First and 10: Haters don't want to hear this, but LSU will be even better in 2023
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
When the hire was made in late November of 2021, the social media sewer checked in like only the sewer can.
Meanwhile, Brian Kelly did what he has done everywhere he has coached football: He made his team better.
Wait until the social media dorks on parade get a load of Year 2.
“That 2nd coat of paint,” Kelly said.
The house looks sharp with the new sheen, and the grass looks green and the value is spiking.
Year 2 began with spring practice, and if what unfolded last month during 15 practices means anything — and it most certainly does for a program in the middle of significant change — it’s about to get really good, really quick, in Baton Rouge.
By the end of Year 1, LSU had beaten Alabama for the first time since 2019 and played in the SEC Championship Game.
By the end of Year 1, a program that had less than 40 scholarship players available for the previous season’s bowl game had won 10 games in an inconceivable turnaround.
Now it’s about to get much better.
“That refinement for those guys that really understand our process is so important,” Kelly said. “They can begin to refine their technical and tactical.”
Translation: Wait until they get a load of Year 2.
Every coach will tell you the biggest jump in understanding scheme and expectations, and preparation and performance, is from Year 1 to Year 2. Typically, that’s a freshman to sophomore jump.
But with new coaches and new systems, and new expectations and more than 60% of the roster flipped, it’s just about everyone around for Year 2 with the guy who whiffed on a cajun accent and gave everyone a reason to doubt.
Until his team got on the field.
Until he fixed an uber-talented quarterback with no direction, despite playing 2 freshmen offensive tackles and with a receiving corps that had too much drama (see: all things Kayshon Boutte) for half a season.
Until they navigated an early self-inflicted loss (FSU) and an ugly meltdown (Tennessee) — and were still in the Playoff hunt in late November after beating Alabama.
Until Kelly doing his best Vincent Vega and showing out with a recruit on IG — all coaches do it, some do it differently — was no longer low-hanging fruit.
Until he went for 2 and won the damn game and sent Alabama packing for 2022.
All with a team that had no business being in the SEC Championship race — much less a Playoff race — but was until the last week of the regular season.
Now a majority of that same group moves to Year 2, and another elite recruiting class and another haul of impact players from the transfer portal join the ride.
It’s not that difficult to see where this is headed. From manufacturing 10 wins with a beaten down home that needed flipping, to continuing the refurb with a 2nd coat of paint and more new finishes.
Brian Kelly left Notre Dame because he wanted a challenge. He wanted to win big at the highest level of college football.
Why not make it happen in Year 2?
2. Find your QB
He’s a different guy now. Committed, focused, invested.
Jayden Daniels isn’t the same guy who tripped around for 3 seasons at Arizona State, never really reaching his potential and — for whatever reason — never building something unique on the field and in the locker room.
After he announced he was leaving ASU, Sun Devils players began cleaning out his locker, and DE Trevez Moore — who left LSU after the 2020 season and transferred to ASU — published a video of it on Instagram.
In 9 months at LSU, Daniels built something so strong with the team — and Kelly and LSU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Denbrock — that he decided to use his COVID waiver season and return for a 5th season of eligibility.
He could’ve left and begun his NFL career — he had a mid-round grade by most NFL scouts — but instead became the definition of how NIL was intended to be used. Instead of accepting the mid-round grade, he stayed and will earn with an NIL deal instead of an NFL contract. All while improving his stock for the 2024 NFL Draft.
Everybody wins: LSU keeps its starting quarterback who was playing as well as anyone in the SEC by November (before a high ankle sprain left him severely limited), Daniels gets another year under Kelly and Denbrock to refine his skills, and Daniels gets NIL cash and a chance to work his way into the 1st round of the 2024 NFL Draft.
He set career highs in 2022 for attempts, completions and completion percentage (68.6), and total touchdowns (28) and yards (3,592). He’s a legit star in the best conference in college football, his confidence and arm talent now clear and indisputable — and his Year 2 potential is undeniable.
“He’s committed to being the best quarterback in the country,” Kelly said.
That’s not a throwaway line, or coach speak from a guy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Kelly has developed elite quarterbacks everywhere he has coached, from the NCAA lower divisions to Central Michigan, Cincinnati and Notre Dame.
And now at LSU.
3. The 2nd-year jump, The Epilogue
Spring practices are typically downplayed by coaching staffs because they’re more about young players and backups transitioning, and potential growth.
This spring at LSU was about refinement, about the Year 2 jump all over the roster.
Running back Noah Cain transferred from Penn State last season and ran with too much hesitation and never really made an impact. He’s seeing a crease, planting a foot and bursting through holes, the biggest surprise of spring practice.
Harold Perkins, the best freshman in college football by the end of last season as an edge, is now playing his more natural position of linebacker. I know this is going to shock everyone (that’s sarcasm, folks), but he was the best player on the field in spring practice, too.
Wideout Kyren Lacey transferred from Louisiana last season, and couldn’t find a fit on the depth chart. He was the star of the spring game and gives Daniels 2 legitimate deep threats (including Malik Nabers).
The staff loves the way sophomore tackles Will Campbell and Emery Jones have gotten stronger and smarter, a year after both far exceeded expectations in pass protection. Another freshman last season, tight end Mason Taylor, looks like an NFL starter right now.
Junior defensive tackle Maason Smith was the most impressive player on the roster in the 2022 fall camp and was primed for a huge season. He injured his knee in the opener against FSU and missed the rest of the season, but he is ahead of schedule in rehab and worked this spring in non-contact drills.
Impact transfers are showing up all over the rosters: LB Omar Speights (Oregon State), Edge Ovie Oghoufo (Texas) and 3 cornerbacks — JK Johnson (Ohio State), Denver Harris (Texas A&M) and Zy Alexander (Southeastern Louisiana) — will get significant playing time.
“That’s a big, fast team,” an NFL scout who saw LSU practice this spring told me. “There are so many ways they can stress you on both sides of the ball.”
Meanwhile, Alabama added a quarterback from the spring transfer portal because none of the 4 scholarship players on the roster did enough in spring practice (more on that later). And Georgia will begin 2023 with a new quarterback, though Carson Beck clearly has the talent to have a big season.
LSU has the best quarterback in the SEC, and all things being equal — and they’re not between LSU and Georgia and Alabama, but the gap is decreasing — the best quarterback typically wins.
Wait until they get a load of Year 2.
4. The problem at the position
How did we get here, Part II: Last week, I wrote how the problem wasn’t Tyler Buchner joining the Alabama quarterback room, it was how the Tide got in this position in the first place by missing on quarterback recruits.
Let’s delve a bit deeper into the recruiting misses over the past 3 cycles that contributed to the most talented team in the nation not being committed to a quarterback 3 months before fall camp begins.
Alabama recruited the top 3 QBs in the 247Sports composite 2021 class — Quinn Ewers, Caleb Williams, Drake Maye — before losing out on all 3 and eventually signing No. 14-ranked Jalen Milroe. The Tide were interested in Shedur Sanders, but he left to play for his dad, Deion Sanders, at Jackson State and has since transferred to Colorado.
Anyone who watched Sanders throw the ball 2 weeks ago in the Colorado spring game knows how dangerous the Alabama offense would be with Sanders.
A year later in 2022, Alabama didn’t offer the top 3 quarterback recruits (Drew Allar, Cade Klubnik, Conner Weigman), and instead got an early commitment from No. 4 Ty Simpson — who was 1 of 4 quarterbacks this spring that didn’t show enough to prevent Saban from adding another quarterback to the competition.
“We wanted to give all the quarterbacks in our program an opportunity to win the job in spring practice,” Saban said late last week prior to the ESPN telecast of the NFL Draft. “And we felt like we wanted to add some competition in the room.”
Translation: We had no choice.
The question isn’t can Buchner get up to speed; he has been running new Tide OC Tommy Rees’ offense for the past 2 seasons. It’s can his presence be enough to push Simpson or Milroe — or even freshmen Eli Holstein and Dylan Lonergan — to consistently prepare and play well?
5. The Weekly 5
Five reasons the Tennessee Titans won’t regret drafting Kentucky QB Will Levis.
1. He can make every throw, and is a tough, willing runner. Watch tape of Josh Allen at Wyoming: They’re nearly identical.
2. He can learn behind starter Ryan Tannehill, a player with similar skills, who is in his last season with the Titans.
3. The Titans’ offense is based on run-first, throw off play-action — and that means less pressure on Levis if he plays in 2023.
4. Levis’ 2022 season at Kentucky was skewed by terrible pass protection (UK gave up 46 sacks). Watch 2021 with protection (24 sacks); it’s a different story.
5. He played for 4 coordinators in college. The more consistent (and similar) the teaching, the greater the growth.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a 2024 draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Alabama Edge Dallas Turner.
“He’s an athletic, twitchy presence on the edge. I expected a bigger season from him (in 2022), but the production slipped for both him and Will Anderson. He has that explosiveness off the edge that you can’t teach, so it all starts there. He’s active, and he chases. But I want to see more consistency, more big plays. This is the money year. How badly do you want it?”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: 2024 NFL Draft pick to watch.
1. Georgia: TE Brock Bowers: A rare athlete at the position. He’s not as twitchy as Kyle Pitts and won’t go top 5, but is a legit top-10 pick.
2. Alabama: CB Kool-Aid McKinstry. Long and active, and a physical presence at the jam. Had 15 PBUs in 2022.
3. Tennessee: OT Gerald Mincey. A large frame (6-6, 335) and quick feet. Elite pass protector when healthy.
4. LSU: DT Maason Smith. How does he return from ACL surgery? Most disruptive interior lineman in SEC when healthy.
5. Texas A&M: S Jardin Gilbert. Became a more physical player (and hitter) in 2022, and significantly improved in back-end coverage.
6. Kentucky: OLB/Edge JJ Weaver. Plenty of potential and athleticism. Does he rebound from a shaky 2022 season?
7. Ole Miss: TE Michael Trigg. Freakish athlete with a load of potential. Only has 24 career catches, and needs a breakout season.
8. Mississippi State: QB Will Rogers. There will be more under center, and more vertical throws. Can he move past the “system” label?
9. South Carolina: WR Antwane Wells. Highly productive volume receiver. 21 TDs in past 2 seasons (at South Carolina and Richmond).
10. Arkansas: CB Dwight McGlothern. Had 4 INTs and 10 PBUs after transferring from LSU.
11. Florida: CB Jason Marshall Jr. Excels in man and off coverage. Can play his way into the 1st round with another strong season.
12. Missouri: CB Kris Abrams-Draine. Former wide receiver will begin his 3rd season at corner and has gotten appreciably better each season.
13. Auburn: CB Nehemiah Pritchett. He’s what NFL teams look for now in corners: physical, long frame (6-1, 185), and active at the jam.
14. Vanderbilt: WR Will Sheppard. Dependable, tall and long target (6-3, 210) whose productivity continues to increase (1,353 yards, 13 TD) despite Vandy’s struggles at QB.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Now that it’s clear Spencer Sanders isn’t going back in the transfer portal, how do you see the Ole Miss quarterback competition shaking out? — Francis Dank, Memphis.
Sanders is still dealing with rehab and recovery from a shoulder injury sustained last season at Oklahoma State. It limited his ability to compete at a high level in the spring competition with incumbent starter Jaxson Dart.
But Sanders has a much bigger obstacle on the horizon: Dart’s improvement this spring. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin brought in Sanders and LSU transfer Walker Howard for the specific reason of competition.
Or more to the point: to stress Dart and see how he’d respond. Competition makes everyone better, and Kiffin didn’t feel like the Ole Miss offense played as well as it could have the last month of the season.
Sanders could still return in 3 months, and be healthy and ready to go for fall camp — and then push Dart for the starting job. But I’d be shocked at this point if Dart — who threw only 1 INT in spring practice (all drills) — didn’t keep the job.
That means Ole Miss has a talented backup in Sanders, and there’s no doubt that’s critical moving forward in the SEC — where 8 of the 14 teams had backups start games in 2022. If Sanders doesn’t win the job, he could still transfer and play immediately as a graduate transfer (portal limitations don’t apply to graduate transfers), or drop down to the FCS level and do the same.
87. Auburn and Florida are still looking in the transfer portal for 2023 quarterbacks, and 2 new legit targets entered last week: Casey Thompson and Payton Thorne.
Thompson played his first 3 seasons at Texas (and started games as a junior), and was Nebraska’s starter in 2022. In the past 2 seasons, he had a TD/INT ratio of 41/19.
Thorne spent 3 seasons at Michigan State, and in the past 2 seasons had a TD/INT ratio of 46/21. That’s 87 TDs between Thompson and Thorne.
In the past 2 seasons, Auburn’s quarterbacks had a TD/INT ratio of 26/16, and Florida’s quarterbacks were at 45/27.
Translation: Be careful what you wish for. The difference is negligible.
10. Quote to note
Alabama coach Nick Saban: “We thought (Buchner) would add a lot of competition, and we think he’s got the right kind of character and attitude to be a positive influence on our team.”