Fittingly for this 2018 season, LSU’s football complex is undergoing a major renovation and expansion. Coaches are sequestered in temporary offices in the south end of Tiger Stadium while the bulldozers and cement mixers do their work.
Welcome to the latest extreme makeover of LSU’s offense.
Long gone is the power running attack that was the staple — and in the end, arguably the anchor — of the Les Miles era. Gone, too, is the offensive shell game of Matt Canada’s lone season as LSU’s offensive coordinator.
Canada, and his offense, never seemed to sit well with coach Ed Orgeron.
Now Coach O has the man he wants running the offensive show — and, for that matter, the type of offense he says he wants.
Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but this again is the message: It won’t be your father’s LSU offense in 2018.
“We're going to be a spread offense mainly from three-wide-receiver sets, four-wide-receiver sets, sometimes five,” Orgeron said earlier this month at Southeastern Conference media days. “We'll be 50/50, throwing the football, running the football. Steve's going to do a great job of that.”
"Steve" would be Steve Ensminger, calling the shots in what is sort of a sequel to his short tenure as offensive coordinator in 2016. He took over calling the plays for LSU’s final eight games after Miles and then-coordinator Cam Cameron were dismissed and Orgeron was named interim head coach.
Orgeron likely felt the pressure to bring in a trendy name when he hired Canada and sent Ensminger back to coaching tight ends. There were strong indications that Lane Kiffin, Orgeron's old boss at USC, was going to come to LSU to be the play-caller.
Kiffin, of course, wound up as head coach at Florida Atlantic. And this time around, Orgeron went not with the trend but with his gut.
“I'm so excited Steve Ensminger as our offensive coordinator,” Coach O said. “Steve's offense broke seven school records in eight games (in 2016). He spread the ball around. He put the ball in our playmakers' hands in space and let them make plays.”
The playmakers from two seasons ago have mostly exited the stage, leaving huge question marks hanging over LSU’s offense at all the skill positions.
Gone is quarterback Danny Etling, widely criticized for being unable to make big plays but adept at avoiding the big mistakes (he threw just two interceptions in 2017). In his place is a mad scramble at quarterback, where Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow is widely expected to take charge.
Gone is the running back dynasty of Leonard Fournette (he left after 2016) and Derrius Guice, and their loyal lieutenant, Darrel Williams. In their place is a committee of little-used and unproven running backs, none of whom rushed for more than 100 yards or scored a touchdown last fall.
Gone are four of LSU’s top five receivers, including leading receiver (and punt returner) DJ Chark. In his place is another major college transfer whom the Tigers hope can be their go to man this season.
The only true sign of stability is on the offensive line where three starters return — most significantly Saahdiq Charles at left tackle and Garrett Brumfield at left guard.
Brumfield, by the way, was the only LSU offensive player made a preseason first-, second- or third-team All-SEC pick at media days, installed on the second team. Such is the confidence, or lack thereof, in the Tigers’ ability to move the ball and score points.
“We’re a very young offense,” Ensminger said earlier this month at an LSU football caravan stop in Metairie. “No one wants to hear that. But we don’t know who our quarterback is right now. We don’t know who our running back is right now — it’s running back by committee. I think our wide receiver group is outstanding. That’s the strength of our offense right now.”
It had better be.
“It’s going to be throw first and run when they give it to you,” Ensminger said.
The man expected to do the throwing is junior Joe Burrow, the former Buckeye who choose LSU and the SEC’s bright lights over a potential transfer to Cincinnati.
No one is saying Burrow will start the Tigers’ Sept. 2 opener against Miami, but the reason he's here is that none of the returning quarterbacks — junior Justin McMillan, sophomore Myles Brennan or redshirt freshman Lowell Narcisse — distanced himself from the others in spring practice.
Orgeron and Ensminger talked of the quarterback competition, but both coaches made it sound like they expect Burrow to be the ultimate winner.
“He wants to learn football,” Ensminger said. “We put in something new every day and he’s in there studying every day. He’s up there two hours before meetings, watching what we did in the spring.
“If you come in and be humble and want to be part of the team, that gives you a chance in the locker room. That’s what he’s done. The whole team is excited about him being here.”
Whoever throws the ball will have to have someone to catch it. That someone is expected to be Jonathan Giles, a transfer from Texas Tech who caught for 1,158 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2016.
The Tigers also brought in a stellar freshman receiver corps with Terrace Marshall from Bossier City, Ja'Marr Chase from Rummel, Kenan Jones from Berwick and Jaray Jenkins from Jena.
Somewhat overlooked behind returning senior running back Nick Brossette and sophomore Clyde Edwards-Helaire is the fact that LSU did sign a four-star running back prospect: Chris Curry from Lehigh Acres, Florida. He is joined by three-star signee Tae Provens from Gurley, Alabama.
“We feel we have two or three outstanding running backs. They haven't proved themselves yet,” Orgeron said candidly. “Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Nick Brossette, and I want to see what Chris Curry gets to do.”
Ensminger admitted the offense has plenty of prep work to do in August.
“We’ve done a good job evaluating personnel,” he said. “Our No. 1 personnel (package) is probably three wides, our No. 2 personnel is two tight ends and two wides. You can’t be predictable out of those sets.
“I would like to to be able to do every formation we have out of (four) different personnels: 20 personnel, double personnel, three-wide personnel and regular personnel. It’s challenging to the kids.”
Going into this season, challenging is an optimum word for LSU’s offense.