A preemptive defense of LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger
I find myself getting pre-mad about future criticism directed Steve Ensminger’s way.
The LSU offensive coordinator is entering Year 3 on the job, but if you asked the casual college football fan, they might tell you that this is Year 1 for Ensminger running the offense. Of course, when last year’s offense put up more points than any team in FBS history en route to a perfect season and national title, it was sparked by the arrival of Joe Brady’s pro-style spread offense. Brady is now running the Carolina Panthers’ offense while Ensminger is tasked with making sure LSU’s offense isn’t a 1-year wonder.
You know, in case you haven’t heard.
Ed Orgeron reminded the masses of something else that has been a bit lost over the course of the last year. That is, while it was Brady’s offensive philosophy, Ensminger called the majority of LSU’s plays during that historic season:
Ed Orgeron tells the Baton Rouge Rotary Club:
“Let me make sure everybody knows this. Steve Ensminger led this offense. Joe Brady taught us this spread offense, but Steven Ensminger led this offense and called 70 percent oft he plays.” #LSU
— Brody Miller (@BrodyAMiller) July 29, 2020
Orgeron is already doing what I feel compelled to do — preemptively defend Ensminger.
What seems like a 99.9% possibility in 2020 is that in a post-Brady world, LSU’s offense doesn’t match its 2019 production. Yes, I know Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall are back, Racey McMath and Arik Gilbert are getting all sorts of preseason buzz and the running back room is still talented. But even if they returned their entire offense instead of ranking No. 128 in percentage of returning offensive production after having 7 players on that side of the ball get drafted, there would still be a likely step back (the 2019 LSU offense entered the year ranked No. 12 in that category).
Why? Well, there’s the obvious factor of not having a real spring and perhaps a pandemic-interrupted fall. That’s not ideal for a team with so many new pieces. There’s the even more obvious factor of LSU now playing 10 SEC games without any Group of 5/FCS opponents. There are no Utah States or Georgia Southerns for Ensminger to give this new-look offense a chance to get its feet wet. It’s hard to imagine any elite Power 5 offense — at least of the ones remaining — matching its 2019 production given the new conference-only schedules in 2020 (maybe with the exception of the Big 12).
Some would say, well, that’s just reality. Ensminger got a raise from $800,000 to $1 million this offseason. If you’re making 7 figures, you better produce, regardless of what obstacles stand in your way. After all, this is the SEC.
But think about it. Because of the success of last year, Ensminger isn’t going to be evaluated by the standard of SEC offenses in 2020. He’s competing against the 2019 team, especially if the offense has a noticeable step back. It’ll be “they aren’t the same without Brady” or it’ll be “how much did Ensminger really contribute on that 2019 team?”
Those criticisms will ignore the aforementioned issues. It’ll also ignore the fact that LSU had the nation’s No. 38 offense in 2018, despite the fact that it featured a quarterback who arrived on campus that summer without a career start to his name … and it faced 6 defenses that finished in the top 20 in scoring.
Yet if LSU reverts to being anything less than an offensive juggernaut, you know most will blame Ensminger. It won’t be Myles Brennan entering Year 1 as a starter, and it won’t be a ground game that’s loaded with new pieces that still needs to be figured out. It’ll be the coordinator in his early 60s.
I hope he learned how and when to call the other 30%.
— Tracy 🌊🌊🌊 (@ctschwab) July 29, 2020
And in defense of critical LSU fans, I get it. This is a strange spot to be in. You don’t want to watch your team’s offense revert to its pre-2019 ways when getting shut out by Alabama was a far-too-regular occurrence. Last year’s team looked like it was playing a video game (I witnessed the Peach Bowl and still can’t fully believe that happened in a Playoff semifinal game).
But there’s a middle ground here. As I’ve been saying throughout the offseason, even if that unit takes a step back in production, it at least won’t look like the tight-formation, unimaginative LSU offense that ultimately led to Les Miles’ downfall in Baton Rouge. Ensminger is taking Brady’s offense, and if he has it his way, he’ll run with it. Call it the old “teach a man to fish” biblical reference, if you will.
Criticism of Ensminger should have context. If the offense hits a midseason lull that it can’t recover from, yes, he’s definitely worthy of criticism. If we see players speaking out and questioning the play-calling or the communication, yep, that’s also worthy of criticism.
There’s nothing wrong with criticizing Ensminger this year. I mean, the guy is an SEC offensive coordinator. It’d be weird if he didn’t catch some heat.
Just understand that the hand he’s working with is different than the one he shared with Brady last year. Don’t convince yourself the sky is falling if the offense who returns the smallest percentage of production of any Power 5 team doesn’t average 45 points from the jump playing in the sport’s toughest division.
No matter how difficult it might be, don’t treat Ensminger like he’s the guy who’s replacing the legend. That would diminish his 2019 impact. It would also diminish his 2020 challenges.
Orgeron put Ensminger in this role for a reason. If there’s anything that LSU fans should trust, it’s Orgeron’s ability to evaluate personnel.
Remember that there doesn’t have to be a scapegoat if LSU can’t repeat history.