Kelly chose Jayden Daniels to start ahead of Garrett Nussmeier. It was a good move, and the evidence was easy to see as soon as the game started.
Nussmeier is a talented player who can make plays with his arm and legs, but Daniels is a more dynamic runner.
He needed to be against the Seminoles.
Daniels ran by design sometimes, and he often ran because it was the only way to salvage plays that broke down because of poor blocking.
He became just the 2nd quarterback to rush for 100-plus yards in his debut as LSU’s starting quarterback. He finished with 114 of the Tigers’ 139 rushing yards. (BTW, he also passed for 209 yards.)
Had Nussmeier been the quarterback, it’s sure that he would not have been able to salvage as many broken plays as Daniels did. LSU would have had even fewer than its 348 total yards — and relatively possibly fewer points than in the 24-23 loss.
“I thought he competed well,” Kelly said of Daniels on Tuesday. “Later in the game, he settled into a perfect rhythm. His pocket presence was excellent. He knew when to run and when to stay.”
If not for Daniels’ running success — both planned and unplanned — the Tigers’ offense would have been even more stagnant than it was.
But the success he did have was not enough to win the game. And even though LSU should be able to muster a much more complete performance against FCS and cross-town foe Southern University on Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, the dependence on Daniels’ running isn’t a long-term winning strategy.
A week after the game against the Jaguars, the Tigers will open SEC play against Mississippi State.
Daniels passed the ball 35 times and rushed 16 times against Florida State. That’s inviting an awful lot of hits on the quarterback.
If that degree of exposure were to continue into the teeth of the SEC schedule, it’s a virtual certainty that Daniels will not be able to physically finish the season. Not to mention that such a limited offensive arsenal will have little success.
Kelly knows this.
He chose Daniels partly because the predictable growing pains for the rebuilt offensive line would require the expert running ability for the offense to have a chance.
Kelly talked Tuesday about “offensive line awareness,” which is his term for continuity among the 5 linemen that enables the individuals to instinctively know where their help is coming from, thus making the unit better than the sum of its parts.
Presumably, the awareness will improve as the season evolves for a brand new unit. But there were times on Sunday when 5 Tigers couldn’t block fewer than 5 Seminoles.
The constant pressure on Daniels disrupted the passing game. It prevented coordinator Mike Denbrock and the LSU offense from fully taking advantage of the team’s most talented unit — the wide receivers.
Daniels connected with wide receivers 19 times, including five each with Jaray Jenkins (who had both touchdowns), Brian Thomas Jr., and Malik Nabers. Top receiver Kayshon Boutte had just two catches for 20 yards.
If the Tigers evolve into a good football team, the production of the wide receivers will have to be one of the most critical components.
The receivers can’t have the impact they’re capable of if the quarterback doesn’t have time to stand in the pocket and wait for them to complete their routes.
And the offense can’t have the balance necessary for LSU to evolve into a good football team if the running game isn’t productive due to blocking from the line (and others) and running from the running backs, and not exclusively due to ad-libbing from Daniels.
Kelly’s quarterback problem has nothing to do with Daniels, who was the Tigers’ top performer in the opener.
His problem is he knows he can’t continue to lean on Daniels to do everything he had to do in the opener.