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First Quarter Report Card: What We Know & What We Don’t Know

Notes from the first three games of the season.

Mississippi State v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Believe it or not, we’re already a quarter of the way through LSU’s season. We’ve played three of the first 12 games of the Kelly era, and while it’s wholly unfair to reach a verdict on the first year outright, it is fair to take an assessment of where the questions marks have both been answered and remained after 12 periods of football (nearly 13).

What We Know: The defense has good bones to it.

This is perhaps the most surprising development. The hallmark of the post-2019 downfall of Ed Orgeron’s tenure was marred by terrible defense, injuries, opt-outs, and bad personnel fits created by the marriage of the three. Coming into this season, I was half expecting this to be the worst secondary LSU will field in quite some time.

Instead, the defense has bounced between okay to good, and is trending upwards after grounding Mike Leach’s air raid to 16 points, all of which were scored in the first half. What makes that even more admirable is that LSU did it without Maason Smith shaving seconds off the time the secondary has to cover.

And Jay Ward has played valiantly, completing his journey from scapegoat to team leader with his play. It’s really only one game, but completely turning off the Air Raid is a really good sign that Matt House may have a handle on the situation.

What We Don’t: Are the third down woes fixed?

In my eyes, the Florida State game was lost with special teams first (spoiler!) and third down second. Florida State went 11-17 on third down and Mississippi State only went 3-14.

That’s quite a jump. In fact, it’s too much of a jump for me to assume anything was really fixed without more of a sample size. I’m willing to accept that the issues were addressed, in fact I’m really hoping on it, but I can’t accept anything more than a great gameplan against a pretty one-dimensional offense against one team. The problem against Florida State wasn’t a great matchup or gameplan disadvantage, but rather failure to complete plays along with bad positioning. Jordan Travis was allowed to extend plays, and time and time again that burned LSU by the players — and this is extremely scientific — giving up on plays.

That didn’t exist against State, not because Will Rodgers can extend plays (he can’t) but because LSU didn’t give him an opportunity to.

So we have two wild extremes as a sample, and usually when you have that the truth lies somewhere in between. And if it’s in the middle (call it an average of 6-7 third down conversions a game) I’m willing to accept it so long as it trends up at the end of the year.

What We Know: The offense has playmakers.

Muffed punts aside, Malik Nabers has started to look like a breakout star. Armoni Goodwin looked like the real deal against Mississippi State, averaging 8.4 yards per clip bolstered by a 47-yard touchdown. We know John Emery has the talent. Brian Thomas Jr. is a home run threat and Jaray Jenkins is a solid third or fourth option.

And that’s without Kayshon Boutte really being a threat. We all know he switched off against Florida State for reasons unknown, but he has been involved against Southern and State, but hasn’t really been effective yet. LSU hasn’t been able to get him going’s not really sinking them. Yes, he probably could have changed the outcome of the FSU game, but there were other bigger coulda shoulda wouldas for that game.

The offense has some playmakers on it. The problem is...

What We Don’t: How to maximize them.

This is a two-fold problem.

The first part is the offensive line. Like the third down conversions, I believe this is actively improving. And look man, offensive line is probably the only position left in football that’s virtually impossible to be plug and play. You can sign five different five-star lineman in the same class and start them all, but the odds are you won’t get great production out of them until year two. These things take time to gel and develop. Will Campbell and Emory Jones combined to allow zero pressures against State. That’s very good, but it’s probably the exception and not the rule. There will be lapses this season, and the question is how few of them LSU has.

LSU won the State game by grinding down the Bulldog defense (again, scientific terms) and were able to push them around and establish themselves late in the game, but early it was tough chewing. Great running backs are nothing without a line to open holes for them.

The second part is Jayden Daniels, the man supposed to be distributing the ball to Nabers, Thomas, Jenkins and Boutte...

What We Know: Jayden Daniels can extend plays.

Let’s call it as it falls: it has become clear that Jayden Daniels got the starting quarterback role because he is the only one who can start behind this offensive line. He has an Manzelian ability to improvise and use his legs to turn absolute sacks into first down conversions, which is necessary given how often LSU’s offensive line failed. He almost single-handily kept LSU in the game against Florida State and kept his composure against State when the going got rough and deserves all the praise for that.

What We Don’t: Can Daniels’ arm match his legs?

The problem with Daniels is that his passing vision...well it’s uh, it’s sub-optimal. Time and time again Daniels missed open receivers downfield when he opted to run. And it’s not like running has been a bad option for him, but eventually teams are going to start spying him and daring him to throw balls that win one-on-one matchups.

State tried it, and it almost worked! On a crucial 4th down, Daniels was able to connect with Nabers on a jump ball that set up the sealing touchdown. It’s not exactly a high-percentage throw, shown by the fact that LSU ran it twice before in the same series and it didn’t work out.

And not only that, but accuracy has also been a bugaboo when he does find receivers. He’s actually been a lot better than I thought he would be given the stories that came out from the spring, but it also hasn’t really been great. A time will come where teams will dare him to beat them with his arm and he’ll have to do it.

What We Don’t: Can the special teams improve?

LSU’s offense is ranked 28th in SP+. The defense is ranked 23rd. The special teams is 125th.

That’s not bad. That’s catastrophic, and almost to the point of no return. It’s early, but against Florida State the issues were obvious, and Mississippi State reeled off far too many big returns. There’s no pretending that any of this is going well and I have little faith it will go well.

But the saving grace is that special teams is probably the easiest aspect of the game to make wholesale changes to. To point, the extra point issue seems to have been resolved. But special teams have already cost LSU a game, they can’t afford another.