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LSU's Joe Burrow is the 'most competitive human on the planet' and has Tigers chasing a title

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Joe Burrow picks up the volleyball near his apartment's pool, and his friends can already sense where this is going.

The LSU quarterback is supposedly relaxing the week before preseason camp begins, kicking back with a couple of childhood buddies who came down to Baton Rouge for the waning days of summer break.

Yet even removed from the Tigers' swanky new $28 million football operations building and the championship-level expectations it represents, Burrow can't quite help himself from stirring up some sort of competition.

Burrow punches the volleyball with an overhand fist toward one friend, Zacciah Saltzman, and asks him to punch it back.

Ten times they thump the ball back and forth before it touches the ground.

Then they reach 20.

Saltzman knows what he's gotten himself into. Ever since they played together in elementary school, on the same travel basketball team in Athens, Ohio, he and Burrow would always find themselves playing little games. No matter what it was, Joe had to win.

The extreme examples of Burrow's ironclad determination last season — his seven-overtime exhaustion against Texas A&M, when he passed out in the locker room and had to be hooked up to an IV; his offensive MVP performance in the Fiesta Bowl after getting clocked from the blind side on a pick-six — you think those were new?

There are multiple stories with lower stakes.


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Years ago, when Athens High let its students out early one day, Burrow and some football teammates began a spirited marathon of the board game RiskEight hours later, Saltzman conquered Burrow's final army. The quarterback quickly said All right, let's play again. Saltzman declined — Hell no, I'm taking that win — because he knew they'd be up all night until Burrow finally won.

That's exactly what happened when a high school friend kept beating Burrow at the soccer video game FIFA. They played until 4 a.m. Ryan Luehrman, another teammate, doesn't even know whether Burrow eventually won; Luehrman lost interest and went to sleep.

So it was no surprise to Saltzman that when Burrow returned to his Baton Rouge apartment after LSU's 29-0 loss to Alabama last November, the frustrated quarterback spent the next five hours telling his visiting friends variations of "Next year is gonna be the year" while the TV show "House" murmured in the background.

This year could be the year.

And if LSU somehow ends its eight-game losing streak to the Crimson Tide, and/or reaches the College Football Playoff for the first time in school history, make no mistake: Joe Burrow will be the primary reason the program is competing for a championship again.

Last year, the 6-foot-4, 216-pound senior brought balance to a team with a shaky quarterback history, transferring as a graduate from Ohio State. He started the 2018 season by setting a school record with 158 consecutive pass attempts without an interception. He led the Tigers to their first 10-win season since 2013 while making headlines — "I'm not a slider" — with his endearing grit.

Burrow's full potential will be unleashed, say LSU coaches and those close to the quarterback, in the Tigers' reconstructed spread offense — a system Burrow says will have LSU scoring 40, 50, 60 points a game.

Put another way, LSU's 2019 season is the volleyball Burrow and Saltzman keep hitting back and forth for five hours near the apartment pool, eventually reaching 148 straight punches: Burrow will take LSU as far as he can. He has to.


"The thing that stood out to me about Joe when we recruited him at Ohio State was his competitiveness. You could just tell that the kid loved to win, hated to lose and elevated his teammates' play with that competitiveness. ... He knew the game of football about as well as any junior in high school that I've ever recruited." — Texas coach Tom Herman, lead recruiter of Joe Burrow while offensive coordinator at Ohio State


Jimmy Burrow slipped the video coordinator $25 and went back to work.

Ohio University's defensive coordinator could see his son's peewee games from his office window. It overlooked Peden Stadium, where the Athens Bulldogs played their home games on Sunday afternoons.

Jimmy usually pulled away from the rest of the Ohio coaches to watch little Joey play from a distance, but he still had his hired man film each of his son's home games from third through sixth grades and promptly copy the tape to a disc for Jimmy to take home.

Thursday nights, when the coaches were off and Jimmy was home for dinner, he'd pop in the video, sit with Joe and break down the game.

Just what was third-grade film study like? Turning and handing the ball off? A lot of slant patterns?

"I didn't chart it," Jimmy says with a grin. "I would point out things. It was fun for me, and I think it was fun for Joe, but I wanted him to learn something from it without making it something he didn't enjoy."

There was a time when Jimmy and Robin Burrow wondered whether their son would even make it beyond his first week of soccer camp.

When 5-year-old Joe stood in the middle of the field on his first day, kids scrambling all around, he watched with his hands in his pockets.

"We're going, 'Oh my God. Is Joe going to like sports?’ ” Jimmy says. "About the third day, he was bumping into people and playing physical and running up and down the soccer field."

It was a legitimate scare for the Burrows, a family originally from northeast Mississippi with a rich history in athletics.

James Burrow, Joe's grandfather, played guard for Mississippi State's basketball team in the early 1950s, and his grandmother, Dot, once scored 82 points in a Mississippi high school basketball game and averaged almost 60 points a game.

Joe's uncle Johnny played defensive back for Ole Miss in the early 1980s. Jimmy played defensive back at Nebraska, got drafted in the eighth round by the Green Bay Packers in the 1976 NFL draft and played five seasons in the Canadian Football League before a 38-year career in coaching.

Robin's brothers played football at small colleges, and Joe's older brothers, Jamie and Dan (Jimmy's sons from a previous marriage), both played at Nebraska in the early 2000s.

Little Joey was going to be around sports whether he liked it or not.

He attended Dan's high school basketball game when he was only a few days old. When Jimmy coached Kurt Warner for the Arena Football League's Iowa Barnstormers, Robin had to cover Joe's ears during fireworks shows.

The place Joe learned to ride a bike? Inside Nebraska's Memorial Stadium, when Jimmy was a graduate assistant for the Cornhuskers from 2001-02.

"That's a good place if you fall a few times," Jimmy says, "He fell once, and then he took off."


"Joe is the most competitive human being on the planet. Whether we were playing anything that involved winning, he's out to kill you." — Sam Vander Ven, former wide receiver at Athens High 


Joe actually planned on being a basketball player for most of his life. He was an all-state shooting guard at Athens High, where he scored more than 1,000 points in three varsity seasons.

There actually was a quarterback ahead of Joe when he reached high school: Michael Germano, whose father, Pete, coached at Ohio and moved the family to California when he became the defensive line and special teams coach at Fresno State in 2012.

Joe became the starting quarterback that season, and it was clear his future was football.

"I'd draw a play up on the board, and (in) 10 seconds, we install these few things, we hit the field and he can run the show," says Nathan White, who was Burrow's offensive coordinator at Athens. "He's correcting receivers and getting everybody in the right spot. It was something that I haven't seen a lot out of kids, especially sophomores."

White, now Athens' head coach, ran a spread scheme that's similar to the system LSU is building with first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady.

White kept it simple in Joe's first season: They used only five or six pass routes the whole year, and they'd spin two run plays, inside zone and quarterback trap, to balance the passing attack. By the time Joe was a senior, White found he could trust his quarterback with schemes as advanced he could think up.

He installed college-level, run-pass option plays and relied on Joe to identify the reads on the field. When the defense showed two high safeties, Joe usually signaled to his teammates that the outside linebacker would dictate where the ball was going. Then, if the defense brought down a safety to stop the run or cover up a receiver, Joe audibled to a deep shot against the remaining deep safety. 

Sometimes defenses picked up which of their players Joe was reading, and they'd muddy up their alignment to confuse him.

"There were lots of back-and-forths where we were close enough and we had enough time to say, 'Let's forget about 51 and make 18 our guy,’ ” White says. "Which, again, was a fun thing that I was only able to do with Joe."

Joe threw for 4,445 yards, 63 touchdowns and two interceptions while leading Athens to the state championship his senior year — numbers White says don't "even seem possible." The touchdown count ranks Joe seventh for a single season in Ohio high school history, eight places ahead of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (54).

And one of Joe's touchdown passes was to himself.

A pass at the goal line intended for Saltzman got tipped twice at the line of scrimmage. Joe snuck in, caught the ball and raised it with his right hand in the end zone.

"Classic Joe," Saltzman says, "Doing that s*** that only Joe would do."


"I do believe that Joe, if we let him, would run into a brick wall no matter what it took. He's that tough. He has a linebacker mentality." — LSU coach Ed Orgeron


Jimmy Burrow steps into the restaurant from the summer heat. In a rack by the door, his son is pictured on the front cover of a local magazine. The bustle of busy waiters and famished customers echoes inside The Chimes, a gameday staple less than a mile from Tiger Stadium.

It's the Thursday night before LSU's first preseason scrimmage — not exactly the same rush-hour crowd Jimmy has fought while school is in session when he picks up his son's takeout gumbo. 

No, the magazine cover is probably as close as it gets to the real Joe Burrow coming to a place where he'd be so conspicuous. The LSU quarterback is a recluse by choice. He takes online classes, and his family knows he spends most of his time either at his apartment, the football facility or the casino.

"We don't like to hear about the last one," Jimmy says.

The 65-year-old father recently decided he's done too much hearing about his son and not enough seeing. That's why in February he retired from a 14-year career as Ohio's defensive coordinator. He was going to regret it the rest of his life if he wasn't there for his son's final college season.

See, Jimmy was in a press box in Nashville, Tennessee, when Ohio offensive coordinator Tim Albin fed him the update that Joe had thrown a 71-yard touchdown pass in LSU's come-from-behind victory at Auburn.

Sept. 15, 2018, had been a landmark day for nearly all the Burrows. Joe's older brother, Dan, even met his girlfriend in the parking lot of Jordan-Hare Stadium. And Jimmy had missed it, coaching in a 45-31 loss to Virginia that was relocated because of Hurricane Florence.

No more of that now. Jimmy's going to see the gamer his son has become. He chuckles when he says his visit with Joe that day at the apartment lasted a few minutes — a quick Hey, Dad, how's it going? before Joe was back on his way to the football facility.

Jimmy had seen the small square photograph on his son's desk: Joe Burrow, emerging from a pre-game fracas with Miami in last season's season opener, raising an 'L' with his right hand.

That was Joe's first chance to show his teammates he was going to take them as far as he can. He has to.

Email Brooks Kubena at bkubena@theadvocate.com.