One of Ed Orgeron's most talked about players of the offseason didn't have a catch through the first two games of LSU's 2019 football season, but that was resolved on the Tigers' first play against Northwestern State.
Lined up alone on the short side of the field, LSU tight end Stephen Sullivan ran an eight-yard out and made a diving catch before sliding beyond the right sideline.
The 6-foot-5, 242-pound senior popped up right next to his tight end counterparts, Thaddeus Moss and TK McLendon, near the LSU bench and hustled back to the field with McLendon clapping behind him.
Four plays later, Sullivan lined up as the inside receiver of a bunched trips formation, jammed into a Demons safety and fixed his crooked facemask just in time to catch a nine-yard crossing route for a first down.
Sullivan stayed in the same spot on the next play while the receivers split out wide, and he ran a deep wheel route down the left sideline and drew a pass interference penalty on what appeared to be an underthrown ball by Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow.
Within LSU's first six plays of the game, Sullivan had already matched the amount of times tight ends were targeted in all but one game in the 2018 season.
Sullivan's four catches for 51 yards in LSU's 65-14 win over Northwestern State continued a favorable trend for Tiger tight ends in the program's new spread offense. Orgeron said in the preseason that Sullivan, a former wide receiver, was the model player for the kind of plays the team was going to run under first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady, who stocked LSU's playbook with schemes he learned as an offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints.
After LSU's season-opening 55-3 win over Georgia Southern, it was clear that the tight ends would be a larger part of the offense this season. Moss, McLendon and Jamal Pettigrew each had at least one catch, and Moss caught a 44-yard pass on a deep route that set up a Tigers touchdown.
Sullivan played in both the Georgia Southern game and in LSU's 45-38 win over then-No. 9 Texas; but it wasn't until Northwestern State that he was a major part of the game plan.
Part of that might have been because of Moss sitting out Saturday's game for what was called a "coach's decision." But even with Moss set to play when No. 4 LSU (3-0) plays at Vanderbilt (2-0) at 11 a.m. Saturday, Orgeron said the Tigers will still want to target Sullivan more often.
"We want to get Stephen the ball," Orgeron said Monday. "He deserves it. He's a good player. We talked about it after the Texas game, and you can expect to see him some at tight end, some at receiver. (We) have some specific plays that he's going to catch the ball."
The diverse distribution of the football is something Orgeron said he's envisioned with the LSU offense since he became full-time head coach in 2016. Depth issues at tight end was part of what prevented the Tigers from devoting to a full spread scheme in 2018, with Moss (foot) and Pettigrew (ACL) both out for the season with injuries and Sullivan still playing wide receiver.
LSU truly had one full-time tight end last season, Foster Moreau (now with the Oakland Raiders), and he drew 12 percent of the targets by either Burrow or backup quarterback Myles Brennan in 2018.
That percentage hasn't changed in 2019; but with the overall frequency of passes increasing this season, the tight end's total receptions through three games (13) is on track to surpass the position's total receptions last season (42).
"This offense is crazy," Sullivan said Saturday. "It's my first time ever being around something like it."
The passing offense has also been historically efficient. Burrow's 83 percent completion percentage is on pace to break the NCAA record — minimum 150 attempts — set by Texas quarterback Colt McCoy (76.6) in 2008.
Tight ends have combined to catch 10 of the 13 passes thrown their way this season — a 76.9 completion percentage that ranks the position group last behind running backs (87 percent) and wide receivers (82.6).
Sure, that has some to do with Burrow's accuracy, Orgeron said; but he said the receivers have vastly improved on their ability to catch the football, which was a recurring problem in 2018.
"Last year, we dropped balls all the time," Orgeron said. "We weren't very good at catching the ball.
"They're extremely well-coached. They're some good players, but they got the ball right on the money too."