One Saturday morning earlier this summer, after LSU had completed spring practice and began its offseason strength and conditioning program, the entire offense showed up on the practice fields beside the football operations building.
The offensive linemen had organized a session of individual drills, and when they arrived around 10 a.m., they found quarterback Joe Burrow throwing with the receivers. The defensive players came later in the day.
The offense went through route combinations, footwork and one-on-one competitions. It repeated the sessions for months, filling LSU’s practice fields every Saturday morning for about two hours.
The Tigers held similar practices in the past — but this year, center Lloyd Cushenberry said, almost the entire roster showed up, from walk-ons to veteran starters.
“Everyone was here,” said Cushenberry, a senior, “and there wasn't no coaches telling us to do this.”
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The players spent those days perfecting LSU’s new offensive playbook. They worked on timing, an essential part of the scheme, and when preseason practice began in August, coach Ed Orgeron walked off the field saying, “Wow.”
Now LSU has the No. 2 scoring offense in the nation heading into the Southeastern Conference Championship Game against Georgia at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“The precision with which the balls are thrown, the catches, just seemed like everything started flowing,” Orgeron said. “It's because of that work this summer.”
The sessions began with Burrow. Coming off an average season, the fifth-year senior quarterback told his teammates what time to arrive. Coaches found out and encouraged players to go, but success depended on the players. Upperclassmen like running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and tight end Thaddeus Moss made their position groups come. The offense created a group message so players knew what they needed to improve each practice.
“Everybody was accountable for everybody,” senior left guard Adrian Magee said. “They got the younger guys staying across the street. We'll send one young guy a text and be like, 'Make sure so-and-so is here.' That'll put responsibility on him to make sure he's here and the other person. It was like a cohesive unit.”
Burrow demanded perfection. He didn’t have a full offseason of preparation last year after transferring from Ohio State, and with LSU installing a new, pass-heavy offense, he needed repetitions.
Every Saturday, Burrow told the receivers what he wanted based on different coverages. They practiced four routes per session, two on each side, and if receivers didn’t complete the route how Burrow wanted, they did it again.
“If you know where somebody's going to be on a Saturday morning in June,” Burrow said, “you know where they're going to be on a Saturday evening in the fall.”
Burrow orchestrated everything the offense practiced, picking out parts of the playbook he wanted to work on. He arranged cones. He always arrived on time — except once, when he showed up about 10 minutes late. The wide receivers chastised him throughout the practice, questioning their quarterback on his whereabouts in the middle of a throw.
“They were late every day,” Burrow said, laughing. “Don't let them fool you.”
While Burrow and LSU’s skill players practiced on one field, the offensive linemen worked on another. They needed to improve after last season.
After watching videos uploaded by the coaching staff, the linemen went through bag drills, medicine-ball lifts and different blocks, building off instructions from offensive line coach James Cregg. Cushenberry encouraged them to perfect their technique.
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The practices required dedication and attention, but the players also made them fun, often bringing their dogs. Right guard Damien Lewis once worked out while his three pit bulls sat near him in the weight room. Edwards-Helaire’s dog followed him through routes one day. One morning, Magee brought his bulldog, Taz, and it chased 6-foot-7, 320-pound tackle Badara Traore across the field.
“The dog was running around everywhere,” Cushenberry said. “It breathes so heavy, so it was drooling all over the place chasing everybody.”
Magee said he asked Taz to sit when the session began, and the dog relaxed nearby while the offensive line practiced. Cushenberry disagreed.
“We couldn't do drills half the time,” Cushenberry said. “He's not trained.”
After the sessions, the players decompressed together after a week of training with strength and conditioning coordinator Tommy Moffitt. They went down the street to eat chicken wings a couple times, and they discussed their goals. They recognized their potential as they talked, developing a bond that has strengthened throughout an undefeated regular season.
Throughout the season, the wide receivers have credited the timing they developed this summer with their success. The created a rapport with Burrow, now the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy, that gave every player a deeper understanding of the offense.
Familiar whistles were followed by an even more familiar voice.
“I see the same thing he sees,” Moss said. “There’s nothing iffy.”
The extra work has paid off. LSU can secure its first appearance in the College Football Playoff on Sunday, perhaps no matter the outcome in the SEC Championship. Its offense has scored more points this season than any other team in school history.
The Tigers' success has stemmed from in-game adjustments, scheme and coaches, but the players helped create it every Saturday morning. They had their timing when games began, instead of trying to find it midway through the season.
“Those days,” Cushenberry said, “are why we're successful now.”
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