Steve Kragthorpe was hired during the offseason to revamp LSU’s stagnant offense and revitalize the Tigers quarterbacks.
After a spring and summer of creating a simpler, streamlined playbook and tutoring Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee in it, Kragthorpe and LSU were just beginning to put their preparation into action on the practice field during preseason camp. Then, it became clear to Kragthorpe that dealing with his recently diagnosed Parkinson’s disease was going to require that he cut back on his football duties.
Suddenly, head coach Les Miles had to call an audible unlike any other in his football career. It was too late to look around for a replacement. Change would have to come from within.
Fortunately for Miles, his offensive line coach, Greg Studrawa, had been a coordinator before and wouldn’t need on-the-job training. Miles himself had been a play-caller, and with other capable assistants in tight ends coach Steve Ensminger, running backs coach Frank Wilson and wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales, Miles felt he had the variety of skills necessary to rearrange the duties and move forward.
Kragthorpe would continue to coach the quarterbacks and have input into the game plan, but Studrawa would be the coordinator, and most significantly, the play-caller, with Kragthorpe at his side, offering advice from the press box on game days.
The idea sounded reasonably simple, but was it really that simple?
“I definitely had concern,” Miles said recently, “and immediately felt much better when I saw the cooperative sprit in that room coming together. Kragthorpe has great energy and knows how to coach the quarterbacks. He gives insight that we need. I think Studrawa with his experience and understanding of how it gets done, really puts him in the best position. The room leans together and comes up with the best answers. There is no one that is not contributing.
“When a coach has a physical illness, it’s just so wonderful to see the rest of the staff pull together and overcome deficits and make them strengths. They’re quality people, and everybody is looking to do their part and it makes it easy on the head coach.”
The No. 1-ranked Tigers are 8-0 as they clear their open date ahead of their showdown against No. 2 Alabama on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Lee and Jefferson have turned a position that was a concern a year ago into a major asset as the offense overall has exceeded even the most optimistic of preseason projections.
“It’s like night and day,” offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert said. “That’s a credit to this coaching staff. Coach Kragthorpe and Coach Stud have this offense running like a well-oiled machine. It’s been a much more enjoyable experience on offense this year.”
Kragthorpe took over the offense with the expectation that Jefferson, a fourth-year senior who’s a dual threat as an option runner and a passer, would be the starter, and that Lee, a fifth-year senior, would see some action as a dropback passer. But Jefferson’s arrest and suspension just a few weeks after the staff changes necessitated Lee taking over for Jefferson. When Jefferson returned after four games, he took on a contributing role behind Lee as the pair essentially swapped the roles that had been envisioned.
“I think coach Kragthorpe and coach Stud are doing a great job of making (play) calls whether me or Jordan is in there,” Lee said. “It’s been a huge part of our success offensively this season.”
LSU is second in the Southeastern Conference in scoring, and most remarkably, the Tigers are first in passing efficiency.
Miles called Kragthorpe “the finest quarterback coach I’ve ever been around” and “a tremendous play suggester in the passing game.”
Kragthorpe has seven years of experience as a head coach at Tulsa and Louisville and also coached the quarterbacks with the Buffalo Bills in the NFL for two seasons.
Studrawa, who’s in his fifth season as the Tigers offensive line coach, was offensive coordinator at Bowling Green from 2002-06 and oversaw one of the more productive offenses in the country.
“We’ve really got two offensive coordinators,” wide receiver Russell Shepard said. “It’s kind of a team. And that’s the beautiful thing about this team, there’s no one-headed monster. We all work together. to be a great team. We’re deep. I say we’re the deepest team in the country, from the coaching standpoint and the playing standpoint.”
Under former coordinator Gary Crowton, LSU featured more formation and personnel packages and had an inordinate number of problems getting plays called, players lined up and plays run. That hasn’t been the case this season.
“We’re trying to become great at doing fewer things,” Lee said.
Studrawa made it clear before the season that time-management issues would not be tolerated, and the Tigers have been far more efficient in that area.
“I don’t want to have stupid things that are in the coaches’ control — delay of games, not getting personnel in, those kinds of things,” Studrawa said. “Those kinds of things aren’t excusable, and if they do happen, they are our fault on offense. I accept that responsibility. I expect our team to not have those things.”
Lee said he and Jefferson have learned from watching how well Studrawa and Kragthorpe have worked together.
“The way that coach Stud and coach Kragthorpe have handled that situation,” Lee said, “I think we players have really caught on to that and understand that, if these guys can handle all those things, maybe we can handle it on the football field.”
Since Kragthorpe’s diagnosis, a half-dozen Tigers have missed time for various events that warranted disciplinary action. LSU seemingly has not missed a beat with any of the distractions, but it was the first one — Kragthorpe’s illness — that was different.
“Coach Kragthorpe was probably the most upsetting, because we really love that man,” Hebert said. “He’s an incredible coach. If anything, I think that gives us a little extra motivation, because we want to win for him and make this special for him, because him being here is a true blessing.”