BATON ROUGE, La. – The first normal spring of Brian Kelly’s LSU career is here. Last year was about learning and implementing a new culture in Kelly’s freshman year. It also took place with such a depleted roster that LSU used walk-ons in scrimmages and couldn’t play a typical spring game.
Now, LSU is a contender for the preseason college football playoffs and the potential favorite to win the SEC West. It brings back a seasoned offense and a defense that includes All-Americans. But it also added 12 transfers, many of which are expected to fill key roles straight away.
So here are some of the top questions as LSU’s spring training begins Thursday, when Kelly will meet with the media.
Is there actually a quarterback competition?
Kelly quickly made it clear after the Citrus Bowl that Jayden Daniels is QB1, and he is. Daniels is the returning starter from a 10-win SEC West title team, and with a packed offseason filled with comfort and replays, there’s real optimism Daniels can make a big leap in his second season at Baton Rouge.
But the Garrett Nussmeier hype train isn’t slowing down, and the redshirt’s stellar sophomore performances against Georgia and Purdue only added to the idea that he really could be LSU’s best option. Kelly, following his reassurance “Daniels is our starter” by speaking of being open, is a setup for an intriguing spring at QB.
“Look, the most important thing is when you have two really good quarterbacks, you have to have an open mind,” Kelly said. “You can’t be narrow-minded looking at two elite quarterbacks. What we are committed to is an open mind and process for you to step into and we will give you the opportunity to continue to grow.”
Again, Daniels will be LSU’s starter, but it’s worth watching the replay spread and looking for signs of a chance the two may break up this season.
LSU offensive depth chart projection for 2023
Who shows up at cornerback?
LSU is operating with an extremely talented but all-new group of corners after last year’s group of veteran transfers left the NFL. If veteran Greg Brooks Jr. stays safe, then Redshirt student Sage Ryan is the only real contributor to Nickel and Corner.
Newcomers like Texas A&M’s Denver Harris, Syracuse’s Duce Chestnut, Ohio State’s JK Johnson, Southeastern Louisiana’s Zy Alexander and Javien Toviano from the top 100 corner are probably more talented than members of last year’s unit, but they’re much younger and have marked their own questions. Harris had discipline issues at Texas A&M. Johnson struggled at times in the Big Ten. Alexander comes from FCS. Toviano is a newcomer. Even with experience, Ryan has a lot to prove to secure the Nickel job.
This makes it impossible to predict when LSU’s high school will begin until things play out in the spring. Following the replays and seeing players versus LSU receivers will help paint a picture.
Projection of LSU’s depth map on defense and special teams for 2023
Who steps up when the big players drop out?
Spring availability is always difficult. In 2019, LSU had such an experienced roster that they were able to rest a large portion of the returning starters with minor injuries in order to be fully healthy for the start of the season. It’s unclear if Kelly will do such a thing, but LSU is already heading into the spring with many confirmed players absent.
Star defensive tackle Maason Smith is recovering well from the knee injury that ended his 2022 season in the opening game, and Kelly told ESPN this week Smith will be a non-contact competitor. All-American defensive tackle Mekhi Wingo will also miss spring after undergoing labrum surgery. Alabama transferee Aaron Anderson will miss time recovering from the knee injury that handicapped him in Tuscaloosa. Even the touted early enrollee edge rusher Dashawn Womack will be out of practice with a shoulder injury.
Top receiver Malik Nabers will train this spring, according to a staff source, but he could be fined for carrying an illegal weapon during carnival following his arrest in February.
Absences mean opportunities. Will Texas transfer edge rusher Ovie Oghoufo or Oregon transfer Bradyn Swinson capture that edge spot? Can nose tackle veteran Jacobian Guillory prove his worth before Smith and Wingo return? The same goes for receivers like Kyren Lacy, Chris Hilton Jr. and early adopters Jalen Brown and Kyle Parker.
Will there be any shifts on the offensive line?
LSU is returning five of its first six starters to the offensive line, with only senior guard Anthony Bradford making the draft move. But LSU hasn’t hidden its desire to improve on the inside, offering three different centers in the portal this offseason (Jake Renfro, Jakai Clark, and now Maryland’s Mason Lunsford, whom LSU just signed Tuesday). Veteran utility man Charles Turner did a solid job last fall starting at center, but he’s not the most physically dominant. LSU wants more options in the guard or center.
With the addition of Lunsford, could LSU reshuffle the line? Garrett Dellinger is a huge talent who can play all five positions and actually started the season at center against Florida State. He then dealt with injuries and mostly substituted on the guard.
Marlon Martinez is a fourth-year player that LSU ranks high on and who has also coached at multiple positions. He may have more talent than Turner, but is he ready to direct the mental aspects as well as Turner?
LSU has options. Emery Jones Jr. caused quite a stir as a freshman when he started with the right tackle, but he was able to easily slip in to guard him. Maybe LSU will produce the same five from Will Campbell, Dellinger, Turner, Miles Frazier and Jones, but I could see movement.
Which newcomers stand out?
We’ve already mentioned all the corners, but LSU will also be relying on All-Pac-12 linebacker Omar Speights to form the core of this defense as a starter on the inside. Added LSU five Switch to the defensive line. Many of these are for depth, but it might turn out that someone like Jordan Jefferson from West Virginia or Paris Shand from Arizona are far more. And Anderson, of course, is out.
Perhaps the 12 freshmen who enrolled early are the ones being followed more closely. Brown is a fast top 100 prospect who could add a burst and the level LSU doesn’t quite have. He might have an opportunity to break out.
Whit Weeks is a name to keep an eye on. The freshman linebacker and brother of LSU linebacker West Weeks rose through the ranks to climb from three-star prospect to 152 overall in the 247Sports Composite. LSU has good linebackers but lacks depth. The Weeks brothers could end up being LSU’s top two backups.
(Photo by Brian Kelly: Mike Watters / USA Today)