Ed Orgeron is a day away from exhaling.
Last week, LSU’s head football coach hired three defensive staff coaches, including a coordinator and also a general manager, with all but one having ties to Louisiana or to Orgeron or to LSU.
On Wednesday’s late football signing day, LSU has five scholarships available after signing 20 players in December’s early signing period. Orgeron hopes to sign two previously committed players and expects to save the last two or three scholarships for graduate transfers to fill position needs such as linebacker.
Then after a deep breath, it’s the anticipation of starting spring practice sometime in mid-March with a team returning 19 of 21 starters, learning fresh ideas from new coordinators Jake Peetz (offense) and Daronte Jones (defense).
Orgeron, Jones, new defensive assistants Blake Baker (linebacker) and Andre Carter (defensive line) and new general manager Austin Thomas met with the media Tuesday via a Zoom video call.
“We’ve got football school today,” Orgeron said. “They’ll be running the meetings, coaching their positions. It will be exciting to get them on the first day of work.”
What Orgeron wants in a defense mixes his memories of the LSU defense he saw growing up in the 1970s and what defenses can actually accomplish against today’s no-huddle, fly down-the-field offenses.
For instance, 10 of the last 12 College Football Playoff teams in the last three years averaged 41 or more points during their seasons. The last three champions – Alabama in 2018 and 2020 and LSU in 2019 – averaged a combined 47.1 points per game.
“The vision for the defense is getting back (to) playing LSU defense,” Orgeron said. “That’s 11 hats to the ball, being physical, being tough, not giving up big plays and making it tough to score on.
“When I grew up, the goal was to hold a team to 13 points or less. That’s not happening nowadays. If you hold an opponent to under 30 points, you have a chance of winning every game because offenses are scoring 45 or 50 points. You never want to say that, but that’s reality.”
LSU’s truth in 2020 was the Tigers’ statistically had the worst defense in school history allowing 34.9 points and 492 yards per game. They were third to last nationally in yards allowed (7.0) per play.
It was so bad that LSU, which lost an estimated $80 million from football in 2020 because of COVID-19 attendance restrictions, fired one-defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. The school found the funds from donors to hand him $4 million to leave with five more eventual payments of $14,000 each due through March 31, 2023.
“I want a defense that keeps the ball in front of us,” Orgeron said. “Keep our eyes on the quarterback, play more zone coverage, continue with a great pass rush and not give up explosive plays.”
That’s the marching orders for Jones, Baker and Carter.
Jones, 42, who spent the past five years coaching in the NFL including last season as defensive backs coach for the Minnesota Vikings, is a Maryland native whose first college job was coaching safeties for Nicholls State.
He followed that by being defensive coordinator in 2003 at Franklin High and in 2004 at Jeanerette High.
“Louisiana is important to me because that’s where I grew it to my coaching personality,” Jones said. “The mentors I was around gave me the confidence to be who I am, don’t try to be anyone else because the players will see if you are genuine or not. That experience set the foundation of the coach I am today.”
Baker, 38, is a Houston, Texas native who came to LSU from the University of Miami where he had been the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach for the last two seasons.
In January, Miami head coach Manny Diaz announced he was going to call the defensive schemes on gamedays starting in the 2021 season, though Baker was still going to retain the D-coordinator title.
Baker’s Louisiana ties began when he played linebacker at Tulane from 2000 to 2004. He also coached at Louisiana Tech from 2014 to 2018, the last four years as defensive coordinator. His wife, a former LSU soccer player, is a native of Mandeville.
“This is the only job I would have left Miami for,” Baker said. “The ability for my wife to be close to home, we’ve got three kids (ages) 6, 3 and 1, so bless her heart. She’s the real MVP. When I told her (he had been hired by LSU), she was crying tears of joy.”
Carter, 41, who played 13 years in the NFL as a defensive lineman, came to LSU from the New York Jets where he was D-line coach the last two seasons.
“We both have a passion for the defensive line,” Carter said in response to Orgeron saying he’s also going to be involved in coaching the D-line. “We both want to win and we’re hard on critiquing our players. And we love watching film.
“If anything, I’m learning from him. Here’s a man who has been in the game for a long time.”
Thomas, 35, returns to LSU after two years at Texas A&M and last season at Baylor.
In his first stay at LSU from 2013 to 2017, Thomas served as director of player personnel before being promoted to general manager by Orgeron in 2016. Thomas was the first general manager in the history of the Southeastern Conference and one of only two with that title in college football.
In ’17, Orgeron took then 76-year old D-line coach Pete Jenkins off the recruiting trail. He replaced him with Thomas, who proceeded to land 5-star prospects JaCoby Stevens and Jacob Phillips, both starters on the Tigers’ 2019 national championship team. Thomas was named 247Sports 10th best recruiter in college football in ’07.
Thomas said he and his wife are happy to be back in Baton Rouge and how it felt strange when he was on A&M’s staff and the Aggies played LSU.
“In that seven-overtime game in 2018 (won by A&M in College Station), it was probably the most surreal moment of my career,” Thomas said. “I’m standing on the (A&M) sideline and I’m looking across (the field) at so many people and kids I know so much about, their families or who they are.”
“Then to come to Tiger Stadium in 2019, I’d never been an opponent here until then. It really gave me an appreciation of Tiger Stadium as an opponent.”