Ed Orgeron chose his words carefully.
He's overstepped this topic before — How does this LSU defense compare to last year's? — and he knew he'd have to answer with more tact this time.
"Last year I said something and it came back to bite me," Orgeron said Tuesday evening. "So, I'm going to be very guarded about what I say."
You remember the quote. After LSU's second fall scrimmage in mid-September, a reporter asked whether the offense or defense was establishing the upper hand.
Both, Orgeron began, and then he offered up an evaluation which LSU's defense never lived up to.
"I will say this to you," Orgeron said then. "We are so much better on defense right now than any part of the season last year."
It was a confident statement. It was eventually proved overconfident when LSU recorded the program's historic lows in scoring defense and total defense during a brutal 2020 season in which the Tigers' heralded "DBU" secondary ranked last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in passing yards allowed per game.
But there was a deeper lesson beneath Orgeron's overconfident statement. Of course, those were just words that'd get used against him. The main issues, he admitted Tuesday, were that he'd let other things slide, too.
The most jarring confession was that Orgeron said he didn't interview the coaches he hired before the 2020 season. LSU made three new coaching hires at the time — defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, passing game coordinator Scott Linehan, running backs coach Kevin Faulk — and Orgeron parted ways with Pelini and Linehan after just one season.
Both hires were based on recommendations and ties to Orgeron's coaching circle. Mentor Pete Carroll told Orgeron Pelini was "the most intelligent, best defensive mind" of any coach he'd worked with. Linehan had a deep NFL coaching history and had played quarterback at Idaho under Dennis Erickson, whom Orgeron worked for at Miami from 1982 to 1992.
"I hired some coaches and I didn't even interview 'em from the last staff," Orgeron said. "I'm never doing that again. (This time) I hired, I interviewed everybody."
Orgeron allowed himself to be particularly vulnerable during Tuesday's news conference. It was one of the most candid Orgeron's had since taking over as LSU's head coach in 2016, particularly when the subject was about on-the-field issues and where the program is now supposed to go.
The 59-year-old Larose native has not hidden from mistakes he's made in the past and the adaptations he's needed to make.
Orgeron owned the aggressive approach that proved counterproductive in three losing seasons as the head coach at Ole Miss. LSU players like Glen Logan said during the 2019 season that Orgeron built a "fun" locker room culture where "we want to come here and do this."
He recognized his hiring of Matt Canada as LSU's offensive coordinator in 2017 wasn't a good fit after one season, and, while recognizing the limitations LSU had in the quarterback room, entrusted the offense to long-time colleague Steve Ensminger while pursuing both a transfer quarterback, Joe Burrow, and an offensive coach, Joe Brady, who would fulfill his vision of LSU's transition to a modern spread offense.
After years of problematic special teams play, Orgeron used the advent of a 10th assistant staff spot to promote Greg McMahon from consultant to special teams coordinator in 2018. The Tigers have won several games and set school and Southeastern Conference records through its special teams in the three seasons since McMahon's promotion.
But last year's mistakes led to a tumultuous 5-5 season in which LSU narrowly avoided its first losing record since 1999. Part of the issue stemmed Orgeron's handling of the team's protest against police brutality and racial inequality, and athletic director Scott Woodward said last week that Orgeron has learned to "stay out of politics."
The on-the-field issues were often pinned on the coaching hires Orgeron made — particularly on Pelini and the LSU defense's inability to adapt and improve throughout the season.
The defense routinely gave up explosive plays due to coverage busts and incorrect alignment under Pelini, and, despite Orgeron's directives to simplify the scheme, the Tigers defense still gave up an average of 45 points in their final three games.
Although Orgeron made that directive to simplify, he said he was still relatively hands off with the defense and allowed Pelini to do his job. Orgeron said he let go of the reins to a fault, letting schemes and game plans slip by even when he disagreed with them.
Now, Orgeron said he's committed to trusting his own experience.
"I know that I've coached defense for 40 years," Orgeron said. "Last year, I kind of stood out of it. This year, I'm not. If I see something I don't like, we're not doing it. I'm very hands on now."
His involvement was evident on Thursday, during the media's first viewing of LSU's spring practices. Orgeron spent most of the 20-minute viewing directly coaching the defensive line: barking commands, giving one-on-one lessons, holding dummies during drills.
LSU's first-year defensive coordinator, Daronte Jones, was working with the defensive backs on the other end of the field. Orgeron said he's "very hands on now" with the defense but doesn't "need to be" with Jones. The 41-year-old is a "very capable" defensive mind, "an excellent coach" who's rebuilding LSU's image as a physical unit that has mastered the fundamentals and can still aggressively attack opposing offenses.
Jones was one of five new assistants Orgeron hired this offseason — coaches he properly vetted and interviewed this time. New offensive coordinator Jake Peetz and passing game coordinator DJ Mangas were Orgeron's first picks, but the head coach was required to dig deeper with his defensive coordinator hire.
Top candidate Marcus Freeman chose Notre Dame over LSU because South Bend was closer in proximity to family. Orgeron was unable to lure New Orleans Saints defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen away because contract language prevented him from leaving for a college job. An interview with Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett revealed he wasn't the right fit.
The monthlong search played out publicly and may have appeared embarrassing, but, at its root, it showed the path toward hiring Jones was a diligent one. Orgeron defended Jones on Tuesday by saying it didn't matter that he wasn't his first pick.
"Daronte was like the fourth or fifth choice," Orgeron said. "So was I. Who cares? He's here. He's doing a tremendous job."
That was another personal lesson for Orgeron, one that he learned as interim coach in 2016 when reports circled that LSU was more interested in Florida State's Jimbo Fisher and Houston's Tom Herman. Orgeron's defense of Jones echoed the moment Orgeron defended himself following LSU's upset loss to Troy in 2017, when he told a critical caller on his weekly radio show, "I earned the job, whether you like it or not."
Orgeron is pleased with what he's seen from Jones so far. He's identified and attacked LSU's main issue last season — communication — by starting simple this spring. The first week, Jones introduced only two defenses: one base scheme, one blitzing scheme. Andre Anthony, LSU's sack leader at defensive end last year, said every level of the defense has been forced to communicate every call to one another.
The defensive staff has placed more focus on how they're teaching the defense to the players this spring. Orgeron told them it's more about "how you talk to the team."
"It's not exactly what we do, it's how we do it," Orgeron said. "How you present it to the team. Are you clear to the team? Do they understand what we expect?"
The approach has produced moderate results. Orgeron said he's seen "very few missed tackles," and the defense reduced the offense's explosive plays from 16 on Thursday to seven during Saturday's scrimmage.
So, in the end, Orgeron did answer that question about how LSU's defense compared to last year's. He chose his words with the same patience he used for his coaching hires.
"I do see a difference," Orgeron said. "I see our guys with cleats in the grass. I see communication getting better. I see the defense is simpler. I see our guys attacking and playing football. But I'm gonna hold judgment to the season."
He paused, grinned: "Lesson learned."