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Alabama Football vs. LSU Preview: Q&A with And The Valley Shook

RBR caught up with Zach Junda to hear his thoughts on the 2020 LSU squad

LSU vs Texas A&M Photo by Chris Parent/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

Big thanks to Zach Junda, managing editor over at And The Valley Shook for taking the time to talk about this LSU team. He’s a great Twitter follow, too, if you can stand a little bit of purple and gold in your timeline.

In case you missed it, here’s the other half of the Q&A over on their site, with me spending some time talking about Alabama and my time in college.

1) I’m sure you guys are tired of talking about Terrace Marshall... Opting out?... Suddenly, so let’s get this out of the way first. He’s by far and away LSU’s leading receiver, but is it actually gonna be a major hindrance to the offense to play without him? Or his his production easily schemed to other guys?

Well if the offensive line plays as poorly as it did last week against Texas A&M it wouldn’t matter if LSU had Terrace Marshall or Randy Moss at the peak of his powers playing wide receiver. It’s cliche to say but everything starts, or in LSU’s case stops, up front but the offensive line is struggling mightily. The group isn’t pass blocking (nine quarterback hurries, two sacks last week) or run blocking well (1.4 yards per carry and five tackles for loss).

But to answer the question specifically in regards to the receiving unit...we’ll see. Marshall for his career has always been the big play type, about a quarter of his career catches were touchdowns, and LSU has some guys like Kayshon Boutte, Jaray Jenkins and Racey McMath that could be that person for either TJ Finley or Max Johnson. What concerns me more is there’s no Justin Jefferson or Jarvis Landry type of receiver who can get you that key third down going across the middle. LSU’s got plenty of guys who could be a Terrace Marshall kind of receiver but I’m not sure they have the kind of receiver a true freshman quarterback really needs.

2) This is more of a continuation of the last question, but tell us about the other pass catchers. Who’s gonna pick up the slack and make some big catches this week?

Ideally it’s going to be budding superstar tight end Arik Gilbert. Gilbert’s second, well now first with Marshall opting out, on the team in catches, yards and touchdowns. He’s a true matchup nightmare, even a program that has as many future NFL players like Alabama might not have a readymade defense for. It’ll just be a matter of can one of these freshmen quarterbacks get 2 the ball.

3) Any chance we see Max Johnson as well as TJ Finley?

Absolutely. Orgeron pulled Finley from both the Auburn and A&M games after Finley threw killer interceptions. And frankly with as bad as the offensive line is playing, Johnson might get on the field because he’s the better runner and is more likely to get away from the Alabama pass rush.

4) How do Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery split carries? Tell us about each running back’s strengths.

Personally I think the carries have been split up incorrectly. Through seven games Tyrion Davis-Price has 24 more carries but Emery still has the better yards per carry. I’ve long maintained that the coaching staff needs to let Emery cook, but for whatever reason Ty Davis-Price has gotten the ball more.

I’m of the opinion that that’s a mistake. Not that Ty Davis-Price isn’t talented, but Emery can be special and I’m sorry but that has to take precedence. Orgeron has said that Emery and Davis-Price could be LSU’s version of Reggie Bush and Lendale White, and I love that comparison; but the staff insists on giving the ball to White more. Which is ironic because Orgeron was on that 2005 USC staff that gave the ball to White, not Bush, on a potential game-ending fourth and two against Texas in the national championship game. White got stuffed while Bush was on the sideline and Vince Young had his iconic moment; 15 years later LSU’s repeating history.

5) As bad as LSU’s defense looked at the start of the season, their stats have evened out and are pretty middle-of-the-pack now. Plus they absolutely stymied Kellen Mond and the Aggie offense last week. What’s led to the improvement there?

I mean Kellen Mond helped make LSU look competent, I wish they could play him every week they’d be the second coming of the Steel Curtain.

But seriously, what’s yielded the biggest change is Micah Baskerville taking Mike linebacker reps from Damone Clark. Clark’s one of LSU’s No. 18s this year, they give that to the guy who best represents what it means to be a Tiger. That’s all well and good, Clark can be your guy Sunday through Friday, but on Saturday’s Baskerville has to be on the field. Baskerville gives LSU a see ball, hit ball presence in the middle they haven’t had all season long. Clark would be phenomenal if LSU still had Dave Aranda and the 3-4, but for better or worse the Tigers have gone away from that and his skillset doesn’t mesh with a 4-3. Baskerville does, and it’s paying immediate dividends.

6) Again, this one may infringe on your answer for the previous question. Outside of Stingley, are there any LSU defenders who look to be developing into a legit superstar?

I’ll give you three. True freshman BJ Ojulari and JUCO transfer Ali Gaye give LSU a pair of pass rushers they haven’t had since Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. Ojulari is as naturally gifted rush end they’ve ever had and Gaye, while still raw, has an uncanny ability to get his hands up and bat down passes at the line. He actually leads the team in pass breakups. In the secondary, freshman Elias Ricks leads the team in interceptions and looks to be the next great DBU product. If the rest of the defense can improve from literally the worst in school history to even halfway decent, those three will be stars.

7) Are there any particular position matchups you think LSU can exploit over Alabama? And are there any that worry you specifically?

I don’t mean this in a backhanded way, but I really like LSU’s special teams unit. Especially in the punting game, Zach Von Rosenberg ought to be one of the favorites for the Ray Guy award and all Avery Atkins does is send kickoffs through the end zone. Too bad LSU doesn’t score anymore and they can’t use Atkins’s atomic leg.

And can I just keep it simple and say I’ll be holding my breath the whole time the LSU defense takes the field? I don’t think LSU has nearly enough corners to keep up with the Alabama receiving unit and the current group of safeties leave a lot to be desired. It’s no secret why LSU currently has four safeties committed to its 2021 class. And oh there’s the whole Bo Pelini is calling an outdated defense thing.

I’ll admit I haven’t seen as much Alabama as I have in previous years so I don’t know if the Tide’s defensive line is as dominant as previous years, but considering how bad LSU’s offensive line is that won’t matter.

8) What’s your game prediction

Umm let’s put it this way Alabama covers. Let’s say...42-10 and I think that’s being generous toward LSU.

9) Finally, feel free to pontificate a bit on this one. Obviously this season hasn’t gone as hoped for LSU fans. But do you think this is a legit structural problem with the program, or is it more of just a 1-year fluke from a culmination of too many seniors, NFL departures, Covid opt-outs, and coaching changes that will be fixed next year?

I think it’s a combination of all those things, though instead of too many seniors there’s not enough seniors on the roster. Let me respond to each possible suspect.

Is there a structural problem? Honestly I think there is. The Terrace Marshall stuff is just plain weird even though I get it. In any normal year, the regular season would be over sans a bowl game, and “Terrace Marshall skips bowl game” is easier to swallow than “Terrace Marshall opts out prior to LSU’s toughest stretch of the schedule.” I get that getting ready for the combine is different than actual football training, but Marshall led a player’s only meeting and gave a speech about sticking together just two weeks ago and now he’s out? I don’t know, Brent. That’s just strange to me.

But yeah, I do think there’s something wrong inside the locker room and I think some of it is owed to how Coach O spent his summer. Why are you going on Fox News? Why are you writing a book? Why are you getting photographed cozied up to women half your age? Now I don’t care how he spends his personal time, but when he’s allowing himself to be in these compromising situations? It’s fair to ask.

Departures and opt outs have of course played a part in things too. You just can’t lose that much talent from a team and not expect a stepback. Should it be this big of a freefall? No, of course not but LSU only has about 65 guys on scholarship right now. LSU lost too much and doesn’t nearly have enough depth to balance out the losses.

As for coaching changes, well LSU’s in a precarious spot because they may not be able to afford to fire Pelini, Scott Linehan or whoever you want to axe. LSU’s estimated an $80 million loss in revenue this year because of COVID. The university has already had to lay off eight people from the athletic department, and has said they’ll only approve hires in “essential situations” through June 30, 2023. And if that’s the case, then what do you do? Can you spend even more money you don’t have to get out of a couple of bad hires? I’ll be fascinated to see how the school balances that.