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Alabama Football vs LSU Preview: Q&A with Zachary Junda of And The Valley Shook

4 years strong, and Zach continues to prove not ALL LSU fans smell like corndog

Ole Miss v LSU Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

My favorite Q&A partner every year, Zach Junda was nice enough to answer some of my pressing questions about the LSU Tigers and clear up some of my misconceptions. If you’re interested, you should go heckle them over at ATVS on the other half of our Q&A.

1. After that opening loss to FSU, pretty much everyone wrote off LSU for Brian Kelly’s year 1. I imagine most LSU fans were also expecting a rebuild year. Suddenly, you’re number 10 in the country and control your own destiny to the SEC Championship. Did you ever envision anything like this going into this season?

Never, especially after the Florida State fiasco. Y’all the mess Shrimp Boat Captain Ed left was so bad LSU had 39 scholarship athletes to work with in that ill-fated Texas Bowl against Kansas State. Now I will say LSU being 6-2 at this point isn’t *super* surprising, but I expected them to beat Florida State and lose to one of Florida or Ole Miss. But I’ll take this version of 6-2 where LSU extended the win streak over Florida and ruined Ole Miss’s 7-0 start. Now is this number 10 ranking manufactured by ESPN solely to fluff Alabama’s resumé should they win? Probably. But right here and now LSU’s playing legitimate, meaningful football in November in year one of a new regime. I can’t ask for much more.

2. So this Jayden Daniels guy. He was impressive back in 2019 and had a decent 2021, but he’s never been a particularly big deal, nationally. Now, he’s just absolutely blowing up at LSU. Give us some background on him, how he plays, and why things are working better for him at LSU than we’ve seen in the past.

So coming out of high school, Daniels was about as highly touted a prospect as they came. He was No. 35 overall and No. 3 in California and, as you pointed out, had a really strong freshman season.

His first five games or so as a Tiger were...let’s say a little rough. He was basically playing like a much more elusive Anthony Jennings but the past two games something’s flipped and he’s been responsible for 11 touchdowns and zero turnovers. His struggles weren’t solely on him: the playcalling was questionable at best, the offensive line looked no better than the group that struggled heavily in 2020 and 2021, and his receivers weren’t exactly helping him out either when the ball did find its way to their hands. But just as his struggles weren’t all on him, the resolution hasn’t been solely Daniels either. Mike Denbrock is calling his ass off right now; the offensive line, flanked by two true freshman tackles no less, is growing up before our eyes, and those receivers are starting to hold up their end of the bargain.

How does Daniels play? I’m not bullshitting you guys, he’s got Mike Vick speed out there. This kid can fly, LSU’s never had a quarterback that can move like him. It’s like if Trindon Holiday played quarterback. He’s also just a gamer. To me the thing he and Bryce Young have in common is their poise; nothing seems to rattle him. Why are things working out better now than in ‘20 and ‘21? Well remember in ‘19 he was throwing to future first round draft pick Brandon Aiyuk. Arizona State didn’t have a receiver nearly as talented as Aiyuk on the roster in ‘20 and ‘21 and Daniels’ play dipped because of it. Now at LSU he’s got future pros, future first round picks no less, to throw the ball to and surprise surprise his numbers are picking back up. To me the QB-WR relationship has always been a chicken and egg situation; in Daniels case his play seems to be dictated by the level of talent surrounding him.

3. Do we need to fear any of LSU’s running backs, or is the rushing game really just the Daniels show?

You know I wouldn’t say you necessarily have to “fear” Josh Williams, because he’s not a future pro by any stretch of the imagination. In fact he’s a former walk-on now on scholarship. But I’ll tell you one thing, any time 27 gets the ball you’ll groan a little bit because he just runs so damn hard. It really is amazing, LSU’s got former four and five-stars on the depth chart but it’s the former walk on who has emerged as the most complete back. Every time Williams gets the ball he falls forward; his legs never stop driving and he’ll always push the pile another yard or two. If we’re using a boxing analogy he just throws body blow after body blow and sooner or later he’ll rip a big run off because guys just get tired of hitting him. He’s kind of like a less dynamic Clyde Edwards-Helaire. He may not look the part, but he’ll just always throw his heart across the line and his body follows.

4. Kayshon Boutte was a bit of a punchline last year, but he’s back and playing like a legitimate SEC receiver this year. However, it’s Malik Nabers who’s gobbling up all the targets. Is Nabers the best receiver on the team? Or a beneficiary of easy targets?

I mean I wouldn’t say punchline, he had 9 touchdowns through six games last season before his ankle exploded. But to your point, the offseason drama “will he/won’t he transfer” drama was exhausting and he certainly didn’t make the best impression upon returning to the field against Florida State. Boutte is still the most naturally gifted receiver on the roster, and Nabers has the most dawg in him but I’m partial to fellow sophomore Brian Thomas Jr. as the best receiver on the team. Thomas is 6’4” and had major D1 offers to play basketball at the next level but decided to stay with football and you can just see the body control and the box out ability he has on the football field. With his frame jump balls aren’t 50/50, they’re closer to 60/40.

5. Your ENTIRE secondary is a bunch of senior transfers from other schools — Arkansas, La. Lafayette, and McNeese(??). Has the outside veteran experience there seemed to stabilize some of the internal turmoil we witness from the tail end of the Orgeron era?

It has. I long maintained over the summer that yes LSU’s secondary may not be as talented as years past but it’s not like they’ll be rolling out freshmen and JUCO guys. Joe Foucha and Greg Brooks were multi-year starters at Arkansas; Sevyn Banks played for a national championship at Ohio State in 2020; Jay Ward played as a freshman on that 2019 LSU national championship team. The secondary’s being held together by some combination of gum, string, and duct tape, but LSU as a program needed to get some adults back in the room because Lord knows the last guy they had was less of a head coach and more of a 50something year old frat bro that was more interested in chasing skirt and fighting dudes in Cabo.

6. B.J. Ojulari and Ali Gaye return on the edges and bring quite a few career sacks to the table. In terms of SEC pass rushing tandems, where would you rank these two?

I wouldn’t rank them as the best tandem on their own team actually. You guys follow college football, I’m sure you’ve heard about true freshman Harold Perkins. Well if you haven’t, this kid wearing 40 is unbelievable. He’s a total difference maker and he’s barely scratched the surface of his potential. It’s funny, the people who like really know the Xs and Os of football say “well there’s a reason he’s not out there every single play” “He’s a liability at this, he’s not great at that” so on and so forth. And yet the dummies like me get to play the “40 = GOOD” card and it wins every time. You won’t need a PFF subscription to see LSU’s defense is better when Perkins is on the field.

7. What specific position group matchup are you most confident about in the upcoming game (and which one makes you the most nervous)?

You know what’s funny? For as much as I say LSU’s secondary is being held together by gum and string, I actually think they match up okay with Alabama’s receivers. If LSU was rolling out this secondary against the Smith/Waddle/Jeudy/[REDACTED] group y’all had in ‘19 I simply wouldn’t even bother playing the game. But this current group of Bama receivers aren’t that ‘19 group and I think LSU’s DBs can hold their own. I also like the inverse of LSU’s receivers going up against Alabama’s DBs. I still think LSU, not Tennessee, has the best collection of receivers in the conference and I think they’ll have some extra juice if Elias Ricks is out there opposite any of them. I personally don’t care that Ricks transferred, but I’m sure his former teammates are way more miffed about it than I am.

What makes me nervous? Look I love true freshman left tackle Will Campbell, he’s the best lineman we’ve had since La’el Collins or maybe even Andrew Whitworth. But I’m worried Will Anderson is going to make him look like an 18-year-old Saturday. How many times have we said it’s going to come down to can LSU’s offensive line get a push against Alabama’s defensive front? And how many times has Alabama overwhelmed LSU at the point of attack? Exactly. It’s going to come down to this matchup again and while LSU’s really starting to show they’re building something along the offensive line, I fear we won’t really see those dividends pay off until 2023 at the earliest.

8. The word is out. Alabama’s dynasty is cracking and crumbling (again) after losing their third game in 3 seasons. Nobody fears the Crimson Tide anymore (except Miss State). What’s your confidence level that LSU can get their 2nd win over the Tide in 4 years?

It’s higher than it has any right being, and that’s a testament to the job Brian Kelly’s done in year one. This season was supposed to be “wins don’t matter, resetting the culture is all we’re wanting.” Loser talk basically. You know what’s better than resetting a culture? Actually winning games along the way. Beating Florida in the Swamp while you’re rebuilding rules. Taking Ole Miss’s 7-0 start and throwing it to the deepest pits of hell kicks ass.

Coming into the season, LSU had no business being ranked 10th in the first CFP poll and playing a pseudo SEC West Championship game. And yet here we are. The Tigers are playing their best ball of the season, they’re at home, and they’ll get that game at night so everyone in Baton Rouge can have at least 12 hours to get properly inebriated. I don’t think LSU wins, however. I think Alabama’s depth means LSU is going to be punching above their weight class and this team isn’t quite ready to beat a team like Alabama. But if things continue to trend the way they are for LSU well...that 2023 game in T-Town’s going to be awfully interesting.

9. Does LSU take over as unquestioned top dog in the SEC West in 2023?

I won’t be so foolhardy to say unquestioned as soon as next season. Does Brian Kelly have the Tigers ahead of schedule? Absolutely and I think come next media days you can have a legitimate “LSU or Alabama?” discussion. I think that come 2023 we’ll see order be restored to the universe and see LSU reclaim their spot as chief challenger to Alabama. To quote Coach Swamp Thing “we comin’.” But for the past 15 years the road to Atlanta has more often than not gone through Tuscaloosa and that stuff matters.