BATON ROUGE — It’s a sobering reminder that two of Brian Kelly’s three wins at LSU have come against Southern and New Mexico.
There was a Southeastern Conference victory against Mississippi State sandwiched in between, an impressive come-from-behind win that should make any coach feel good about his team’s resiliency.
Sure, the other W’s weren’t quite the same accomplishment, but every minute of football under a new head coach is a narrative in itself.
There’s a special teams problem that’s cropped up almost every game except Week 2. Heading into Saturday night’s matchup with New Mexico, Jack Bech was named the third punt returner in four weeks, after taking reps at the spot Tuesday.
Nathan Dibert replaced Damian Ramos on kickoffs Saturday night after Ramos sailed one out of bounds. Ramos almost missed a 38-yard field goal in the first half of the 38-0 domination of the Lobos.
It’s time to face the music: Special teams will be a problem this year. As a redshirt freshman, Ramos isn’t the standard of kicker LSU’s enjoyed this century. Other options on the roster are either underclassmen or Trey Finison, a reserve kickoff specialist and Northwestern Wildcats transfer who’s never attempted a field goal in his career.
Kelly and special teams coach Brian Polian are going to have to make do with the cards they were dealt. So far, Kelly’s done a great job of playing those hands to the best of his ability.
Take for instance, his running back room. There’s no clear-cut starter, no sure-fire first-round pick such as Leonard Fournette or Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Instead, there’s a stable of plug-and-play rushers, all of them more than capable of averaging 4 yards per carry, as shown in the game against New Mexico. When Armoni Goodwin went out with a hamstring, Noah Cain took his opportunity to shine. Even then, Cain ceded passing down work to pass block specialist Josh Williams (who’s also becoming more involved as a pass catcher as well) and John Emery, Jr.; each averaged at least 4.0 yards per rush Saturday.
Then there was the decision to turn the keys over to Garrett Nussmeier while holding a 17-0 lead that could’ve evaporated, no matter how well the first half went and how dominant the Tigers’ defense had been.
It’s a reasonable decision, certainly: quarterback Jayden Daniels took a hard hit and suffered a lower back strain. It was something he could’ve played through, said Kelly. There was little sense in risking LSU’s pivotal offensive player in a low-stakes game, but after seeing Nussmeier throw two interceptions against Southern, it was conceivable that if he struggled again, a three-score lead could’ve disappeared in the second half.
In fact, Nussmeier looked nothing short of fantastic, completing 9-of-10 passes for 135 yards and a touchdown. His incompletion was aimed for Malik Nabers on a deep route that would’ve surely gone for another touchdown had Nussmeier not overthrown him by a step.
There likely won’t be any calls for Nussmeier to take over the starting gig from Daniels after his subpar performance against Southern, but the redshirt freshman gave LSU fans a glimpse into their future, maybe: A full-tilt pro-style gunslinger unafraid to uncork a deep ball to keep defenses honest. That’s something that Kelly’s offense has lacked with Daniels, who’s kept his passes short and precise and relies more on his mobility than Nussmeier does.
Above all else, Kelly’s been extremely smart with his personnel changes. He saw no reason to keep Daniels in the game, though Daniels was prepared to do so. He sat BJ Ojulari, who’s been dealing with a “cranky” patella injury that was acting up Saturday. He told reporters afterwards that the JACK position that Ojulari fills was stuck shadowing the quarterback in a game that featured handoff after handoff from an offense that struggled to find any semblance of a rhythm.
That move gave Harold Perkins, one of LSU’s brightest freshmen, a full game at the JACK position that Ojulari will inevitably leave vacant after this season, when he enters the NFL Draft.
Kelly has done the same in the secondary, piecing together transfers to fit a puzzle that’s become one of the Tigers’ steadier units, after entering the season as a question mark. He utilized Bech both in the passing game and the return game, to positive results for both.
Kelly’s kept the ship afloat after getting torpedoed by Florida State in Week 1, and he’s done that through trial and error. After years of watching Les Miles and Ed Orgeron hesitate to make changes to both personnel and schemes, Kelly’s shown that every week is a “win now” week.
And winning is exactly what Kelly’s here to do.
Contact Ryne at email@example.com