Why Steve Ensminger is proving a whole lot of people wrong
A couple of months ago, I preemptively defended Steve Ensminger.
I was pre-mad about the LSU offensive coordinator being the scapegoat for the Tigers’ inevitable step back. I assumed that the 60-something assistant was going to be an easy target after the departure of the program’s offensive innovator, Joe Brady. Oh, and the Tigers lost nearly every offensive player from the group that put up more points in a season than anyone in college football history.
Four games into 2020, I can’t say enough good things about the job that Ensminger has done. Believe me, though. I’ll try.
That’s not just recency bias after LSU — with a true freshman quarterback in his first career start — put up 52 points in a blowout win against a streaking South Carolina squad, though it certainly didn’t hurt. We saw Ensminger dial up what looked like the perfect goal line rub route to free up Terrace Marshall from lockdown corner Jaycee Horn for an easy touchdown. We saw Ensminger dial up anticipation throws for Finley, who got big windows all night. We saw Ensminger dial up a game plan that was balanced and dominant from start to finish.
Through 4 games, LSU is averaging 42 points per game. With 2 different starting quarterbacks, neither of whom had a career start before 2020, the Tigers are averaging 344 passing yards per game. Sure, that’s a step down from the 402 passing yards per game that the Tigers averaged last year, but go back to the moment that Ja’Marr Chase opted out just a few weeks before the start of the season. Now tell that LSU fan that with nearly half the season gone, Myles Brennan will get hurt and LSU will still be No. 8 in FBS in passing.
Of course, nobody is handing out “atta boys” to the 2-2 defending national champs, especially when those losses came to MSU and Mizzou.
But consider this: LSU entered spring ranked No. 128 of 130 FBS teams in percentage of returning offensive production. That was before a pandemic shut down spring ball, which would have been extremely valuable for a team with such turnover post-championship. That ranking was also before Chase opted out. In that South Carolina game, right tackle Austin Deculus and Terrace Marshall were LSU’s only 2 offensive starters who also started in the title game.
LSU’s depth chart from the national title game now that Ja’Marr Chase has opted out. pic.twitter.com/DOIo1bShdS
— Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer) August 30, 2020
We can talk about recruiting and developing talent all we want. Sooner or later, you have to acknowledge that they’ve got a darn good offensive coordinator putting players in spots to succeed.
Many scoffed at the notion that Ensminger was calling 70% of the plays last year, and that he had truly embraced Brady’s system. That shouldn’t be up for debate anymore. LSU didn’t revert to its pre-2019 offensive ways, as some feared. Why that was ever in doubt in the first place is somewhat baffling. Like, imagine experiencing the success that LSU did in 2019 and then thinking, “you know what would make sense? Doing the exact opposite of that!”
Ensminger has taken everything in stride, personally and professionally. Let’s call it what it is. Ensminger wasn’t going to get a pass from LSU fans after the tragedy that happened on the day of last year’s Peach Bowl. But is it a testament to the job he’s done that he’s been so locked in during this season of change? Absolutely.
There’s no way the casual fan assumed the numbers would be this similar through 4 games vs. Power 5 competition (excluding defensive/special teams touchdowns):
No, the passing game hasn’t been quite as efficient as last year, and the running game has been inconsistent. Still, though. A much larger drop-off was predicted. It’s the LSU defense that looks like it has an entirely new cast and crew.
What’s the best sign that the system is still working? Besides the whole “putting up historic numbers with 2 quarterbacks who hadn’t started before 2020” thing, it’s Marshall. They say all Marshall does is catch touchdowns. Remember when Marshall caught fire down the stretch and he had 5 touchdowns in LSU’s final 3 games? The guy has yet to have a 2020 game without multiple touchdowns despite the fact that without Chase and Justin Jefferson, he’s seen each team’s top cornerback.
Don’t get it twisted. Marshall isn’t a “system” receiver. His stock is rising with every touchdown that he hauls in.
But as great as Marshall is, Ensminger is making life easier on him. Go back to that aforementioned rub route to get Horn off him. This is what it looks like to see a scheme executed to perfection:
Hesitation release by Terrace Marshall to set up the rub on Jaycee Horn and create easy separation for the TD. pic.twitter.com/EWEtWQmGB6
— Bobby Football (@RobPaulNFL) October 24, 2020
Compare that to the previous week when Horn totally shut down an exceptionally talented Seth Williams, who didn’t have the benefit of getting open looks within the scheme like Marshall did. Yes, that’s my way of saying I’ll gladly take Ensminger over Chad Morris.
Ensminger isn’t going to show up on the short list of the great offensive minds in the sport because it was Brady’s system that was brought to LSU. It was Ensminger who was willing to trust and embrace it.
It’s interesting because Orgeron didn’t flinch when Brady left for the NFL. There was confidence that Ensminger, along with new passing game coordinator Scott Linehan, would be more than capable of leading LSU’s new-look offense. Orgeron has always been quick to praise Ensminger. This press conference interaction earlier this week was telling (via 247sports):
Reporter: Obviously Finley praised Steve Ensminger after the game. Also gave credit to Russ Callaway for prepping him. How big has he been for the development of Myles and the two young guys?
Orgeron: Here is what happened with Russ. He’s an analyst, he can’t coach any of the players. He does prepare all the stuff for Coach Ensminger. He prepares what they may see, prepares the Power Points, then Coach Ensminger is the one that does it. Russ is in the background, does a tremendous job. He’s a great young coach.
Call me crazy, but that looks like a head coach who wants to make sure his offensive coordinator is getting the proper amount of credit.
Good. Ensminger deserves it.
It’s about time the college football world recognizes that, too.