By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Like so many great decisions, the schematic tweak that sprung D.J. Chark for the game-changing punt return touchdown in LSU’s stunning 27-23 victory against Auburn began with a 4 a.m. cup of joe.
That’s what time LSU special teams analyst Greg McMahon arrives for work every morning. He’ll be in there having meetings and breaking down film until approximately 10 p.m.
Ed Orgeron knows this because the first thing LSU’s head coach does every morning is stop by McMahon’s office to chat all things special teams while brewing some coffee — the Cajun boss prefers Columbian blend, in case you were wondering.
It was in that informal meeting that McMahon brought up an idea to inject some life into LSU’s return game.
“He has a nice little coffee machine in there so we drink coffee and we talk special teams, and we talk about the roster, and we talk bout the personnel,” Orgeron said. “Greg found something on film where we can double team somebody, and we used the technique that he brought from the NFL, and (defensive backs coach) Corey (Raymond) taught it to our punt return unit, and we did it and we scored a touchdown.”
Orgeron credited McMahon Monday as being the behind-the-scenes star of LSU’s special teams renaissance of late. Football’s third phase has gone from a point of frustration in Baton Rouge to the deciding factors in successive one-score victories against Florida and Auburn.
Kicker Connor Culp has made his last three field goal attempts — including the game-winning kick Saturday — and the punting duo of Zach Von Rosenberg and Josh Growden have helped LSU control field position. Chark has gone from a liability fielding punts to a weapon and kickoffs have been rock solid since Cameron Gamble took over.
McMahon, because he is an analyst, cannot communicate directly with players regarding anything related to football. The former NFL coordinator is not even allowed to speak in LSU’s regular special teams meetings because players are present. He can only coach the coaches, as Orgeron puts it, with the unit-specific assignments divvied up among Orgeron and his full-time assistants.
“The details of having somebody working on special teams all throughout the day and then giving each coach a specific unit — I know those coaches take pride in it,” Orgeron said. “It’s like their own little group of that unit and they coach it with energy and our guys see it. Our guys have bought into special teams, especially the last two weeks, difference of the game.”
This unique approach creates the coaching equivalent of a game of telephone.
Whether it’s Orgeron, Raymond (punt return) or Jeff Grimes (blocking for field goals/punts), the coach will go to McMahon and formulate a game plan for their specific unit. The onus is then on the assistant to relay McMahon’s insights to their personnel.
Doubling the weirdness, players are allowed to talk with McMahon about anything that’s not football. So they’ll talk to him about classes or their love lives, but not about the week’s adjustments that they know came directly from him.
“It’s been a learning process and a learning curve, but it’s coming together,” long snapper Blake Ferguson said. “It’s been strange, but we’re getting better from week to week.”
Consider Chark’s evolution as a punt returner.
The speedster struggled mightily judging whether to field a kick or let it bounce against Syracuse, costing LSU a ton of hidden yardage. McMahon recommended having Chark stand with his feet at the 8-yard line instead of the 10, and Orgeron relayed the adjustment to Chark directly.
Chark said he’s also recently begun scouting each opponent’s punter like he would a cornerback to get a sense of how far they’ll boot it and what kind of directional technique they employ.
“He’s a genius,” Chark said of McMahon. “He’s always looking at the punters and helped me to study who I’ll be up against. He just knows what they’re trying to do, so we’re able to counter that with a return. I’ve been able to get better week in and week out, and it’s mostly because of him.”
Specialists say LSU spends more practice time on special teams now than when the program had a designated special teams coordinator. It’s a strange coincidence that LSU will renew acquaintances with Bradley Dale Peveto, the last man to hold the position, at Ole Miss this weekend.
Beyond simple emphasis, McMahon has brought new levels of specificity and complexity to LSU’s various special teams units.
“I attribute the success to the emphasis that Coach O has put on it, and it’s just trickled down from there,” Ferguson said. “We’ve had our struggles, and we all take responsibility when something goes wrong. We go back into the lab and work to perfect our craft from week to week.
“(McMahon) has done a great job of teaching our coaches and our coaches coaching us. It’s not anything that I’ve ever seen in the past, and it’s cool to see everyone working hand in hand as a team effort.”