LSU first-year football coach Brian Kelly didn’t recruit the majority of the 17 seniors his program will pay homage to Saturday when the sixth-ranked Tigers host UAB at 8 p.m. on ESPN2 in Tiger Stadium.
Kelly’s first ‘Senior Night’ will be a collection of players that were previous holdovers from former head coach Ed Orgeron’s staff, coupled with the arrival of a handful of players signed by Kelly through the NCAA transfer portal. He said 13 members of that group have already obtained their degrees.
One such senior fitting that description is linebacker Micah Baskerville, a player that didn’t garner a lot of headlines upon the arrival of Kelly, but the Shreveport native has certainly earned his share of notoriety during his final season on a defense that’s been a key figure in the team’s 8-2 overall record, Top 10 national ranking and SEC Western Division championship.
Baskerville has elevated himself and his play after missing LSU’s entire spring practice to concentrate on academics and not only win over his teammates, but Kelly and his coaching staff, too. His 63 tackles are tops on the team to go along with four tackles for loss, five pass breakups, five quarterback hurries, a blocked punt and an interception return for a touchdown.
“I can tell you this, what stands out are the stories like Micah Baskerville, who when I got here, everybody was, like, ‘well he doesn’t go to class. He doesn’t do this, doesn’t do that’. He has been amazing,” Kelly said during his weekly news conference Monday. “He has gotten his degree. He has been a great leader. He has been inspirational in everything he has done. I love that story. To watch him grow and do the right things in the classroom, to overcome all the things that were in his past, that to me is the senior class.
“Watching them become SEC West champions is so gratifying because they made that choice,” Kelly added. “They could have been average. They could have been poor. They could have just been good. They have chosen to be champions by the way they’ve gone to work every day, both in the classroom and on the football field. That to me this Senior Day is about the choices that these guys made have been outstanding.”
Kelly said getting through to Baskerville was as easy as the belief his staff has shown in him, to get his work accomplished in the classroom, which has spilled over into his superlative performance on the field.
“I think it was the standards of the program that obviously were set, and he was going to meet and exceed the standards that were set,” Kelly said. “Then along the way he started to feel really good about his academics and getting his degree, and it was important to him and knew that he could be successful, both in the classroom and on the football field.
“So, I think empowering him to believe that he could do it and be successful, and then holding him accountable accordingly,” Kelly said. “We gave him the belief and the trust that once he was able to get those things accomplished, he would be a center point in terms of what we did defensively.”
Here’s what else Kelly had to say:
“Certainly, a very tragic day in Charlottesville, and our thoughts and prayers are with the football players at Virginia who were senseless victims of a shooting on their campus early this morning. It’s tragic. Our hearts go out to them, the football program, the university. Just senseless violence. College campuses should be a place where it’s violence free, and what happened yesterday is certainly heart-breaking, and we certainly pray for all those involved. Certainly, hits close to home as well, having players that actually had relationships with players on the team. So, again, (our) thoughts and prayers with everybody involved. We will certainly keep an eye on this matter.
(On Arkansas game)
“Obviously, last weekend our football team was challenged for four quarters against an Arkansas football team that we knew was going to be difficult to play at Fayetteville, and they were. They were well-prepared. They were well-coached for the game. Winning is a habit and losing is a habit. What we can take out from that game is that they have done the things necessary to make winning a habit. Just like losing becomes a habit, they found a way to win that football game. We had some guys that had superlative performances. Harold Perkins was certainly the SEC Player of the Week again. I don’t think that’s to anybody’s surprise. He certainly also was a national player of the week (Walter Camp). Obviously, some great individual performances. We did things defensively that allowed us to find a way to win the football game. Special teams were solid, and we found a running game that allowed us to put together enough offense to win a football game. But, again, I’ll go back to the fact that winning is a habit, and our guys have done a lot of things the right way to create winning habits off the field that contributed to finding a way to win the football game. So, there’s a lot to work on. We’ve got to coach better; we’ve got to prepare our football team better. We’ve got to do a lot of things better. That falls on everybody associated (with the team), and that’s what we have to work on this week going into UAB.
“A lot of this will be about our improvement, our preparation, how we get ready. If we just get 1% better this week, we’ll be a better football team, and that will be our focus. This is a really good football team that we’re playing in UAB. As I segue into this weekend’s game, it’s Senior Day at LSU. We’ll have 17 seniors that we’ll be honoring, 13 of them have already earned their college degree. Obviously, our mission is to graduate champions, and we’ll be able to live up to that creed. Kickoff at 8 (pm) is a later start for our guys, but they’ll certainly go through a similar routine that we’ve had throughout the year. Playing a UAB team that has first year head coach Bryant Vincent, who has taken over. He had been the OC. They have one of the best running backs in had the country in DeWayne McBride, he has over 1,400 (1,407) yards rushing. Very accomplished on offense. I think from an overview what I would say, it’s a very mature team. This is made up of fifth-year seniors. There’s a number of sixth-year players on this team. So, this is a mature, veteran football team that has a very good offensive structure. This is a team that knows what they want to do. They want to run the inside-outside zone play. They want to be play-action pass. Defensively they’re in a three-down, four-down structure. It’s a well-coached football team. It’s a team that, quite frankly, is better than its record. They’ve had three or four losses that could easily be wins, and this could be one of the top teams in the non-Power 5 (Conference) that would be coming into Tiger Stadium. This is a really good challenge for our football team, and we’ll have to play well in Tiger Stadium against a really veteran football team. Defensively, very productive linebackers in (Noah) Wilder and (Tyler) Taylor. I think what stands out to me is their run game, their play-action pass, and then defensively their ability to move into three-down, four-down looks and be multiple. This is going to be a lot about our football team being better prepared and then flipping the switch into better performance on Saturday.”
Anything specific to address on offense after Arkansas game?
“We were defended quite well, and so I think part of this is understanding what adjustments we have to make when teams are looking to defend things that have been really good for us. We have to make some adjustments. We have to look at how we’re doing things and be one step ahead from that perspective and have some adjustments, do some things that allow us to be effective at what we’re good at. Quite frankly, our preparation has to be better. We have to coach better. I’ll put a lot of that on myself in terms of preparing our football team, in particular on the offensive side of the ball.”
What makes running back Josh Williams such an effective runner?
“First of all, the physicality that he brings. Low pads, plays low, strong, physical. His lower half is so strong. He keeps his legs moving. Once you think you’ve got him tackled, there’s three or four more yards. He runs to daylight. Very effective runner in all those areas. But I think his strength and his ability to do a little bit of everything for us, pass protect, catch the ball out of the back field, and be a strong inside-out runner.”
On whether to expect more three-man fronts this season?
“We’ve seen three-down probably more than any other front. I think what was different is their edges were a little bit more aggressive. We just simply didn’t take advantage of that aggressiveness. I think it falls on me. We’ve got to prepare our team to be more aggressive to teams that want to play three-down with the edges being so close. We have talented players on the perimeter, and we’ve got to get the ball out to them.
(On team being ahead of schedule)
“I didn’t put any wins or losses on this team. I put, ‘I want to play hard, I want to be better in November, I want to teach them how to win’. I think we’ve hit all of those markers, and that’s kind of where I wanted this program to be. I think we’re at where we should be at this time.”
On Arkansas’ defensive approach?
“It was an aggressive defensive game plan that was unique in that sense, but we have to be better. We have to prepare for those kinds of situations where defenses just say, ‘We’re just going to give you everything we’ve got, and what do we have to lose’? It falls on me and our offensive staff to prepare for those kinds of situations, and we’ll be prepared, and it won’t happen again.”
On the play of defensive players working to open things up for Harold Perkins?
“Obviously a lot of this has to do with the ability to flush him out. That’s BJ (Ojulari) and Ali Gaye, and certainly (Jaquelin) J Roy probably had his best game of the year. There’s a lot of guys that go into this. Micah Baskerville. I could go on and on with that front. Sai’vion (Jones) was outstanding. He played with speed and agility. That group up front — Mekhi Wingo, we’ve talked about all year — they make a lot of that happen because they flush that quarterback. Then you’ve got a guy like that (Perkins) that can just chase them down. It’s pretty impressive the marriage between the two where you have a group that can get a quarterback outside the pocket and then go chase it down. It’s kind of what I talked about from an offensive perspective. It’s gotten us thinking about, “Do you spy Harold now? Do you put a spy on Harold? Do you have somebody from the running back position try to shadow him’? We’re preparing for all these eventualities as we kind of move forward.”
On team’s chemistry on defensive side with so many transfers?
“It’s huge. I don’t know that I have ever had a really good football team that didn’t like each other. There’s going to be a couple of guys here or there that – look, I mean rub guys the wrong way. Everybody is going to have a couple of guys like that, but generally speaking, they like each other. And I think it starts because everybody is held accountable to the same level. The best player doesn’t get special treatment. Everybody gets treated the same way, and I think when you start with that premise, everybody knows that they’re all pulling the same way. Gradually they start to get closer and closer as a group. That began in January, and I think it’s just kind of been able to build along the way. They enjoy being around each other. They enjoy the road trips. They enjoy being on the plane. They enjoy being on the bus and in the hotel together. You can sense that, and you can feel it. It’s a fun group to be around.”
On linebacker Greg Penn’s play against Arkansas?
“It was easily Greg Penn’s best game. We challenged him. As you know, (Greg) Tolan is on his heels, he is coming on. He is making progress. He is doing some really good things and Greg can feel that. I love the way he responded to that challenge. He played his best game. He played with physicality. He played with great instincts, and that’s what we expect out of him. I think he has to have a great offseason, which he will in the weight room. He is going to be a heck of a good player for us, but it’s nice to have some young guys that are forcing that issue too. It was really good to see him play the way he did.”
On your impressions of true freshmen making impacts?
“That freshman class has obviously been a huge piece of this SEC West Championship team. You have two starting tackles. You have a tight end. You have Harold Perkins. You have Tolan. You have a number of guys that are playing in roles that are helping us in so many different ways from (Nathan) Dibert kicking the ball to the back of the end zone on a regular basis. That freshman class has been very impactful.
On injury updates on Brian Thomas, John Emery and Garrett Dellinger?
“Brian Thomas should be – well, I’ll know this afternoon, but he went through the next step in the concussion protocol. He was in a concussion protocol from practice. He did very well. We’re hopeful that if everything goes well today, that he will be a non-contact tomorrow and then obviously continues to move into contact on Wednesday. John Emery’s fine. Just a bruise.”
What goes into developing running backs into good pass protectors?
“I think it’s important that running backs clearly understand that if you want to stay on the field, you can’t be a “miss it.” You are going to be on the field less because (if) you can’t pass pro. But what I think makes a really good – first of all, you’ve got to want to do it. You have to have the technique. More importantly, it’s about the ability to read and recognize defenses. Most backs go to what we call, coast-to-coast. They start on one side, and then if their read doesn’t show, they have to go all the way across and then read the other side. That’s a lot. Most backs have to be able to do that. It requires a lot of film study. (Running backs coach) Coach (Frank) Wilson has to spend a lot of time with those backs, and they have to watch a lot of film and pick up a lot of different blitzes. Football intelligence is really important at that position. In recruiting, we have to make sure that backs have that ability to do it. Josh is one of them that has a high football IQ.”
On what kind of growth you’ve seen from kicker Damian Ramos this season?
“I just think consistency has been, when we talk about his growth, we brought him in halfway through camp, so his growth has been a meteor. He has gone from not being here to he takes over the starting position. Then I think just consistency, and I think that’s kind of pretty big for a kicker. Just to be consistent week in and week out. I have really liked his progress, just every day he comes with the same kind of mindset. And he works on any of the things that have been an issue. If he misses from a particular hash, he is going over there and working on that particular skill set. He is very organized, very thoughtful, very intentional in everything that he’s done.”
On the possibility of looking at Georgia film this early?
“No. I think we’ll have plenty of time to get information on Georgia. We’re pretty much aware of Georgia and who they are and what they’re about. Our focus will be on UAB and (Texas) A&M because they matter. For us, in terms of where we are and the development of our program, these singular games are so important to us. I get the SEC Championship Game is what it is. It gets you one step, but as we’re climbing this ladder for us in terms of the development of our program, these games are so pivotal for us in terms of our development. It’s crazy to be able to think of anything else but these individual games.”
On flu impacting the team aside from Perkins?
“It’s been fairly pervasive throughout the program. I think we’ve managed it the best we can, but it’s around. I don’t know that it had anything to do with our performance on Saturday. We’re dealing with it on a day-to-day basis.”
On the appearance of chicken broth on sideline Saturday?
“I prefer clam chowder, but they weren’t going to go with the New England style. Obviously, the salt for hydration purposes and then obviously hot, because of the weather. Dr. (Matt) Frakes had put together that with a couple of other elixirs. I think he could have sold it at the State Fair and made a little bit of money as the LSU way of getting you better in the second half. I think all of them had some form of nutrients that were needed for the guys at that particular time.”
Brian Kelly’s first season at LSU has some similarities to Nick Saban’s second season at LSU in 2001.
The 2001 Tigers, ranked #14 in the preseason poll, visited Tennessee in their first conference game and lost 26-18. Then they were embarrassed by #2 Florida, coached by Steve Spurrier, in Tiger Stadium 44-15.
Three weeks later, when Ole Miss beat the Tigers in Baton Rouge 35-24, any hope of LSU winning the SEC West seemed to have vanished. You couldn’t blame Tiger fans for wondering whether Saban was the coach to lead LSU to their first SEC Championship since they were co-champions with Auburn in 1988.
But Saban’s crew won their next four games, starting with a 35-21 victory in Tuscaloosa and ending with a 27-14 triumph over Auburn December 1 in a game that was postponed because of 9/11. That gave the 5-3 Tigers the tie-breaker for the West championship over 5-3 Auburn.
LSU went to Atlanta to face the East champions, Tennessee, for the second time. The #2-ranked Vols considered the Tigers a temporary nuisance on their way to the BCS Championship game in the Rose Bowl against Miami. But thanks to the heroics of QB Matt Mauck off the bench, the Tigers upset the Vols to earn a spot in the Sugar Bowl, where they beat Illinois 47-34.
Two years later, LSU beat Oklahoma in the Superdome for the BCS Championship.