Greg McMahon can’t talk about football.
Everything else is free game, but not football — the sport he coaches and the reason LSU hired him as a special teams analyst in the spring.
“He is allowed to talk to us about everything except football,” said snapper Blake Ferguson. “We can go hang out in his office, talk about school, talk about girls.”
Girls? McMahon is nearly four decades older than Ferguson and others. Players are talking to him about girls?
“He loves to chop it up,” Ferguson smiles.
This is the peculiar world of LSU’s special teams, a unit without a full-time coordinator (McMahon is the special teams analyst), but one that players and coach Ed Orgeron insists will improve. Publicly, Orgeron has expressed disappointment in the performance in recent years of LSU’s special teams, vowing to return the units to the top of the nation — where they ranked during those championship-winning days.
How he’s doing that is unusual — electing not to hire a coordinator. That said, players say the energy around the unit has soared.
Sure, not having a coordinator is different and, to some degree, “hard,” Ferguson said. But he’s noticed a difference in a good way.
“Coach O has really put a huge, huge emphasis on special teams,” he said. “He sits in the front row of every special teams meetings. He puts his input in and really stresses how important special teams are because it’s been a question mark in the past and really trying to emphasize that third phase of the game.”
Phase 3 has been a struggle, at times.
Last year, it was the return teams, 95th and 66th nationally. In 2015, it was both the return and coverage squads. LSU that year finished last in the nation in punt coverage and 82nd in kick returns.
The program is one of the nation’s worst over the previous two seasons in touchbacks: 103rd in 2016 (20 percent touchbacks) and 116th in 2015 (16 percent touchbacks).
“Out the back of the end zone,” Orgeron quipped earlier this year when asked about kickoffs.
LSU is treating this neutral site game like a home affair – at least from a travel standpoint.
Redshirt freshman Connor Culp will serve as LSU’s kickoff specialist this season, beating out Cameron Gamble, a senior who, in an off and on role, handled kickoffs the previous three seasons. Catholic walk-on Jack Gonsoulin beat out Culp for the place-kicker job.
The real sore spot, though, has been the coverage and return teams. All four teams haven’t finished inside the top 60 in a single season since 2012.
“Coach O and rest of the coaches are really emphasizing how important special teams are. Guys are buying into that. It’s fun to watch,” Ferguson said. “Guys are coming up to me and asking me why they’re not on the first punt team. That’s really encouraging to have those guys excited about special teams again.”
Orgeron’s approach is different, yes.
He fired special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto a day after landing the full-time head coaching job in November and never replaced him. Instead, he hired two longtime NFL special teams gurus to a support staff roles. First came Bobby April, who prepped the special teams for the Citrus Bowl, and then came McMahon in February.
LSU did not release a depth chart in the university's game notes on Monday, as is normal protocol.
Analysts’ roles are heavily restricted by NCAA rules, but McMahon is expected to be in the press box during games.
McMahon can be at practice and meetings, but he can’t speak to players during either. He can’t talk with players about the sport he coaches. All of the coaching is passed through graduate assistant Chris Forestier. He disseminates McMahon’s message to players.
Those messages are mostly schematic and less technical stuff, Growden and Ferguson said. Both players say they lean on personal punting and snapping coaches for technical work.
“I’m coaching myself and sending film back to my coach in Australian, as far as technique and stuff,” Growden said. “In terms of the protection and where we want to place the ball, that’s coming through the analyst to Chris to me.”
The five assistants overseeing special teams are running backs coach Tommie Robinson (punt team), secondary coach Corey Raymond (punt return), offensive line coach Jeff Grimes (field goal team), outside linebackers coach Dennis Johnson (field goal block and kickoff teams) and receivers coach Mickey Joseph (kickoff return).
How’s this going?
“It’s improved tremendously,” punter Josh Growden said. “Now each position has a coach — the gunners, tacklers."
Orgeron has touted McMahon this offseason as a special teams “genius” who works late hours in the LSU football complex, from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m., he half-joked last week. McMahon, fired by the Saints in January, is being paid $25,000 to overhaul the Tigers’ special teams, according to documents the school provided to The Advocate. His pay began Feb. 13 and ends Jan. 13, 2018, according to the documents.
Orgeron will "seriously" look at McMahon to join the staff in a full-time role in January, he’s said. The NCAA approved this spring the addition of a 10th assistant coach to college football staffs. It takes effect Jan. 9.
For now, he’s just a analyst. And that means a football coach not talking football with football players.
“It is hard because we don’t have a true special teams coach,” Ferguson said, “but for the most part, it’s been a pretty good little deal.”
NOT SO SPECIAL
At least one of five of LSU’s special teams units has finished 94th or worse nationally in the last four years.
Punt return D
Kick return D