By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
In Orlando this past Tuesday, Brian Kelly's LSU arrived earlier than normal to start their preparations ahead of a date vs Purdue in the Citrus Bowl, looking for what would be a deserved 10th win of 2022.
This next Monday, January 2nd, the Big 10 club and SEC West champions will face off......in much different configurations than could've been forecasted even a month ago:
Purdue are doing their best to mimic LSU's beyond depleted madness from last January's Texas Bowl, Head Coach Jeff Brohm leaving for another gig (Louisville), quarterback Aidan O'Connell taking off for the NFL Draft, backup quarterback Brady Allen heading out to the portal, followed by 12 other players leaving the school prior to the Citrus Bowl.
Even retired Saints Hall of Famer and former Boilermaker Drew Brees is committing to help his alma mater in a coaching capacity for the bowl game....understanding the intense attrition facing the program during this moment of wild transition.
As for LSU, the Tigers are facing yet another bowl game without key men on roster vs Purdue, including a shocking omission the day after the Tigers' Orlando arrival:
Starters WR Kayshon Boutte, Jaray Jenkins, DE BJ Ojulari, Ali Gaye, DT Jaquelin Roy, and CB Mekhi Garner have all opted out of the game in preparation for the NFL Draft, though another Draft entry, DB Jay Ward, will play one last time as a Tiger....but it was Boutte's 180 flip that could provide a hint of distraction:
LSU's sudden, dramatic announcement of Boutte's unavailability, followed only hours later by his own declaration for the NFL Draft, supplied a whirlwind Wednesday and now ends a nearly 2 year long saga.
Sadly, in Kayshon's three seasons at LSU, he never once appeared in a bowl game and dressed for just 1 postseason appearance, the 2022 SEC Championship Game.
These absences should open up intriguing opportunities for DEs Saivion Jones, Zavier Carter or barely seen freshman prodigy Quency Wiggins to take over for Ojulari and Gaye. Jones has been solid all year, posting 11 pressures, 3.5 sacks and 1 forced fumble in a little over 230 snaps; Wiggins possesses the same brand of next level, eye-popping athleticism that Perkins or Ojulari maintain.
Look for DL Coach Jamar Cain to go with a starting DE tandem of Harold Perkins and Saivion Jones, utilizing Wiggins and Carter in a rotational form.
The Citrus Bowl vs Purdue is also a contest where Jacobian Guillory could make a major statement at defensive tackle, penciled to start without Jaquelin Roy.
Also, watch out for freshman Tygee Hill at DT or Mike Jones Jr filling in at Jack LB.
At linebacker, LSU will have the full compliment of personnel, Perkins, Baskerville and Penn III, the team's usual starting lineup since mid-season; However, Monday is a big opportunity for DeMario Tolan, playing in his hometown of Orlando, to get a chance to strut his stuff for extended reps. Whenever he's played, Tolan has produced high quality moments, both at linebacker and on special teams.
At the back end, Major Burns or Sage Ryan should get a start at nickel (Burns, usually a safety, moved to nickel on the bowl game depth chart) while Ward and Jarrick Bernard-Converse are both listed to start at either corner spot.
The safety positions should be marshaled by former Arkansas transfer tandem seniors Greg Brooks Jr and Joe Foucha, but could we see red shirt sophomore "possible transfer / possibly not" Derrick Davis Jr or true freshman Jordan Allen receive reps?
Additionally, LSU's roster must absorb another annual transfer portal hit, with fan favorite & 2021 receptions leader Jack Bech, third year tight end Kole Taylor (and his shoe), a trio of OL (Marcus Dumervil, Xavier Hill and Cam Wire), plus three DBs (2019 veteran Raydarious Jones, freshman Jaelyn Davis-Robinson & second year CB Damarius McGhee) all leaving the team.
So, LSU are facing a slew of absences themselves, yet unlike Purdue's critical departures, Kelly's Tigers are at least retaining continuity within their coaching staff, quarterback room, as well as inside the trenches.
Brian Kelly's staff will already be prepared for this week of practice and final game-plan polishing....most of their details are already finalized...down to the young players they want to afford opportunities....but offensively is where the big questions linger ahead of the Citrus Bowl:
On offense, the talk will center around Boutte's shock NFL Draft reversal, and which quarterback will start for LSU:
Red shirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier, who impressed vs Georgia from the bench with over 200 yards and 2 TD passes, or the ankle-hampered Jayden Daniels, who's been more or less cleared for action.....but considering Jayden Daniels' 2023 return, will Coach Kelly take the risk or give Nussmeier another shot?
Nussmeier has been Mike Denbrock's starter for the vast majority of practices in the lead up to the game, although if Daniels is 100%, expect Kelly and his staff to start their veteran QB.
Due to Boutte & Jaray Jenkins' absence, the Citrus Bowl could've been a great opportunity for Jack Bech.
But with his TCU transfer, that chance will go to hungry sophomore Brian Thomas Jr, good for receiving 7+ targets vs Purdue as LSU's clear #2 wide receiver.
Since safety / RB Derrick Davis Jr also traveled with the team, despite entering his name into the portal just a week ago, the rarely appearing second year Tiger provides another option.
LSU's offensive line starters should be all fit and ready for action, as only backup and depth options Hill, Dumervil, and Wire entered the portal.
If LSU maintain an early foothold vs Purdue, the Citrus Bowl could be a fantastic chance for Kardell Thomas or Marlon Martinez to show out for extended reps.
There's a reason LSU are favored by 14.5 points...and it's rooted in LSU's deeper squad in comparison to the Boilermakers, but it's also centrally hinging on Purdue's first year Head Coach Ryan Walters only just being announced & backup super senior QB Austin Burton starting instead of O'Connell.
But the fact remains: Kelly's Tigers are superior in nearly every position group on the field or phase of the game...albeit special teams.
Since Purdue lost their chief playmakers on offense and defense heading into the game, the 2023 Citrus Bowl should showcase LSU's ability to go for the jugular early & throughout.
Even without 1st round pick talents at receiver or defensive end, and NFL / portal-bound contributors at cornerback or defensive tackle, these 2022 Tigers have enough stone cold footballing ability and coaching nuance to dominate Purdue's trenches, score enough points to make this comfortable, devour yards on the ground with our trio of backs, but could LSU run into trouble in the passing game or on defense?
Matt House's defense could produce a sloppy outing and still definitively control Purdue, thanks to the brilliance of Mekhi Wingo, Jarrick Bernard-Converse, Micah Baskerville, Jay Ward, Major Burns and freshman linebacker sensation Harold Perkins.
It could be one more final explosive performance from the All-American LB, now grabbing plenty of edge rushing snaps in lieu of Ojulari or Gaye....against the Boilermakers' weakened offensive line (missing key stalwarts) & backup quarterback.
Expect a 34-13 win by LSU.scores from Malik Nabers, Brian Thomas Jr and Josh Williams, backed by high octane defensive showings from Harold Perkins, Mekhi Wingo and Jay Ward lead the way (Perkins posting 2 sacks, Jay Ward returning an interception for 40 yards & nearly a touchdown in his final Tiger appearance and Wingo batting down 3 passes, including one which set up a Bernard-Converse interception).
Offensively, whether Daniels or Nussmeier starts, Purdue will be beaten all over the secondary, regardless of no Boutte, Bech or Jenkins.
Malik Nabers will go off, creating one big play after another downfield and with his 179 yards, the sophomore eclipses 1,000 yards for 2022/23; Brian Thomas Jr will score his 5th TD of the year & add 81 yards; the Tigers' rushing attack piles on nearly 200 yards (over 250 if Jayden Daniels starts), refusing to turn the ball over, controlling the game, plus opening up big plays down field.
Malik Nabers: 179 Yards, 2 TDs
Harold Perkins: 11 Tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 2 Sacks, 1 PBU
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
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