LSU’s Brian Kelly frank about uncertainty as camp kicks off

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
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BATON ROUGE, La. — Invigorated as LSU coach Brian Kelly appears to be by his first year at the helm of a traditional Southeastern Conference power, he didn’t downplay the relative uncertainty surrounding the Tigers as fall camp opened.

A coaching staff that has just one returning assistant – offensive line coach Brad Davis – has a slew of decisions to make about a roster comprised of numerous new players.

LSU opens its season against Florida State in New Orleans on Sept. 4. But as camp opened, Kelly said he could not yet even pencil in who likely starters would be at quarterback, cornerback or along most of the offensive line.

“A lot of good and bad things happen in those units, and there’s questions that have to be answered,” Kelly said. “Now, I stand here in front of you feeling pretty good about the players we’ve put together in very short order that can go out and play at a very high level in the SEC. But the fact of the matter remains, we’ve got to figure out who those guys are.”

At the end of last season, the Tigers were so thin at quarterback that they had to start receiver Jontre Kirklin, a former high school QB, in the their Texas Bowl loss to Kansas State.

Now they have four QBs to choose from, including two – 23-year-old graduate Mayles Brennan and redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier – who’ve already played under center for LSU. They’re competing with transfer Jayden Daniels, who was a three-year starter at Arizona State, and Walker Howard, a coveted freshman recruit.

None of last year’s starting cornerbacks have returned – not much of the secondary overall for that matter. But Kelly has tried to shore up the position with Oklahoma State senior transfer Jarrick Bernard-Converse and Ohio State graduate transfer Sevyn Banks, among others.

After losing three offensive linemen in the NFL draft, that unit needs to be remade. Among those returning from last season, Cameron Wire is the most experienced with four starts, but was plagued by injuries last season.

“We’re going to go through camp and have to make some tough decisions and, quite frankly, rely on evaluations in camp to do that,” Kelly said. “That’s a little bit different in my years. Generally, we’ve had guys kind of – you know, everyone says the depth chart, it’s always open – but you always have a guy penciled in somewhere. There’s not a lot of penciling in yet. So, yes, there’s some work to be done.”

This uncertainty, on the heels of last season’s 6-7 record in the final season under 2019 national champion coach Ed Orgeron, is a reason expectations for LSU are lower than usual.

The Tigers were picked to finish fifth in the seven-team SEC West Division in the league’s preseason media poll.

But if Kelly chooses the right starting QB, and the line blocks for him, the passing game could be elite. Kelly said Kayshon Boutte, who is wearing the No 7 jersey traditionally given to the most talented Louisiana native on the roster, is looking good as he returns from ankle surgery.

“He’s an explosive player,” Kelly said. “I’m excited for him, really, because you can see his potential is one of: Can he be the best receiver in the country? I think he can be.”

Jack Bech, one of LSU’s top receivers from the tight end spot last season, is back as a receiver this year. He is recovering from an injury, but Kelly was optimistic he’d be back at practice within days from shin splints.

The Tigers also expect to have a strong pass rush, thanks to Ali Gaye‘s return for his senior season, and the return of sophomore Maason Smith.

The running game should be bolstered by the return of John Emery Jr., who was ineligible last season. But the group won’t be as deep as expected; Kelly said Tre Bradford was no longer on the team or enrolled at LSU.

Still, Kelly sounded encouraged by a running back corps which saw the addition since spring of Penn State transfer Noah Cain.

“I really like the depth of the group when you add Cain to the mix as well,” Kelly said. “All of them have a chance to contribute. … I’m OK with that. I think that’s great. All of them are very competitive and all bring a little bit something different to the table.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.