Steve Ensminger is much more certain about the kind of offensive personnel he has at is his disposal than he did at this same time last year.
Ensminger, 60, is entering his second full season as LSU's offensive coordinator, and he recalled at Monday's coaches caravan stop in Metairie that in the spring of 2018, the coaching staff didn't know who the team's starting quarterback, running back, center or go-to wide receiver was going to be.
Going into the 2019 season, all those positions are accounted for, although Ensminger has been installing a new no-huddle, up-tempo, run-pass option offense with the help of first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady.
Ensminger was pleased to have all the tight ends and offensive linemen back from injury, and he believes the depth, plus the new offense, will allow LSU to be more dynamic in the upcoming season.
Here is a collection of the transcript from Ensminger's interview:
What's it been like working with (new passing game coordinator) Joe Brady?
I've enjoyed it since he showed up. To have the chance to sit down and talk football and everything else, he has some great ideas in the passing game. About personnel and everything else. He throws (a play) up on the wall, and if we agree with it (we keep it) or we throw it off. One or the other. It's been that type of relationship: "What do you think?" It's all about fitting our personnel with this passing game system. "I like it. I like it. That don't fit to me." But it's been good. We put a lot of things in. In the spring, it was our goal to experiment with a lot of things we did in the passing game. But what went through Joe came through me and I bring it to the quarterbacks, say "What do y'all think of this, this and this? Are you comfortable with it? Can we do it?" "Yes. Yes. Yes. No." We just kept doing it. "I like it. I like it. Take it out." It was a fun spring. We had a chance to do a lot of things in the passing game. We feel like we have a pretty good feel of what personnel we should be. And we feel like we know what our kids can do. And so, now we're going back and taking stuff out. "This. This. This. We don't like this." It's been great. It really has.
What are the deciding factors in whether a new play goes in the playbook or gets taken out?
As a coordinator, I'm saying, "We have to be in this formation to do it. I don't think it fits the other formations." And I take it to the quarterbacks: "How do you feel about this progression right here?" And: "OK, it's good against this coverage, this coverage and this coverage. But in this coverage, we've got to get out of it." So, they've got to feel comfortable with it. It's Joe (Brady) and I, sitting in there, talking about it with (wide receiver coach) Mickey (Joseph) and everyone else, and then it's taking it to the quarterbacks: "What do you think about it? How do you like it? Do you feel you can do this? Yes or no?”
So you have no ego in working with Joe Brady?
No, not at all. We brought him here to help us in the passing game, and I told Joe that. I said, "Look, take it over." ... "You present it. We'll discuss it, and if I think it fits, it goes." With the experience that we have right now with our receivers, we didn't throw a lot out. I said, "Let's go look at it. Let's go look at it against our defense. If we like it, fine. If not, we'll take it out later." I have no ego. I want help. In this game nowadays, defenses are so multiple in coverages, they're playing different combinations, coverages on each side of the field and everything else. The quarterback has to understand it, and if we're all on the same page, I feel good about it.
How much are you selling the new offense in recruiting and how much is it helping?
It really is. We had a chance to show the guys. ... Most of them have been on campus before, and we had a chance to sit down with them and show them what we did during the spring. Show them the run tags, the RPO. Show them the, "Hey, here's a 4-wide practice." We had two practices where we were all 5-wide in practice, you know? That kind of clicks to a quarterback. So, they had a chance to come in before spring, visit our campus, look at the academics. Then they had a chance to come in after, see what we did, and I think it peaked their interest, and we had a great group come in this past weekend.
How different do you feel personally than where you were last year in the first year on the job?
Last year, even going into the spring, we didn't know who we were. We didn't have Joe (Burrow) there. We didn't know who our (starting) center was. None of the receivers had really played. We didn't know who our go-to wide receiver was. We didn't know who the starting running back was. There was a lot of questions to get answered last spring. So, we couldn't be as broad last spring… We came out of spring ball last year, (and) we were better (in) '12' personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers) than we were '11' personnel (one running back, one tight end, three wide receivers). A few of our tight ends get hurt during the summer and it's, "OK, we're '11' personnel." That’s just the way it worked out. This year, there's some maturity coming back with the wide receivers and there's some other positions — offensive line and everything else — we kind of threw it all at them. Everything you can name, we threw at 'em. All the run plays, everything else, to see if they can handle it. To see if our receivers can handle it. See if our offensive line can handle it. It's kind of like sitting in a meeting as we're talking plays, I'm like, "(offensive line) Coach (James) Cregg, is this too much for your guys? Yes or no? Joe (Brady), is this too much for your guys? (running backs coach) Tommie (Robinson), can the running backs handle this?" If the answer is no to one of them, it's out. Our deal right now is to kind of figure out what's our most talented personnel to put on the field and let's go with it. The thing I'm excited about is we had a chance to experiment with all of this this spring. During the course of the year, we can make changes on offense. We can be 3-wides. We can be 4-wides. We can be 5-wides. You know? We can go two (tight ends) now; we have enough depth there. So, I think we have a lot more in the bank that we can pull out each week to go with.
What fits personnels fit your roster best?
You’ll see in the fall. (laughs)
What can I look for?
A little bit of everything. I'll be honest with you. For the first time last year, I thought our '12' or '21' (two running backs, one tight end, two wide receivers) personnel was very effective; but, our play-action passes, especially off that, were very effective. We were probably 60 percent efficient off play-action passes; but teams started playing two-deep on first down. I've never seen that here at LSU. You have to be able to change. We were probably 60 percent or a little bit more on '11' personnel with 3-wides on the field; but I think you have to be able to do it all. I'm looking forward to after the fourth game that whenever we're playing the fifth game, they're having to worry about '12', '21,' '11,' 4-wides, 5-wides, and have to have an answer to all of it. To make them practice all of it.
Joe Burrow was exceptional when he had time to throw. But when he has pressure, how does he improve?
We talked about it this spring. Him avoiding the pressure, he got pretty good at. But his decision-making after he avoids the pressure, we've got to get better at. But I think the thing we saw — I'll give you an example, the bowl game: We went into the bowl game with a lot more five-man protections and getting the ball out of our hands than we did all year, and I think it helped him. I think it helped our offensive line. I saw (UCF defensive coordinator) Randy Shannon after the game, and I'm like, "I thought you blitz more." He said, "I thought you max protect more." You know? But we went into that game saying, "Look, let's get the back out, let's get the ball out of our hands." So, hopefully going into the season, we don't have to sit back there in help protection, we'll get the ball out of our hands, and they don't know whether we're going to be chipping this side, chipping this side, or we're getting the ball out right now. I think that'll help our whole offense.
How different do you think the new tempo on offense will be for your guys?
We experimented with being able to (go no-huddle, up-tempo) with every personnel (in the spring). Being able to be in '21' or '12' personnel and do the same stuff we were doing. That's what we've got to get to. But I think the thing that hurts defenses — and this was when I was a position coach, I remember talking to the defensive coordinator, I said "Does the fast tempo hurt us?" He said, "No. It's the change of tempo." You know? It's fast, fast, fast, then you slow it down. Now (the defense is) trying to slow it (down), match you with personnel and everything else. I really think that (with) our personnel, you've got to be able to change the tempo, and you've got to be able to shift and motion and everything else. I think it's: "Go fast. Look to the sideline. Hey, freeze it, make (the defense) sit in their stance for a little bit, then be able to go from there to shift out and then motion back and make (the defense) think all at the same time."
On offensive line, you bring back everyone except (starting left guard) Garrett Brumfield. How are they stepping up?
During the spring, Adrian Magee was in that (left guard) spot, but Chasen Hines, who played last year as a freshman, can take that position right there. I think we'll have more depth there. Hopefully, we have enough depth now where we don't have to take our left guard and move him to right tackle — some of the stuff we had to do last year. So, hopefully like a Chasen, like with Adrian, like with (right tackle) Badara Traore, we can leave them at one position, and I'm hoping these freshmen that are coming in... can give us protection, too, and we don’t have to move guys around.
How are the tight ends looking?
We've got Stephen (Sullivan) there. We've got Jamal Pettigrew there. We've got TK McClendon, who signed out of junior college. (Thaddeus) Moss is going to be back. He didn't go through the whole spring, but he went through half of it, and he had an outstanding spring. He has to stay healthy. We're going to be fine at tight end, but it's going to be by committee. We can go '12' personnel, and we can put Jamal in and we can put TK in, and we got a big tight end who can run block... We can go Thaddeus Moss and Stephen Sullivan, (and) now you have two athletic tight ends in there. There's a lot of different ways we can use our tight ends.
Can you split those tight ends out in the slot?
Yes. Stephen Sullivan is perfect for that.
Do you think you have a running back by committee situation?
I do, because I'm kind of curious. I know what we have. We have to see what our true freshmen can do. I think every one of them brings something to the table. I think Clyde going into the season, since he understands the concepts and everything else, is ahead right now. But we saw Chris Curry run the football. We saw Lanard Fournette catch the ball out of the backfield. I'm curious to see what these two freshmen can do, and I really believe every one one of them brings something to the table.
Will running backs be catching balls out of the backfield more?
We're going to do a lot more of it. Like I said, during the UCF game, the last game, we said "Let's get the backs out. Let's get the ball out of our hands quick. Let's help our offensive line." I think our backs have to be a big part of our offense in the throwing game.
What’s your first thoughts on (true freshman quarterback) Peter Parrish?
I think he’s a very talented, mature young man. I know he's a great quarterback. We threw so much at him right now. But not all of it stuck.... Every practice we put in six new passing concepts. He probably knows half of it right now. Hopefully in July and in August, he'll get in there. But he can play for us.