Cover Story: After 10 years of (mostly) poor quarterback play, LSU is betting on Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow to be the solution under center

Imagine, for a moment, Joe Burrow.

Imagine a 6-foot-3, 215-pound quarterback, mobile and accurate, a good head (and a good head of hair) on his shoulders and a good arm extending from one of those shoulders, too.

Imagine a former Mr. Football in Ohio, with 11,400 yards and 157 touchdowns passing and another 2,000 yards and 27 TDs on the ground in his prep career, the brother of two former Nebraska Cornhuskers and the son of a college football coach.

Imagine a prospect forged in Urban Meyer’s quarterback armory for three years, equipped with experience in one of college football’s elite programs, accustomed to the fires that come with being in the quarterback room of a Power 5 program consistently seeking a place in the College Football Playoff.

Imagine a quarterback many observers of the Buckeyes’ program this spring felt should’ve won the starting job, who, after completing 29-of-39 passes for 287 yards and two scores in limited snaps over his undergrad career, completed 15-of-22 passes for 238 yards and two scores in the spring game – all the best figures among the quarterbacks in contention – but still lost out to a slightly more athletic and dynamic prospect.

Imagine a college graduate, empowered by a never-more-popular NCAA loophole that allows players with degrees to transfer and get immediate eligibility, who surveyed the college football landscape and has his pick of schools, who shunned more familiar waters closer to home for a taste of the bayous of Baton Rouge.

Imagine a willing heir to a decade-long dilemma of quarterback play solved previously only by transfers, the inheritor of a program with neither a 10-win season in five years and nor a win over Alabama in seven despite leading the NFL in pros produced, because only one of those pros is a quarterback, the very quarterback he’ll look to succeed.

Hell, get carried away. Imagine him looking off a safety and firing a dart to split Nick Saban’s Cover 2 for the game-winner in Tiger Stadium on Nov. 3. Imagine him outrunning two Georgia defenders while crossing into the end zone in Atlanta in December and hoisting LSU’s first SEC Championship trophy since 2011. Imagine him posing in January for the cover of a magazine, the Heisman Trophy in one hand and the College Football Playoff championship trophy in the other. Imagine statues, children named in his honor, Baton Rouge dressed in jerseys sporting his name. Imagine him walking across the lakes in the summer and returning in the fall to do it all over again, because, yes, he has two years of eligibility remaining.

Imagine whatever you want about him, because if you’re hoping to see or hear from Joe Burrow anytime soon in any other venue than your wildest LSU-related dreams, don’t hold your breath. Until LSU opens the season on Sept. 2 against Miami, a few tiny camp glimpses and quotes from teammates aside – and maybe, whenever he’s inevitably named LSU’s starter this fall, a solitary interview session with the local media – Joe Burrow will remain what he’s been since his signing: a quiet, mysterious figure waiting in the shadows, a reluctant messiah, St. Joseph the Silent.

Until then, everyone will be talking about Joe Burrow. Except Joe Burrow.

The reason becomes clear when you stop thinking about Joe Burrow and start thinking like Joe Burrow. Before he can part the red seas, stem the Tide, and put an end to a decade of usually bad, sometimes good, rarely great play at quarterback for LSU, before he can fulfill the prophecies and live up the ridiculous expectations, before he can win Heismans and titles, he must first win over a locker room. He cannot vanquish foes until he proves his merit to his peers in purple and gold.

Before he works miracles, there is work to be done. First, he has a job to do. And that’s to win the job.

 

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“He can be a pro quarterback.” – Ed Orgeron on Joe Burrow[/perfectpullquote]
EITHER FATE OR sheer luck played a massive part in LSU’s landing of Burrow. Steve Ensminger doesn’t really give a damn which.

The first day LSU’s new offensive coordinator was out on the recruiting trail this spring brought him to Copiah Lincoln Community College in Wesson, Miss. After a spring of practices and scrimmages in Baton Rouge, he had not yet found a quarterback from the three he inherited: sophomore slinger Myles Brennan, redshirt freshman playmaker Lowell Narcisse, and veteran junior Justin McMillan. He wouldn’t find one at Co-Lin, either.

He would find the father of one, though – and one who was available on the transfer market.

“It’s amazing,” Ensminger says. “My first day out recruiting, I went out to Copiah Lincoln in Mississippi. And his dad from Ohio” – Ohio University defensive coordinator Jimmy Burrow –  “was recruiting their school. I met him that day. And so, we started talking about his son and everything else. And we stayed in touch. That was good.”

That’s just one of several factors that helped swing Burrow to Baton Rouge instead of Cincinnati, the only other school he visited after deciding to leave Ohio State in the spring and initially considered the favorite to land him.

Of course, Ohio State gets credit, both for developing Burrow then allowing him to transfer. Burrow pushed Dwayne Haskins throughout the spring for the starting job and, in the opinions of many around the Buckeye program, outperformed him. But Meyer went with Haskins, a more dynamic, if less reliable, option than Burrow.

“Joe Burrow was a made player,” Meyer says. “He’s ready to go play college football. He’s earned that right. That’s why I think LSU fans should be very excited.

“He’s got a lot of tools. The most important tool is his competitive spirit and toughness, and he can get the ball out. He’s worked so hard on his release and arm strength. He’s mobile enough to keep them honest. He’s certainly not a J.T. (Barrett), but he can run. He’s a leader.”

Perhaps Texas A&M is to be thanked, too. The Aggies’ hot pursuit of LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda in January landed Aranda not just a hefty pay raise, but it also convinced Ed Orgeron to hire a safeties coach, an item at the top of Aranda’s personal wish list. The man hired, Bill Busch, just so happened to work at Ohio State in 2015, when Burrow was a freshman Buckeye.

There’s more: the Aggies also landed 2018 quarterback prospect and Tiger target James Foster in February, leaving a vacant scholarship for Burrow’s taking.

“We didn’t sign a quarterback in 2018, and Bill Busch was on the staff at Ohio State, and when Joe Burrow’s name came up, Bill gave him an outstanding recommendation,” Orgeron says. “And as we researched, Joe was exactly the type of quarterback that we felt that could come in and compete at LSU.”

Orgeron and his staff did the heavy-lifting once they got Burrow on campus for his official visit in May. There was the usual fanfare, like dinner at Texas de Brazil and tours of campus over the weekend. But what seems to have swung the pendulum into LSU’s camp for good was a meeting with Ensminger and senior offensive assistant/passing game coordinator Jerry Sullivan that ran long.

“On that Saturday, I think the best part of his official was talking ball with Coach E and Coach Sullivan in the receiver room,” says tight end Foster Moreau, Burrow’s host on his official visit. “They were supposed to be in there about 30 minutes, but I think they met in there for about three and a half hours, just talking about the offense, figuring out systems, teaching him a little bit, expecting him to come in.”

“Joe was excellent in there,” Orgeron recalls. “And I think it’s the first time his dad had heard us talk football. Steve was running the meeting, obviously, and going through some plays with Joe, some installations that we do, some things that he did at Ohio State. And he was excellent. And we felt that his knowledge of the game, his ability to run the offense, he can be a pro quarterback.”

Last, but certainly not least, LSU had the institutional framework that even makes transfers like Burrow’s possible on its side. In a move meant to benefit academically gifted student-athletes, the NCAA first introduced its policy allowing graduate transfers immediate eligibility in 2006, but it wasn’t until North Carolina State quarterback Russell Wilson used the loophole to transfer to Wisconsin in 2011 that football embraced it as a sort of free agency for veteran players.

In the years since, graduate transfers in Division I college football have increased exponentially, from 17 in 2011 to 211 in 2017. While LSU has had success tapping into the undergraduate transfer market during its doomed decade of quarterback play – its only two seasons in the top-25 nationally in passer efficiency were led by Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger (by way of junior college) and Purdue transfer Danny Etling – Burrow is the program’s first foray into a bull market now utilized by colleges across the country.

Some grad transfers, like Wilson – who set the FBS passing efficiency record while leading Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl and a Big 10 Championship – have been wildly successful. Others, like ex-LSU quarterback turned North Carolina Tarheel Brandon Harris – who threw a single touchdown pass to eight interceptions in six games in Chapel Hill in 2017 – have been utterly disastrous.

The only guarantee in the transfer game is a solitary trait.

“Experience,” Orgeron says. “Joe’s done very well with Coach Urban Meyer. As far as I know, he was very tight in the quarterback race. So you get a guy who’s competed a very high level. He knows college football, the pace. He can read defenses, call protections. The meeting we had with Joe, he was excellent, as far as football knowledge. And he’s already developed. Joe’s 6-3, 220. He’s strong in the weight room. He’s mature. So that gives him a chance to come in and compete. Plus, he’s been on a college team, so he knows how to be a leader. He knows how to win teammates over.

“The guy’s a veteran.”

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]

“Joe Burrow was a made player. He’s ready to go play college football. He’s earned that right. That’s why I think LSU fans should be very excited.” – Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer [/perfectpullquote]

DEVIN WHITE KNEW he liked Burrow the first day he met him. Game recognizes game, and if you know White – LSU’s junior linebacker and preseason All-American candidate – at all, you know he lacks not for swagger.

 

What really tipped White off was Burrow’s taste in tunes.

“He’s kind of got a swagger like me because he listens to my type of music,” White says. “The first day he pulled up for workouts he was listening to Meek Mill. I was like, ‘Ok, I can dig him.’”

While Burrow has been buried from the public eye this summer – we’ll get to the reason why in just a few paragraphs – the teammates and coaches who’ve gotten to know him best use two almost antonymic words to describe him: humble and confident.

The confidence is enough to wager on, no matter how awful the odds for Burrow.

“Me and him, we’ve already got a $100 bet that in fall camp I can’t pick him off,” White says. “That’s what he said. I’ve got to catch me a pick. The upside of it, if I don’t catch a pick, I don’t have to pay him anything. So he’s very confident, which I like.”

Orgeron and Ensminger were not allowed, by NCAA rules, to put Burrow through passing drills this summer, but they did watch him in conditioning – “He’s competing to be first in every sprint,” says Orgeron – and they did get wind from Saturday’s players-only throwing sessions that he’s arrived with the right mindset.

“I’ve seen some experience and some confidence and a different idea of how to play the quarterback position,” says Moreau. “He’s really driven the competition this summer.”

Coming to campus with a confidence and a competitive edge are requirements of any quarterback, particularly one who wishes to play immediately. But that edge must not be too sharp, or else Burrow risks gashing teammates he must quickly win over.

Ensminger, famously part of a two-quarterback platoon with David Woodley at LSU in the late 1970s, knows as well as anyone the challenges in both fitting in inside a locker room and a quarterback room while also being as competitive as possible in order to win the job. The challenge to both gain the trust and confidence of your teammates while also battling for snaps with three others more familiar to and with the squad is as great as any Burrow has faced in his college career.

“I’ve never been through it,” says Ensminger, who empathizes with Burrow’s plight. “To me, if you come in with some maturity, and say, ‘Hey, look, I just want to be a part of your team,’ and you come in and be very humble to be a part of the team, which he has done, it gives you a chance in the locker room. It gives you a chance in the huddle. It gives you a chance at practice and everything else.

“It’s not like someone coming in saying, ‘I’m the guy.’ He’s done everything you could expect. He’s been welcomed by our players. I still check with my tight ends every day and say, ‘How’s he doing? How are practices going?’ They’re excited about him being here. Our whole team is.”

He’s also impressed the staff through sheer hard work: hours in the film room, intensity in the weight room, and Saturday 7-on-7 sessions with receivers and tight ends, with an eye on expediting the learning process. Most quarterbacks, including LSU’s two successful transfers this decade, get time to acclimate, but with only a summer to settle in, Burrow can afford no such luxury.

“He’s a football junkie,” says Ensminger. “He wants to learn football. He’s up there studying every day. We put in our no-huddle stuff, and he was up there for about two hours before the meeting, watching what we did in the spring. He wants to know it.”

“The thing Joe is impressing everybody is by his work ethic,” adds Orgeron. “He works hard in the weight room. He works hard on his conditioning. He works hard watching film on his own.”

Whether or not Burrow wins the job most assume is his remains to be seen. His assets are clear: he’s accurate, tough, mobile, and experienced, a sort of combination of the three others in the room who failed to separate from the pack in the spring. He has the arm talent of Brennan, the mobility of Narcisse, and the moxy of McMillan, without, LSU hopes, any of their deficiencies.

“He’s a big, strong, athletic kid,” says Ensminger. “He’s football intelligent. I watched some of his spring practices, some of his spring games, some of the games he’s played in the past. He doesn’t make many mistakes mentally. He knows where he’s going with the football. He’s very accurate.

“Watching him on film, I questioned his arm strength. I don’t question it anymore.”

Still, Orgeron, Ensminger, Moreau, and anyone else speaking on LSU’s behalf insist the job remains open. Orgeron would like to name a starter as quickly as possible, though. The Tigers open the season Sept. 2 against Miami, a preseason top-10 team favored to win by a field goal in the early odds. LSU will want to establish a pecking order to begin preparation as soon as possible in fall camp, but as of late July, the battle wages on.

“The biggest challenge for him?” Orgeron asks rhetorically. “It’s vying for the starting job. We’ve got three good quarterbacks here. Go out and compete for the starting job.”

The smart money is on Burrow, though. In late July, a Las Vegas sports book had to quickly take down odds on Burrow’s chances of beating out Brennan, Narcisse, and McMillan after a flood of money in Burrow’s favor poured in. (Burrow opened at +130; Brennan, +270; Narcisse, +360; McMillan, +510). It appears White won’t be the only person with money riding on Burrow this fall.

The stakes couldn’t be higher for Orgeron and LSU. It’s been a decade of mostly poor quarterback play in Baton Rouge, and with a brutal schedule on deck and tons of turnover on offense, including at coordinator, a steady hand at quarterback paired with a loaded, well-coached defense could be exactly what LSU needs to navigate the 2018 season.

The Tigers will be betting on Burrow to be that steady hand – more, too, if possible. If the gamble goes wrong, so too, likely, does LSU’s season.

If it pays off, though? If Burrow lives up to the hype and helps deliver those things LSU fans once feasted upon but now crave desperately: 10-win seasons, victories over Alabama, trips to Atlanta for the SEC title, and legitimate cracks at the whole shabang?

Well, imagine that.

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