Ed Orgeron opens his fifth full season as LSU’s head football coach Friday when preseason practice starts.
He and his coaching staff featuring six new assistants, including both offensive and defensive coordinators, have about five weeks (19 practices and three scrimmages) before the Sept. 4 season opener at UCLA to smooth the rough spots.
Even with 17 of 22 starters returning, answers are still needed concerning LSU’s running backs, all of its receivers behind WR1 Kayshon Boutte, its backup offensive line and its linebackers.
Also, with fifth-year senior quarterback Myles Brennan now possibly sidelined for most of the season after breaking his left arm this past weekend in a freak accident, the Tigers’ QB room has just two scholarship quarterbacks in sophomore starter Max Johnson and true freshman backup Garrett Nussmeier.
Still, there’s the feeling even with those uncertainties that the Tigers clearly have the talent and attitude to rebound from last year’s 5-5 COVID-19 impacted season that went sideways even before the year started.
When Orgeron evaluated last season, he saw an offense wheezing to gain yards, especially after starting quarterback Brennan suffered a season-ending torn abdomen in a game 3 loss at Missouri.
The Joe Brady 2019 national championship offense, built on then-new passing game coordinator Brady’s philosophy of getting the ball to playmakers in space, was A.W.O.L. last season after Brady left to become offensive coordinator of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
So, Orgeron changed his offensive braintrust with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger retiring and passing game coordinator Scott Linehan being fired after one season.
Orgeron called Brady, asked him if he knew any other coaches who could run his offense and then hired Brady’s Carolina offensive assistants Jake Peetz as offensive coordinator and DJ Mangus as quarterbacks coach.
“The type of offense we’re going to run, the style of offense of 2019, it’s the type of checks that we had and the type of protections,” Orgeron said. “I want to see the same type of plays, I want to see the same type of adjustments that were so successful for us.
“Now, that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing we’re going to run. But that is going to be the basis of our offense, which is a spread offense, which we learned under Joe Brady.”
Also, last season under one-and-done defensive coordinator Bo Pelini, LSU had its worst defense in history. It gave up several big plays almost every game because of lack of communication between Pelini and the players and confusion among the players themselves.
Pelini and safeties coach Bill Busch were fired at season’s end and D-line coach Bill Johnson retired. Orgeron made it a point to hire considerably younger coaches as replacements, including Minnesota Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones as defensive coordinator.
“We have to eliminate explosive plays,” Orgeron said. “Too many explosive plays, too many missed assignments. Too many busts. Too many receivers running down the field free.
“We played a lot of man and a lot of combinations of man, stuff like that. Some of it was simple. Some of it was too complicated.
“We’re going to simplify stuff. We want our players to have their cleats in the grass. We’re going to play a lot more zone. They’re not going to be switching off of this level, switching off of that level. We want our guys to play, keep the ball in front of us, and make plays.”
Orgeron felt much of the problem defensively was his players weren’t understanding what the coaches were teaching.
“When I was interviewing them (his coaching candidates for his new hires), I was pretending I was one of our players, and I wanted to see how well they would communicate to our players,” Orgeron said. “Coaches are going to know a lot of football, but it’s how much that they can get to our players and how much our players will know.
“Every one of these coaches I hired averaged 20 years younger than the coaches I had on the staff. Every one of these coaches made an A-plus in communication with our players.”
There was also a lack of leadership last season, expected after LSU had 15 players selected in the 2020 NFL Draft and preseason opt outs of 2019 Biletnikoff Award winning wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and nose tackle Tyler Shelvin.
Orgeron also totally dropped the ball on the Black Lives Matter movement with his team.
So, he addressed it during the off-season.
“We’ve had more team meals, and I’ve had more leadership committees,” Orgeron said. “I told these guys `You’ve got to promise me if anything is going wrong, let me know first. If I can fix it, I will. Let’s communicate. If there’s something that we need to be doing better in our university that I can help, I will help.’
“We’re giving them all the means that we can to have an open line of communication, and I think that’s going to help for this year.”
Orgeron is fairly sure of LSU’s starting lineup at this point, but he’s anxious to see where some of the team’s new faces will fit.
He hasn’t gotten a look yet at Clemson transfer linebacker Mike Jones and Georgia transfer safety Major Burns.
He hasn’t received an eyeful of the bulk of LSU’s incoming freshman class, which features five four-star wide receivers, five-star safety Sage Ryan and five-star defensive tackle Maason Smith who enrolled in January and went through spring practice.
“We’re excited about this season,” Orgeron said. “We have a lot of guys returning, we have an experienced team. We have a very good team, a very good coaching staff. I love the mindset of this football team and the leadership of the football team.”