The question asked from Los Angeles to Long Island about Brian Kelly was this: Why would he leave one of college football's historic programs at Notre Dame to start over at LSU?
Kelly's simple answer: Why wouldn't I be here?
"I wanted to coach the very best players in the country who are afforded the best resources in the country and play in the best conference in the country," Kelly told his new team back on Day 1 in December. "That's an incredible challenge to a football coach. I get that here. I get to work with the best athletic director and the best president, all in alignment to get to the end goal of winning the national championship."
Bold talk, but LSU is a football program in serious need of some bold action. Less than three years removed from a 15–0 season and a national championship, LSU is a meager 11–12 since then. Of more immediate concern is the fact the Tigers were down to about 39 scholarship players for their Texas Bowl loss to Kansas State in January.
Kelly believes that he can get back to 84 scholarship players by August, one off the FBS limit. But simply having to talk about that issue illustrates the obstacles facing Kelly and his new LSU staff as they try to rebuild a championship contender in college football's toughest division.
Previewing LSU's Offense for 2022
LSU's quarterback room got so threadbare for the Texas Bowl that receiver Jontre Kirklin, a high school quarterback, was pressed into service behind center. Fast-forward to the start of spring practice in late March, when the Tigers had a full quarterback room again in very 2022 fashion.
There's sixth-year senior Myles Brennan, who hasn't played since early 2020 because of injuries and was talked back from the transfer portal by Kelly. There's former Arizona State starter Jayden Daniels, who transferred in a few weeks before spring practice. And there's redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier, who played spot duty in 2021, and a true freshman mid-term enrollee in Walker Howard, son of 1990s LSU quarterback Jamie Howard.
Whoever winds up behind center will have one of the SEC's best receivers to throw to in Kayshon Boutte, though he missed spring practice because of a serious midseason ankle injury. Getting him to return was a coup for Kelly's first team, as was getting senior running back John Emery Jr. eligible after he spent all of 2021 in academic limbo.
The offensive line returns three players who started games last season, led by left tackle Cameron Wire, but is struggling to identify a center. The same is true at tight end, which Kelly labeled a position of concern entering fall practice.
Offensive line coach Brad Davis, who served as LSU's interim coach for the Texas Bowl, was the only holdover from former head coach Ed Orgeron's staff. Kelly also brought back former McNeese head coach Frank Wilson to be his running backs coach, leaning on his recruiting ties in Louisiana. Kelly also went into his coaching past to reunite with offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock, who spent the previous five seasons at Cincinnati.
Previewing LSU's Defense for 2022
Kelly appointed former Kansas City Chiefs linebackers coach Matt House to be his defensive coordinator. The Tigers will go with a three-man front with top pass rusher BJ Ojulari (seven sacks in 2021) playing as a linebacker. The defensive front is stout with the surprising return of end Ali Gaye for his senior season, next to sophomore Maason Smith, a rising star in LSU's defense. Linebackers Micah Baskerville, the Tigers' top returning tackler with 83 stops, and Mike Jones Jr. are also back.
The school that describes itself as "DBU" will have a seriously retooled secondary. Only two players — safeties Jay Ward (69 tackles, two interceptions) and Major Burns — saw significant playing time at LSU last year. Four starters could come by way of the transfer portal: safety and nickel back Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks Jr. from Arkansas, as well as cornerbacks Mekhi Garner from Louisiana and Jarrick Bernard-Converse from Oklahoma State. Watch for sophomore Sage Ryan to push for significant playing time at either nickel or safety.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2022
Previewing LSU's Specialists for 2022
LSU is starting over on special teams, with kicker Cade York turning pro early (yes, you read that right) and punter Avery Atkins graduating. At punter, Kelly will rely on Jay Bramblett, a senior who handled those duties for him at Notre Dame. Bramblett averaged 43.1 yards per punt last season with 19 of his punts downed inside the 20. The placekicking duties will probably fall to the other end of the experience spectrum with freshman Nathan Dibert taking over. The Tigers are also looking for new kick and punt returners.
The huge amount of turnover on LSU's roster from last season to this makes the Tigers a hard team to handicap. If LSU can answer its many, many personnel issues, the schedule gives the Tigers a chance to get off to a confidence-building start. LSU opens Labor Day weekend in New Orleans against Florida State, followed by home games against Southern, Mississippi State and New Mexico. If LSU can go to Auburn and pull off a win to somehow get to 5–0, who knows? The Tigers will be outclassed by the likes of Alabama and Texas A&M, but if they can limit the stumbles in their remaining 10 games, a 9–3 record is a reasonable ceiling.
National Ranking: 26
Podcast: SEC Megacast Preview and Predictions for 2022