A brave new world for LSU football

There have been many college football seasons when after Week 1 I felt absolutely duped by an LSU head football coach.

Since 2000 when Nick Saban – the Father of the Closed Practice – took charge of the program, the media have been given occasional glimpses of preseason workouts.

We had to rely on the alleged trusted word of head coaches Les Miles and Ed Orgeron that everything was sunny side up heading into the start of seasons, only to watch it blow up.

In 2016, LSU started the season ranked No. 5 in the Associated Press and No. 6 in the coaches’ poll. What we didn’t know because we failed to see a single preseason practice was star running back Leonard Fournette hurt his ankle in preseason camp and starting QB Brandon Harris had lost all confidence.

LSU fans eagerly traveled to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field only to watch their team stink up the joint in a 16-14 loss to Wisconsin in which Harris threw an interception to kill the Tigers’ last rally.

It was the beginning of the end for Harris and Miles. Harris lasted one more week as a starter and Miles was fired after Game 4.

On Tuesday, I was asked by radio hosts in Nashville and New Orleans on their shows if I thought this season’s LSU team deserved the No. 5 preseason ranking it received Monday in the coaches’ poll.

For the first time since my waistline was slimmer and my hairline was lower, I said I believed the ranking was accurate because the LSU media is being allowed into 10 Tigers’ preseason practices by Brian Kelly.

In seven of them, we get to observe at least an hour of practice that involves more than drills.

“We’re going to have 10 access points for you in practice that should give you a lot of chances to evaluate and put the starting lineups together both for offense and defense,” Kelly said in his opening preseason press conference following the first practice last Thursday.

Then he added with a laugh, “Make sure you e-mail me once you guys put that together.”

Kelly, in his 33rd year as a college head coach, is comfortable in his own skin. He’s not giving away secrets when he allows the media to watch practice. But he realizes not only can we get a clear and honest assessment of his team, but it educates us to ask (for the most part) more intelligent questions.

We’ve seen the vast improvement, even from the spring, of quarterbacks Jayden Daniels and Garrett Nussmeier. It’s hard to not notice the vast riches the Tigers now have at running back, wide receiver and tight end as well as capable offensive line backups.

Defensively, tackle Masson Smith looks like he has regained his explosive first step after sitting out almost all of last season with knee surgery. He’s going to be hell to block and he’s on a mission.

The talent of transfers such as Oregon State’s All-Pac 12 first-team linebacker Omar Speights and Texas defensive end Ovie Oghoufo shine through.

And when Kelly tells us that Alabama transfer receiver/kick returner Aaron Anderson is “pretty fluid (as a punt returner) … he’s really natural with the football,” we know he’s telling the truth because we’ve seen Anderson catching punts and watched him hit top speed within a few strides.  

We’ve also seen the passion of budding defensive superstar Harold Perkins Jr. on display when he and wide receiver Kyren Lacy got in a fight at Monday’s practice.  

Fights happen more often in practice than the public knows. Football is a violent sport. Combine that with 100-degree plus temperatures and it’s a powder keg waiting to explode.  

But we’ve also seen this team, filled with veteran returnees, go about their business with its nose to the grindstone and practicing in a manner they learned from Kelly last season.  

“We were a determined team last year, but I feel the determination this year based on how on we practice,” defensive end Sai’vion Jones said. “The fight that happened just shows how passionate this team is.”  

And it was nice for us in the media to witness it and the rest of what we’ve seen so far.  

CAMP NOTES: Kelly said defensive line coach Jimmy Lindsey, who was admitted to a hospital with an undisclosed illness before the start of preseason practice, was being released Tuesday. “I am really happy for Jimmy, but he has a long road ahead of recovery,” Kelly said. … Running back Tre’ Bradford, who signed and played with LSU in 2020, transferred to Oklahoma and then returned to LSU before the 2021 season and then left the program again in the spring of 2022, is back on the team after not playing anywhere last season. “The thought process was just giving a man another chance,” Kelly said. “He had a long road. He had to get back into school on his own. We didn’t help him. He had to do everything and do it on his own. We’re open to second chances here, but this one is on you. You’ve got to prove yourself to the university. And it’s going to be up to the university to decide whether they want to re-enroll you — we’re not going to make any calls. We’re not writing any letters. And if you understand what the guidelines are, and you’re able to do that, and then you come here this summer, and our strength coaches sign off on you that you’ve done everything to warrant an opportunity, then we’ll invite you to camp. And both of those things happened. So, he earned a second chance.”  

Contact Ron at ronhigginsmedia@gmail.com  

A native of Baton Rouge and a 1979 LSU graduate, Ron Higgins has written for seven newspapers, two online websites and a magazine in four states during a sports writing career that now spans six decades. The man nicknamed “Mad Dog” has won more than 180 state, regional and national writing awards including more than 80 first places. He is the Journal’s LSU beat writer.