By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports
ORLANDO, Fla. — LSU head coach Brian Kelly was asked Thursday what matchups would affect how this evening’s 6:30 p.m. season opener transpires between the No. 5 Tigers and No. 8 Florida State.
“The ball is going get thrown down the field to some elite receivers,” Kelly said. “We’re going to have to make our share of plays down the field.”
And that’s on both sides of the ball for the Tigers, who are 2½-point favorites over the Seminoles.
LSU will likely start 15 players (nine on offense, six on defense) who were in the starting lineup when the Tigers closed last season with a 63-7 Citrus Bowl pounding of Purdue in Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, the site of Sunday’s game.
But in addressing areas of weakness – punt and kickoff returns, offensive and defensive line depth and third-down defense – LSU may start as many as five transfers (four on defense) with a sprinkling of five or more true freshmen in relief and special teams’ roles.
For instance, Kelly is counting on Alabama transfer Aaron Anderson as a playmaking returner and slot receiver. Notre Dame transfer Logan Diggs is in the thick of LSU’s running back rotation. Oregon State’s All-Pac 12 linebacker Omar Speights, Texas defensive end Ovie Oghoufo, Syracuse cornerback Deuce Chestnut and Southeastern Louisiana cornerback Zy Alexander are new defensive starters.
Freshmen signees such as cornerback Ashton Stamps, offensive linemen Lance Heard and DJ Chester, receivers Shelton Sampson Jr. and Jalen Brown, tight ends Mac Markway and Ka’Morrreun Plimpton and defensive end Da’Shawn Womack may make their collegiate debuts in reserve roles.
LSU’s returnees haven’t forgotten last year’s season-opening 24-23 loss to Florida State in the Superdome.
“Watching the tape it’s kind of disheartening seeing how many plays we left out there, how we could really have adjusted and played better,” LSU returning starting quarterback Jayden Daniels said.
That LSU-FSU game was a horror film as far as the Tigers were concerned. The list of negatives included:
•LSU losing star defensive tackle Maason Smith with a season-ending knee injury on FSU’s eighth offensive snap of the game after he jumped celebrating a play he made busting through a double-team block to disrupt a play.
“All I remember is how tired I was after that game because I hadn’t expected I would play much,” said Mehki Wingo, a Missouri transfer who replaced Smith and eventually earned All-SEC first-team honors.
•LSU’s defense allowing Florida State’s offense to convert 4 of 5 third-down situations in the first quarter, 6 of 6 in the third quarter and 11 of 17 total. The Tigers didn’t force the Seminoles into a three-and-out until doing it twice in the game’s final 2:15.
“There’s been a big emphasis (during the current preseason practice) in third-down defense,” LSU linebacker Greg Penn III said.
•Daniels’ reluctance to throw the ball was evident for 2½ quarters vs. FSU. Daniels completed just 7 of 11 passes for 47 yards in the Tigers’ first five possessions, then 18 for 23 for 162 yards and two TDs in LSU’s final three possessions.
“I felt my mind racing everywhere,” Daniels said of the days leading to the game, “trying to figure out the plays, the game plan.”
•Two fumbles by wide receiver Malik Nabers in his new, but short-lived role as LSU’s punt returner and new placekicker Damian Ramos having two kicks blocked. Included was the game-tying extra point that would have sent the game to overtime. LSU true freshman tight end Mason Taylor, unsure of his blocking assignment, whiffed on his block allowing the kick to be blocked.
“I felt like I got the kicks off quick,” Ramos said. “The ball flight was headed in the right direction.
After the loss, LSU went on to finish 10-4 and win the SEC’s West Division. The win by FSU propelled the Seminoles to a 4-0 start and towards a 10-3 record.
Like LSU, Florida State returns a load of starters – 17 – with eight on offense and nine on defense.
While LSU’s Daniels and Seminoles’ returning starting QB Jordan Travis have earned a large share of preseason hype, defensive game-wreckers Harold Perkins Jr. of LSU and Jared Verse of Florida State have full attention from Kelly and FSU coach Mike Norvell.
Perkins’ rapid acceleration as a true freshman as All-SEC first-team honoree in which his basic responsibility was pass rushing from all angles drew attention from Norvell.
“He’s been all over,” Norvell said of Perkins. “He’s lined up at essentially what would be a nickel position in their four-three. He’s been a defensive end, a mugged-up inside linebacker and played as a true middle-stacked linebacker. He can literally do it all. He’s a dynamic player. He’s somebody you have to account for and be aware of him.”
Kelly feels the same way about FSU defensive tackle Verse, who had 19 tackles for loss last season including two sacks vs. LSU.
“We’re going have to have many different ways to handle Jared Verse,” Kelly said. “You have to game plan for a player like that. We’re going have to have sliding tight ends and chips and doubles and all kinds of things. He’s that good of a player.”
GO FIGURE 3-3: LSU’s all-time record in Orlando 3: Straight losses in LSU season openers, the longest streak since Curley Hallman lost all five openers from 1991 to 1995 6: Straight consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins by Kelly, the third longest streak among active FBS coaches 10-0-2: Florida State’s all-time record in Orlando including 2-0 in season openers.
22: Season openers in last 24 that LSU has started the year vs. a top 25 opponent
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