By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Perhaps playcalling is like riding a bike.
The type of task that once you know how you do it, you never forget. No matter how long you may go without doing so. You turn the headset on, bust out the old play sheet and boom, you’re off and rolling
How else could one explain the job Steve Ensminger did in his first night as LSU’s interim offensive coordinator?
The veteran coach hadn’t called plays since 2008, when Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville handed him the duties in-season after firing offensive coordinator Tony Franklin. Ensminger hadn’t been an offensive coordinator since a two-year stint at Clemson from 1997-98. Clemson finished that ‘98 season 3-8 (1-7 in ACC play) with an offense that averaged just 19.8 points per game.
Promoted from tight ends coach five days earlier by Ed Orgeron, Ensminger had all of five practices to revive the same stagnant offense that ultimately got Les Miles and Cam Cameron fired amid a frustrating 2-2 start to the season.
That seemed like a tall order in and of itself. On, and do it without All-American tailback Leonard Fournette and starting right tackle Toby Weathersby. By the way, at one point in the game both starting guards will also be on the sidelines.
Even Orgeron, a fountain of positive energy, did his best to keep expectations realistic. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and a brand new offense can’t be implemented midseason. It’d be impossible to change the terminology in a week.
However, Orgeron said, improvements could be made. And he insisted Ensminger was the man to make them. Steve Kragthorpe, LSU’s chief of staff, would have some input too. As would Dameyune Craig, Jeff Grimes and Jabbar Juluke.
Orgeron, who specializes in defense and motivation, declared during his introductory presser that he’s the style of boss who lets his assistants do their jobs — a lesson he learned the hard way during a disastrous 10-25 tenure at Ole Miss.
“I was at Ole Miss as a D-line coach, and that’s how I coached the team,” Orgeron began, “and you can’t coach a team that way. I went full speed ahead and I wanted to do everything, coach the quarterbacks, the receivers and I don’t know nothing about ’em, but I wanted to do it my way.”
That changed by the time Orgeron got his next head coaching opportunity, the interim gig at USC. There he salvaged a lost season by finishing the season 6-2 after the battlefield promotion.
“I do believe that the style of coach that I was during my last head coaching job is the style of coach you’re going to see now,” Orgeron assured, “a style of coach that I’m going to let my coaches coach. Give them a job. They’re going to be accountable, and if I see something that needs to be fixed, we’re going to fix it.”
One of Orgeron’s first decisions as head coach was to put his faith in Ensminger to spearhead the offensive revival.
Through one week, it appears his trust is well placed.
Ensminger dialed up a masterpiece on Saturday night in LSU’s 42-7 rout of Missouri. The balanced, fast-operating attack looked nothing like the outdated mess that broke down in losses to Wisconsin and Auburn.
LSU’s 634 yards on the night set a new school record for yards in an SEC game, besting the previous record of 630 set in 1987 at Ole Miss and 1967 against Mississippi State. Derrius Guice and Darrel Williams ran wild as LSU churned out 416 yards on the ground without the benefit of Fournette’s immense services.
That domination isn’t the simple byproduct of an obvious talent gap. LSU had enough talent to beat Wisconsin and Auburn, but the offense didn’t look anything like the high-powered machine that raced up and down the field at Tiger Stadium Saturday.
That’s exactly how Ensminger drew it up.
LSU came out with four wide receivers and threw the ball with Danny Elting on every play of its opening drive. The series ended in a punt, but the message had been sent.
This wasn’t the same old LSU offense anymore.
LSU was far more multiple in both formation and personnel. Wideout Russell Gage played almost the entire game after playing little in the season’s first four contests. When LSU employed base personnel, it was often with a tight end or fullback split out wide, a wrinkle meant to isolate mismatches.
“I think we did a good job executing the game plan,” Etling said. “Anytime you do that, you’re going to have a good night offensively.”
Orgeron emphasized the changes were as much about streamlining execution as anything. Making life simpler for Etling with run-pass options and short dropbacks taken from the shotgun. Quick slants, screens and check downs to the backs and tight ends.
“We did some things that, maybe the same play from a different formation, from a different personnel grouping,” Orgeron said. “But we did do some things the slants, the short easy throws, the four wides, open them up a little bit and then run the ball.”
The benefit of doing so it two-fold offensively. For one, it helped the Tigers’ banged-up offensive line hold up in pass protection against a talented Missouri defensive front. Etling was only sacked once Saturday.
It also forced the entire defense to stay honest instead of selling out to stop the run. Ensminger dialed up at least eight passes in each of the first three quarters.
“That helps a lot when you’re able to spread the defense out and they don’t know it it’s going to be run or pass,” fullback J.D. Moore said. “We were able to hit them with some passes early and then the running game was able to open that much more.”
Ensminger also added an element of tempo that Miles and Cameron never implemented into the offense. It wasn’t a true hurry-up, no-huddle attack, but the offense got up to the line with a sense of urgency. A noticeable departure from the past regime, which frequently sent the play in too late to allow for any adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
Consider that LSU ran 46 plays and racked up 357 yards of total offense in the first half alone against Missouri. LSU ran 59 plays for 338 yards of offense for the entirety of the Auburn loss. That’s a night-and-day change considering the chaotic work week.
“I think it was a cumulative effect of our whole coaching staff,” Orgeron said. “There was a lot of ideas there, a lot of guys working hard and to implement the new system within the system that we had. Those guys did a tremendous job. I thought (Ensminger’s) game calling was excellent.”
Modernizing and expanding LSU’s offense will remain a work in process from until the season ends. And as Orgeron noted, there will be tougher defenses ahead. A trip to the Swamp this coming Saturday will provide a better litmus test for just how good this revamped unit really is.
But the immediate returns from the coaching shuffle can’t be taken as anything besides promising for Orgeron and Ensminger and refreshing to those who watched it play out.
Making so much progress in a week also paints a clear picture of how screwed up things were in the first place.