by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
After UGA's National Championship winning WRs Coach Cortez Hankton Jr returned to his native Louisiana, LSU's 2022 staff was finally complete....and the Tigers' resulting group are an intriguing, promising assembly of experience & youth when all seen together for the first time.
It is telling that Brian Kelly only held over 1 on field assistant & 3 support staffers from Orgeron's 2021 crew, eschewing bona fide LSU brand heroes for coaches he knew and trusted for years at Notre Dame & beyond: Corey Raymond for Kerry Cooks, Greg McMahon ousted in favor of Brian Polian, Mike Denbrock's hire turning the page on LSU's "Joe Brady chasing" era under Jake Peetz & DJ Mangas, 21 year Strength & Conditioning Coach Tommy Moffitt for Notre Dame's longtime trainer Jake Flint....
Then, as Kevin Faulk, Mickey Joseph and GM Austin Thomas also left or were forced out (while Cooks, Polian, Flint and Denbrock signed on one by one), many believed Kelly would simply reimagine LSU as his own "Notre Dame South"....however, it was Kelly's next moves which sealed the deal for an exciting staff & shocked the national football talking heads.
With every Tiger coach's job on notice, when Kelly began to look inward for help restoring the program, it was both unexpected and yet exactly what I'd hoped for: Just as LSU lost the top 3 receivers in the state's 2022 class, all at the hands of Saban's Alabama, Louisiana itself became the forefront of Kelly's next hires, calming the turbulent melodrama among the fan base & the uneasy uncertainty felt by key roster pillars, all while supplying LSU with, arguably, more proven recruiting assistance and player development than they possessed under Orgeron.
Recalling Frank Wilson, the Tigers' former recruiting guru & talisman, is a masterstroke of genius sitting right under the program's nose all along;
After Wilson left for the head coaching job at University of Texas-San Antonio in 2015, Ed Orgeron never attempted to bring him back over the next 5 years, even after Wilson took over at McNeese State, just down the road in Lake Charles.
Sealing LSU Legends such as Mathieu, Fournette, Odell Beckham Jr, Tre'davious White, Jarvis Landry among many others, Wilson is integral for the Tigers' recently wayward in-state recruiting, as well as priming their stable of elite running backs to the next level.
Immediately, fans began to reconsider their misgivings about Kelly....but once the former Notre Dame boss retained OL Coach Brad Davis, a must in my view, while promoting our trio of incredible support staffers, JR Belton, Mason Smith and Will Redmond, I could see Kelly's vision clearly.
At critical spots, Kelly wanted a few guys he could trust no matter what the circumstances (Polian, Denbrock, Cooks, Flint), coaches he's witnessed blaze a trail through previous transitions; then, he would back those familiar commodities with new blood who could teach his Notre Dame contingent all about recruiting, coaching and living in Louisiana (Wilson, Sloan, Belton, Smith, Hankton); lastly, he felt enough autonomy to take a couple chances:
Hankton is a seasoned SEC veteran assistant, winning major recruiting battles over elite power 5 programs, including LSU in the past (George Pickens, Mecole Hardman, stealing Jermaine Burton and Arik Gilbert from LSU) although he suffered the last two years with some below par receiving classes (collateral damage caused by Kirby's handcuffed offensive vanilla-isms).
Still, I can't believe how maligned Hankton is by the Georgia faithful, but it's worth remembering: Dawgs fans also quit on Stetson Bennett during the 4th quarter of their 2022 title game victory, so.....
We also have to take into account the conservative offensive approach Kirby Smart imprinted upon UGA's passing game, hampering his all-star receivers coach from unleashing his wide outs' fullest potential.
Elsewhere, DL Coach Jamar Cain left Oklahoma for Lincoln Riley's USC in early December, but after Brian Kelly reached out and acquiesced to some big requests (added title of run game coordinator and markedly improved salary), Cain bolted for Louisiana after less than a month.
The former All-California D-Lineman has endured criticism due to Oklahoma's overall defensive efforts these past two seasons, however Cain's defensive line were the unit's most influential group, tacking on 30+ sacks across back to back years, all as Cain's philosophies helped OU's linebackers rack up sacks, too.
Just like Hankton, national heads or strands of local LSU fans may still question Cain's resume, yet I believe, just like Hankton, Kelly saw through the program names or surface statlines and grabbed these two because of what they've been able to accomplish in the face of massive limitations concerning talent, personnel, offensive philosophy or program management.
Kelly continued to back his on field coaches with strong Louisiana ingredients in the backroom staff, adding the massive names and reputations of Joe Sloane and Sherman Wilson to his crew.
QBs Coach Joe Sloane, a highly successful "every position" recruiter out of Louisiana Tech, is already hitting the ground running and making major in-roads with top talents.
Marrying his Notre Dame and new Louisiana ties together, Brian Kelly then finished off his staff by way of the NFL, procuring in-demand Kansas City Chiefs' LBs Coach Matt House.
Hailing from Andy Reid's Super Bowl champion staff of 2019/2020, House only continued to excel in Kansas City, coaching in back to back Super Bowls, toughening up as well as developing Steve Spagnuolo's once-unfocused and porous KC defense into a squad of vengeful mercenaries capable of changing games nearly as much as Pat Mahomes' offensive genius.
Also from the NFL?
Minnesota Vikings' rising young assistant Robert Steeples was interviewed and hired quickly, appointed as DBU's first new cornerbacks coach since 2013.
Working alongside Kerry Cooks (safeties), both DB coaches will work in tandem and separately, though Corey Raymond's shoes could be next to impossible for Steeples to fill, Kelly picked a man with a strong personality, defiant energy, and uplifting charisma which made him one of the best high school coaches in America during his time at De Smet Jesuit High in Missouri.
There's also an NIL element to Kelly's staff, forged by the signing of Shock Doctor rep & former collegiate receiver Jordan Arcement, an impeccable recruiter who's already paid dividends by helping LSU sign transfer WR Kyren Lacy.
Arcement supplies connections in both the business and football worlds, one foot firmly planted in each side, all combined with his knowledge of the game and solid relationship-building.
Mason Smith was one major piece of the recruiting staff puzzle I felt desperately needed to stay at LSU, and Kelly didn't just retain the prodigy, he promoted Smith: Naming him Director of High School & Community Relations, the perfect title to maximize his best attributes.
Also helping the support staff, Notre Dame analyst Dean Petzing follows Brian Kelly to Baton Rouge, duly named Lead Offensive Analyst.
Despite Petzing's name going under-reported outside of this very site, I believe his work alongside offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock & familiarity with Kelly, could prove to be an instinctive, influential choice.
Overall, this is a staff cultivated with a few key pieces of Kelly doctrine in mind:
Adaptability, accountability, innovation, and an aggressive edge to proceedings....an environment where the players are treated as professionals, carrying high expectations every day as they head in for work: recruiting the best players, coaching the best players, and doing everything they can to become the SEC's #1 coaching staff.
Every base seems covered:
Yes, Louisiana is first and foremost, but Kelly's Notre Dame trustees are still adding a national recruiting flair that has already built off the program's 2019 swagger more than Orgeron could over 2 seasons;
BK's staff are pulling off massive work within the all-important transfer portal (9 players signed during last week's blitz);
Despite his unfamiliarity with most of LSU's players, Kelly is still retaining top roster talents (if Kelly, only 2 months into his new job, can convince Boutte, Brennan, Gaye, Baskerville, and Jenkins from transferring or heading to the NFL, then imagine what he can do with more time under his belt....);
The program's NIL component is beginning to rise fast, buoyed by some of the most connected figures surrounding high school football recruiting;
Kelly hired Super Bowl winning coaches from the NFL, found underrated & under-utilized gems stuck in the corners of top programs, gave chances to a variety of upstarts, and filled out his staff with a likeminded, seamless group....all driven.....all hungry.
Under the guidance of Brian Polian, Matt House or support staffers such as Jordan Arcement, there's a national direction to LSU's brand which is building by the offer; Simultaneously, when it concerns in-state recruiting, Tiger fans should feel more peace of mind than they have had in years....Frank Wilson, Brad Davis, JR Belton, Cortez Hankton, and Mason Smith working alongside Joe Sloane and Sherman Wilson on the same staff???
There's a renewed "back to basics" sensibility going on here....but not in a dumbed down, reversion manner....Kelly's staff are more intense on the fundamentals, there's a renewed edge among the entire roster, all buying in to Strength & Conditioning Coach Jake Flint. Already exceedingly popular with the players, Flint established the Tigers' "foxhole" mentality heading into 2022: "us against the world....and what the hell is the world going to do about it?"
Asking a high profile Tiger what he felt about the new staff, I get the sense his comment sums up exactly my feelings about Kelly's transition into 2022's uncertainty:
"Boot Up, or We Boot You The Fuck Out...."
ASSISTANT HEAD COACH / RECRUITING COORDINATOR / RBs COACH
-Nicholls State (1996) SA
-Edna Karr HS (1997-1999) Assistant
-O.P Walker HS (2000-2003) Head Coach
-Ole Miss (2005-2007) RBs/ST
-Southern Miss (2008) RBs/RC
-Tennessee (2009) WRs
-LSU (2010-2015) AHC/RBs/RC
-UTSA (2016-2019) Head Coach
-McNeese State (2020-2021) Head Coach
KELLY ON WILSON: “Frank Wilson has a proven track record of identifying, recruiting, and developing elite student-athletes everywhere he has been. No one knows the recruiting landscape in Louisiana better than Frank, and his experience and character will be tremendous resources for our staff and student-athletes. His impact on our staff at LSU will be immediate and immense. We are thrilled he is returning home to ensure that we continue to sign the best student-athletes in Louisiana and throughout the country.”
(from LSU's Michael Bonnette)
SPECIAL TEAMS COACH / RECRUITING COORDINATOR
John Carroll University (LB)
-Michigan State (1997) GA
-Buffalo (1998) TE/Assis. OL
-Baylor (1999-2000) GA
-Buffalo (2001-2003) RBs/ST
-UCF (2004) RBs/RC
-Notre Dame (2005-09) ST/Ass. DBs/LBs
-Stanford (2010-2011) RC/ST/Safeties
-Texas A&M (2012) ST/TEs
-Nevada (2013-2016) Head Coach
-Notre Dame (2017-2020) ST/RC.
-LSU (2022-) ST/RC.
KELLY ON POLIAN: “Brian Polian brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to our staff. He is a relentless recruiter whose special teams units routinely rank at the top of the country, and his work ethic, attention to detail, and ability to connect and communicate with student-athletes are unmatched. I know he will hit the ground running in Baton Rouge and make an immediate impact on our program.”
(from LSU's Michael Bonnette)
Grand Valley State (TE)
-GV State (1986-87) GA
-Michigan St (1988-89) GA
-Illinois State (1990-91) OT/TE
-GV State (1992-1995) OC/QBs/WRs
-GV State (1996-1998) DC/LBs
-Buffalo Destroyers (1999-00) AHC/DC/OL/DL
-Stanford (2001) OT/TE
-Notre Dame (2002-2004) OT/TE
-Washington (2005-2008) OL
-Indiana State (2009) AHC/ST/LBs
-Notre Dame (2010-2016) TEs/WRs/OC/AHC
-Cincinnati (2017-2022) OC/QBs/TEs
-LSU (2022-) OC
KELLY ON DENBROCK: “I’ve coached with Mike for many years. He’s one of the best offensive minds in the game, and we share an established trust, respect, and understanding that will help us maximize the talent of our players immediately. His offenses have maintained a consistent level of excellence throughout his entire career, and he understands how to develop players at every position. I’m excited for him to join our staff and elevate our program.” (from LSU's Michael Bonnette)
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH
-2000 BCS National Champion
-Southern Lab High (2003–2004) OC/OL
-Wayne State (2005) GA
-Doane (2005) OL/RGC
-Texas A&M (2006-2007) GA
-North Carolina (2008) GA
-Portland State (2009-2011) OL
-Portland State (2012-2013) OL/RGC
-James Madison (2014) Co-OC/OL
-East Carolina (2015) OL/RGC
-North Texas (2016) OL/RGC
-Florida (2017) OL
-Missouri (2018-19) OL
-Arkansas (2020-2021) OL
-LSU (2021-) OL/INTERIM HEAD (TEXAS BOWL)
KELLY ON DAVIS: “Brad Davis is an exceptional teacher of the game and leader of young men, and his passion and dedication to this university and this community are second to none." (from LSU's Michael Bonnette)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR / LBs COACH
Michigan State (LB)
-Michigan State (2001–02) GA
-North Carolina (2003–04) DA
-Gardner–Webb (2005) DL
-Buffalo (2006–07) DBs / RC
-Carolina Panthers (2008) AST
-St. Louis Rams (2009–11) DQC
-Pittsburgh (2012) DBs
-Pittsburgh (2013–2014) DC
-FIU (2015) DC / LBs
-Kentucky (2016) ILBs / STs
-Kentucky (2017–18) DC & ILBs Coach
-Kansas City Chiefs (2019–21) LBs Coach
-Super Bowl LIV Champion
-Super Bowl LV Appearance
-LSU (2022–present) DC & LBs
KELLY ON HOUSE: “Matt checks every box we’re looking for in a defensive coordinator. He’s led elite SEC defenses, recruited and developed all-conference and All-American performers at multiple positions, and garnered ample experience in both the NFL and as a coordinator at multiple collegiate stops. He possesses a great understanding on how to defend the type of offenses we will face each week in our conference, and his ability to put players in position to make plays aligns perfectly with the identity that we want to develop with our defense. I’m excited that he’s joining our staff as we work toward building a championship program at LSU.” (from LSU's Michael Bonnette)
DBs COACH (SAFETIES)