By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
ORLANDO, Fla. — K.J. Malone is all the way back.
The senior will return to the starting lineup at left tackle when LSU takes on Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl on Monday afternoon, LSU coach Ed Orgeron announced Sunday.
“I think he’s fine, ready to play,” Orgeron said at a joint coaches press conference. “He’s practiced all week. I think he should be fine.”
Malone hasn’t played since suffering a knee injury against Florida in October. He returned to practice ahead of the regular-season finale against Texas A&M but only dressed out to go through Senior Night festivities.
True freshmen Saahdiq Charles started the final six games of the regular season in Malone’s stead and earned Freshmen All-SEC honors.
GOOD ON GUICE
Orgeron praised LSU running back Derrius Guice for his decision to play in the Citrus Bowl despite being projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Draft-eligible players making the “business decision” to sit out bowl games has become a growing trend in the past two years, most notably with Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey choosing to do so last December and UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen doing the same this bowl season.
Guice has remained adamant all month that he’ll suit up against the Fighting Irish and be full-go for LSU on Monday. Orgeron lauded that tact on Sunday morning.
“I really want to compliment him for playing in this game,” Orgeron said. “Obviously other people may make some other choices, which I don’t think is right. I think you need to finish with your team, if you’re healthy. He wanted to finish with his team. Derrius is healthy. He’s ready to go. He’s had some nicks and bruises, which he could’ve used as an excuse. He wanted to represent LSU and finish the right way, if this is indeed his last game. He hasn’t told me it is yet.
“I’m very proud of him. When you do that as a junior, the LSU family and any family will respect you. You want to keep in good faith. I think it’s going to pay off in the long run. Some juniors decide not to play in the bowl. I think that lets your team down. I think Derrius Guice could’ve done that but he didn’t.”
The coach gave no indication that his star tailback would be on any kind of pitch count, either, saying he’d “never seen (Guice) with too much of a work load” because “it comes easy to him.”
Monday’s Citrus Bowl will mark the final game in the legendary career of LSU defensive line coach Pete Jenkins, who’ll be succeeded by Dennis Johnson after the bowl game.
Orgeron spoke to what Jenkins means to him and the program at the end of his third stint at LSU before his career wraps up against the Fighting Irish.
“Pete is more than a coach for me,” Orgeron said. “He’s been more like a mentor. He’s the best technical defensive line coach I’ve ever been around. He loves LSU. He’s a great communicator. Even though he’s 76 years old, the kids love having him around. He helped me become a better head coach. As coach Kelly and I was talking earlier, you don’t know what’s going to happen but you need to be prepared. I run almost every decision by Pete.”
How will Orgeron go about replacing all that mentorship on his coaching staff going forward?
“Cell phone,” Orgeron deadpanned.
Orgeron and Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly repeatedly harped on special teams being a point of concern coming off a month-long layoff.
For Orgeron, that concern may count double as LSU deals with a kicking game in flux.
LSU hasn’t decided whether it’ll be Jack Gonsoulin or Connor Culp handling place kicking duties in Monday’s game. Culp was 11-for-15 kicking field goals this season while Gonsoulin went 4-for-9.
“We don’t know who our field goal kicker is,” Orgeron said. “There’s a lot of questions as far as that. Going to be a big part of the game.”
The Tigers will also be without kickoff specialist Cameron Gamble, who didn’t make the trip to Orlando due to eligibility issues. Culp was listed as the starting kickoff specialist in the official depth chart released by LSU before the game.
“We have a new guy going to be kicking off. Gamble will not be there,” Orgeron said. “We want to kick it through the end zone. We don’t know who our field goal kicker is. There’s a lot of questions as far as that. It’s going to be a big part of the game.”
QUOTES TO NOTE
“About the same, to be honest. About the same. You know, it was a heated rivalry in Miami, obviously. My first game was Catholics vs. Convicts, 1988. I remember that tunnel vividly and I remember the game and I remember the next game. And they beat us up there and they came down to the Orange Bowl and we beat them. It was a rivalry. And they had a lot of great players. And USC, was the same thing. USC, that was the game.
So, now, obviously, against LSU, this is not our rivalry game, but it’s a team that we respect. We’re similar in a lot of ways, very physical programs, similar in a lot of ways, storied, rich tradition. A lot of great coaches have coached at both LSU and Notre Dame. A lot of championships have been won.” – Orgeron on his time facing Notre Dame at Miami and USC
“I don’t think all of the sudden [Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Winbush] is going to become a 75-80 percent completion percentage guy. But as we went through the year we found stuff he does really well. We’re going to feature much more of that. When you have a month to prepare, it just comes to being smart with your quarterback. But he’s a dynamic runner and he wills his way into making plays. It’s up to us as coaches to put him in the right position.” – Kelly on his passing game
“Nothing compares to it. You know, you get your occasional — you know, kick the line here and check it over to this side, but the amount of shifting and motioning, it’s difficult to defend. You know, you have to be on it. Your safeties have to be able to check and the communication is really the key here, right? So, you know, when you’re making these checks, you know, you’re got 18 to 22 years olds trying to communicate to a bunch of guys that have got their hand in the dirt and it becomes problematic at times. And that’s just the start of it. You’ve got Guice, you know, you’ve got great receivers on the perimeter. You’ve got one of the better offensive lines that we played, if not the best offensive line we’ve played. So add that to the mix and you can see what our problems are.” – Kelly on LSU’s offense
“I love food wherever I go.” – Orgeron, no context needed