Position battles to watch when LSU's preseason football camp opens Thursday
It starts to get real for new LSU head football coach Brian Kelly on Thursday afternoon when his Tigers open preseason practice exactly one month before the Sept. 4 season opener vs. Florida State in the Caesars Superdome in New Orleans.
There’s still plenty of starting spots yet to be solidified for a team that returns just two offensive and three defensive starters from last season’s 6-7 squad when LSU had its first losing record since 1999.
Here’s a look at key position battles:
Top candidates: Sixth-year senior Myles Brennan, junior transfer Jayden Daniels, freshman redshirt Garrett Nussmeier, freshman Walker Howard
At LSU’s appearance during SEC Media Days on July 18, Kelly described what he expects in a starting quarterback.
“Number one, they have to take care of the football,” Kelly said. “Number two, they have to get the ball to playmakers. Number three, they've got to make plays. The ultimate decision-making on who that quarterback is, he'll have to hit those three notes.”
Brennan started the first three games of 2020 and averaged 370 passing yards and almost four TDs before sustaining a season-ending torn abdomen. He missed all of last season after breaking his left arm in a fall just before the start of spring practice when his flip-flop got caught between the crack of wooden steps.
After putting his name in the transfer portal, Brennan withdrew it in December when then new-hire Kelly called him and asked him to return to the team.
In the spring, even during the spring game when playcalling was purposely vanilla, Brennan shined with poise and his ability to read the defense, get the offense in the right play and consistently find the open receiver.
Brennan has played 18 college games (backing up Danny Etling in 2017 and Joe Burrow in 2019) and has passed for 1,712 yards, 13 TDs and six interceptions. He has 35 rushing attempts for minus 1 yard, an indication that footspeed isn’t his strength.
A plus for Brennan he’s sturdier built (6-4, 225) than Daniels (6-3, 200), Nussmeier (6-2, 194) and Howard (6-1, 195).
“I’ve been in this position before and I’ve come out on top,” Brennan said in June when he was a Manning Passing Academy counselor. “I know what I have to do to do that. That’s between me and me.”
Daniels started 29 games in three seasons at Arizona State, passing for 6.025 yards (62.4 completion percentage) with 32 TDs and 13 interceptions while rushing for 1,288 yards and 13 TDs.
“It’s a healthy competition,” said Daniels during the spring who struggled with passing accuracy while transitioning to a new offensive scheme.
Nussmeier played in four games last season as a true freshman and started once. He threw for 329 yards (50.9 completion percentage), two TDs and two interceptions and lost 46 rushing yards on five attempts.
“I’ve learned to manage the offense, move the sticks,” Nussmeier said in the spring when practice observers deemed him one of the most improved players on the team.
Four-star freshman Howard will likely redshirt.
Kelly is not adverse to playing two QBs, especially since Brennan and Daniels have contrasting styles.
“We're really going to have to set the offensive structure and its installation to the skill set of the particular players,” Kelly said.
Predicted first-game starter: Brennan
Top candidates: Redshirt senior transfer Jarrick Bernard-Converse, redshirt junior transfer Mekhi Garner, senior transfer Greg Brooks Jr., graduate student transfer Sevyn Banks
Know this about LSU’s top four cornerbacks entering training camp. Only one has had game snaps in Tiger Stadium and that’s Brooks Jr. who had a tackle each for Arkansas in a 2019 loss to LSU and a 2021 win over the Tigers.
Yet those four players have a combined 133 starts on the FBS level (Division 1-A) and were full-time starters for two or more seasons.
Bernard-Converse, who missed much of the Tigers’ spring practice with a foot injury, started 47 straight games for Oklahoma State where he had 216 career tackles (seven for loss) with 23 passes broken up and two interceptions.
Banks, a four-star prospect, who had 14 starts in 36 games for Ohio State, has 43 career tackles and two interceptions. He didn’t report to LSU until early this summer after spending most of last season battling a knee injury.
Arkansas transfer Brooks Jr. and Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Garner both participated in spring practice.
Brooks Jr. played in 34 games (31 starts with 21 as a nickel back) with the Razorbacks. He had 112 career tackles (5½ for loss) with 12 pass breakups and four interceptions.
He was constantly praised all spring and Garner (19 starts in 26 ULL games with 63 tackles 18 PBU) earned some kudos also.
Predicted first-game starters: Bernard-Converse and Banks with Brooks Jr. as the starting nickel.
Top candidates: Freshman LT Will Campbell, sixth-year senior transfer LG Tre’mond Shorts, redshirt junior C Charles Turner, redshirt sophomore transfer RG Miles Frazier, senior RT Cam Wire, redshirt sophomore LT Marcus Dumervil, sophomore LG/RT Garrett Dellinger, redshirt sophomore RG Xavier Hill, redshirt junior RG/RT Anthony Bradford, junior RG Marlon Martinez, redshirt junior RG/LG Kardell Thomas, freshman RG Emory Jones, freshman C Fitzgerald West
The Tigers have 10 returning offensive linemen who have at least one start but only two – Wire and Bradford – have five or more starts.
LSU lost four starters off last season’s OL disaster, which was doomed from the start of the preseason when a myriad of injuries erased chemistry. The Tigers started five different players at left tackle in the first five games and had nine different starting OL lineups.
The result was LSU had its fourth lowest rushing average (114 yards per game) in school history and its worst since 1999. The Tigers also gave up 38 sacks, one shy of allowing three per game.
Finding chemistry quickly will be imperative for the Tigers’ almost all-new O-line. One advantage is all returning offensive linemen, the two new transfers and two of three incoming OL freshmen participated in spring practice.
Only two offense line slots appeared to be locked up. The stunner is one of them is left tackle Campbell, a 6-6, 310-pound true freshman who has turned heads on the practice field from day one.
“You don’t see many freshmen like him (Campbell). . .he’s very physically ready to play the game,” said Turner, the likely starter at center.
Campbell was so impressive immediately in the spring that Kelly moved previous starting left tackle Wire to right tackle.
There’s still a bit of a battle for the starting guard spots. It will be up to East Tennessee State transfer Shorts and Florida International transfer Frazier to hold on to their starting status earned in the spring.
There are many capable OL – Bradford and Dellinger have five and four LSU starts respectively – who can push for becoming a starter.
Predicted first-game starters: LT Campbell, LG Shorts, C Turner, RG Frazier, RT Wire
Top candidates: Senior John Emery Jr., redshirt junior Noah Cain, sophomore Armoni Goodwin, junior Tre Bradford, redshirt junior Josh Williams
The spot is in doubt because Penn State transfer Cain, a slightly more proven commodity on the college level than Emery Jr., didn’t enroll in LSU until the summer.
Cain ran for 790 yards and 12 TDs in 24 games (eight starts) for Penn State. His freshman (2019) and junior seasons (2021) were marred by nagging ankle injury and he missed basically all of 2020 when he sustained a season-ending lower body injury on the first drive of the season opener against Indiana.
Emery Jr. has rushed for 566 yards and seven TDs in 19 games (3 starts) with the Tigers.
He and Ty-Davis Price were reserves as freshmen behind All-SEC back Clyde Edwards-Helaire on LSU’s 2019 national championship team. Before his sophomore season in 2020, Emery Jr. underwent LASIK surgery because he was blind in his right eye.
Last season as a junior just before the season-opener, a stunned Emery Jr. was declared academically ineligible because he didn’t have enough academic credits.
Emery Jr. (5-11, 220) and Cain (5-11, 225) are prototypical SEC RBs with the size to run between the tackles and with the speed to get around the ends.
Goodwin may have the best burst of all the backs but is just 5-8 and 195 pounds and gets knocked off his feet easily. Bradford put himself behind the 8-ball last season (he played only in the regular season finale) when he transferred to Oklahoma after playing in five games (one start) as an LSU freshman in 2019 and then transferred from OU back to LSU before the start of last season.
Williams is an underestimated "gamer" who's actually the Tigers' leading returning rusher from last season.
Predicted first-game starter: Emery Jr.
Top candidates: Redshirt freshman Ezekeal Mata (PK, KOS), redshirt freshman Damian Ramos (PK, KOS), freshman Nathan Dilbert (PK, KOS), redshirt freshman Peyton Todd (P), senior transfer Jay Bramblett (P)
This should be a huge area of concern because the Tigers are replacing the best placekicker as well the top kickoff specialist in school history. The latter also doubled as punter and placekick holder last season after he replaced one of the best punters in LSU history.
Thanks to Cole Tracy in 2018 and Cade York in 2019, 2020 and 2021, LSU had the best field goal accuracy in the SEC over the last four seasons at 83.8 percent (83 of 99). York hit 54 of 66 career field goals including 15 of 19 from 50 yards or longer.
And because of kickoff specialist Avery Atkins from 2018 to 2021, LSU had the league’s top kickoff touchback percentage over the last four years at 83.2 percent (283 of 340). Atkins had 281 of 334 (84.1 percent) of his kickoffs result in touchbacks.’
Last season, Atkins also did a solid job as a punter (42.6 yards average) replacing the graduated Zach Von Rosenberg.
In Von Rosenberg’s four-season career from 2017 to 2020, he averaged 43.95 yards in his 193 attempts with 41 percent (79) of his punts fair caught, 39.9 percent (77) downed inside the 20-yard line and 24 percent (46) launched for 50 yards or more. He also never had a punt blocked and never mishandled a placekick hold for Tracy or York.
Atkins has graduated and York declared for the NFL after his junior season last year and was drafted by the NFL's Cleveland Browns.
Now, there are all new faces, everyone thoroughly untested except for Bramblett who followed Kelly from Notre Dame to Tigertown. In his three seasons as a starter for the Fighting Irish, he averaged 41.6 yards on 164 attempts with 46 punts downed inside the 20 and 28 punts of 50 yards or longer.
Starting placekicker and kickoff specialist are up for grabs.
Mata, a walk-on, handled 7 of the 9 kickoffs in the spring game (all for touchbacks), was 4 of 4 in extra points and nailed a 48-yard field goal in his only attempt. Ramos kicked off twice (one touchback) and was 3 of 3 on extra points
Mata and Ramos seemed neck-and-neck, but newbie Dilbert didn’t enroll until the summer.
The left-footer from Hartland (Mich.) High was ranked the No. 2 kicker in the country according to Kohl’s 2022 kicker ranking. He can also punt and kickoff if needed.
Predicted first-game starters: PK Dilbert, P Bramblett, KOS Mata or Ramos