ATLANTA — Back in the “stone ages” as he called it, when he was splitting time as LSU’s quarterback with David Woodley and catching the occasional trick play pass when they shared the same backfield, someone asked Steve Ensminger if he wanted to throw the ball more.
He said yes, like you’d expect a guy nicknamed “The Slinger” would.
“I got in trouble for that” with coach Charles McClendon, Ensminger recalled. “He gave me a ‘press lecture.’ ”
Forty years later Ensminger is only available to the media couple of times a year — in the preseason and at bowl games — which suits his blend into the background personality just fine.
But he still likes to throw it just as much. And you can bet he’d loved to have thrown it in the offense that he and passing game coordinator Joe Brady have ginned up for this season.
“It’s a special year,” Ensminger said at a Peach Bowl news conference Tuesday, Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow at his left elbow, Biletinkoff Award-winning receiver Ja’Marr Chase at the far end of the dais. “I don’t think this offense was thought of back then.”
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It certainly wasn’t ever conceived of at LSU before. Not back in the 70s under McClendon, who was devoted to defense and mostly subscribed to the “three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad” philosophy. Certainly not in the 12 McClendon-like seasons under Ed Orgeron’s predecessor and former boss Les Miles, who only discovered the passing game’s new religion a few games into his current gig at Kansas this year.
It was after yet another frustrating offensive eclipse against Alabama last year, that 29-0 headlock the Crimson Tide threw on then No. 4-ranked LSU in Tiger Stadium, that Orgeron went to Ensminger and told him it was time for a drastic change.
Orgeron had attempted to remake LSU’s offense once before in 2017 with Matt Canada calling the plays, but that proved to be a false start personality-wise and scheme-wise.
This time Coach O, who hasn’t forgotten how Ensminger ran an offense as interim coordinator in 2016 that helped Orgeron get the LSU job full time, wanted a complete overhaul.
“It was a low point,” Orgeron said. “I told him, ‘Listen, we’ve got to go to the spread.’ And he said, ‘You’re right.’ I said, ‘Are you going to be receptive to someone coming in and teaching us the spread?’ He said, ‘Yes, I will.’ ”
Enter passing game coordinator Joe Brady earlier this year off two seasons with the New Orleans Saints, this after an RPO-fueled internship under Joe Moorhead when the Mississippi State coach was offensive coordinator at Penn State.
The May-December partnership has worked better than Orgeron or anyone could have possibly imagined. With Burrow as “the slinger,” LSU leads the nation in total offense (554.4 yards per game), is second in passing offense (368.8 ypg), and third in scoring offense (47.8 points per game) and passing efficiency (196.04 rating).
“They work great together,” Orgeron said. Then he added, “Steve has been the MVP of the whole deal.”
Success doesn’t always mean happiness, of course. You can find plenty of movie stars and rock stars who can show you that. The phrase “more money, more problems” definitely exists for a reason.
For his part in LSU’s offensive eruption, Ensminger could have chafed at the help despite the fact this offense is going to make everyone — Coach O, Coach E, Brady, even Burrow when he goes off as a top NFL draft pick in May — a lot richer.
By all accounts, though, he didn’t.
“When Steve tells you yes, it means yes,” Orgeron said. “Joe came in and Steve worked his tail off to learn the new terminology, the new words. He calls most of the plays. He's done a fantastic job. He and Joe have meshed perfectly. There's no egos with both of those guys. It's not us, us, us. It's we, we, we.”
From Ensminger’s perspective, there’s a simple reason for that.
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“It’s about LSU,” he said. “It’s my school. It’s a special school. So I was for it. I said, ‘Let’s do this.’
“I learn football from Joe and he has learned from me. He’s taught me how to slow it down, and I’ve taught him how to go quicker. It’s been a great mix.”
Even now, though, with one and maybe two huge games to go for No. 1-seeded LSU in this College Football Playoff, questions about the future beyond the CFP seep into the conversation.
At 61, Ensminger is a lot closer to the end of his career than the beginning. There has been plenty of speculation as to when or if it may be possible for there to be a passing of the offensive torch from Ensminger to Brady at some point in order to try to induce Brady to stay at LSU.
“Hell, I’m young,” Ensminger cracked before laughing at his own remark. A moment later, though, he gave insight into his thoughts on the subject.
“I won’t coach until I’m 80,” he said. “I look forward to finishing this season and we’ll make that decision after. I still want to coach. I enjoy coaching. I think we have special athletes. So long as I feel like I can contribute to LSU, I will be there.
“It’s kind of like, you know, Joe Brady coming in here and helping us. “If I feel like, hey, somebody else can do it better, I’ll walk away from it. That’s the way it is.”
In other words, when Steve tells you, he means it.