SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — At times this season Steve Ensminger has felt like a man calling plays with one hand tied behind his back.
LSU’s first-year offensive coordinator said Friday that he’s coached most of this season with roughly 30 percent of his offense unavailable to him. Whole portions of the game plan were taken out each Thursday due to personnel deficiencies or an inability to execute in practice, he explained.
Injuries have been one big reason why. LSU lost two backup tight ends to non-contact injuries before fall camp even began. That forced LSU to abandon its two-tight packages and get away from its power running game both in red zone and short-yardage situations.
A midseason injury to backup quarterback Myles Brennan and two preseason transfers at the position also curtailed LSU’s ability to dial up quarterback runs. That was clearly the case right up until the regular-season finale against Texas A&M.
The other root cause, as Ensminger explains it, has been a lack of communication and familiarity with the offense, which has limited the amount of no-huddle LSU can run.
Quarterback Joe Burrow didn’t arrive on campus until June, drastically cutting down his time in the system. However, Burrow apparently isn’t the one who has kept Ensminger from giving his signal caller more freedom to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage.
“It’s amazing what he’s done coming in during the summer, learning the offense and taking over,” Ensminger said. “To be honest with you, we expanded it some. Looking forward to expanding it more and putting more on him. Letting him make more checks.
“He’s done a good job with that, but can the whole offense handle it? He can. Some of the other positions couldn’t, so we wouldn’t always do it every game.”
According to Ensminger, LSU has at times had to dial back what it does offensively to protect an offensive line that’s been hampered by injuries and inexperience.
Center Lloyd Cushenberry and left guard Garrett Brumfield have done their best to keep everyone on the same page, but communication breakdowns have occurred. Brumfield and left tackle Saahdiq Charles have both missed time. The right tackle spot has been a bit of a revolving door.
Struggles up front and inconsistency from a talented-but-inexperienced group of receivers have kept LSU from using as many four- and five-receiver packages as Ensminger would like.
“A lot of that has to do with the offensive line,” Ensminger said. “To get to those packages, you’ve got to be able to protect up front. With moving everybody around, and the communication problems we had up front, we weren’t able to do a lot of that.”
Heading into the Fiesta Bowl matchup against UCF, the hope is that 15 additional practices should help sure up some of those deficiencies. The first week of bowl practice tends to be more like spring ball, with the focus more on self-improvement and bolstering the basics than game planning for the Knights.
Once those supporting groups are better versed in the offense, Ensminger believes Burrow will be able to handle a larger work load in terms of running the show.
In fact, the coordinator plans on doing so as LSU turns the page to 2019.
“My plan is to put more on him,” Ensminger said. “My plan is to go to more no huddle. My plan is to signal in a play with him having the ability to get us out of the play, whether it’s pass to a run or run to a pass. I think he’s smart enough to do that. Right now he will change the protection for us, but heck, I want him to change the play. If it’s two deep (coverage), get us in a different route, you know. But everybody has to be on the same page, and everybody has to learn it.”
Burrow threw for 2,500 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions in his first season as a starter, plus an additional 375 yards and seven scores on the ground. He too sees the potential for growth with 15 bowl practices and eventually a full offseason under his belt.
The quarterback wasn’t as forthcoming about what’s held the offense back as his coach was, but he characterized the entire season as a learning experience for a unit that came to fall camp lacking an identity.
“I think we’ll be able to build on what we did this year because we didn’t know who we were, and now we do,” Burrow said. “Going into the offseason, spring will be very important. When you’re going against the best defense in the country every week, you can really gauge who you are. Frankly, we were getting our ass kicked every day in fall camp.”
LSU will get a chance to show what it can do on New Year’s Day against a UCF team that ranks No. 83 nationally in total defense.
Burrow called the Fiesta Bowl an important test before LSU goes back to the drawing board with aims on improving an offense headed into year two of its coach-quarterback duo at the helm.
“Coach E has some ideas,” Burrow said. “I have some ideas about where we’re going to go in the offseason. I’m excited for it.”