Garrett Brumfield cannot repeat the words yelled from the stands at LSU offensive linemen during the Tigers’ win at Ole Miss on Oct. 21.
They are not fit for print, said Brumfield, LSU’s redshirt junior guard. He’s used to the volley of insults from visiting fans on the road in the Southeastern Conference.
He’s used to it at home, too, especially during the first five weeks of this season.
“You always hear things. ‘So and so sucks. They should play another guy,’” Brumfield said. “I remember being a young guy. People were hollering for me to play."
Whether on the road or at home, LSU’s offensive line has been the target of criticism more than any other group during this eight-game roller coaster of a season.
They’re well aware of that fact.
“Whenever we’re doing really well, we don’t hear about us,” center Will Clapp said. “Whenever we’re doing really bad, we’re the problem.”
It made the latest outing against the Rebels, a 40-24 victory, so much sweeter. No. 19 LSU (6-2, 3-1 SEC) racked up 393 yards rushing. Running back Derrius Guice picked up a whopping 147 of his 276 yards before being contacted by a defender, the truest gauge of an O-line’s performance.
No statistic provides a more accurate barometer for the big uglies like yards before contact: It shows just how much an offensive line moves a defensive front.
Can LSU's line do that against the next opponent, top-ranked Alabama (8-0, 5-0)? That’s been a problem in the past, perhaps the biggest issue during this six-game skid against the Crimson Tide.
Coach Ed Orgeron on Monday did not hide from it: The performance of his offensive line, specifically pass protection, is the “key” in this one.
A handful of advanced statistics from the past two clashes with Alabama tell a gory tale. The Tigers’ two quarterbacks, Brandon Harris in 2015 and Danny Etling last year, were pressured in the pocket on 41 percent of their drop-backs.
And running back Leonard Fournette? He didn’t have anywhere to run.
Fournette had 36 carries in the past two Alabama games. On 23 of them (63.8 percent), he was hit by a defender at or behind the line of scrimmage.
The traditional stats against the Tide (7 sacks and 1.6 yards per carry the past two games) are rough enough. The advanced stats are troubling.
It's an unsettling trend for a team that might start two true freshmen Saturday on the O-line, a unit some would say isn’t as strong as in 2015 and 2016.
LSU players and coaches aren’t paying attention to the betting line in the football game in …
The optimism this year for reversing the trend, players and Orgeron said, is the scheme change — from the run-heavy, sometimes stubborn offense of old to coordinator Matt Canada’s shift-heavy, motion-filled system.
“It’s a little less predictable than in years past,” F-back JD Moore said.
Said Clapp: “The new offense is going to help. All the shifts and motions make people uncomfortable. That’s the biggest thing of why we do it. If they’re uncomfortable and not certain of where they need to be, that just gives us an advantage.”
Alabama defenders don’t sound confused, and Tide coach Nick Saban on Monday referred to the presnap movement as “eye candy.”
“Once they line up in a final formation, they’re running the same offense they’ve always ran,” Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said. “It’s just more window dressing. Like I said, just moving all over the place.”
Canada’s scheme for this opponent specifically got him to Baton Rouge. Orgeron revealed Monday “one of the reasons” he hired the coordinator is he thought the movements “would give Alabama problems.”
The game against the Tide has been a focal point since Canada's hiring news conference in December when, somewhat unprompted, Canada brought up his Northern Illinois offense’s win over the Tide in 2003.
“Well, I’m 1-0 at Alabama,” Canada said when asked about his system fitting into the SEC. “We beat Alabama in 2003, so I guess I’ll go with that, huh?”
Canada spent the entire off week planning for Alabama, Orgeron said, but the head man knows no scheme will work without blocking.
“I mean, you can have the best play called in the world, but if you can't block those guys up front, it's not going to work,” Orgeron said.
LSU’s offensive linemen must block a 3-4 front that rotates as much as any other college football team. Clapp said the Tigers' O-linemen have scouted as many as nine Bama defensive linemen, and the Tide goes even deeper, playing 10-12 on a rotating basis.
It’s what separates Saban’s front from any other college football team, players said.
“There are very few teams in the country that when they rotate they stay at the same level or the same intensity when you put the backups in," Clapp said. "They have good starters and good backups. We’ve got to be ready to move those players around.”
Easier said than done, of course.
LSU did not struggle with that last time out against an Ole Miss defense ranked 127th nationally. On 12 of Guice’s 22 carries, he reached 3 yards beyond the line of scrimmage before the first contact. On his three longest runs in the game — 59, 33 and 26 yards — Guice gained 55, 24 and 22 yards, respectively, before being contacted.
It was a relief for a line that’s taken its share of criticism, a beat and battered unit playing three first-year starters without left tackle KJ Malone. He remains “questionable” with a left knee injury, Orgeron said, and he did not practice Monday.
Even with Malone, the O-line heard waves of criticism after a 30-point loss to Mississippi State, a struggling performance against Syracuse and then that home defeat to Troy.
“Fans get pretty upset and feel like they know the answers. You block that out,” Clapp said. “... If you’re not an offensive lineman in the room, then you probably don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The critics may return if Saturday's game is anything like years past. The Tide holds its annual distinction of having the nation’s best run defense at 66 yards on the ground per outing — No. 1 by 5 yards.
Can LSU's line create holes for Guice and protect Etling?
“They’ve got a great task ahead of them,” Etling said. “This team we’re about to play is the most talented yet. Young guys got to step up and make big plays for us.”
LSU's game against Arkansas next Saturday will kick off at 11 a.m. in Tiger Stadium and air …
AT THE LINE
LSU’s offensive line created holes for running back Derrius Guice last week against Ole Miss, but it has struggled to do the same in the past two meetings with the next opponent, Alabama.
LSU vs. Ole Miss, 2017: Derrius Guice’s first contact (22 carries)
3 or more yards
LSU vs. Alabama, 2015 and 2016: Leonard Fournette’s first contact (36 carries)
3 or more yards
Pass-blocking was also an issue in the past two meetings with the Tide, and it’s something the current LSU O-line has struggled with this year.