Two years into his job as LSU head football coach, Ed Orgeron is still scrambling. And gambling.
He jettisoned his biggest mistake, 2017 offensive coordinator Matt Canada, and has turned the unit over to former LSU quarterback and assistant Steve Ensminger. Eight starters are gone from last year’s group, including two-year quarterback Danny Etling.
After getting an eyeful of Etling’s potential successors in spring practice, Orgeron pushed his pile of chips to the center of the table with the signing of Ohio State graduate transfer quarterback Joe Burrow.
Orgeron has promised that Burrow, who reported to the team in May, will join a four-way competition with holdovers Justin McMillan, Myles Brennan and Lowell Narcisse. But the reality is that Orgeron has hitched the Tiger fortunes – and perhaps his future – to the one-time four-star recruit, whose chances look promising.
“We’re going to let this thing play out and let the best man win,” Orgeron said at SEC Media Days in July.
“We would like it to be settled in fall camp. And we don’t know if it’s going to be or not. But we’re going to have to name a starting quarterback. There could be a possibility, we don’t want to do this, where we would play two quarterbacks if it’s not settled for if it’s even close. We don’t see that happening, but if we have to, we could.”
Anyone with 20/20 vision at reading between the lines knows what that means. Orgeron and his staff want desperately for Burrow to come in and take the reins. It’s what they expect to happen. It’s why they expended so much effort recruiting Burrow after watching none of the three holdovers separate themselves. Unless Burrow gets hurt, it’s going to happen. It has to for LSU to improve on last year’s 9-4 mark.
The job is Burrow’s to lose. Orgeron just can’t say it publicly.
From 30,000 feet, it’s a good gamble. In Burrow, LSU has a heady quarterback, which is the first box that needs to be checked on any quarterback. He’s the son of a coach who saw the handwriting on the wall and prepared by earning his degree from Ohio State in three years. It timed out nicely for the quarterback competition he lost to Dwayne Haskins, who became the No. 2 quarterback behind J.T. Barrett last year after Burrow broke his hand in fall camp.
Burrow’s reported strengths are his ability to read defenses and his poise, which he’s going to need off the field to win over his new teammates. He doesn’t have what would be considered a power arm but observers say he makes up for it with uncanny accuracy. At a glance he also appears to have the best combination of throwing and running ability.
Burrow’s numbers – 29 of 39 passing for 287 yards and two TDs – don’t mean much coming in 10 games of mostly garbage time play. But he did press Dwayne Haskins in the Ohio State spring game and made the competition close. Burrow hit 15 of 22 passes for 238 yards and two scores. Even with his limited experience, he’s thrown more passes in competition than the other three combined.
The risk for Orgeron is team chemistry. McMillan has been at LSU for three seasons and obviously has made some friends. Brennan and Narcisse are entering their second years on campus and thought they were in a three-way battle. So far all three are sticking around to compete, but it may not take long for one or two of them to see the same handwriting Burrow saw in Columbus. There’s usually a flurry of player transfers right before the first day of school in fall camp.
LSU senior tight end Foster Moreau said he doesn’t see a problem. Moreau, who hosted Burrow on his visit, said “he fits in well with the other three quarterbacks. We throw every Saturday and he’s spot on; not many problems from an accuracy standpoint.”
The other quarterbacks are “all good guys and they don’t shy away from competition. I like what I’ve seen.”
LSU isn’t sunk if Burrow, presuming he’s one of the top two, has to share the job early on. Almost assuredly, Ensminger is going to prepare some kind of running quarterback package, probably for Narcisse, who is the next best dual threat quarterback and a better pure runner than Burrow. Two-quarterback systems can be beneficial but most coaches don’t like to go that way on a regular basis. Using two might take pressure off the guy who will have arrived three months prior.
Burrow doesn’t have a head start in the race but he doesn’t have that much ground to make up either, since Ensminger only began installing his pass-first offense in the spring. Everyone around Burrow will still be in learning mode. LSU will line up with no fewer than three wide receivers and sometimes five. Running backs may get more pass targets than carries. Tight ends will have a role in the passing game as receivers and not just pass protectors.
The scenario has some similar parallels to 2007, the last time LSU won a national championship. New offensive coordinator (Gary Crowton) combined with a seldom used veteran quarterback (fifth-year senior Matt Flynn) to set records for points and yardage in a pass-heavy offense.
Ensminger was Orgeron’s first choice for the job all along but wasn’t ready to take the job full time following his eight-game interim stint in 2016 after Les Miles was fired. After the Canada was cut loose, Ensminger said yes this time, a gamble by Orgeron that didn’t go over near as well with LSU fans as the one with Burrow.
Losing to Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl left a bad aftertaste for 2017, which started with ugly September losses to Mississippi State and Troy. Similarly, 2018’s fortunes will be apparent early with LSU facing Miami and Auburn in the first three weeks, neither game at home. Burrow fell right into Ensminger’s lap.
The onus is on Burrow to win the job and get Ensminger’s offense to hit the ground running in the opener. Even if he can’t say it, that’s the result Orgeron has to have if he’s going to stop scrambling and gambling and stabilize his tenure.