Air Canada: What is the ceiling on LSU's passing game in 2017?
BATON ROUGE, La. — It’s no secret former LSU coach Les Miles loved to run the football in a variety of ways, so long as it was out of the I-formation.
The Tigers averaged 2,382 passing yards in Miles’ final seven seasons, never reaching higher than No. 6 in the SEC passing standings after ranking in the Top 6 in each of his first four seasons.
After more than a decade of predictable, but at times incredibly successful offense, the Tigers are set for a 21st century upgrade in the form of first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada in head coach Ed Orgeron’s first full season in Baton Rouge.
With a plethora of playmakers at wide receiver and running back, Canada has access to an elite level of athlete across the board that he hasn’t had at previous stops, giving his already proven system another level of dynamism for this season.
Passing yards per game (SEC rank): 187.64 (12)
TDs: 10 (12)
INTs: 6 (12)
While the system and (hopefully) more effective play-calling should improve the Tigers’ overall play under center, fifth-year senior and former Purdue transfer Danny Etling remains LSU’s top option for good reason – his consistency – despite Orgeron labeling the quarterback competition as open.
Etling’s skills will not wow anyone, but his smart decision-making gives Canada a solid, experienced quarterback to guide his offense through its debut season. Since his freshman campaign in 2013 at Purdue, Etling has played under four coordinators and learned multiple systems.
After taking over as the starter against Mississippi State, Etling kept the Tigers in games by not turning the ball over, tallying just four interceptions in his 154 attempts in 10 starts last season.
Canada’s ability to adapt an offense to a quarterback’s strengths will help Etling fulfill his potential while creating a complementary passing attack to the Tigers’ already dominant rushing game, featuring the returning SEC-leading rusher Derrius Guice.
Looking toward the future of the position, freshmen Lowell Narcisse and Myles Brennan come to Baton Rouge with immense talent and completely different skill-sets, giving Canada a variety of options to develop behind Etling.
Narcisse begins his LSU career after establishing himself as one of the best dual-threat prospects in the Class of 2017. The former 4-star recruit tallied 5,433 passing yards and 2,344 rushing yards while notching 98 total touchdowns during his prep career at St. James High School in St. James, La.
While Narcisse stayed in-state, Brennan finally arrives in Baton Rouge after setting the Mississippi high school state records in total offense (16,168 yards), passing touchdowns (166) and passing yards (15,138) as the No.6-ranked pro-style quarterback ranked by 247Sports.
Running backs, wide receivers and tight ends
Throughout the spring, the excitement around the offense stemmed from Canada’s focus on using all of LSU’s playmakers, including running backs and tight ends, to open up the passing game.
In 2016, the Tigers running backs and tight ends accounted for 38.5 percent of LSU’s total receptions, tallying just 3 touchdowns. In comparison, Canada’s backs and tight ends at Pittsburg notched 88 catches for 1,198 yards (good for 46.6 percent of catches and 41.6 percent of yards) last season.
To prepare the non-receivers to play a greater role in the passing game, Canada laid down the foundation in the spring by having most skill position players line up in each position to learn how to run routes from every spot in the offense.
Guice, in particular, added another tool by coming out of the backfield this spring, giving one of the best backs in the country yet another weapon in his arsenal. In his first two seasons at LSU, Guice notched just 14 catches for 126 yards and one touchdown.
Fewer players are more dangerous in the open field, and the idea of getting Guice the ball in space against a linebacker is a matchup LSU would love to exploit. Four of his receptions last season went for at least 15 yards.
Along with the tight ends and running backs learning some tricks of the receiving trade, the Tigers’ receiving corps studied the line-of-scrimmage adjustments, including the pre-snap movements and shifts inherent in Canada’s system that will form the bulk of their responsibilities this fall.
Overall, the variety of players being targeted in the passing game in 2017 should be one of clearest distinctions between Canada’s offense and any system installed under Miles, creating opportunities for relatively unknown Tigers to contribute in a multitude of ways and make a name for themselves.
With two of the top backs in the country in 2016, LSU’s dependence on the run, especially on first downs, was expected. What coach wouldn’t want to hand it off to Leonard Fournette or Guice?
The Tigers attempted to pass on just 33 percent of first downs last season (58 pass attempts on 174 downs) against SEC West opponents, prompting their division rivals to lock down the box against the run.
The fact that LSU didn’t throw a TD pass on first down in any of its division games further justified opponents’ lack of respect for its passing game.
Although LSU didn’t throw it often on first downs, Etling showcased his smart decision making. He completed 57 percent of 58 attempts for 357 yards with just one interception against SEC West opponents.
Canada’s challenge this season will be to create a dynamic passing game to keep defenses off Guice. Senior receivers D.J. Chark and Russell Gage will look to lead a deep, but inexperienced corps of wideouts to become an arsenal of consistent playmakers this season.
One stat that must change
The Tigers lack of explosiveness on first down translated into just seven receptions of more than 15 yards. Four of those came in a 54-39 win over Texas A&M to close the regular season. Overall in SEC play, LSU struggled to establish a respectable passing threat beyond in obvious passing situations, making the Tigers’ one-dimensional.
For LSU’s offense to earn more respect, Canada needs to push the limit on first down against elite opponents, forcing defenses to allot more defenders to pass coverage on every down to open up running lanes for Guice.
Greatest concern: Tempering expectations with patience
For nearly a decade, LSU fans have complained with good reason about the lack of a decent passing attack to complement the Tigers’ dominant run game, but the reality is everything cannot change in a single offseason.
The greatest concern in Baton Rouge this season lies in how the Tigers’ passionate fan base will react if their daydreams of what the offense can be aren’t played out.
Canada’s system, like defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s defense when he arrived before last season, is filled with too many nuances to install completely in one off-season, making 2017 a demo-mode offense with players not necessarily tailor-made for the wholesale changes.
Better or worse in 2017?
LSU only threw for 2,281 yards and 12 TDs last season. There’s no question the Tigers’ passing attack should be better this season with the addition of an elite offensive coordinator in Canada, but the reality is the majority of the roster remains the same.
Using the depth of playmakers throughout the Tigers’ wide receivers corps will help create a respectable passing attack to help take pressure off Guice, but LSU will still be a run-dominant team, leaning on the running game to set the tone of the offense.
Will the passing attack be improved? Yes, but let’s face it: There will be ups and downs this season as Canada works to bring the Tigers’ passing offense into the 21st century.