Kayshon Boutte thought about leaving LSU. He really did. When rumors floated around about the possibility in December, the star wide receiver was wondering whether he should transfer to another school.
It never reached the point where Boutte entered the transfer portal, but consider the circumstances. Everything around him was changing while he recovered from the first major injury of his career.
Different coaches. Different teammates. Different staff members. The people who persuaded him to pick LSU in the first place were gone. Should he leave, too?
“Coming out of high school, I felt like the people who recruited me was the people who had the most trust and belief in me,” Boutte said. “I felt like being under a new staff, it was all kind of weird playing for people I never really met. I didn't really know any of them personally. I felt like I didn't fit."
Boutte wanted to know the people around him, and he barely recognized any of the faces in the building. Coming off a season-ending ankle injury in October, his professional future hinged on this junior season. He needed to trust the coaches responsible for developing him.
“I thought about it,” Boutte said. “I really did. There was a lot going on.”
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Ultimately, Boutte stayed. He got more comfortable with coach Brian Kelly. He decided he should "overcome this process." And it helped that local personal injury attorney Gordon McKernan signed him to a name, image and likeness deal. On Dec. 29, Boutte posted on Twitter: “Ignore the rumors … I’m locked in.”
Fast forward eight months, and Boutte practiced for the first time Thursday since his injury last season as LSU opened preseason camp. The team didn’t do much, but he looked smooth going through individual drills in his new No. 7 jersey.
Although Kelly had to remind his preseason All-Southeastern Conference receiver “how to practice the right way” because they had never shared the field together, he recognized Boutte’s dedication multiple times.
Boutte appreciated the coaching. He knows he has to meet a standard.
“He's so committed,” Kelly said. “He's worked so hard. I'm excited for him, really. You can see his potential is one of — can he be the best receiver in the country? I think he can be. But you got to go out and do it.”
The practices marked an important step for Boutte in his recovery. Ten months ago, he led the country with nine touchdowns, putting him in contention for the Biletnikoff Award. Then he planted his foot in the ground in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss to Kentucky. The limb folded.
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Boutte knew he was hurt when he tried to stand. He couldn’t move. Athletic trainers drove him to the locker room.
“Will I be able to play next week?” Boutte asked.
“Probably not,” he was told.
Boutte never had experienced a severe injury like that. He watched the next game from the sideline with a scooter supporting his lower right leg.
He wheeled around for a while. Then came crutches. Eventually, a walking boot. In the meantime, LSU fired Ed Orgeron, the coach who recruited him out of high school.
While LSU finished the season, Boutte struggled. The injury sent his mind to a darker place.
“I didn't know how to accept that I was hurt,” he said.
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Making matters worse, the ankle didn’t properly heal. Boutte added that he didn’t help himself. “I could have did better on my part” by being more diligent with rehab, he said. Either way, he underwent another surgery at some point, extending the recovery process. His motivation wavered.
By the end of the year, Boutte wondered whether he should go somewhere else. McKernan heard rumors of another SEC team pursuing LSU’s best player while duck hunting in Kansas. He reached out through a mutual connection and began negotiating an NIL deal with Boutte’s family. (Boutte denied Alabama or Texas A&M tried to poach him.)
“We can't allow that to happen,” McKernan said. “We can't have our best player, our star player, leave us for a rival school.”
Boutte’s father, Embrick, told The Advocate earlier this year the agreement made his son feel more comfortable about his status at LSU, though he said at the time Boutte hadn't considered transferring. Terms of the contract aren’t known.
“It played a little part,” Boutte said, “but I was more worried about the football than the off-the-field stuff.”
The more Kelly talked, the more Boutte began to trust the new coach’s vision. Their relationship still needed time to develop. Trust goes both ways, Kelly has said, and they were still getting to know each other when spring ball started in March. The day before the first practice, Kelly publicly challenged Boutte to be more engaged while his ankle healed.
Over the next few months, Boutte said he talked to Kelly almost every day. They occasionally texted each other, and when Boutte learned that he registered a 3.5 GPA during the spring semester, he called his coach. Kelly said it was the highest mark of Boutte’s career.
“It was important for me to call him because going through my injury process, I wasn't where I felt like I needed to be,” Boutte said. “Being that I was finally able to walk again and do different things, I was more motivated to get back. So I was more focused on school [and] football.”
Since issuing the challenge, Kelly often has complimented Boutte, who attended every open spring practice in a walking boot. At one point, Boutte stood near wide receivers coach Cortez Hankton during a live scrimmage. He listened to the calls and gave his teammates tips.
Kelly awarded Boutte the No. 7 jersey, further confirming their mutual trust and adding to lofty expectations. Boutte caught 38 passes for 509 yards and nine touchdowns in six games last year. His speed presented a matchup problem, especially from the slot. Already a projected first-round pick, he could launch himself up NFL draft boards with a full season.
“He's a constant threat,” junior linebacker Mike Jones Jr. said. “Any play, it can be a touchdown with him on the field. Super explosive player. From the defensive side of the ball, you have to adjust the way you play defense to cater to a guy like that.”
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“Dude’s going to make a lot of plays this year,” junior defensive tackle Jaquelin Roy said. “Big money plays.”
Boutte shed the walking boot earlier this summer. He has felt healthy for about a month now, but he has to clear a few remaining mental blocks. There are still moments when he feels scared to plant his foot in a certain direction, worried it will fold and make him rehab all over again. He doesn’t want to repeat the recovery process.
“You got to go through it, honestly,” Boutte said. “Get comfortable with stepping back, cutting back. I gotta get comfortable.”
Whenever he does, Boutte can resume the path he was on last fall, before the injury, the recovery, the thought of changing schools or the adjustments he had to make with a new coach.
“It’s going to be a good feeling picking up where I left off,” Boutte said, “but be better this time.”