SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — You’ve no doubt head about the weekly practice schedule Ed Orgeron adopted from one of his mentors, Pete Carroll. The one that begins with “Tell the Truth Monday” and concludes with “Focus Friday” before a game.
Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger adopted his own version throughout his inaugural campaign as LSU’s full-time play caller. Except for Ensminger and his offensive staff, this was a schedule born from necessity.
“It’s a short week anyhow,” Ensminger said Friday morning at his Fiesta Bowl press conference in Phoenix. “You go in there and kind of correct things on Monday. You install your first- and second-down plays on Tuesday. You put in your third down and red zone stuff on Wednesday.
“Then, to be honest with you, come Thursday we’d get together as an offensive staff and take things out that they could not handle.”
The veteran assistant spent roughly 45 minutes taking questions as LSU’s offense took its turn meeting the media on Friday morning. Ensminger answered questions about what held the offense back this season, the performance of specific players and how the unit can grow heading into 2019.
Here’s a Q&A of the pertinent exchanges between Ensminger and reporters:
Question: How do you assess the offense this year? What struggled? What went right?
Steve Ensminger: I’m very pleased with what we accomplished this year as an offense. With so many questions going into the season, and people don’t like to hear we’re a young offense, but we didn’t have a lot of experience. We didn’t know who our starting running back was going to be. We didn’t know who our starting right guard was going to be. We didn’t know who our go-to receiver would be. Our receivers had played, but not extensively. We didn’t know who our quarterback was going to be. About the only things we knew were a couple offensive linemen and who our tight end would be, so we answered a lot of questions. We answered a lot of questions in the first game and over the course of the season. Our receivers, even our young receivers, had an outstanding season. Both our running backs had outstanding seasons. Obviously our quarterback had a good season for us, so we answered a lot of questions. We got better over the course of the year. Even through the first eight or nine games, we started a different offensive line every week. We struggled some, but I’m very pleased with how those guys stepped up given the amount of experience we had going into the season and the leadership we got from these guys. That’s what helped us to a very good season.
Q: Joe (Burrow) was talking about how you guys weren’t able to call many five- and six-many protections during the season. How much does that change the offense and how you approach things?
SE: It was a game-to-game deal. There were games where we took in five-man protections and got the ball out of our hands quickly. There were games where we went fast tempo and threw the ball down field. There were games where we felt like we needed to run the football and control the time of possession and everything else. Each game was a different game plan, and this was the same way.
Q: You said the offense got better throughout the season. In what ways?
SE: We answered the questions. I’ll give you an example. We struggled protecting the quarterback in the Arkansas game, but we were able to answer by running the football and keeping the ball away from their offense. We were ahead by three scores. They stormed back and scored some, but our offense was able to answer at the end of the game. The Ole Miss game is an example. We were very balanced in that game, but we rushed for 300 yards. As an offense, with an exception of one game, improved in every game. We called the game and we played the game as a team. Not just how many points we can score. We played to the strength of our team, which is our defense.
Q: How do you assess the way Joe Burrow played?
SE: It’s amazing what he’s done coming in during the summer, learning the offense and taking over. 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.
Q: When you started planning this offense before the season, how much is the offense now like you planned it to be?
SE: Really hard to say. You look back at 2016, we were a little bit more I-formation with two-tight end personnel. We didn’t have two tight ends this year. Both of our backup tight ends got hurt during the summer. Non-contact just running routes and stuff, so we didn’t have two tight ends. We had Foster Moreau and we played the whole season with one tight end. We played the whole season with one fullback. I like to be very versatile as far as personnel is concerned. I like to change every other series at least, if not every other play. Being in the I-formation with two tight ends and then being three wideouts and then being four wideouts. The injuries kind of dictated what we could do.
Q: With all those injuries, how do you work around it?
SE: You expand the personnel. We were a lot more three-wide this year than we have been in the past, and we asked our young receivers to do a lot for us. Justin Jefferson answered that for us. We could move him around and he made big plays for us when we got him the football. It does limit you. I think we were able to get in a goal line set twice this year where we got two tight ends in the game, lined up in the I-formation and ran the football. Because of that, in short yardage and goal line, we were more fastball. We tried to go fast down there in those areas. That changed the whole complexion of what we needed to do as an offense.
Q: You mentioned starting all those different offensive line groups. How does that affect things?
SE: It’s a short week anyhow. You go in there and kind of correct things on Monday. You install your first- and second-down plays on Tuesday. You put in your third down and red zone stuff on Wednesday. Then, to be honest with you, come Thursday we’d get together as an offensive staff and take things out that they could not handle. A lot of it was a communication problem with the offensive line. You’ve got a guy sitting next to you who hasn’t played a lot. He’s not sure. Lloyd (Cushenberry) and Garrett (Brumfield) have done a great job communicating with both sides of the line, but you’ve got some young kids in there who have never played and are making mistakes. So we’ll put our gameplan in, but by Thursday we’ll start taking things out that we can’t do — particularly up front.
Q: What do you think about your first signing class as full-time offensive coordinator?
SE: I’m excited about our class. I really am. We answered everything we need to answer. We’ve got some big guys up front. We need some depth on our offensive line. We signed a couple receivers, and we’ve got all our receivers coming back. We signed two really good running backs who will give us depth there. We got a good quarterback in Peter Parrish. We have a junior college tight end. So I think we answered all our questions. And after Early Signing Day, we’re back to the last few weeks of recruiting with three, four or five scholarships left and it comes down to what positions we need on the team and what direction we’ll go.
Q: What do you think the offense will look like now that all those questions have been answered?
SE: Well, I think we can be more versatile by formation, by personnel and everything else on offense. I think we’ll be able to do all our fastball stuff from our three-wide and two-tight end sets. There’s things we’ve done in the past to where you send two tight ends and two wideouts out there, you’re going to get a base defense. Usually, for LSU, you’re going to get an extra defender in the box. You can pretty much say you’re going to see one high (safety) and man coverage, and you can game plan for that. We weren’t as versatile as I would have liked to have been. Now some of the stuff we did as far as tempo with our three-wide sets, I think we were good at it. Early in the season especially, our tempo on offense helped us out. It helped us out against Miami and to begin the Florida game. So we’ll continue to do that stuff, but with different personnel. Then it becomes different for the defense.
Q: What percentage of the offense do you think you weren’t able to run this year?
SE: I would probably say 30 percent. In red zone areas and third downs, we would like to get to some more four wide receivers. I think our wide receivers had a really good year, and with additional wide receivers coming in, we can do more four-wide package and some empty (backfield) package and things like that. But a lot of that has to do with the offensive line. 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.
Q: Did those receivers live up to your expectations this season? Back in the summer you called them the most talented position group the offense had.
SE: I was, but they were unproven. They hadn’t played a lot. Dee Anderson had played sparingly and made some plays for us last year. Derrick Dillon played sparingly and made some plays for us. Our two wide receivers from last year and playing in the NFL — DJ Chark and Russell Gage. Those were the two receivers we depended on. So I thought the guys were very talented going through the spring, but who was going to be the go-to guy? Who could move around from an X receiver to the Z?
Q: Joe arrived during the summer and really had to hit the ground running. How beneficial is this stretch of practice to get more of that offense installed and get him more comfortable in the offense?
SE: He’s from a football family. He’s very smart and very football savvy. He’s been well coached before, and he knows the game. He just needed to learn our terminology. We did a lot with him and let him make checks throughout the season, but the first week of practice before the bowl had nothing to do with the game. We went back to spring practices. We put a four-wide package in, we put an empty package in just so he could handle it. So it was beneficial to us. I know going into the spring what he can handle, and I know what direction that I would like to go. I know he can handle it. Now can the rest of the offense handle it?
Q: Are there any things that you personally wish you could have done better this season?
SE: No. No. You look back at the games, some of the games we struggled in, the Florida game we had a chance to win. The A&M game we had a chance to win and probably should have won it. Most of those games, you look back at it and it’s usually not a play call. It’s usually a penalty or a big turnover, something like that. Coach Orgeron and our staff, we preach that every day. And we’ve done a pretty good job with turnovers and things like that. If I look back and said I wish we could’ve done this or done that, I’m pretty comfortable about what we’ve accomplished this year.
Q: You mentioned wanting to be more versatile and some other goals. Do you think next year will be the year that that all can happen?
SE: I expect it to be, I really do. The whole country is going to this tempo offense, which I really do enjoy, but I think it has to be adjusted to the strength of your team. I look forward to having enough experience coming back to be a tempo offense out of different personnel. If you can do your fastball stuff and do it in different personnel and do it in different formations, and your kids are mature enough to handle it, it puts more pressure on the defense.
Q: Terrace (Marshall) and Ja’Marr (Chase) are two guys who obviously were effective, but they were used in spurts. Is that a learning curb thing where it took time to develop?
SE: It was. We knew they could catch the football. It was obvious during camp, but it’s a learning process that in our league, probably 80 percent of the time you’re going to get pressed. When you first come out of high school, they don’t press a lot in high school. There’s very little of it. Everything is timing, like I can run my fifth-step out route like this. When they start pressing you and getting physical, everything changes. When you start running crossing routes, as an example, and it’s man coverage, he kept it high and the defensive back undercut it. You have to understand that you flatten it out against man coverage and run away from it. You want to get high against zone coverage because it’ll affect the linebacker. Those little things, as a young kid, are hard to learn. They don’t see all that in high school.
Q: Were you expecting to use Jonathan Giles in a way that you didn’t get to this year?
SE: I thought he had a great camp, and yes we did expect that. A lot of the things we wanted to use him in was up-tempo; was the RPOs; was the quick screens and stuff like that. Probably didn’t do enough of that early in the season, which probably got him out of rhythm. Then he battled through a couple of injuries and everything else. I think he’s a really good player and will be a really good player. He’s had three good weeks of practice for us, and we’re going to need him this week.