Better or worse? Previewing LSU’s offense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of every SEC’s team’s offense continues with LSU. Coming Thursday: Mississippi State.
The LSU offense was productive, but not productive enough in 2020.
The Tigers gained a lot of yards and scored a lot of points, but they weren’t consistently good enough to carry a poor defense during a 5-5 season.
LSU ranked 39th in the country in scoring (32.0), 35th in total offense (433.9) and 15th in passing offense (312.2). Those are the best statistics from last season, but they are somewhat skewed by the fact that the Tigers didn’t run the ball well and played from behind quite a bit.
So even though the passing, total offense and scoring statistics indicated a reasonably high degree of productivity, they also were boosted by play-calling periodically borne of desperate circumstances.
The Tigers will have to run the ball better, pass well when they want to and not just when they have to and be more balanced and efficient in 2021 if they are going to play from behind less often and become nationally relevant again.
They have the talent and the experience to accomplish that, though there will be a number of position battles in preseason camp to determine precise roles.
Will they be better in 2021? Let’s take a look.
The Tigers return nearly all of their key offensive players.
In fact, LSU had about as many key losses on its offensive coaching staff as it had on its offensive roster.
Head coach Ed Orgeron is counting on those staff changes to be upgrades. Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger transitioned into an analyst’s role, passing game coordinator Scott Linehan was dismissed and landed at Missouri as an analyst, and Orgeron and offensive line coach James Cregg “parted ways” on June 2.
New offensive coordinator Jake Peetz, new passing game coordinator DJ Mangas and new offensive line coach Brad Davis all have experienced players to work with.
The Tigers did a lose a few key players – QB TJ Finley, WR Terrace Marshall Jr. and TE Arik Gilbert – but Finley had been benched and Marshall and Gilbert had quit by the time LSU had 2 of its most impressive performances of 2020 in season-ending wins against Florida and Ole Miss.
So the Tigers aren’t replacing any players who were offensive starters when the offense played its best at the end of last season.
Three quarterbacks made starts in 2020. Myles Brennan started strong before suffering a season-ending abdominal injury. Finley had good and bad moments before his penchant for turnovers led to is benching, and Max Johnson helped lead the December surge. Finley has since announced he is transferring to Auburn.
Kayshon Boutte had an historic receiving performance in the finale, showing he might be able to fill Marshall’s shoes and perhaps even those of 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase – who opted out of 2020 during preseason camp – as the Tigers’ new primary wide receiver.
Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. return and will be joined in the backfield by highly touted freshmen Armoni Goodwin and Corey Kiner. The depth took a minor hit when Tre Bradford recently entered the transfer portal.
Davis, a Baton Rouge native who arrived from Arkansas barely 24 hours after Cregg’s departure, has 5 returning starters to work with on the offensive line.
Passing offense: Better
The departure of Finley, who seemed to slip behind Brennan and Johnson by the end of the spring practice, simplifies the preseason-camp battle.
Both had success last year.
Brennan threw for 1,112 yards, with 11 TDs against just 3 interceptions. Johnson finished 1,069 yards, 8 TDs and 1 INT. As Orgeron noted, Johnson was 2-0 as a starter.
Whoever prevails will get the ball to Boutte, who set an SEC single-game record for receiving yards in the Tigers’ last game, as much as possible. There is plenty of talent, but limited experience around Boutte.
LSU was 84th in the country in sacks allowed last season (2.5 per game). That number should go down if the Tigers are able to keep the starting unit intact better than last season when injuries and suspensions disrupted the continuity.
Johnson would provide a more mobile player under center if he beats out Brennan.
Running game: Better
It will be up to the veteran offensive line to give the stable of running backs a better opportunity to succeed this season than they had last season.
The depth features several capable players, but it’s still a work in progress. The incumbent unit of tackles Dare Rosenthal and Austin Deculus, guards Chasen Hines and Ed Ingram, and center Liam Shanahan is poised for a bounce-back season in the trenches.
LSU ranked 12th in the SEC and 109th in the country in rushing yards per game (121.7) last season. That statistic likely was affected by the Tigers playing from behind so much, but their 3.3 yards-per-carry average ranked just as low as their per-game average, so it wasn’t just limited attempts but also limited efficiency that contributed to the running game’s shortcomings.
The depth and talent on the line and in the backfield should lead to increased yards-per-carry and yards-per-game averages this season.
Kicking game: Better
Cade York has been a very reliable kicker for 2 seasons and should continue to progress as a junior. If Derek Stingley Jr. can stay healthier than he was last season that would upgrade the punt-return game, and Boutte, Trey Palmer and Koy Moore are among the candidates, along with perhaps a couple of freshmen, to fill out the return game.
LSU will be better on offense in 2021. It should run the ball better, pass the ball more consistently and produce more points and yards than last season. It will help if one quarterback keeps the job for the whole season.
The offensive line has experience, depth and continuity. There are plenty of rushers, passers and catchers to operate efficiently behind that line. The new brain trust is returning to the system that produced record numbers in 2019.
Either Brennan or Johnson should be able to orchestrate this group to a performance level higher than that of 2020, although not quite as high as 2019.