First and 10: Brian Kelly doesn't care who his starting QB is -- but he better win. Or else ...
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Chuck Martin was taking about his close friend and colleague Brian Kelly a few years ago, trying to explain the unique philosophy of one of the game’s best coaches.
“Brian likes to make you uncomfortable — players and coaches,” said Martin, currently the head coach at Miami (Ohio), and a longtime assistant under Kelly. “You find out who you are and what you’re made of when you’re uncomfortable.”
Brian Kelly, everyone, is making things uncomfortable at LSU.
If there were any doubt about the goal of winning big – and winning now – under Kelly, he made it painfully clear last week by signing talented transfer portal quarterback Jayden Daniels.
LSU didn’t need Daniels, who had a terrific freshman season at Arizona State but tailed off somewhat during the shortened COVID season of 2020 and last year. But when the opportunity is there – and when signing Daniels means those in the quarterback room are uncomfortable – you never pass up an opportunity to get better.
And make everyone a little more uncomfortable.
“Those quarterbacks just got a quick understanding of what it means to play for (Kelly),” a former Notre Dame assistant under Kelly told me. “I don’t say that with malice, I say it as fact. The only thing that matters is what you do today, and what you do moving forward.”
It’s hard to argue with Kelly’s philosophy, considering his coaching track record, and his track record of production at the quarterback spot (more on that later). But think about this: Every scholarship quarterback on the LSU roster could easily have been at another school for 2022.
Now they’re all dealing with the uncomfortable.
— Talented 2021 4-star recruit Garrett Nussmeier, who chose not to play in last year’s bowl game because he didn’t want to burn a redshirt season (thereby forcing LSU to play with a wide receiver at quarterback in the bowl game), could have left after LSU fired Ed Orgeron.
One of the first players Kelly re-recruited was Nussmeier, selling him on comparisons to former Notre Dame QB Ian Book. Nussmeier stayed instead of entering the portal.
— 2022 5-star recruit Walker Howard had committed to LSU long before Ed Orgeron’s firing but was still being pursued by Alabama, Notre Dame and Arkansas. Kelly had a prior relationship with Howard (which helped), but the uncertainty of the state of the LSU program couldn’t be overlooked.
The sell there was simple: It’s Nussmeier and no one else on the roster. Come compete and play.
— 6th-year senior Myles Brennan. This move was the most important – and now, in hindsight, a tough spot for Brennan. After 5 years of unfortunate injuries and being recruited over (hello, Joe Burrow), Brennan decided to start anew for his last college season and entered the portal.
Kelly talked him into returning to LSU because while there was talent on the roster at the position, experience was limited. Kelly needed Brennan’s knowledge and experience and steadying hand, and Brennan needed LSU to love him just one more time.
Then Kelly signed Daniels, and he may as well have dropped a wheelbarrow full of uncertainty and – here’s the key – uncomfortable in the LSU quarterback room.
Daniels is far and away the best athlete of the group, his ability to use his legs and stress defenses will be valuable in a league that is built from the line of scrimmage out. Daniels clearly regressed over the past 2 seasons through some difficult circumstances (COVID, a looming NCAA investigation at Arizona State).
That doesn’t mean he won’t be the favorite – or at least at the head of the line — to win the starting job when spring practice begins on March 24.
It also likely means the size of the quarterback room will be different by the end of spring drills.
Welcome to uncomfortable, everyone.
2. Moving forward
Keep these dates in mind: April 23 and May 1. More important: the 7 days between.
As critical as the 15 spring practices are to beginning to determine who will start in the fall for LSU, those 7 days will be just as vital in deciding who stays and goes.
April 23 is the LSU spring game and the end of spring practice. May 1 is the day players must be at their new schools to be eligible to play in 2022.
In a perfect world, the competition will be so good and so close, Brennan, Daniels and Nussmeier will all believe they can win the job in fall camp. That means Kelly could have all 3 preparing and pushing each other for 14 weeks until the beginning of fall camp.
Howard likely stays at LSU no matter what happens in spring practice and fall camp. If he doesn’t make a significant move, he can redshirt and plan on competing for the job in 2023.
The decision for the other 3 won’t be as easy.
Brennan and Daniels want to play this season. Both are graduate students, and both will enter the NFL Draft in 2023 (Daniels technically has 1 more COVID-earned season of eligibility but likely won’t use it).
Neither can afford to sit behind the other during the 2022 season, hoping for an opportunity to get valuable, current game tape for NFL scouts. One of the two likely will be gone after spring practice.
Nussmeier has 4 years of eligibility remaining and could conceivably stay at LSU if he doesn’t win the job – and then compete with Howard (and whoever else Kelly signs) in 2023.
Understanding all of that, here’s the beauty of Kelly’s decision to add Daniels: Brennan was more than likely leaving if he didn’t win the job, anyway.
By signing Daniels, Kelly added a talented and experienced player to push Brennan and Nussmeier. If it doesn’t work out and Daniels doesn’t win the job and leaves, Kelly is staring at the same scenario he was before Daniels arrived.
Nussmeier would be an attractive option in the transfer portal. An easy connect the dots: his dad, Doug, is the quarterbacks coach for the Dallas Cowboys – and new TCU coach Sonny Dykes is looking for a quarterback from the portal.
If Daniels wins the job or not, Kelly made his roster better because he made the quarterback room uncomfortable.
3. Best player plays, always
Everywhere he has coached, Kelly’s mantra with quarterbacks has never changed: You win the job game-to-game. Best quarterback plays, period.
It’s hard to argue with the results.
He arrived at Central Michigan in 2004 – after a wildly successful career in the NCAA lower divisions – and after winning 10 games in 2 seasons, started anew in Year 3 and named freshman Dan LeFevour his starting quarterback.
They won a MAC championship together that year, and then Kelly left for the Cincinnati job. LeFevour then proceeded to set every major school passing record, and left as the then-NCAA all-time total touchdowns leader (149).
Kelly arrived at Cincinnati and in 3 seasons, played 5 quarterbacks and won 33 games – including a 12-0 regular season in 2009 before leaving for Notre Dame. The Bearcats won the Big East in 2008 playing 3 quarterbacks, and played 2 during the 2009 season.
Then came the quarterback evolution at Notre Dame, where no starter was safe – while Kelly became the all-time wins leader in the storied program’s history and led the program to a BCS title game and 2 Playoff appearances.
From Dayne Crist to Tommy Rees. From Rees to Everett Golson. From Golson back to Rees, back to Golson and Malik Zaire. From Zaire to DeShone Kizer.
From Brandon Wimbush to Book. From Book to Wimbush and back to Book. From Jack Coan to Tyler Buchner, and back to Coan.
That’s 9 quarterbacks starting games in 12 seasons, throwing 297 touchdown passes and winning 113 games.
So that’s what uncomfortable looks like.
4. Plug and play
One by one, they blitzed through NFL Combine workouts and underscored the rarity of the 2021 Georgia defense.
The moment, while uniquely impressive, left one huge question: How big will the drop be for the 2022 defense?
Not as much as you think – or as some SEC coaches believe (or is that hope?).
“You can say there won’t be slippage, but you’re talking about a group of guys that were not only uber-talented, but played together for a few years and had a chemistry. They held each other accountable,” one SEC coach told me. “That’s all new now.”
Here’s what’s not new: a core of players so talented, they, too, will be blitzing through the Combine and turning heads a year or two from now.
Don’t let anyone sell it differently. This Georgia defense, while not as experienced, will be nasty.
We know about DT Jalen Carter (the best defensive lineman on the team at the end of the season), LB Nolan Smith (who could’ve been a first-round pick in 2022), and a secondary with All-American candidate CB Kelee Ringo.
But Georgia’s recruiting in the previous 3 classes (and the current 2022) has built a plug-and-play system not seen in college football since Kirby Smart and Nick Saban were building the early Alabama defensive dynasty, and the Miami heyday in the early 2000s.
Case in point: LB Jamon Dumas-Johnson. While not a 5-star (OK, he’s a 4-star), he played so well backing up star Nakobe Dean, the staff believes there will be little drop-off. As important: Dumas-Johnson’s play in 2021 allows Georgia to keep Smith on the outside, where he can do what he does best — disrupt in space and get the quarterback.
The emerging 5-star recruits are still there (LBs Xavian Sorey Jr., and MJ Sherman), and 3 5-star recruits from the 2022 class who are already enrolled could also play in the fall: DE Mykel Williams, S Malaki Starks and CB Daylen Everette.
If Georgia can handle an explosive Oregon offense in Week 1, the defense likely won’t be significantly tested until late October (Florida) or early November (Tennessee). By that time, it will have again developed into one of the top 5 units in the nation.
5. The Weekly Five
Five biggest games of impact in September:
1. Arkansas vs. Texas A&M (Arlington, Texas), Sept. 24: Hogs have confidence and momentum and won’t wilt in big moment.
2. Oregon vs. Georgia, Sept. 3: New Ducks coach Dan Lanning knows the young Georgia defense better than anyone.
3. Kentucky at Florida, Sept. 10: UK no longer is a gimme putt for the Gators. New coach Billy Napier must take a stand here after 2 UK wins in the past 4 years.
4. Penn State at Auburn, Sept. 17: Embattled Auburn coach Bryan Harsin almost can’t lose this game, even though it doesn’t impact the SEC race.
5. Miami at Texas AM, Sept. 17: Young Texas A&M secondary will be pressed by talented Miami QB Tyler Van Dyke.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible SEC player. This week: Kentucky WR Wan’Dale Robinson.
“I remember first seeing him at Nebraska a couple of years ago and thinking, ‘I’d love to see him in an offense that can get him the ball more effectively.’ The best thing that could’ve happened to him was transferring (to Kentucky). He’s not the biggest guy, and he’s going to have to work to gain separation on bump (coverage). He ran really well at the Combine (4.4 40), but more important, he’s got that burst out of breaks and has another gear in the second level.
“I really like the way he plays and his knowledge of the game, and that’s so overlooked sometimes in our game. Guys that know defenses, know how to get open, and know how to beat (zone) coverage. He’s going to be a second-day pick, and someone will get a guy who, potentially, is going to be a really good player. I hate to put tags on guys, but his game reminds me a lot of Antonio Brown.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and one big thing: Each team’s top 2022 draft pick and NFL comparison, according to an NFL scout.
1. Alabama: WR Jameson Williams: Will Fuller, Texans.
2. Georgia: LB Nakobe Dean: Lavonte David, Bucs.
3. Texas A&M: G Kenyon Green: Ereck Flowers, Commanders.
4. Arkansas: WR Treylon Burks: Courtland Sutton, Broncos.
5. Kentucky: OT Darian Kinnard: Cody Ford, Bills.
6. LSU: CB Derek Stingley Jr.: Trevon Diggs, Cowboys.
7. Florida: CB Kaiir Elam: Shaquill Griffin, Jaguars.
8. Tennessee: WR Velus Jones, Jr.: Parris Campbell, Colts.
9. Mississippi State: OT Charles Cross: Taylor Moton, Panthers.
10. Ole Miss: QB Matt Corral: Baker Mayfield, Browns.
11. South Carolina: DE Kingsley Enagbare: Carl Lawson, Jets.
12. Auburn: CB Roger McCreary: James Bradberry, Giants.
13. Missouri: RB Tyler Badie: Jerick McKinnon, Chiefs.
14. Vanderbilt: CB Allan George: Will Harris, Lions.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: Are you surprised no one has signed JT Daniels yet? He has fallen a long way from the quarterback who looked like he had a great career ahead of him after the 2021 season. — Thomas Wilson, Savannah, Ga.
There are a few things at play here, and a couple that have had an impact on Daniels’ decision. First and foremost, he wants to graduate from Georgia before leaving for another school. Second, and as much of a factor: His injury history (reconstructed knee, core, lat) – fair or not — has some teams questioning the investment of time and coaching (and a starting spot) and then losing him to an injury.
Or as one Pac-12 coach told me: “He’s talented, no question. But it’s almost like you’re on borrowed time, and how long does it last?”
There are options on the West Coast for Daniels (Oregon State), and in the SEC with Missouri, which lost out on Jayden Daniels and is still trying to find a veteran presence in a young quarterback room.
Daniels could also reunite with his USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell at West Virginia. Daniels has a championship ring and has played at two major bluebloods (USC, Georgia). He needs to find the right fit now, a program that can further his development and get him ready for a shot at the NFL.
TCU is also a possibility. Dykes runs the same offense that Harrell ran at USC.
“He needs to play and show that he can stay healthy, that he has mobility and he has the same accuracy and velocity,” an NFL scout said of Daniels. “He’s the great unknown right now. He sat behind a guy who clearly wasn’t as talented, and the questions is, why? He wasn’t hurt all season. He has to get out there and show he’s the guy from (2021).”
16/1. Years ago at Florida State, then-Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher was speaking about his Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston and what made him so unique as a redshirt freshman starter. Fisher spoke of Winston’s success and accuracy in the positive side of the field (the 50 to the goal line), and how he consistently made correct decisions and difficult throws.
If you’re looking for an indicator of who wins Texas A&M’s starting quarterback job – Haynes King, Max Johnson or freshman Conner Weigman (all are participating in spring practice) – check out Johnson’s numbers from the positive side of the field (in this case, from the 40 to the goal line): 16 TDs, 1 INT. Johnson also completed 64.4% of his passes from 40 yards to goal, an increase from his 60.3% on all throws.
10. Quote to note
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman, on his philosophy of recruiting and developing offensive linemen: “You can have a car in there, but if it doesn’t have any gas in it, you can’t move anybody. So if they have feet and quick twitch, the bigger the better. That’s been my philosophy.”