KJ Malone missed the cookies most of all.
On the Friday night before each home game, the LSU football team bunks at the on-campus Cook Hotel, where cookies are provided to players. Sidelined with injury for the past six weeks, Malone has spent Friday nights at his apartment.
He’ll be reunited this week with those cookies and his Cook Hotel roommate, center Will Clapp.
KJ is back — at least partially — for the regular-season finale against Texas A&M, the final home game for him and 19 other seniors on this squad.
“I want to suit up one more time (at Tiger Stadium) and have my roommate back one last time in Lod Cook,” he said.
And those cookies too, right?
“I miss those,” a smiling Malone said.
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Malone, the Tigers’ fifth-year senior left tackle, remains “very questionable” to play against the Aggies (7-4, 4-3 Southeastern Conference). He’ll test his injured knee this week in practice, he said, with the goal to, at the very least, dress out for Saturday night’s game.
The 19th-ranked Tigers (8-3, 5-2) might need his boost, at least emotionally, against a stiff test. Sure, LSU has won six straight in the series, but this year’s Aggies are the best in the league in sacking the quarterback.
They’ve got an SEC-high 36 sacks, with LSU second at 33.
“You can see why they would (lead the conference),” quarterback Danny Etling said. “Extremely talented up front, and (they) get after the quarterback and get pressure with their down four guys. Those are things you have to challenge yourself and be ready for. They’ve got a talented defense and a good coach.”
You might know that coach. Defensive coordinator John Chavis spent six seasons as coordinator in Baton Rouge before leaving the program after 2014 for A&M. LSU and Chavis recently settled a 30-month-old lawsuit over a $400,000 buyout the school said he owed because of the timing of his departure to College Station, Texas.
Coach Ed Orgeron side-stepped two questions about Chavis on Monday, offering no verbal response — he shook his head — to one of them in an exchange with a reporter.
Chavis left here before most of LSU’s players arrived. Only the fourth-year juniors and seniors were part of teams with Chavis.
Malone is included in that group. He’ll be one of six fifth-year seniors the program plans to honor in a pregame ceremony Saturday night, including one sixth-year guy, Corey Thompson.
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An emotional time? Why, yes, Orgeron and players said.
“There will be a lot of emotion,” Orgeron said, “and these guys will be fired up to win for their teammates, and our teammates are going to be fired up to play to win for them, but after the first play, that all goes away. It's about alignment, technique and execution.”
It’s about blocking A&M’s sack-crazed front, too.
Orgeron calls the line’s pass protection the “key” to the game, “the protection we use, how many people we use in protection, and find out their best rusher and do something with it. I don't think that we can let their best rusher be single-blocked all game.”
Whether Malone will play a significant role seems very much in doubt. He expected to know more about his status after Monday’s practice, the first time he was to run full speed since the injury.
He wasn't looking forward to that.
“Today’s going to be really rough,” he laughed before Monday afternoon’s indoor practice.
Malone injured the patellar tendon in his left knee Oct. 7 in the first quarter of the win at Florida. He returned to that game for one drive in the second half before pulling himself because of the aching tendon, which connects the lower leg bone with the kneecap.
“I just wanted to be out there. I felt I was letting my teammates down,” he said. “When I went out there, I was like, ‘Oh… it’s hurt and if I whiff, it’s going to be my block that lose the game.’”
He’s spent the past six weeks lifting weights and rehabilitating the knee with a scheduled return date against Alabama. The pain, though, lingered well past that Nov. 4 date. He’s still got lingering pain in the knee, but, he said, “I can’t miss my last week.”
Returning to the starting lineup seems like a long shot.
Though he’s a true freshman, Saahdiq Charles has grown into his role at left tackle, earning praise from Orgeron and teammates over the last month. Forced into starting two rookies — Ed Ingram starts at right guard — LSU's future is bright, players said.
Charles took snaps at left tackle with the starters during practice Monday, as Malone stood by watching.
“Saahdiq has shown a lot,” Malone said. “That’s why I said if I come back, I don’t want to be thrown back in. Saahdiq has done a great job. I don’t want to go in there and just take his spot. I want to earn my way back if I can come back and play.”
Malone later admits that his role might be the same as it’s been for the past six weeks — as an emotional, vocal leader on the sideline. He’s there, too, as an experienced player “if someone goes down” with an injury, he said.
On Monday afternoon, Malone spoke to reporters for the first time since the injury. He sat next to Clapp. The two are best friends, roommates on road trips and for home games at the Cook Hotel.
They jab back and forth.
“Come sit with me,” Clapp said, slapping his knee as if he wanted the 320-pound Malone to plop on his lap like he was visiting Santa Claus.
Clapp’s first move upon entering the interview room was to loft a pretzel toward an open-mouth Malone, only to see it ricochet off his lip and onto his shoulder — all of this unfolding during Malone’s on-camera interview with TV stations.
“Two-minute rule,” Clapp yelled at him, “you’re good.”
Clapp and Malone hold a weekly tradition of watching the previous game’s film each Sunday. It’s just them two normally, sitting in a dark room as the film provides the only light. The tradition has continued the past five games — minus Malone’s presence on said film.
“It sucks when you’re not on the film,” Clapp said.
“It’s tough watching it,” Malone added.
Malone spent road game weekends home in Ruston watching LSU games with his parents, Kay and former NBA standout Karl Malone.
He’s glad those days are over.
“My dad is doing a lot of yelling. I just laugh at him,” KJ said. “Sometimes he starts, and I’m like, ‘Dad, calm down.’”
Clapp, meanwhile, is happy to get his Cook Hotel roommate back, too. He’s roomed with Ingram — who snores too much, Clapp said — and backup center Lloyd Cushenberry.
The A&M game has brought out some of LSU's wildest storylines over the past two years. In 2015, players carried Les Miles off the field after a victory that many believed saved his job. Last year, during a rout of A&M in College Station, reports leaked of LSU’s serious interest in Tom Herman.
What is it this year?
“I guess the big story is KJ coming back,” Clapp said.