We know the cast of characters, but we’ve never seen this LSU before.
Yes the Tigers have been unbeaten; ranked No. 1; and run roughshod over pretty much anyone who stood in their way a few times before this magical season. They have gone on championship runs and caught the fancy of the national media and pundits.
LSU has had a slew of future NFL stars on the roster, including at least one hot shot quarterback under center in recent memory.
And they’ve even had a leading Heisman Trophy candidate in their midst recently — one who was ready to make the trip to the Downtown Athletic Club in New York. But that was before Leonard Fournette spent a tough afternoon in Tuscaloosa.
If not for the usual uniforms, the maze of purple and gold, Death Valley and the thick neck and Cajun garble from Ed Orgeron, I’m not sure anyone from Hackberry to Zwolle to Ville Platte onward to Pierre Part would recognize this batch of Tigers, even in comparison to the LSU of last year.
Let’s begin with the obvious.
This offense is unlike anything LSU has ever run before. Has such an offense ever been considered or even put on a chalkboard or fancy laptop just for giggles? I can’t even imagine Bill Arnsparger, Mike Archer, Gerry DiNardo, Nick Saban, and yes, Les Miles — with the Mad Hatter-three-yards and the cloud of dust — would even sit down long enough to spitball an offensive scheme like what the Tigers are running.
You hear phrases like “complete transformation” and a “360 offensive overhaul” to describe the offense, the plays, formations, schemes, pass routes and execution from the Tigers in 2019.
Think of Trump versus Sanders different.
George Jones versus Keith Urban different.
Caddo Parish accent versus LaFourche Parish.
It’s a new look for LSU, and they are wearing it well to the tune of Top 4 in the country in total offensive yards, passing and scoring.
Orgeron has been wanting a more wide open, spread offense to take advantage of all the play makers he saw come through the doors since he came through those same doors as head coach.
He valiantly tried the motion-centric offense of in and out offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Orgeron didn’t buy into it, didn’t like it and didn’t see eye to eye with Canada.
Steve Ensminger was back in the offensive coordinator’s chair and started to open up the playbook in 2018. But he kept a tight rein on a new, first-year quarterback and young receivers who had a penchant for dropping passes and not getting open.
It all turned around during the off-season when Orgeron came away impressed and mesmerized by a passing clinic that included then New Orleans Saints offensive analyst Joe Brady. Orgeron, who coached a brief stint with Sean Payton and some of the Saints staff, did his homework on Brady and then, in February, promptly signed the 30-year-old whiz kid to his very first full-time assistant coach’s job as the Tigers’ new passing coordinator.
Pretty soon, LSU will announce a new deal for Brady that will enable him to fight off any and all attempts to hire him away from Baton Rouge. Brady’s current contract runs through March, 2021 and pays him $410,000 this year, $435,000 in 2020 and $460,000 in the final year, which makes him the seventh highest paid coach on staff.
It’s the best $400,000 investment in the history of LSU football.
Brady’s knowledge of multiple receiver sets and the run-pass option schemes, which was honed with the Saints and while he was at Penn State, has been a godsend to LSU. When all is said and done, the offensive production this season will rewrite the record books from top to bottom.
Credit the 62-year-old Ensminger for welcoming Brady into the fold to work alongside him to construct a new offensive attack and culture. This would not have worked if Ensminger was, well, anybody besides Ensminger — a veteran coach void of any real ego or pretense who’s open to new ideas and a collaborative spirit.
Ensminger, a former LSU quarterback and longtime friend of Orgeron, was a Tiger to the core and was only interested in helping his beloved football program.
This transformative spread offense simply used the speed, athleticism and playmaking abilities of receivers, running backs and tight ends who were already on the roster. This level of offensive talent was imbedded in the program going back to Les Miles and Saban’s tenures as head coach.
Those two veteran coaches simply went with a different offensive philosophy, and it’s hard to argue with their success to a point. Remember, both Miles and Saban won national championships along their way.
But since Miles’ title in 2007, the Tigers have returned to the championship game only once, and it was a deflating 21-0 shutout loss to Saban’s Alabama Crimson Tide in 2011.
Since then, Bama has been a nearly unstoppable freight train, winning six national titles and notching eight straight defeats over LSU.
Coach O’s old school mentality and stubbornness softened after his three-year struggle and his eventual firing as Ole Miss head coach. He evolved, changed and began listening to the sage advice of his coaching mentor Pete Carroll, who Orgeron went to work for at Southern Cal.
Once back home at LSU, Orgeron saw the run-first approach would not work against the bigger, stronger Alabama defense. He was no longer interested in beating his rather large head against the wall. Coach O began to feel the pain of the head banging as the losses to Alabama mounted.
Orgeron’s flexibility, the trial and error phase with Canada, the process of convincing his buddy Ensminger to resume his post as offensive coordinator and the thinking out of the box hire of Brady were all critical levers that were pulled to set the stage.
Orgeron boldly says adding Brady to the staff was a “game changer.” But the trigger that sparked LSU’s offensive rebirth was the recruitment and signing of a little known but prized back-up quarterback at Ohio State in the spring of 2018.
By now, every football fan in Louisiana knows the Joe Burrow story. The story of the Ohio prep legend; the fair-haired boy wonder who got caught behind two future NFL quarterbacks with the Buckeyes. He comes south to the swamps and the SEC wars and within half a season at the helm, becomes the unquestioned leader of the Tigers.
For the record, without Burrow none of this would have occurred.
None of the school records. None of the four victories over Top 10 teams. None of the 50-plus-point games. None of the breakneck passing and rapid-fire touchdowns. None of the No. 1 rankings. And there would have been no long-awaited and joy-filled victory over nemesis Alabama.
In less than two years, Burrow has not only become the very best quarterback in the SEC, but also the top quarterback in the country and the odds-on favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. If he continues his play and production, Burrow may arguably put together the best single season at quarterback in the history of college football. He has positioned himself to be the first quarterback taken in next April’s NFL draft.
As a graduate student, athlete Burrow has more free time than most of his peers, and he has put that toward more football work and film study. It shows in his decision making, preparation, chemistry with his receivers and most of all, in his nearly 80 percent completion percentage. (If Burrow continues that 80 percent trend, it would set a new NCAA completion percentage record.)
Burrow’s legacy at LSU is cemented already. His lore began with that vicious blindside hit in the Fiesta Bowl against Central Florida. It continued with the third down pressure pass at Texas, and the many hard hits he has taken and the toughness he has shown. It continued with the streak-ending victory over Alabama; the 700 yards of offense at Ole Miss; and, yes, even the unveiling of his rear end.
LSU hasn’t had a generational quarterback with Heisman hopes, well, maybe ever.
LSU has never had an offense this wide open, this productive, this exciting … ever.
It’s something that could and should have happened a long time ago.
Think of how happy Grandpa would have been.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm on Suddenlink cable channel 4 and Saturday and Sunday on CBS Lake Charles/KSWL. Check local listings.