Brian Kelly is now calling Baton Rouge home. The ex-Notre Dame coach shocked the college football world when he was hired by LSU in December after appearances in two College Football Playoff semifinals and one BCS National Championship during his 12 seasons leading the Fighting Irish. He has taken over a program that, despite being three seasons removed from a national title — and perhaps the best season in college football history — has fallen on hard times due to former coach Ed Orgeron’s gross mismanagement.
Kelly also has to deal with a numbers problem. LSU was wildly undermanned in the Texas Bowl loss to Kansas State. Roster management isn’t exactly an easy issue for any coach these days, much less one who’s operating at a scholarship deficit. But the transfer portal goes both ways, and Kelly has successfully tapped into it already.
With LSU in general, there is hope for the future.
Kelly will have plenty of talent to work with in his first spring, especially at offensive skill positions. Let’s break down what to expect this spring from the Tigers.
Kelly’s first offseason has been a wild ride at quarterback. Former starter Myles Brennan entered, and then subsequently exited, the transfer portal. The sixth-year senior was 79 of 131 for 1,112 yards, 11 touchdowns and three interceptions over the first three games of the 2020 season before an injury forced him to the sideline. Kelly also lured three-year Arizona State starter Jayden Daniels to town after throwing for 6,025 yards and 32 touchdowns in three years as a starter. Those two will enter spring as the co-favorites to win the job, followed by backup Garrett Nussmeier and freshman Walker Howard.
Daniels is most notable fresh face, but there are plenty more of them on the coaching staff. Matt House will lead the defense after serving three seasons as the linebackers coach for the Kansas City Chiefs. House is no stranger to the college game, though. He was Mark Stoops’ defensive coordinator at Kentucky from 2017-18, and he spent time on staffs at FIU, Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Michigan State. He’ll use the spring to get an idea on how the personnel fits into his multiple looks, which include 3-4 and 4-3 schemes.
Longtime Kelly assistant Mike Denbrock will take over the offense after a five-year run at Cincinnati, culminating in a College Football Playoff appearance. He stretched the field quite a bit last year with QB Desmond Ridder, and that should be a focal point of the LSU offense considering all of the talent the Tigers have outside.
Kelly’s biggest challenge, however, is to change the culture. It seemed like 85 players were going in 85 different directions during Orgeron’s final two seasons, and one of Kelly’s primary goals this spring should be to establish what the expectation is on the practice field.
Names to knowJohn Emery Jr., running back: Emery sat out all of last season with academic issues, but he has been with the team this offseason with the hopes of living up to his five-star hype. He had 378 yards and three touchdowns in 2020 after putting up 188 yards and four scores as a backup to Clyde Edwards-Helaire in 2019. He’ll have to navigate through some talent in order to gain the top spot on the depth chart, though. Sophomore Corey Kiner and Penn State transfer Noah Cain, a four-star prospect out of Baton Rouge during his high school days, are in the running for playing time, too. Cameron Wire, offensive tackle: Wire is the only member of LSU’s offensive line with significant starting experience, which doesn’t bode well for an offense transitioning to a new scheme. The 6-foot-6, 307-pound junior will be counted on to be the leader of the unit, which includes several transfers like Miles Frazier (FIU) and Tre’Mond Shorts (East Tennessee State).Mike Jones Jr., linebacker: Jones didn’t get the chance to be a star in his first season with the Tigers after transferring from Clemson, but that should change in 2022. The fifth-year senior’s versatility inside and outside will make him an invaluable piece of House’s defensive puzzle. His landing spot will go a long way toward establishing the primary scheme of the defense and give the Tigers an identity moving forward.Spring outlook
Don’t jump to conclusions after the LSU spring game. Kelly’s fighting an uphill battle from a depth perspective, and these 15 practices will be all about the players and coaches learning from each other. Sure, there needs to be a rough draft of the depth chart post-spring, but Kelly is expected to continue to hit the transfer portal hard this summer in order to build the depth needed to be competitive in 2022. The most immediate need for the Tigers is for the offensive line to come together. That will set the tone and provide balance for the offense to click.