LSU’s Kelly expects to be at full strength for SEC Championship Game

PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

LSU’s offense got a clean bill of health from first-year coach Brian Kelly for the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

The defense got a key member back as well.

No. 11 LSU (9-3) will have quarterback Jayden Daniels and running Josh Williams on the field when the Tigers face No. 1 Georgia (12-0) at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

CBS will televise the game which will can also be heard locally by 98.1-FM.

Kelly, appearing during a Zoom call Thursday with reporters in advance of the SEC Championship Game, said Daniels has had a good week of practice. He twice had to leave last Saturday’s 38-23 loss at Texas A&M under his own power and upon his return to LSU, was fitted for a walking boot and received an exam.

“He’ll play for us on Saturday,” Kelly said.

Daniels is one of a handful of quarterbacks nationally that’s accumulated over 3,000 total yards, possessing one of the best run-throw dimensions. He’s completed 68.6% of his passes (238 of 347) for 2,566 yards with 15 touchdowns and two interceptions. He also has a team-high 824 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns on 174 attempts.

Williams injured his knee Nov. 12 during the team’s 13-10 win over Arkansas. He was sidelined for both the UAB and Texas A&M games, but Kelly felt confident Williams would play against Georgia.

Williams leads all LSU running backs with 477 yards on 91 carries and has scored six touchdowns. He’s also caught 18 passes for 113 yards.

“I was really pleased with Josh yesterday,” Kelly said of Wednesday’s practice. “I think he looked like himself finally. This is an injury that takes some time because of the way he runs. He’s such a physical runner. He plays so hard. His physical exertion and effort is one where he’s not a guy that’s going to go at less than 100%. I think yesterday was really the first time where I felt like, OK, we’ve got Josh back to where he needs to be, to be confident and effective.”

Kelly also said senior cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse, who missed the Texas A&M game, cleared the team’s concussion protocol and will return to the field Saturday. He ranks 10th on the defense with 35 tackles, had broken up three passes and recovered a fumble.

“He is obviously going to play an important role for us as well,” Kelly said.

Here’s what else Kelly had to say:

(Opening statement)

“Excited to be playing in the SEC Championship Game. It has been quite a journey. I think this is a year since my press conference here. Really proud of our staff, certainly our players and everybody associated with LSU football and the accomplishments that we’ve made here in a very short period of time. You got to win it on the field. Our guys did a great job of playing their very best when their best was needed. Now we get an opportunity to play the No. 1 team in the country. Have a great deal of respect for Kirby and what he’s accomplished. To do this back-to-back years is a great accomplishment. Obviously, we have a great deal of respect for this football team that we’re playing in Georgia. We’re excited about the challenge. Look forward to coming to Atlanta, being part of this championship, playing our very best football when it’s needed.”

What has BJ Ojulari meant to this team on, off the field?

“I would say off the field he embraced the change. He embraced really the mission. That is graduating champions, the excellence that we wanted as a standard here from day one. You need that. You need your best players to embrace that. (He was) Elected as a captain for us. Led both on and off the field. He’s been an edge playmaker for us. I think when you’re talking about excellence both on and off the field, BJ Ojulari would be that guy that we would bring up.”

On impact of receiver Malik Nabers on the offense?

“He’s developed a relationship with Jayden, one that certainly they trust each other. We match them up in a position where he gets quite a bit of one-on-one matchups. Teams sometimes have to double cover him, which clearly can influence how we can get the ball to other receivers as well. He’s been obviously very consistent for us. I think that relationship that Jayden has developed with him relative to the timing, getting the ball out of his hands before he gets out of the break, has really been more than anything else, why third down has been so effective. Coverage is so tight on third down. Everybody knows what you’re trying to do. You just have to be so efficient. Your throws, they’re phone booth throws, tight throws into tight windows. They’ve built a really good repertoire and they’re on the same page. I think that is what has been the difference between Malik and why he’s led our team in receptions up to this point.”

On needed improvement of short passing game?

“Certainly, there are times when we were not happy with our passing game against Arkansas. But leading into those games, I thought we were extremely efficient, moved the ball down the field. I think it’s like anything else, you can’t be predictable. You’ve got to be able to push the ball down the field, different levels. You’ve got to attack the defense in all areas. If you’re predictable in terms of where you’re going to throw the football, defenses are going to take that away. I think it’s really much more about being more aggressive and attacking all areas of the field, which opens up the ability to hit some more of the higher-percentage passes that keep the chains moving and keep you ahead of the chains.”

On this week’s preparation for the game?

“It’s not just what we do on the practice field, it’s the decisions that we make away from the field, it’s all the things that we do relative to nutrition, sleep, the training room, film study. Our guys are building better habits with that. That’s really what this has been about. It’s how they think about it, it’s the habits that they’ve been building relative to their preparation. We’ve come a long way. This week they’ve been very intentional, understanding how important it is playing Georgia, the best team in the country, that those habits have to be really good if they want the kind of performance that they’re looking for.”

On the fact your team is a decided underdog?

“Social media is so prevalent out there. They don’t live in a cave. They don’t need me to bring things up. They knew that they were a 10-point favorite against Texas A&M and look what that did for them. The distractions of social media do not help in your preparation. So, what we’ve tried to do is get them to think the right things about what’s important in their preparation. If you think that you get into the right emotional zone because you’re an underdog, well, that’s fine. But it’s still about your mental, your physical, your technical and tactical preparation. Whether you’re an underdog or a favorite, that has nothing to do with your total preparation. That’s how we try to get our guys to think.”

Examples of true freshman exhibiting special mentality to get on field as starters?

“I could give you a number of different examples of Mason Taylor, who is just playing a tight end position, but is involved in so many aspects. He’s got to have the ability to pick up the running schemes as well as all the passing schemes. The tight end position is not an easy position to play. To put the physical with the mental at that position as a true freshman, we saw with (Georgia’s) Brock Bowers. It’s quite unique. So just his ability to bring that every single day in his first year here I think is extraordinary for a young player. Emery Jones coming in after camp and being inserted into the starting lineup. You’ve got to have a short memory at that position in this league. There’s such great pass-rushers that you’re going to give up a sack or two. I think what I love about Emery is he forgets it and moves on to the next play. Each one of them has their unique traits. I think we know about (Harold) Perkins and his ability to impact defensively. We’ve played him in two or three different positions already. All of them, if you put them all together, we know about their physical ability, but it’s been certainly their mental capabilities and their maturity beyond their years to come in and play at this level.”

What gives LSU a higher ceiling to succeed than Notre Dame?

“There’s so many different elements. I think Notre Dame has a great opportunity as well. That’s why I was there for 12 years. We had opportunities certainly in the College Football Playoff, playing for a national championship. We were right on the doorstep of playing for championships and winning national championships. What is unique about LSU is the in-state recruiting. We didn’t have that certainly at Notre Dame. It was much more national. You’ve got to go into each state and pull out the best players in those states at Notre Dame, whereas you have it right here in the state of Louisiana. This is the flagship university. Kids want to go to LSU. They grow up wanting to be a Tiger. There’s a bit of an advantage from that perspective right out of the gates when it comes to recruiting.”

On your approach to the transfer portal this year?

“I think obviously we’re all in a situation where it’s uncharted territories in so many ways. Guys are saying they’re in the portal, but the portal hasn’t opened yet. I think everybody’s very conscious that we’re worried about tampering, things of that nature. You have to re-recruit your own roster, making sure retention is as important as recruiting now. There are many more factors. Obviously, NIL is part of this, as well. I think we’re thinking about so many different things. When you get down to it, it’s protecting your roster, retention, player development, then use the tools that are available to you. The portal is going to be a tool that everybody is going to look at. You also have to understand that with that comes a chance to upset the chemistry of your football team, too. You got to be very intentional. I think you have to be moving into this next week or so very carefully because you’ve got to balance recruiting freshmen with the transfer portal and retaining the players on your own roster. It’s going to be a very interesting next couple of weeks.”

On gaining experience from the ACC title game you coached with Notre Dame?

“Not really that much. I think in terms of just balancing your schedule because you’re losing opportunity relative to staying ahead of it in recruiting. I think it’s just balancing your schedule more than anything else. The preparation is the same. There’s no difference. We’re preparing just as if this is a 13th game. Obviously, against the best team in the country, but preparing it the same way. No change there. You have to adjust your schedule accordingly based upon not being able to do recruiting.”

Impact of SEC possibly going away from divisional play?

“I’m so young to this league, I’ve kind of had blinders onto try to get through day after day, to have a bigger picture perspective of it is kind of hard for me right now. I can tell you this, our commissioner has a great sense of what’s best for the SEC. I usually speak my mind and haven’t had a problem doing that most of my career. It’s gotten me in a lot of trouble (smiling). In this instance, I would say Greg Sankey would be the best one that would put us on the right path in terms of what’s best for the SEC as a conference, and what’s best for us as a national conference relative to the playoff implications. I would defer to him. Whatever he tells me to do, I’m good to go on that.”

Any takeaways when you were at Notre Dame from previous two matchups with Georgia?

“They’re really good and well-coached. Good players. Very competitive games. One of them was home, one of them was away. They were great atmospheres. It’s just really good college football. It’s going to be a similar situation. We’re going to play a physical football team that has the style of its head coach. They’re going to play great defense. They’re going to be physical on both sides of the ball. That’s the nature of a well-coached football team that’s won a national championship and is competing for another. You know what you’re going to get here. Everything’s going to come very difficultly. Nothing’s going to be easy. You’re going to have to earn everything. That’s the exciting part about it. You know what you’re going to get. You’re going to get a really well-coached football team, fundamentally sound, and they’re going to play hard for four quarters and it’s going to challenge your football team to play its very best as well. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Any schematic differences in this Georgia team over the previous two you coached against at Notre Dame?

“I’d say there’s probably more similarities on defense than there are on offense. I think there’s a little bit more wrinkles on the offensive side of the ball. Every defense is going to have a little bit of a change in personality. But their three down, four down, they’re going to mix it up on third down, their third down packages are difficult. The personnel is outstanding on the defensive side of the ball, as it is on offense. I think maybe the offensive structure is one where there are more things to defend and make it difficult, especially with both the tight ends. The two tight ends make it very difficult because of personnel and they take away some of your calls from a defensive perspective.”

On developing scheme to deal with Georgia’s two tight-end sets?

“You have to have a game plan for them or they’re going to wreck your day. It’s as simple as I can get it. I don’t think it’s a secret that both of these guys, in particular what (Brock) Bowers does, he does everything from getting handoff sweeps, to screens, to verticals, to seam routes. I think Coach Monken does a great job with them. (Darnell) Washington splits out as a receiver. They’re difficult to defend. You have to have a game plan. If you don’t, you’re going to have some problems.”

On your previous experiences helping in preparation for Georgia this time?

“I would say it’s probably a little bit more two tight end. I think they’ve utilized (Ladd) McConkey very well, very strategic in terms of getting him the football. This is the classic case of an offense that uses players over plays. That’s good coaching, right? You’re not going to carry a scheme just because this is the scheme we run. I think it’s an outstanding quarterback who is extremely confident and gets to the ball that have been making plays. This offense has been successful because the (Todd Monken) coordinator is leading them and Kirby (Smart) is leading them towards, ‘get the guy the ball that makes plays for us’. That’s in the running game, too. They have an outstanding offensive line. Just good coaching and getting the ball to the players that should have the ball in their hands.”

Your thoughts of CFP going to 12 teams starting in 2024?

“I just like more access, I guess I’m a Division II football coach. I grew up with more teams involved in the playoffs. I liked that atmosphere. I don’t know that I have any kind of earth-shattering statement on it. I just like more access. I think you get some playoff games on campus. You involve the bowl games. You keep them involved in it. I think it keeps more teams in the hunt as the season goes on in terms of vying for playoff spots. I think it’s exciting for college football. I don’t think in any way it takes away from the championship, the conference championships. We’ll see how that goes. That’s certainly up for discussion. Excited about the growth. I think it just keeps obviously the interest in the playoff chase further into the season.”

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William Weathers

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