoever ends up playing quarterback has a lot of receivers to work with. (Jayden) Daniels gives them something with his legs and has a lot of experience. We liked (Garrett) Nussmeier a lot. He’s small but so instinctive and a good athlete and has really good arm talent and just a very good feel back there. And they still have Myles Brennan who is smart and accurate and he’s a good distributor. He just doesn’t make plays with his legs.

“They have some talent at running back, but they didn’t have depth there last year, and I’m curious to see their transition on offense because (new offensive coordinator) Mike Denbrock has an O-line/tight end background. He really wants to run the ball and likes to rely on the tight end, and they didn’t really have any there last year. The O-line is going to be a work in progress because they’ve really been thin there.”

The assistant believes in LSU’s depth on the defensive line but is less bullish about the back end of the defense.

“On defense, they always have athletes. Up front, it seems like they always have seven or eight dudes that they’d run out there and there’d be no drop-off. (Neil Farrell) kicked our ass last year. They’ll probably miss him. The ends were really talented. Ojulari gives you a lot of issues outside in protection.

“They have been solid at linebacker but they played some guys last year we didn’t think were very good. They’ve always had a ton of talent in the secondary, but I know they lost a lot of guys back there and brought in some new ones.”

How the Tigers recruited from 2019 to 2022

This is a tricky question, because the arrival of highly-touted classes coincided with the end for Ed Orgeron. From 2019 to 2021, he brought in the No. 5, No. 4 and No. 3-ranked recruiting classes in the country, but those classes were filled with highly-ranked prospects that either didn’t meet expectations or had off-the-field issues. In 2019, other than Derek Stingley, the next 11 players ranked in the top 200 either left the program or haven’t met expectations. In 2020, the top two players, Arik Gilbert and Eli Ricks, transferred to SEC rivals Georgia and Alabama, respectively.

But while it’s fair to call the 2019 class an overall miss, the 2020 class still looks strong despite the loss of Gilbert and Ricks. Top players like Kayshon Boutte, Jacquelin Roy, BJ Ojulari, Ali Gaye and many others have been clear success stories, and that class will serve as the backbone of this team. And the 2021 class — ranked No. 3 nationally — has a chance to be an all-time group with Maason Smith, Garrett Nussmeier, Armoni Goodwin, Sage Ryan, Garrett Dellinger, the star-studded quartet of receivers and multiple defensive linemen in position to earn roles in the future. Those two classes are a big reason why many expect 2023 to be a great season for LSU.

The 2022 class was down in terms of ranking, largely a result of the Orgeron firing and LSU going two months before hiring a head coach. But rankings can also be misleading, as the 2022 class took just 15 high school players and 15 transfers to rebuild the roster. Those 15 high schoolers included three five-star prospects in Harold Perkins, Will Campbell and Walker Howard, plus defensive lineman Quency Wiggins, who many expect to achieve big things at LSU.

So, aside from the current senior class, LSU’s recruiting does give LSU plenty of top talent. Also, it’s fair to wonder how some of that talent will do under Brian Kelly as opposed to Orgeron. The big question going forward is what Kelly’s first few classes will look like.

In the transfer portal

In the uncharted territory of the modern world of transfers, LSU brought in 15 transfers to reload its depleted roster. That’s the fifth most of any Power 5 team this cycle, and 247Sports ranked it the No. 3 transfer class in the country. LSU had to make those additions because on top of normal roster attrition, LSU lost All-American corner Eli Ricks, quarterback Max Johnson and budding receiver Deion Smith. It also had several players leave the program due to off-the-field issues as Brian Kelly tried to get the right people in place to create his desired culture.

And while many of these other teams were using the portal to add stars or fill major positions, LSU used it a little differently.

LSU did bring in big names in big roles, like quarterback Jayden Daniels from Arizona State, cornerbacks Jarrick Bernard-Converse (Oklahoma State), Greg Brooks (Arkansas) and Sevyn Banks (Ohio State), among many others. But one could argue seven of the 15 transfers might not start. LSU’s roster numbers were out of whack, and Kelly’s focus was to use the portal to mix in a healthy balance of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors with the right character to help LSU get its rebuild on track. It’s why guys like West Weeks and Kolbe Fields are considered successes so far this offseason even if they’re currently just depth pieces at linebacker. Similar for Miles Frazier, who may start, but overall he’s a high-upside sophomore offensive lineman with a bright future even if he doesn’t win a starting job this fall.

Impact of coaching changes

We addressed much of how Brian Kelly has changed things, but his new staff also plays an important role. Matt House comes to LSU after playing a key part in building Kentucky into an elite defense as coordinator and helping the Kansas City Chiefs win a Super Bowl as linebackers coach. House is trying to build a versatile defense that moves its best playmakers like Maason Smith and BJ Ojulari around in different spots to get the most out of them. Kelly has raved about House’s ability to teach in a simple way that allows players to play fast.

Offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock’s scheme isn’t anything inherently new, but it will incorporate more modern schemes in hope of spreading the ball out and getting playmakers in space. Still, improving the run game is a huge focus.

Some of the biggest changes, though, are how coaches may recruit. Associate head coach Frank Wilson is one of the most renowned recruiters in the country, let alone Louisiana, and quarterbacks coach Joe Sloan, defensive line coach Jamar Cain and receivers coach Cortez Hankton have great reputations for bringing in good talent. The lone holdover is offensive line coach Brad Davis, who took over late last summer and garnered recognition for how the line improved in the second half of the season. There’s hope he’ll get much more out of the group in a full offseason.Schedule

DATEOPPONENTSITE
Sept. 4Florida StateNew Orleans, La.
Sept. 10SouthernHome
Sept. 17Mississippi StateHome
Sept. 24New MexicoHome
Oct. 1AuburnAway
Oct. 8TennesseeHome
Oct. 15FloridaAway
Oct. 22Ole MissHome
Nov. 5AlabamaHome
Nov. 12ArkansasAway
Nov. 19UABHome
Nov. 26Texas A&MAway
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