LSU football: 10 burning questions as the Tigers head into the offseason
LSU finished 10-4 in its 1st season under Brian Kelly.
It won the SEC West but got beaten pretty badly by Georgia in the SEC Championship Game.
It recovered well enough to dominate Purdue in a 63-7 victory in the Citrus Bowl.
It lost some players to the NFL and the transfer portal, but it did better than some other teams in that regard.
The Tigers are very much still a program in transition as Kelly and his staff begin preparations for season No. 2.
Here are 10 burning questions as LSU heads into the offseason:
1. Who will be the starting quarterback?
OK, so this burning question isn’t exactly an inferno. Jayden Daniels is coming back for his senior season after a really good 2022, and he figures to hold on to the job in 2023.
But Garrett Nussmeier battled Daniels for the starting position last preseason camp before playing poorly in extended playing time in an early-season rout of Southern.
Nussmeier played much better in the SEC Championship Game loss to Georgia and the Citrus Bowl victory against Purdue. He’s a strong No. 2, and if he continues to improve, who knows?
2. Will all the quarterbacks return?
It seems more likely because Nussmeier seems more willing to return after taking advantage of late-season opportunities.
Freshman Walker Howard will redshirt and has plenty of time to earn his opportunity, though incoming freshman Rickie Collins will add to the competition for positioning on the depth chart.
3. Will Kelly shake up his staff?
There has been late-season speculation that Kelly might make changes to his staff.
The special teams were plagued by major breakdowns periodically, so coordinator Brian Polian, who doubles as recruiting coordinator, has been the primary target of outside criticism.
But Kelly was pretty direct after the Citrus Bowl in saying he’s satisfied with everyone on staff. So the answer is no.
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4. Will the Tigers miss Kayshon Boutte?
He never regained the form he had before suffering an ankle injury midway through the 2021 season.
Kelly criticized his practice habits early, but Boutte seemed to accept the criticism in a positive way. After a poor start to the season, he was a contributor — but not dynamic — down the stretch.
Late last month, Kelly announced that Boutte would be “unavailable” for the Citrus Bowl but had enrolled at LSU for the spring. A few hours later, Boutte announced he was going to the NFL. So the Tigers aren’t sorry to see him leave.
The wide receiver depth was on display in the Citrus Bowl, and plenty more talent at the position is arriving for 2023.
5. Can I take my DBU T-shirt out of mothballs?
For a 2nd consecutive season, Kelly will need to lean heavily on newcomers to fill out the secondary. Four key defensive backs either opted out or ran out of eligibility, and no impact cornerbacks from this season will return.
LSU has 6 freshmen and 2 transfers joining the secondary. The unit might turn out just fine — as it did for the most part this season.
But the DBs won’t be the signature position on this team in 2023.
6. Do the Tigers have a running back they can feature?
They have a good group of running backs in John Emery II, Noah Cain and Armoni Goodwin, plus 2 incoming 4-star recruits.
But it’s likely that the running backs will be utilized in 2023 the way they were in 2022 — a committee approach, with multiple players capable of taking on the lead role from week to week.
That’s not necessarily bad.
7. Who will wear No. 7 next season?
Wide receiver Malik Nabers made a convincing case during the Citrus Bowl.
He caught 9 passes for 163 yards and 1 touchdown and completed both passes he attempted for 50 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown toss to Daniels.
As long as he handles the offseason and preseason as Kelly expects, it’s hard to imagine Nabers not being selected to wear the prestigious jersey — though LB Harold Perkins Jr. could give him a run for his money.
8. Is there enough depth on the defensive line?
Not at this point.
The defensive line didn’t establish as deep and effective a rotation as was expected this season. That was partially due to the loss of star tackle Maason Smith to a season-ending injury early in the opener.
Then BJ Ojulari, Ali Gaye and Jaquelin Roy opted out of the Citrus Bowl to focus on the NFL Draft.
Smith’s return will be significant, and Mekhi Wingo will be back. Younger players such as ends Zavier Carter, Quency Wiggins and Sai’vion Jones as well as tackles Jacobian Guillory, Tygee Hill and Bryce Langston should be able to handle expanded roles.
Between the freshman class and the transfer portal, there will be 7 new linemen joining the Tigers.
This question might be answered differently in September, because 1 of the most important projects of the offseason will be to develop a deep defensive line rotation.
9. Who will be the defensive leaders?
A healthy Smith will certainly be on the list, as will Perkins. Safety Major Burns will qualify, as will linebacker Greg Penn III.
Others will be expected to emerge between now and the fall.
10. Who’s the odd man out among the 3 young tackles?
Maybe no one.
The arrival of 5-star recruit Zalance Heard to join Will Campbell and Emery Jones Jr. — 2 freshmen who not only started but excelled this season — creates 1 of the more intriguing storylines heading into the 2023 season.
Heard is confident, and he recently suggested he won’t be kept out of the starting lineup. Maybe he’s good enough to move 1 of the veterans inside. Maybe he’ll prove capable of starting inside himself. Maybe Kelly and offensive line coach Brad Davis will decide to essentially go with 3 starters and rotate them.
But that trio, and the return of experienced inside players, will produce a much better offensive line unit than Kelly began his tenure with.