SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When Ed Orgeron went to then tight ends coach Steve Ensminger a month into the 2016 season to ask him to be LSU’s interim offensive coordinator, the former Tigers quarterback had a succinct two-word response:
Ensminger took the job anyway, of course. Then he stepped back into his role as a position coach in 2017 when Orgeron, feeling the pressure to bring in a hot name as play caller after basically promising Lane Kiffin, plucked Matt Canada from Pittsburgh.
Orgeron never meshed with Canada in terms of personality nor took a liking to his “which helmet is the ball under?” constantly shifting offense. Canada wound up at Maryland this season, while Kiffin remains head coach at Florida Atlantic.
Ensminger is again LSU’s offensive coordinator, though, and a lot happier about his lot than he was in 2016 despite a multitude of headaches.
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“When he (Orgeron) offered it to me (for 2018) I was excited about it, I really was,” Ensminger said at a news conference Friday. “We struggled some, yes, but I'm very pleased with how those guys stepped up with the amount of experience that they had coming into the season.”
A lot of LSU fans probably consider the Tigers’ offensive production in 2018 and figure Ensminger needs a reality check — or that he needs to be left on a mountaintop somewhere here in the Sonoran Desert after the rest of the LSU team heads back home after Tuesday’s Fiesta Bowl with UCF. The Tigers rank eighth in the Southeastern Conference in rushing and scoring, ninth in passing and 10th in total offense — and this after the inflated numbers resulting from LSU’s 74-72 seven-overtime epic loss to Texas A&M on Nov. 24.
There will be no convincing a sizable chunk of the fan base that Ensminger is doing a good job. There is no convincing a sizable chunk that anyone could do a good enough job calling plays at LSU. It’s like what Greg Schiano, the Ohio State defensive coordinator and ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach, once said: “There are two things every man in America thinks he can do: work a grill and coach football.” Substitute “jambalaya pot” for "grill" and “call plays” for “coach football” and you have the pre-cooked criticism Ensminger faces at LSU.
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LSU’s offense was anything but prolific this season, even counting the outlier of the Texas A&M game. But saying that LSU’s productivity was dismal discounts the fact that the Tigers were working with a new quarterback, who had to be protected much of the season from running all out because his only scholarship backup was injured. That they had unproven running backs and an offensive line that through injuries and attrition fielded seven lineups in the season’s first eight weeks, often forcing Ensminger to rip up a third of the game plan each week because of communication issues among a constantly shifting group of blockers.
“If we couldn’t get it right that week,” Ensminger explained, “we took it out.”
“He did a helluva job getting us through the season,” LSU quarterback Joe Burrow said. “It’s always hard when you don’t know what kind offense you’re going to be. Now we know, and we’ll be able to build on that in the offseason.”
Eight offensive starters from the Texas A&M game and 19 players from LSU’s two-deep offensive depth chart are expected to return for the 2019 season. The biggest holes to fill are at tight end and running back, where LSU has recruited capable replacements.
The question, or at least the plausible suggestion of one, is, will Ensminger be back to direct the offense?
The former LSU quarterback — the mad bomber of the Tigers’ late 1970s duo with the late David Woodley — will be 61 on Sept. 15. It would be understandable if he was eager to start winding things down and return to the relative safety of a position coach’s office.
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Ensminger indicated as he left the podium Friday that he wants to return in his role next season, though he was careful to remind reporters that even with another year to go on his two-year contract he serves at the pleasure of the head coach.
Unlike midway through the 2017 season, when Orgeron was describing offensive principles that bore little resemblance to what Canada was running, Coach O has given no indication he is going to make a change in the coaches’ booth.
All that said, barring another rash of injuries and suspensions, LSU’s 2019 offense should have few excuses with all the talent returning and the beginnings of a more up-tempo identity that the Tigers put on display starting with their signature win of 2018, a 36-16 rout of Georgia on Oct. 13.
“I know going into the spring he can handle it, and I know what direction in which he’d like to go,” Ensminger said of Burrow.
There is only one direction that would please LSU’s hard-to-please fan base:
More yards. More points. More wins.
Tuesday’s Fiesta Bowl would be a good place to start.
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