Better or worse? Previewing LSU's offense in 2019
Editor’s note: After completing the SEC East, this is the fourth in a series previewing every SEC West team’s offense. Coming Friday: Mississippi State.
LSU has been trying to refine its offensive identity ever since Ed Orgeron replaced Les Miles as head coach after the first four games of the 2016 season.
Orgeron immediately fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and promoted tight ends coach Steve Ensminger to coordinator. The move paid significant dividends as Ensminger added creativity to the passing game and productivity soared the rest of the season.
But after that season Orgeron asked Ensminger to return to his tight end duties so he could bring in a bigger name as coordinator and he lured Matt Canada away from Pitt. It seemed like a solid hire at the time, but Canada’s constantly shifting formations and addition of jet sweeps never meshed with Orgeron’s West Coast vision and the partnership ended after erratic production in 2017.
Ensminger returned to coordinate last season, and despite the absence of a marquee running back and the need to bring in Joe Burrow late as a graduate transfer to shore up the quarterback position, the Tigers showed improvement on offense, though they were far from spectacular.
LSU was balanced, ranking 59th in rushing offense, 66th in passing offense and 68th in total offense, and ranked its highest (37th) in scoring offense, averaging 32.4 points per game despite not scoring against Alabama.
Expectations are higher for this season even though the 10-3 Tigers lost a 1,000-yard rusher in Nick Brossette and a team leader in tight end Foster Moreau. The loss of Garrett Brumfield was a blow to an offensive line that has been in a state of flux for the past year.
But the arrival of highly regarded running back John Emery Jr. and offensive linemen Anthony Bradford and Kardell Thomas could create a net gain.
Passing offense: Better
The hiring of former New Orleans Saints assistant Joe Brady as passing game coordinator had Orgeron beaming during the spring that he finally had the offense that he had wanted since taking the head coaching job.
Brady also is taking over for the retired Jerry Sullivan as the position coach for a bunch of underachieving but very talented receivers. The exception to that is Justin Jefferson, who was outstanding last season. Terrace Marshall Jr. and Ja’Marr Chase showed signs late in their freshman seasons last year of figuring things out.
Freshmen Trey Palmer and Devonta Lee arrive with the talent to get into the mix, but more experienced players such as Stephen Sullivan, Derrick Dillon, Dee Anderson, and Jonathan Giles return as Burrow has his top 5 targets from last year on hand once again.
Brady has installed run-pass options, allowing Burrow to run an offense resembling the one he was weaned on at Ohio State. The Tigers plan to play at a faster pace, making it more difficult for defenses to substitute and easier for LSU to identify favorable match-ups.
There are no proven tight ends nor any 5-star recruits arriving as Moreau’s successor, so that leaves a question mark at tight end, but there’s more talent at the skill positions than the Tigers had last season.
Burrow had to play catch-up after arriving last summer, so he should be more comfortable after his first season as a college starter, though the arrival of Brady and his revised passing scheme does require more learning.
He was efficient all of last season (16 touchdowns, 5 interceptions) and came on strong late, passing for a career-high 394 yards in the Fiesta Bowl victory against UCF.
Rushing offense: Better
Most of the buzz around the offense deals with Brady’s passing game and the expectation that the Tigers will be more creative and productive in the air than they have been in recent memory.
But the running game won’t be taking a back seat, just sharing the front seat, especially with halfbacks and fullbacks being used more in the passing game.
The pairing of Emery with returning Clyde Edwards-Burrow gives LSU a more talented 1-2 punch than it had last season, though Brossette’s breakout senior season was a revelation. Another freshman – Tyrion Davis-Price – and veterans Lanard Fournette and Chris Curry provide significant depth.
The offensive line had a lot of moving parts last season because of injuries and disciplinary actions. A group that could have been a strength wound up being inconsistent.
There remains some uncertainty because of strong competition at multiple positions, but there’s enough talent and experience on hand to form a very good starting unit, plus depth and flexibility if the key players remain available.
This unit will have to be consistent and above average in both the running game and the passing game if LSU is going to have the balance, unpredictability and productivity that Orgeron has been pursuing for nearly 3 years.
It’s up to Ensminger and Brady to meld the ability to line up and run at and over opponents, which has always been an LSU staple, with a passing game that is newly dangerous and hard to predict.
Special teams: Worse
The place-kicking went from a weakness to a strength with the arrival of Cole Tracy as a graduate transfer last year. Now that he’s gone, the Tigers are hoping that freshman Cade York can pick up where Tracy left off, but that’s a tall order.
Zach Von Rosenberg and Josh Growden return as a solid punting tandem.
Edwards-Helaire had a good season retuning kickoffs last year and freshman defensive back Derrick Stingley Jr. is being counted on to upgrade a moribund punt return game.
The potential is there for LSU to finally have the breakout season in the passing game that has been long sought. But Brady is a rookie passing game coordinator, so the expectation that the Tigers’ passing game suddenly will resemble Drew Brees and the Saints’ is unrealistic.
Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to think LSU will be balanced, productive and periodically explosive on offense, which will be necessary if the Tigers are going to return to national-contender status.