It’s Alabama week (again) and Ed Orgeron has to manage two major challenges: (1) preparing an inconsistent team for a prime-time home game against the nation’s top-ranked Crimson Tide, and (2) maintaining the enthusiasm of the locker room in the wake of LSU’s best offensive player opting out of the rest of the season.
They are certainly connected.
Throwing the ball to Terrace Marshall was one of the only things that worked for LSU offensively in its 20-7 loss at Texas A&M on Saturday. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound junior caught five passes for 52 yards on the final drive alone, and his 3-yard touchdown reception kept the Tigers from being shut out for the first time in two seasons.
Turns out, that was the final play of Marshall’s collegiate career.
The next morning, Marshall met with Orgeron and informed his coach that he wouldn’t be playing the rest of the season. The decision apparently caught Orgeron off guard. He told reporters Monday that he had not heard about Marshall opting out until Sunday morning.
Marshall's departure, on the surface, was indeed a surprising development, news that came less than two weeks after he gave a speech in a players-only meeting to bring the team together before its 27-24 win at Arkansas.
However, it's a decision that was brewing for about a week, multiple sources told The Advocate. Texas A&M was going to be Marshall's final game, and even Friday's news that the Alabama game had been rescheduled didn't change his mind.
Orgeron figured this was “strictly a business decision” for Marshall, who is expected to be selected in the early rounds of the NFL draft, and the millions of dollars he’ll make as a professional will fulfill the long-held dream he wrote about in a Sunday social media post that said retiring his parents has been his “#1 mission.”
“I know he’s going to have a great career in the NFL, and he’s always going to be a great Tiger,” Orgeron said. “He did a lot of things for us… He just thought this was the time to opt out. So, we’re going to respect his decision and wish him the best.”
Orgeron said he respected that Marshall came and spoke to him in person. They had a close relationship. Orgeron recruited Marshall. He played with Marshall’s great-uncle, the late Joe Delaney, at Northwestern State. When Myles Brennan was first injured, Marshall met with Orgeron in his office to talk about who the next quarterback would be.
"So, it was a little different between a player and a coach with me and him," Orgeron said. "It was almost like family. So, he came and talked to me like a man. He explained his decision. I respected his decision."
Still, there's Marshall's speech before the Arkansas game. It leaves a lingering question about its sincerity and how the locker room will reconcile the star wide receiver's message of unity with his ultimate decision to leave.
“I think it’s something we’ve got to deal with,” Orgeron said. “Obviously, he had a change of heart. I thought when he said it he meant it, and the team believed him. I think that obviously he had a change of heart. You can never tell what’s going on with guys when they talk with their families or people they need to talk to when they make personal decisions. I think this was strictly a business decision for Terrace. I can’t speak for him. Let him speak for it. But, again, we support him and he’s been a great LSU Tiger for us.”
How Marshall’s decision will influence the team’s overall morale is “something we can’t control,” Orgeron said. The coach added no other player has talked to him about also opting out. He knows the NCAA issued a pandemic-era rule that allows players to opt out at any time in the season without recourse, and he said, “we’ll take it day by day and see.”
It’s the same perspective Orgeron had before the season began, when defensive tackle Neil Farrell became the first LSU player to opt out. Several starters followed, even though Farrell eventually returned to the team: Ja’Marr Chase, LSU’s 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner; Kary Vincent, a former starting nickel safety and potential cornerback; Tyler Shelvin, the projected starting defensive tackle.
Each of those players joined a preseason trend that happened nationally, and the same national trend is happening again as the end of the season nears. On Sunday, Florida State cornerback Asante Samuel and Texas left tackle Sam Cosmi — both potential early round draft picks — both announced they were sitting out the rest of the season.
These sorts of decisions have started to happen more often in recent years, but usually it’s during the bowl season. LSU fans can remember when former cornerback Greedy Williams sat out the 2019 Fiesta Bowl to preserve his health before the NFL draft.
But the NCAA’s coronavirus pandemic policies have created an environment where it’s possible and more acceptable for players to leave before the regular season is even over.
Just as Florida State and Texas are no longer in contention for league championships, LSU dropped to a 3-4 record after its loss and is a four-touchdown underdog to Alabama. They will play No. 6 Florida after that. Then Ole Miss. Then whatever bowl game that might be possible, since win requirements are no longer necessary this year.
Still, those are all the kinds of games Orgeron would expect he would be able to field his best players. Especially Alabama.
“I never thought this would happen this week,” Orgeron said. “You know what? We got to deal with it. This is a year we’ve had to deal with a lot of stuff. You just got to be ready to go, stay positive with the football team. I think the team is going to look at it and say, ‘OK, Terrace is gone, next man up, we’re fighting.' I think the thing you saw against Texas A&M was fight in this football team, the will to win and compete. Our guys have that. I’m proud of them for that.”
So who will replace Marshall in LSU's struggling offense? Against Alabama, the Tigers won't have any of the three starters Orgeron thought they would have to start the season. He doesn't expect Racey McMath to return this week from the injury he suffered against Arkansas.
LSU most often lines up with three receivers, plus tight end Arik Gilbert. It's likely LSU's three-man starting rotation will now include Jaray Jenkins, Kayshon Boutte and Jontre Kirklin. Each player has started at least two games this season.
Orgeron said Monday that it's possible they could even split Gilbert out as a receiver. For several weeks, Orgeron has said LSU needs to throw Gilbert the ball more. The 6-foot-5, 249-pound former Gatorade National Player of the Year has drawn plenty of comparisons to former Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson from LSU staffers and players, and he's technically now LSU's leading receiver with 30 catches, 339 yards and two touchdowns.
"We have a lot of guys who are hungry to catch the ball," Orgeron said, "and I think the next man up is going to prove they're very good receivers."