Ed Orgeron: “We’re probably in the best shape we’ve been physically and injury-wise”
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Ed Orgeron has had an image stuck in his mind’s eye for weeks, and he sees it again any time the topic of conversation shifts to Alabama’s vaunted pass rush.
It’s a recurring clip of budding Heisman candidate Jonathan Allen from Alabama’s victory over Texas A&M. In it the All-American defensive end flies through the offensive line and superman dives over a tailback attempting a cut block into a full-on spear of Aggie quarterback Trevor Knight for a sack.
“I have a vision of him jumping over that tailback, hitting the quarterback underneath the jaw,” grinned Orgeron, an unabashed aficionado of defensive line play, when asked for his impressions of Allen.
That kind of film has its way of getting around.
Both center Ethan Pocic and left tackle K.J. Malone mentioned the play unprompted when speaking with reporters Monday prior to No. 15 LSU’s first game-week practice ahead of No. 1 Alabama’s visit to Tiger Stadium on Saturday night.
“That was a real explosive play,” Pocic said, having watched that exact game film earlier in the day. “Good play.”
Thing is, Allen isn’t even the Crimson Tide’s leading sack artists. His six quarterback takedowns rank second on the team to the 6.5 recorded by Baton Rouge native and speedy edge rusher Tim Williams.
They’re not alone. Alabama’s pass rush as a whole leads the nation in total sacks (32), sacks per game (4.0) and sack yardage (278).
There’s a sense around LSU that the offense is better equipped to have success against the top-ranked Tide now that Orgeron and Steve Ensminger have implemented a balanced, less-predictable plan of attack.
The Tigers have taken more deep shots down the field since Les Miles and Cam Cameron were axed amid a 2-2 start. Orgeron has repeatedly made a point of it, and quarterback Danny Etling has thrown touchdown passes of 80, 63, 40 and 23 yards in LSU’s past two games.
History says that’s the best way to attack Nick Saban’s defenses at Alabama. Just as it proved the ground-and-pound, run-right-at-them method Miles employed last November isn’t.
But as Orgeron brought up on four separate instances during his Monday press luncheon, none of that will matter if LSU can’t find a way to keep Etling upright when he does drop back to pass.
“We think we can get some receivers down the field, but we got to be able to protect (Etling) long enough to be able to get those plays down the field,” Orgeron said. “That’s going to be the key to the game.”
Pass protection has been something of a mixed bag for LSU this season. On one hand, the Tigers have yielded just 11 sacks this season, third fewest in the Southeastern Conference.
On the other, six of those came in losses to Wisconsin, by far the two toughest defenses LSU has seen prior to facing Alabama and a defense Orgeron opined “might be one of the best in college football history.”
LSU’s offensive line, the main culprits in last season’s debacle in Tuscaloosa, knows the spotlight is on them in the matchup that once again figures to decide the top-15 showdown.
“They have one of the premier D-lines in the country and they’re great at getting to the quarterback,” Malone said. “I think if we protect Danny like Coach Orgeron said, as good as Danny has been playing, I think it’ll help us in the passing game.”
LSU isn’t likely to see quite as much of the heavy 3-4 look Alabama played last season because the Tigers are utilizing more spread personnel. The two-gap does remain Alabama’s base formation against I-formation.
As Pocic noted from watching film, the Tide will use a four-man front in nickel and dime situations. Allen typically slides inside to defensive tackle while outside linebackers Williams and Ryan Anderson play defensive end from a wide technique.
It’s similar to the scheme employed by Dave Aranda that LSU’s offensive line gets to work against in practice on a daily basis.
Whatever the formation, Alabama’s front seven remains the toughest to block in the nation. Orgeron explained their dominance is a byproduct of both scheme and an abundance of five-star talent.
“Anyone watching the game can tell they’re definitely fundamentally sound,” sophomore guard Garrett Brumfield said.
With such a difficult task looming, LSU will enjoy the benefit of having its full complement of offensive linemen for the first time in a month.
Orgeron said right tackle Toby Weathersby (high-ankle sprain), who resumed practice before the bye week, could make his return to the starting lineup Saturday depending on how practice goes this week.
“If he’s able to start, we’ll start him,” Orgeron said. He added that how the sophomore fares in one-on-one drills Tuesday will be paramount.
The coach declined comment on what Weathersby’s return would mean for Maea Teuhema, who has started at right tackle in LSU’s last four games, saying the decision belonged to position coach Jeff Grimes.
The weekend off also benefitted a host of other Tigers dealing with a variety of bumps and bruises. Aside from players ruled out for the season, Orgeron said everyone should be available for Saturday.
“We’re probably in the best shape we’ve been physically and injury-wise,” Orgeron said.