The whimsical nature of college football off-seasons is genuinely a puzzling experience at times. Not one of the fun puzzles either. Rather, one of those 3,000-piece ones with a large blue sky that simultaneously has all of the pieces, yet none of them. With players graduating and transferring and new ones coming in, every team undergoes a significant transformation. As the great American philosopher Yogi Berra once said, “It’s deja vu all over again.” Okay, sure, he wasn’t a philosopher, but the call on the field stands. LSU is no exception to this Groundhog Day phenomenon we’ve become akin to, and spring ball is when some of those pieces of the sky come together. After LSU’s second full week of spring practice, a clearer picture of the defensive and offensive sides of the ball is coming to fruition.
Linebackers and defensive backs looked most thin coming into this offseason. Credit the losses of starters BJ Ojulari at linebacker. Then there are the defensive backs: Jarrick Bernard-Converse, Mekhi Garner, and Jay Ward, who played the nickel last season. All of them declared for the NFL draft. Departing transfers who had less of an impact but still shocked the depth chart were linebackers DeMario Tolan and Antoine Sampah as well as corner Raydarious Jones.
As the Tigers look to rebuild their defense, the Jack linebacker position has become a focal point of their off-season training. It’s a position they like to incorporate in many of their defensive looks. To keep it simple, a Jack linebacker is essentially a backer who lines up in a defensive line position in a two-point stance. This enables them to muscle up the line and pass rush or spoil kick-out blocks head-on but also leaves them prepared to drop back into coverage, depending on the rare look that requires such.
BJ Ojulari was the man in that position last year, but he’s packed his bags for the draft, so those shoes need to be filled. Ovie Oghoufu and Bradyn Swinson – two athletic transfers from Texas and Oregon, respectively – have been working the Jack linebacker position thus far in spring. Swinston comes in as a shifty edge d-lineman, whereas Oghoufu played outside backer for the horns. Look to see Oghoufu take on that primary role in the fall, as a fair amount of the schemes he ran at Texas had him playing the Jack.
Regarding traditional linebackers, look for Omar Speights to round out the trio alongside Greg Penn III and Harold Perkins. Speights is a graduate transfer from Oregon State, who had 83 total tackles last year, and 87 the year before. The numbers are not Butkus award material, but they’re solid and consistent, and behind those numbers come a heap of experience as this will be Speights’ fifth and final year on the gridiron.
The corner position had a huge question mark around it immediately after the final snap of the season. A week before that game, Zy Alexander signed as an FCS transfer from Southeastern Louisiana University who earned Southland all-conference honors last season, so that calmed the nerves slightly. Since then, prayers have been answered, and the depth chart has been filled out with many talents, but that blessing raises questions of its own. Who are the guys?
Denver Harris is, without question, one of the guys. Okay, well, there is one question. Harris was part of last season’s infamous trio at Texas A&M that was suspended for allegedly smoking weed in the locker room before their contest against South Carolina. Since then, Brian Kelly has met extensively with Harris’ family in the recruiting process and advocated for his transfer. Kelly feels the culture and structure of LSU’s football program will have Denver Harris on the path to redemption and, furthermore, success. Harris, who played just his freshman season last year, is undoubtedly the most talented corner on the roster. If he stays on the straight and narrow, he will make a massive impact for the Bayou Bengals in 2023.
Along with Alexander, LSU brought in a few more experienced transfers at the corner position during this offseason’s portal pandemonium. The key among them is J.K. Johnson of Ohio State. One of those two gentlemen will likely start adjacent to Harris this fall. However, the question of which one is still up in the air. Look for Duce Chestnut, the Syracuse transfer, to play in the slot and handle the nickel responsibilities.
There’s also worth mentioning Javien Toviano. A four-star high school recruit out of Texas, Toviano signed out in the fall and got to campus early. Last week he worked with the safeties under coach Kerry Cooks this past week. The move could come from the transfer depth added to the corner spot. Then again, it’s too early to put stock in such a move. These could be simple man-to-man drills in regard to slot and nickel coverage. Take it with a grain of salt.
The most severe blow to the defense is the loss of coach Jamar Cain. LSU’s defensive line coach and run game coordinator was poached out of the bayou by the Denver Broncos. More truthfully, by their new head coach Sean Payton. The news came on March 25, just a day after Payton and the Broncos acquired receiver Marquez Calloway from the Saints. Payton’s incessant need to gut Louisiana football aside, LSU now has a prominent coaching spot to fill this offseason.
Last season LSU’s offensive line struggled immensely with the twist stunt. Despite Emery Jones having an impressive Freshman year, he was certainly no exception to the rule. All things considered, the hog mollies who will put up the wall to protect Jayden Daniels this fall were in the program last year. Jones and 13-game starters Miles Frazier and Will Campbell will bring a firm supply of experience.
Jaray Jenkins and All-American Kayshon Boutte are heading to the pros. With their departure, Brian Thomas, Jr. will step into a leading role in the receiving core. At 6-4, he will provide a large target for red-zone back shoulder throws and downfield passes that we’d like to see quarterback Daniels pull the trigger on more frequently. Malik Nabers, well, he will continue to be Malik Nabers and assume the role of the number one receiver.
Last season, freshman Mason Taylor punished the SEC with his physicality and sure-handedness at the tight end position. His routes are crisp, he’s big, he’s strong, and he is someone the Crimson Tide would love never to have to cover again. Outside of Brock Bowers, he’s arguably the most dangerous man at the position in the conference.
The backfield remains strong with the return of Josh Williams and John Emery Jr.. Unfortunately, they’ve seen no action in spring practice. Emery, yet again, has to sit out due to poor academic performance (Deja vu, remember?), but if he can get his grades in check and narrow his class load down before the fall, it could be of great benefit to his focus. Emery can play ball. Nobody else on the roster could’ve gotten into the end zone on that play against ‘Bama last season.
John Emery Jr. whipped out the juke for this TD 😲 pic.twitter.com/WjEik2fEXn
— ESPN (@espn) November 6, 2022
He is one of the most athletically gifted guys in his position on the team. Emery missing Spring workouts is not of concern to the Tigers. Right now, the best thing he can do is to get his grades in order for when it matters most. Williams will remain the stocky, scrappy back that he is. Noah Cain will still provide a little bit of lightning in the bottle for the Tigers. Emery, though, will likely helm the starting role at running back if he can keep his classroom responsibilities in order. All things considered, LSU will be dandy, nonetheless.
Lastly, backup quarterback Garrett Nussmeier has been taking some snaps this spring with the first team behind starter Jayden Daniels. That being said, Daniels is the starter. Despite the phony quarterback competition nonsense that’s leaked its way into message boards, Jayden Daniels is the guy. To solidify that statement further, in a March 21st press conference, Kelly said, “Jayden Daniels is the guy.”
No shade on ‘Nuss. He’s a good quarterback and will be the 2024 starter barring any crazy transfer news. Even still, you don’t bench a 10-4 starter who brought you to the SEC championship game. Sure, Daniels needs to work the ball downfield more. At times, his speed even lends its hand to tunnel vision when he gets under pressure. Regardless, he’s shown that he’s capable of leading the Tigers in challenging situations and in winning ways. Put your trust in him to continue to do just that this fall.
Photo courtesy: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports