Danny Etling spent much of the past week learning new things.
He learned how to run similar plays out of new formations. He practiced the same plays but with different personnel groupings. He learned new reads on comparable passing plays.
Sure, new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and interim head coach Ed Orgeron "simplified" LSU’s offense, especially for the quarterbacks, but the "simpler" plays still needed to be learned before they could be simple.
“Shoot,” Etling said after Saturday night's 42-7 win over Missouri, “this week it was a lot of learning. It wasn’t too simple for us. New stuff here and there; new formations and new reads. It’s tough to do when you have class and all that stuff.”
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On Saturday night, Etling sported the face of a guy who had had little sleep over the past few days, showing bloodshot eyes and an ashen face — an illustration of just how much the Tigers offense changed in one week.
How did he do it?
“Lots of preparation and late nights,” Etling said, smiling.
LSU (3-2, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) yanked the shroud off its much-talked-about new offensive scheme Saturday in its rout of Missouri. The Tigers quickly flashed the tweaks Orgeron and Ensminger implemented after the firing of Les Miles and Cam Cameron, beginning the game with four passes out of a four-receiver set.
Orgeron and the players revealed more about LSU’s offensive tinkering in postgame interviews Saturday. Etling’s reads were easier and his passes were shorter, allowing for his athletic, speedy receivers to make plays after the catch. There were spurts of an up-tempo pace, especially in the first quarter.
The Tigers showed some different formations. For example, they ran out of a one-back set, without a fullback.
They had some new personnel groups. Receiver Russell Gage, a reserve who rarely played in his first two seasons, started and appeared to be on the field for half of LSU’s snaps, serving mainly as a blocking wideout. The Tigers also split out tight end Colin Jeter and fullbacks J.D. Moore and Bry’Kiethon Mouton as a way to create mismatches, Jeter said.
They passed early to set up the run later, using those four-receiver sets to spread out the defense. Etling attempted 10 of his 30 passes in the first quarter.
“To be able to show different looks and do all sorts of different things offensively, I think it helped us out a lot,” Jeter said, “spreading the ball and really confusing the defense.”
The result was a program record for yards (634) in an SEC game and the biggest win over a conference foe in two years.
Many of the changes were to the quarterback's role, an attempt at simplifying Cameron’s pro-style system that some observers have said is complicated, especially for young players.
“I’m not in the quarterbacks room, but I think he’s allowing their reads to be a little more simplified there, their progressions, because we’ve got open guys on some plays,” Moore said. “We just got to make sure we identify quickly. The difference is in the outcome, the way Danny was able to complete 6-, 7-yard routes that put the ball in playmakers’ hands.”
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Gage’s expanded role was striking. The junior out of Redemptorist didn’t play in the season opener against Wisconsin. He played in one game last year and in just two in 2014, transitioning from defensive back to wide receiver in the spring.
His emergence is a sign of differing opinions about personnel between the Tigers’ former offensive coordinator and its new one.
“Crazy athletic over there on the practice field,” receiver D.J. Chark said of Gage. “If you could see the things that happen behind closed doors, you wouldn’t even be surprised. I’m just so proud of him that he’s finally able to get his chance.”
Why didn’t he see the field sooner?
“I don’t know,” Chark said. “Different people fit different game plans, but coach Ensminger brought in a new game plan. He was able to get in and get his shot.”
Plenty changed behind the scenes this week — in meetings and in practice.
Taking pages from the playbook of his mentor, Pete Carroll, Orgeron trimmed practice length, created themed practices and increased the practice tempo, players said.
Orgeron on Saturday night revealed his daily practice themes, an essential part, he said, of his “system:” Telling The Truth Monday, Competition Tuesday, Turnover Wednesday, No Repeat Thursday and Focus Friday.
“We’re not on the field as long, but it’s very high-tempo, running from drill to drill,” Chark said. “It helped us with conditioning because we moved the ball pretty well today. We felt good; our legs felt good.”
The offensive tinkering isn’t over, Orgeron said. LSU cannot install an entirely new offense during the season; that's an “impossible” task, the coach admitted earlier in the week. But that's not stopping him from implementing changes he learned from Carroll at Southern California and Jimmy Johnson at Miami.
“I know that there are some things we're going to be able to add this week off what have we done,” Orgeron said.
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That means more study time for Etling, the junior who has cemented himself as the starter behind center.
Etling planned to watch a replay of LSU’s win Saturday night. He then was slated to spend much of Sunday scouting Florida. The Tigers and No. 18 Gators (4-1, 2-1) meet at 11 a.m. Saturday in Gainesville.
“Sunday is my big day for basic game planning and getting a feel for the defense. Rest of the week, you’re trying to finish all of your homework and everything,” Etling said. “Sunday is my biggest day. I finish all my homework in the morning, go get treatment and then I’m in football until lunch, take a break, get more football in and then that night I can maybe go finish some homework.”
Etling called this past week “fast.” He and Cameron were close; they're from the same Indiana hometown. He needed to learn a new offense, too.
So how much sleep did he get?
“Not as much,” he said Saturday, “as I’m about to get tonight.”
ON THE OFFENSIVE
LSU’s 634 yards Saturday were its seventh-most all-time and its most ever in a Southeastern Conference game: