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by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
After numerous exits to the NFL Draft, some expected, some not, while there were plenty of departures into the portal, Head Coach Brian Kelly has his work cut out for him ahead of year three.
Kelly just finalized his all-star defensive staff, and just hired QBs Coach Joe Sloan and WRs Coach Cortez Hankton as co-offensive coordinators replacing outgoing Notre Dame sympathizer Mike Denbrock.
But as he continues to make preparations for the upcoming campaign with newly hired "roster MGMT guru" Austin Thomas, Kelly is well aware of holes on his roster, specifically along the interior defensive line, at cornerback, as well as safety.
Although LSU's depth at wide receiver, running back and edge rusher is acceptable, sporting rooms full of talented Tigers; However, even at those skill position spots, Kelly's personnel is mostly unproven heading into 2024.
Decisions will be made over these next few months which will shape LSU's ever-evolving, yet still promising roster as Kelly aims to match 2023's juggernaut offense while doing everything possible to bury last season's disgraceful, historically poor defense.
Losing key playmakers & team leaders (holding years of eligibility) to the NFL Draft will no doubt affect this young team. When big time veteran Tigers such as Malik Nabers, Brian Thomas Jr, Mekhi Wingo, Maason Smith, and Charles Turner all leave, foregoing their final year(s), any team will feel that glaring absence, taking immediate measures to bridge the gap.
On top of key All-American or All-SEC level Tigers leaving the program, LSU also suffered double digit hits to their depth via transfer portal departures (14 total), headlined by starting running back & leading rusher Logan Diggs, freshman 5 star OL Lance Heard, four year OL Marlon Martinez, freshman 5 star WR Jalen Brown, freshman 5 star Denver Harris, freshman 5 star Quency Wiggins, and local CB Laterrance Welch.
So far, the Tigers have made a few under the radar moves in the portal, though they've been quickly forgotten by a ravenous fanbase clamoring for blood in the wake of a Heisman win, another 10 win season, and Saban's retirement parting the SEC's once crimson-tinted seas.
A big move early was A&M safety Jardin Gilbert, a former 5 star who played plenty of snaps at a high level for the Aggies' top 10 defense. Another must was bolstering defensive tackle....so, the Tigers immediately signed on longtime target & high potential DT Shone Washington out of the junior college ranks.
Then, WRs Coach Cortez Hankton added veteran depth at receiver through Miss St's Louisiana-born dual threat receiving / returning weapon Zavion Thomas, followed recently by Liberty's sought after target CJ Daniels (2023 numbers: 1,064 yards, 55 catches from 82 targets, 10 TD catches).
We knew Kelly would grab a quarterback, but what type of signal caller would he go for?
A true dual threat to battle Nussmeier for the starting job?
A steady handed veteran who's stood on the sidelines for more games than he's started?
QBs Coach Joe Sloan & Kelly identified someone in the middle of those options, Vanderbilt slinger AJ Swann, carrying experience, limited action, but full of upside.
At corner, LSU brought in former Ohio State and New Orleans-native Jyaire Brown, a talented player hampered by injury, which subsequently buried him on the Buckeyes' roster (48 snaps last season, 243 over 2022 & 2023).
As excited as I am by the arrival of Jardin Gilbert, a starter with proven on-field production LSU desperately needed at the backend, I can't help but feel as if the Tigers are running out of time to pursue high quality options at other positions of need.
Which is precisely why Brian Kelly hired both DL Coach Bo Davis and CBs Coach Corey Raymond, two defensive minds who don't merely develop NFL super-talents....both Davis and Raymond, Louisiana-natives / LSU alum, recruit at an extraordinary level.
Both Davis and Raymond will align alongside the greatest recruiter in college football, Coach Frank Wilson, and go through their combined rolodex, specifically when it comes to graduate transfers, Alabama's recently picked apart roster, simultaneously sifting through their vast array of contacts...looking to bridge the roster gap, with LSU's defense requiring the most attention:
At defensive tackle specifically, the Tigers possess just 3 natural players at the position, limited output veterans Jacobian Guillory, Jalen Lee, and newly minted JUCO transfer Shone Washington.
That is it (hopefully adding JUCO DL transfer Jalil Muhammad, a DT/DE to Bo Davis' frothing D-Line stew in the coming days).
At DE, Saivion Jones and Paris Shand look to take that next step as high volume difference makers on the field, while on the edge (now coached by former Mizzou Broyles Award nominee Kevin Peoples), Bradyn Swinson & Dashawn Womack lead an extremely young crew full of boundless athletic pedigree.
Red shirt freshman NFL blood liner Jaxon Howard is a long term project for Brian Kelly's staff, red shirting his freshman year as he took part in limited snaps....watch for Jaxon's sideline study to pay off this upcoming season.
There is the hilarious personality and tenacity of Prince Malbrue, a former 3x state champion at Lafayette Christian Academy, who continues to win over fans and coaches alike after solid displays on special teams, backed by a rising snap count at the line of scrimmage.
Due to their low roster numbers, Peoples will need rotational help from his freshmen, including 5 star Dominick McKinley, Ahmad Breaux, Kolaj Cobbins, as well as top tier DE Gabriel Reliford (debutants Tiger fans must pay heavy attention to).
At DB, the Tigers have plenty of versatility, but will they possess the depth?
Of the Tigers' DB walk-ons, strong-tackling Ryan Robinson Jr flashes mightily at nickel or corner, although he received the short end of the stick regarding playing time (16 snaps and 1 appearance).
At linebacker, LSU are more stocked than any position among Blake Baker's defensive unit: Harold Perkins, Greg Penn III, Whit Weeks, West Weeks, red shirt freshman Christian Braithwaite, backed by freshmen prodigies Tylen Singleton & Davhon Keys....a lot of proven talent, depth & potential for Blake Baker to mould.
Overall, eyeing Brian Kelly's 2024 portal additions, as well as our existing roster, I am burdened by a mixture of excitement, trepidation, and high intrigue.
Defensively, our depth within Bo Davis' D-line, Raymond's corners, and Olsen's safety room worry me.
Can this D-line physically last over a full season???
Will Raymond and Olsen find the right combination at the backend???
Still a lot of question marks, but some exciting personnel and solid new coaches are now at the helm.
Offensively, the position which concerns me most?
LSU boasts some solid yet mostly unproven talents at WR, watching two bonafide 1st Round pick superstars walk out their door....who is up next to take the mantle from Nabers & Thomas Jr?
As of now, Cortez Hankton's group is led by 2023's #3 rated pass catcher Kyren Lacy (7 TDs in 2023), with second year Tiger Aaron Anderson & 4th year WR Chris Hilton Jr both hoping to rebound from last fall's disappointment (1 TD & 284 yards between the pair), young red shirt freshmen (Shelton Sampson Jr, Kyle Parker, Khai Prean) who are yet to receive more than 3 targets among them, and now the portal arrivals of Zavion Thomas and CJ Daniels.
We'll need to see Cortez Hankton's best coaching performance yet in order to make sure QB Garrett Nussmeier has all the best passing game tools to succeed.
As the team kicks off their winter workouts, naming their new S.W.A.T leaders for 2024, Brian Kelly's Year III Tigers will begin to take shape over the coming months ahead.
But make no mistake, while there remains holes on this roster (on paper) right now, LSU have a top QB leading the charge once again in Garrett Nussmeier, saddled behind a dominant and mostly returning O-line, featuring a young yet productive & explosive running back corps, a beastly linebacker room, two or three elite level edge rushers, a few DBs possessing strong potential for growth under Raymond, all fronted by an exciting, re-tooled coaching staff.
This is an offseason where the Tigers simply need to see development and production from a variety of players, including veterans such as Major Burns & Sage Ryan, Chris Hilton Jr, Kyren Lacy, Saivion Jones, Bradyn Swinson, as well as young second year group of Shelton Sampson, Ryan Yaites, Jordan Allen, Javien Toviano, Dashawn Womack, and Jaxon Howard.
Most of those names above will need to produce strong playmaking for the Tigers to be SEC and CFP contenders in 2024....and LSU will undoubtedly have to bring in more bodies at D-line, corner, and other spots across the field.
By LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN.
©️ 2024 Uninterrupted Writings