Tigers Hope To Restore Team Chemistry Of 2019
By Ron Higgins
One of Ed Orgeron’s consistent traits in his 102 games as LSU’s head football coach is assessing and correcting mistakes.
Sometimes, it’s something as simple as sloppy tackling, which is an easy fix. Practice makes perfect.
In other cases, though, rectifying blunders like bad assistant coaching hires, unexpected injuries and a string of off-the-field unforeseen problems during the season isn’t so easy.
The Tigers’ 2019 15-0 national championship season was an absolute heaven that didn’t last long. Two months after LSU celebrated its title win over Clemson in New Orleans, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down college sports for four months.
Those months started Orgeron and the Tigers’ 2020 season on a highway to hell and a 5-5 record (with a revamped schedule playing only SEC teams) that featured:
• Orgeron not being dialed into his African-American players’ sensitivity involving Black Lives Matter.
• The loss of 15 players selected in the 2020 NFL Draft, followed by the preseason optouts of 2019 Biletnikoff Award-winning wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and nose tackle Tyler Shelvin.
• New hires Bo Pelini as defensive coordinator and passing game coordinator Scott Linehan being absolute flops and fired after one season.
The defense was statistically (34.9 points, 492 yards per game allowed) the worst in LSU history, and the Tigers’ red zone offense (Linehan’s responsibility) dropped from a 96 percent success rate (72 of 75, including 59 TDs) in 2019 to 82 percent (28 of 34, 18 TDs) in 2020.
• There was also the LSU program being dragged through the mud by USA Today investigative reports detailing a string of unchecked sexual assaults by Tigers football players and a looming NCAA investigation for which LSU sanctioned itself, hoping to lessen later penalties.
“Last year was a tough season with a lot of things going on,” junior placekicker Cade York said. “Came in with COVID, then a bunch of racial awareness stuff going on. There was a lot of uncertainty and stress. Sometimes, it wasn’t handled well.”
No one was happier to turn the page to 2021 than Orgeron, who turned 60 on July 27.
“There’s [now] a sense of normalcy,” said Orgeron, who’s starting his fifth full season guiding the Tigers. “It’s completely different than the atmosphere last year. There were a lot of outside influences that caused negativity. There was some stuff we couldn’t control.”
Room For Improvement
Orgeron spent the off-season assessing things he could have handled better in 2020, such as:
• Making sure he personally interviews all the coaches he hires, something he didn’t do prior to last season when he hired Pelini and Linehan. “There were some interviews that were not face to face,” Orgeron said. “I said I would never do that again.”
• Understanding that as the head coach, and not someone who is too self-conscious about micromanaging his staff, he has the power to make immediate in-game adjustments when he sees something he doesn’t like. “If it’s not done the way I want, I’m going to fix it,” Orgeron said. “If I see something broke, I’m fixing it.”
• Creating more lines of communication with his players to become more in tune with off-the-field issues such as Black Lives Matter. “We’ve had more team meals, and I’ve had more leadership committees,” Orgeron said. “I told these guys, ‘You’ve got to promise me if anything is going wrong, let me know first. If I can fix it, I will. Let’s communicate. If there’s something that we need to be doing better in our university that I can help, I will help.’
“We’re giving them all the means that we can to have an open line of communication, and I think that’s going to help for this year.”
Orgeron hired six new assistants who are considerably younger than the previous staff, including offensive and defensive coordinators who have yet to call a play on college football’s FBS (Division 1-A) level.
“Coaches are going to know a lot of football, but it’s how much they can get to our players and how much our players will know,” Orgeron said. “Every one of these coaches I hired averaged 20 years younger than the coaches I had on the staff. Every one of these coaches made an A-plus in communication with our players.”
A Need For Unity
It never felt like last year’s team was on the same page. And COVID-19 played a major role in that because it wiped out almost all of spring practice and a large chunk of off-season workouts.
The timing of COVID-19 and LSU having many new starters, including a new quarterback and new coaching hires in such key spots as defensive coordinator and passing game coordinator, resulted in a string of exceptionally bad performances on both sides of the ball.
“Last year, because of COVID and stuff, we didn’t really have time to actually bond as a team,” LSU defensive end Andre Anthony said. “Everybody was going to their separate places. We were quarantining at home. We really didn’t get to be around each other but a week or two for camp.
“A lot of situations last year happened from lack of communication. Everybody was on different pages.”
Tweaking The Championship Offense
When it came to simple Xs and Os, Orgeron didn’t like much of what he saw offensively and defensively last season.
The Joe Brady 2019 national championship offense, built on then-new passing game coordinator Brady’s philosophy of getting the ball to playmakers in space, was AWOL last season after Brady left to become offensive coordinator of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
So Orgeron changed his offensive brain trust, with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger retiring and Linehan being fired.
Orgeron called Brady, asked him if he knew any other coaches who could run his offense, and then hired Brady’s Carolina offensive assistants Jake Peetz and D.J. Mangus.
“The type of offense we’re going to run, the style of offense of 2019, it’s the type of checks that we had, the type of protections,” Orgeron said. “I want to see the same type of plays; I want to see the same type of adjustments that were so successful for us.
“Now, that doesn’t mean that the only thing we’re going to do is run. But that is going to be the basis of our offense, which is a spread offense, which we learned under Joe Brady.”
Also, last season under one-and-done defensive coordinator Pelini, LSU gave up several big plays almost every game because of lack of communication between Pelini and the players and among the players themselves.
Pelini and safeties coach Bill Busch were fired and D-line coach Bill Johnson retired. Orgeron hired younger coaches as replacements. These included Minnesota Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones as defensive coordinator/safeties coach, New York Jets assistant Andre Carter as defensive tackles coach and Miami co-defensive coordinator Blake Baker as linebackers coach.
‘Eliminate Explosive Plays’
“We have to eliminate explosive plays,” Orgeron said. “There were too many explosive plays in 2020; too many missed assignments. Too many busts. Too many receivers running down the field free. And we played a lot of man and a lot of combination of man; stuff like that. Some of it was simple. Some of it was too complicated.
“We’re going to simplify stuff. We want our players to have their cleats in the grass. We’re going to play a lot more zone. They’re not going to be switching off of this level, switching off of that level. We want our guys to play, keep the ball in front of us, and make plays.”
Restoring Team Chemistry
LSU has plenty of experienced talent on both sides of the ball. The Tigers return 18 of 22 starters, including their entire defensive line and all starters but one on the offensive line.
Two-time all-American junior cornerback Derek Stingley, Jr., is projected as a Top 5 pick in the 2022 NFL draft. Sophomore wide receiver Kayshon Boutte, who last season set an SEC record for most receiving yards in a game (308 versus Ole Miss), leads a talented receiving corps that features five four-star rated incoming freshmen.
The talent is in place for a 9 and possibly a 10-win season.
But Orgeron isn’t so much trying to recreate 2019’s season of perfection as he is making sure his team understands the process of what is required to make that magical ride again.
It’s about restoring team chemistry — something as simple as all the defensive backs, according to safety Jay Ward, hanging out at a fellow DB’s house, such as Stingley’s, to “watch movies, play basketball and chill.”
It’s an entire offense going to work in the off-season, making sure all the t’s are crossed and all the i’s are dotted.
“A complete spring and getting all these workouts has given us time to build relationships,” LSU fifth-year senior offensive tackle Austin Deculus said. “Not just as a team, but within the positions, being able to work together — from the wide receivers to the quarterbacks, to the O-line to the running backs, to the D-line to the linebackers. You’re really seeing that chemistry grow.”
Last season, after adversity hit LSU early as starting quarterback Myles Brennan suffered a season-ending torn abdomen in the third game of the season, the Tigers played like it was every man for himself until they closed the season with two wins, with victories at No. 6 Florida and at home versus Ole Miss.
That’s why Orgeron emphasized team chemistry so much in the off-season.
‘We Have To Be Better’
What happens when bad things happen to the 2021 Tigers? Well, they already have, even before the Sept. 4 season opener against UCLA in Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif.
The most notable misfortune is Brennan breaking his left arm when his flip-flop got caught in a loose board in Grand Isle five days before the start of preseason. He isn’t scheduled to return until late October at the earliest.
He was prepared to battle sophomore Max Johnson for the starting job. Johnson, who started in the Florida and Ole Miss victories, is now the starter, with true freshman Garrett Nussmeier as his backup.
There have been several other nagging preseason injuries to key personnel. But Orgeron vows his team is motivated to walk through any fire.
“We know that we have to be better than we were last year,” said Orgeron, whose team is ranked No. 13 in the USA Today/Coaches preseason poll and No. 16 preseason by the Associated Press. “That was not the LSU standard of performance. I think there’s a little chip on my shoulder. A chip on their shoulder.
“A lot of guys came back for that reason. We knew that we could play better. We feel we have a very good football team, but we feel we have to improve ourselves. Expectations are high and we invite that.”