Joe Burrow's journey to the Heisman stage seems meant to be
Joe Burrow will be in Times Square for the Heisman Trophy presentation Saturday night.
Between now and then he’ll have time to reflect upon how he got there from where he was less than 2 years ago.
How he got from Columbus, Ohio to New York City via Baton Rouge.
How he went from being a quarterback who threw a total of 39 passes for Ohio State during the 3 years to having the most prolific passing season in the history of the SEC.
How in 19 months he went from a late-entry into a 4-man competition to be the LSU starting quarterback for the 2018 season to the overwhelming favorite among the 4 finalists on stage for the Heisman presentation. (Spoiler alert: He’s going to win in a landslide.)
It was all so improbable. It all happened so fast. And now that it’s happening it seems meant to be.
The kid who grew up some 75 miles southeast of the Ohio State campus joined the Buckeyes as a 4-star recruit with high hopes of leading his state’s top football program to great heights but never got that chance.
He redshirted as a freshman, played sparingly as a backup, suffered a broken bone in his hand on the eve of the 2017 season and battled to become a starter in the spring of 2018.
But after earning his degree and becoming eligible to play right away elsewhere he transferred, showing the same clarity at reading the handwriting on the walls at Ohio State that he would show this season in reading defenses while leading LSU to the College Football Playoff for the first time.
LSU needed a leader at quarterback and Burrow needed a team to lead during his final 2 seasons of eligibility.
Despite playing catch-up in the summer and preseason camp, he emerged as the 2018 starter ahead of Myles Brennan, Justin McMillan and Lowell Narcisse. Brennan stayed as Burrow’s understudy, McMillan went to Tulane and Narcisse landed at a junior college, then UTSA.
Burrow did a nice job leading a nice Tigers team to a nice 10-3 record. Along the way he earned his teammates’ trust in a victory over No. 2 in Georgia in October, showed leadership and dual-threat skills during a 7-overtime loss to Texas A&M in the regular-season finale, then showed toughness by shaking off a cheap shot from a UCF defender and playing his best game in a Fiesta Bowl victory.
It was a good start, but not enough to point him toward Times Square.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron liked what he saw, but it wasn’t enough. Burrow was good enough, but the scheme wasn’t.
Orgeron needed more, the Tigers needed more. Even during a 10-win season it was hard to believe progress was being made when LSU lost 29-0 to Alabama.
LSU had the right quarterback, but Orgeron needed the right assistant coach to create a system in which Burrow could thrive – and the Tigers could compete for a national championship.
Orgeron has coaching friends all over college football. He has some in the NFL too, in New Orleans, which is about as far from the LSU campus as Burrow’s childhood home is from the Ohio State campus.
Sean Payton is one of the longest-tenured, most-successful coaches in the NFL. He’s an offensive coach. Orgeon is a defensive coach. Payton hired Orgeron to coach his defensive line in 2008.
When Orgeron decided to go back to college and eventually wound up as the head coach at LSU, he believed that if he shook Payton’s coaching tree, the right offensive assistant would fall into his lap.
The Saints had a bright youngster with the generic title of “offensive assistant” named Joe Brady, who had coached under Joe Moorhead when the Mississippi State head coach was offensive coordinator at Penn State.
Brady tossed out some ideas for incorporating the schemes Moorhead had used with the Nittany Lions, but in New Orleans he was mostly a sponge, soaking up everything he saw and heard from Payton, from Payton’s primary lieutenant in OC Pete Carmichael, quarterback coach Joe Lombardi and, of course, quarterback Drew Brees.
Orgeron knew he had a young coach who understood just the kind of passing schemes LSU needed. He knew he had the perfect offensive coordinator in Steve Ensminger – a former Tigers quarterback, a loyal Tiger through and through, a coach comfortable enough in his own skin to surrender a bit of his turf to an up-and-coming assistant for the betterment of the Tigers.
If Ed Orgeron hadn’t hired Joe Brady, Joe Burrow wouldn’t be in New York this weekend.
Burrow must be marveling at his good fortune in being teamed with Brady, just as Brady must have felt the same when he accepted the Broyles Award – the Heisman for assistant coaches – earlier this week.
Orgeron looked at Brees and the Saints offense and thought, “I want one of those.” Brees wasn’t available, but as college versions go, Burrow wound up being a pretty good facsimile.
Burrow wears No. 9, just like Brees, the most prolific passer in the history of the NFL. Like Brees, a Purdue product, Burrow is Big Ten guy. Like Brees, who was let go by the Chargers and spurned by the Dolphins and found the only team that wanted him in Louisiana, Burrow finally found a team he could lead in Louisiana.
Like Brees, Burrow is smart, tough, a leader, a great decision-maker with a rare work ethic.
The offense that Brady watched Brees orchestrate nearly flawlessly in New Orleans was the perfect fit for Burrow in Baton Rouge.
Burrow officially became an LSU football player just a couple of days after the only Tiger to win the Heisman Trophy – Billy Cannon – died. At the time no one would have considered that the two would ever have any more in common than just playing for LSU, like thousands of others.
Now Burrow’s name is about to be forever linked to Cannon’s – and as an LSU quarterback for crying out loud.
What do you think the odds were that the next LSU Heisman winner wouldn’t be a running back, or, heck, maybe even a defensive player? But a quarterback? LSU? Come on.
Orgeron has called Burrow one of the most significant recruits – if not the most significant recruit – in the history of LSU football.
Burrow’s value will be felt for years to come. Elite high-school quarterbacks and wide receivers all over the country used to laugh at Orgeron when he came to call. They’d hear others repeat over and over, “Why would you want to go to LSU? All they do is run the ball.”
Now those elite quarterbacks and receivers are calling Orgeron. They want to play for the Tigers. Because they’ve seen what Joe Burrow has done. Orgeron doesn’t have enough scholarships for all of them.
Less than 2 years ago, virtually no one in Louisiana had ever heard of Joe Burrow. Less than 2 years later, he was running onto the field for his last game in Tiger Stadium with “Burreaux” affixed to the back of his jersey as a nod to his adopted family of some 4 million.
The football gods made sure the planets aligned just right – Orgeron, Ensminger, Burrow and Brady meeting at the corner of fate and opportunity on the road to Times Square.
Burrow will look around the stage Saturday night and see the other 3 finalists – all of whom are on Playoff teams.
He’ll see Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts, against whom he’ll compete in a semifinal game just 14 days later in Atlanta. Hurts, like Burrow, left his first school (Alabama) after being beaten out.
Burrow also will see Justin Fields, who has the job Burrow wanted as the Buckeyes’ quarterback, and Chase Young, who could have been a Burrow teammate as a Buckeyes defensive end.
The elephant in the room will be the prospect of Burrow facing his old team for the national championship – if the Tigers get past the Sooners and the Buckeyes get past Clemson.
That would have seemed so far-fetched such a short time ago.
Now it seems inevitable.