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by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Throughout LSU's 2022 off-season, John Emery Jr's emergence as the Tigers' primary running back continues to be a large part of discussion, debate or analysis among purple & gold faithful:
We've all heard it before: "this is the season of John Emery"........
.....words which emanated off every water cooler in Louisiana, even as Joe Burrow led LSU's offense through summer workouts and Emery was just a freshman behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Following the Destrehan RB's last minute flip from Georgia (& his incredible Spring tape vs LSU's 2019 defense), the reverence was immediately palpable upon his arrival.
Obviously, Clyde had one of the all time great years at LSU in 2019, relegating John and fellow freshman Ty Davis-Price to expected backup roles, although Emery's promise was there for anyone to bear witness.
John scored 4 touchdowns that year, reaching the end zone during LSU's College Football Playoff semifinal liquidation of Oklahoma as well as demonstrating his blurry next level pace, strong finesse, 5 star agility and potential dual threat capabilities....all over 10 debutant appearances as part of the G.O.A.T collegiate offense.
The freshman Tiger's time on the big stage also exposed an early weakness in his game that would come back to haunt him:
Failing to protect Joe Burrow against Florida, the Heisman QB descended into a fury of expletives until Emery's immediate removal.....even threatening to call a timeout. Subsequently, Emery Jr's reps dropped even further behind TDP in Tommie Robinson's pecking order.
Who knows, Joe....he may not have even been able to see the guy:
When concerning his freshman season, let's shine light on one aspect: Before January 2020, Emery could only see out of one eye. Finally, he underwent LASIK surgery and his overall vision improved radically....just in time for his much-hyped second act.
Entering 2020, every analyst, except LSU Odyssey, selected Emery as the clear favorite from Kevin Faulk's running back room; In the end, both John and his good friend Ty Davis-Price split reps in a haphazard, shotgun shack manner....neither able to fully gain any momentum over 10 Covid-plagued games:
Despite strong outings vs Alabama (79 yards, 7 carries and an unbelievable TD), Vanderbilt (career high 103 yards) and South Carolina (88 yards & 1 TD), LSU's offensive line & rushing attack endured a dreadful 2020, with Emery registering just 378 yards and 3 TDs from 75 carries across 9 games (eclipsed or equaled by Ty Davis-Price in each category).
Individually, the flaws within his own game reared their head during a hellish Halloween afternoon @ Auburn:
After Auburn's front seven grabbed a myriad of sacks & forced a scoop & score on QB TJ Finley, directly blasting through #4's non-existent protection, questions would continue to mount about his readiness as an every down back.....once again caught napping with his quarterback's blood on his hands.
At the same time, there was a lot on the young man's mind:
Throughout LSU's 2020 regular season, John Emery Jr's family suffered dangerous, nearly fatal Covid-caused hospitalizations, the virus attacking both his step-father "Webby" and mother Nikki, adding further weight upon the former 5 star's shoulders.
Webby suffered a pair of strokes, paralyzing him on his left side as both kidneys nearly stopped, ushering a prolonged 6 month hospital stay; Simultaneously, John's mother Nikki suffered painful, serious complications as she dealt with her own case of Covid...all while grieving the recent loss of her Mother from lung cancer.
Like all setbacks, Emery Jr dealt with these scary circumstances the best way he could...the way John Emery Sr taught him:
Jr never lost his smile, he kept sending his Mom & Step-Father strength any way he could (their hospital visits were extremely limited due to Covid protocols), all as he juggled football, school, a flood of fan criticism, unrest within Orgeron's coaching staff and his own health;
Of course, the worry & struggle was real, but somehow LSU's NFL-potential running back never blamed anyone else for his shortcomings as a sophomore and neither did he use his family's medical emergencies as a perfectly justifiable excuse....he just kept pushing.
On the cusp of 2021, we heard it again: This Is the Year of John Emery Jr....
Right as 2021 shaped up to be another season where Emery & Davis-Price would compete for each down, both succumbed to ankle injuries shortly after summer camp began...then, Emery Jr made national headlines when he was sidelined for the entire 2021 season due to academic ineligibility.
This news hit the team & fanbase like a firestorm, as blame was cast over Orgeron's staff while Emery's case went forward to NCAA compliance hearings.
At the end of a typical media circus, what was expected to be the running back's money year became an extended season in the wilderness, unable to be an LSU Tiger whatsoever.....
It was a cruel blow, but one John dealt with admirably. Outside of a few transfer rumors, Emery stayed on when Kelly took over from the ashes of Ed Orgeron's regime.
Now, everyone around LSU wondered if the much-heralded running back could pass Kelly's stricter rules & intensity.....if "The Bayou Blur" could remain eligible....or, after waiting 3 long years, if John would finally be cosmically allowed to put it all together as the complete running back...a destiny which seemed ironclad heading into each of his years as a Tiger.
Starting with Kelly's first spring press conference, those fears were allayed as LSU's new Head Coach proudly told assembled media about Emery's dedication and drive.
Sitting 5 feet away from BK at that presser, I can tell you the Tigers' Head Coach appeared excited when discussing John's progress & potential. However, Kelly's comments after John's limited, injury-hampered 24 yard display in LSU's Spring Game really told me a lot more about how Kelly views his third year back:
"I was really impressed with him today, he was probably…he was less than healthy,” Kelly told the assembled media after the game. “Most would have said, ‘why would you play him today?’ He wanted to go. He was like, ‘look, I’m going to get banged up during the season. I want to know what it’s going to be like because I’m not going to be 100% during the season.’ That kind of mindset says a little about him. I was proud of him… We saw what kind of back he is, even banged up.”
Kelly has every right to be juiced about JE4:
Due to the program's renewed structure, Emery turned over a new leaf under Brian Kelly, right as Frank Wilson returned as LSU's chief recruiter / running backs wizard, Emery is poised to emulate his friend Ty Davis-Price's record breaking, 1,000 yard season from last year.
Not merely a serviceable back, at the peak of his powers, John possesses a rare combination of abilities that could easily jettison him above most, if not all other running backs within the SEC & college football...
Still, if John's awesome rushing arsenal can't complete itself with this continued true grit, strong academics & hungry, dominant mindset, then LSU's 2022 starting running back spot could be decided by rotation or someone else on roster.
Emery faces stiff competition within the RBs Room, specifically from transfer RB Noah Cain, sophomore Armoni Goodwin or third year backs Josh Williams & Tre Bradford, the latter trio showing out well as a group during LSU's Spring Game.
While 2021 would've been tough enough fighting reps against 3rd Round pick TDP and Josh Williams, most would've still expected John to grab a good share of LSU's carries last year; Now, 2022 could be an even tighter race....
As Cain leads Emery in every career tally, except average (Noah holding the most experience of any LSU back upon arrival), while Armoni Goodwin runs like he could be RB1, as Bradford impresses Kelly with his radical bursts of terminal velocity & Josh Williams inspires & climbs up the roster by the snap, 2022's RB race isn't a runaway train for Johnny B Damn Goode.
Yet, as we've heard so many say before each of the past 3 seasons, John Emery Jr should be LSU's starting running back......but will he be able to fend off Cain, Goodwin, Williams or Bradford before September 4th vs Florida State???
Will 2022 become John Emery's unforgettable season at LSU???
We're as close as you can get to a breakthrough....and if 2022 turns out to be John's much-anticipated "money year", then college football fans better get their popcorn ready, don't you dare forget those gummy bears and brace yourselves for impact....
PROJECTIONS: If healthy & receiving over 60% of the reps, 1,000+ yards & 10 rushing scores isn't crazy to expect. Emery is really out to prove something; accordingly I won't put a cap on his stats for 2022. Don't be surprised if he catches 200-300 yards (if he's the featured back).
I wouldn't be shocked if he notched 15 TDs and 1,600 yards if Denbrock's offense favors the ground over the air. We just hope for full health so he can do his thing wire to wire.
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Copyright 2022 Uninterrupted Writings Inc
SHOUTOUTS: JOHNNY B DAMN GOOD!!! Riding, LET'S GEAUX, 2022, YOU KNEAUX...John Sr, you're the man!!!