By RON HIGGINS, Journal Sports
BATON ROUGE – The last time LSU defensive tackles Maason Smith and Mehki Wingo lined up next to each other in a game was the play that ended Smith’s sophomore season a year ago.
It was on second down-and-seven at the LSU 26 on Florida State’s first possession of the 2022 season-opener in the Superdome.
FSU quarterback Jordan Travis handed off to running back Lawrance Toeafili. He hadn’t taken a step before he ran into Smith, who fought through 663 pounds of a double team block by FSU’s Jazston Turentine and Dillan Gibbons.
By the time Toeafili shook loose, Tigers’ safety Major Burns raced in and tackled Toefili for a 3-yard loss.
An excited Smith took a couple of steps and jumped off his right foot to celebrate the play. When he landed, his left foot hit the ground first and his left knee buckled slightly.
He immediately collapsed to the turf.
And just like that, on the eighth play of the season, Smith’s year was done. He had sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Wingo, a transfer from the University of Missouri making his LSU debut, didn’t have time to process Smith’s injury. He stayed on the field virtually every FSU offensive snap the rest of the game, finishing with six tackles and a fumble recovery in the Tigers’ 24-23 loss.
“What I remember most about that game is how tired I was after it was over,” Wingo said. “I didn’t expect to play that much.”
The immediate consternation concerning Smith’s unexpected absence for the rest of the year eventually waned because of Wingo’s week-to-week consistency. He earned All-SEC first-team honors and was named a third-team Associated Press all-American.
But his biggest prize came a couple of weeks ago when Wingo was chosen by LSU head coach Brian Kelly and the coaching staff to wear this season the coveted No. 18 jersey awarded annually to the player that demonstrates character, work ethic and unselfishness as the ultimate team player.
“I’d be lying if I said I came here (to LSU) expecting all of this,” Wingo said. “I’m glad that I got to earn the trust of the team and the coaching staff. I’m a guy they can count on to put a good product on the field every week.”
It’s something that didn’t go unnoticed by Smith as he toiled through months of rehab before he finally got back on the field for practice when preseason workouts began at the start of August.
“Mehki is a great leader,” said Smith, suspended by the NCAA for last Sunday’s 45-24 loss to Florida State but ready to make his 2023 debut Saturday when the 14th ranked 0-1 Tigers open their home schedule vs. 0-1 Grambling. “He’s a hard worker on and off the field. His presence rubs off not only on me but everybody in the (defense line room).
“We feed off each other. We just have a great bond and relationship.”
Having Smith and Wingo in the same lineup should solve some of LSU’s deficiencies that showed last weekend in the 21-point loss to FSU. Smith missed the game serving a one-game NCAA suspension for receiving improper benefits a month before the NCAA approved on July 1, 2021, that athletes could earn money off their name, likeness and image.
Smith nursed an ankle injury late in preseason camp.
Kelly said prior to the FSU loss if Smith had been available and not suspended he didn’t know if he would play Smith because of the ankle.
Even this weekend, Kelly is going to ease Smith back into action.
“We have to be realistic,” Kelly said. “When you haven’t played in over a year, he’s not going to be able to play the duration of the game. If we can get somewhere near 30 snaps, we’d be really excited about that.
“And then get 40 or 45 to maybe play a full game in his second or third game. He’ll tell you that he can play every play, but fatigue definitely sets in.”
Smith didn’t like being sidelined for the FSU rematch – “Again, I really didn’t get to finish what I started,” he said – but he’s confident his knee has healed and he’s ready to hear the roar of the crowd.
“If I play 30 snaps,” he said, “I’m going to try and make some plays. I’m just trying to contribute to the team like anybody else, do my 1/11th. Just work on my job and make plays.”
TI-GAH TALK: Kelly said at Thursday’s post-practice press conference that freshman offensive tackle Lance Heard of Monroe-Neville will get snaps with the first team Saturday vs. Grambling. “It didn’t seem the smartest thing to do in Week 1 was to have him at tackle going against those Florida State defensive ends,” Kelly said. “I think in Week 2, this is a good opportunity to get him in.” . . .Kelly updated LSU’s injury report. He said running back Armoni Goodwin and wide receiver/kick Aaron Anderson have been both upgraded to probable. . .Starting quarterback Jayden Daniels took some hits in Sunday’s loss vs. FSU because of his aggressive running style. He got planted by an FSU defender trying to jump over the pile in a downfield scramble. “We don’t want him to be anybody else but Jayden, but I think he can be more prudent in some of the decisions he makes,” Kelly said. “He’s always run that way. But trying to jump over the pile, I think we can tamp that down a little bit.”
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