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LSU offense set for Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day

LSU’s Joe Burrow
SPORTS SCENE PHOTO/Peter Silas Pasqua

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Among Joe Burrow’s primary goals during preparation for the Playstation Fiesta Bowl was to gain weight. He’d dropped a couple pounds during the rigor of the season, so since December started, he’s been stuffing piles of chicken and rice into his mouth.

Man does not live on chicken and rice alone, though – especially not quarterbacks. That’s why offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger’s focus during bowl practices has been putting more and more on his quarterback’s proverbial plate.

“My plan is to put more on him,” Ensminger said Friday. “My plan is to go a little bit 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 run to a pass, pass to a run. 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, get us in a different route. But, everybody has to be on the same page with that, and everybody has to learn it.”

That’s music to Burrow’s ears. He’s asked to shoulder as much of the offense as Ensminger is comfortable handing him, and he’s excited to see his role expand with checks.

“Some guys, if you can’t handle it, you’re not going to ask for it. But I’ve been asking for it for a while,” he said. “It was tough at the beginning of the year because I’d probably only been here for a month and a half, but as a quarterback, you feel like the more coaches put on your plate, the better you’re going to be as an offense.”

Can The Whole Offense Handle It?

Burrow arrived from Ohio State in the summer as a graduate transfer and didn’t win the starting job until the fall, so much of his first season was about navigating the learning curve.

He seems to have navigated it quite well, becoming the first quarterback in school history to pass for 2,500 yards and rush for 350. A win in the Fiesta Bowl against UCF would put him in elite company alongside Zach Mettenberger as the only Tiger quarterbacks with 10 wins in their first season.

But the learning curve isn’t a one-lane road. Offense, as Ensminger says, takes all 11, so it’s about getting every player up to speed, too, in order to expand the offense the way Ensminger would like.

“It’s amazing what he’s done, coming in in the summer, learning the offense, taking it over,” Ensminger said. “We expanded it some, but we’re looking forward to expanding it more, putting more on him. Letting him make more checks. He’s done a good job with that, but it’s a matter of, can the whole offense handle it? He can. Some of the other positions couldn’t, so we wouldn’t always do it every game.”

Injuries also took their toll. Ensminger said he estimated LSU ran only 70 percent of its offense because of depth issues at offensive line and tight end. A constantly shifting line meant LSU wasn’t comfortable running four and five wide sets, while the two tight end sets Ensminger loves to run were an impossibility, as Foster Moreau was LSU’s only healthy tight end most of the season.

An Extra Spring

Among the positions Ensminger is most excited about developing is his wide receiver corps. All seven of the Tigers’ leading pass-catchers from the receivers room should be back in 2019, meaning more time to develop chemistry with Burrow and learn the nuances of the game.

Take, for example, freshmen Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall, who have combined for 412 yards on 39 catches and two touchdowns. Their talent helped them make plays early in their careers, but Ensminger expects even more from them as they grow comfortable at the college level.

“We knew they could catch the football,” Ensminger said. “It was obvious during fall camp. But it’s a learning process.”

As an example, Ensminger uses press coverage and crossing routes. When the defense is in man and a receiver runs a crossing route, the receiver’s job is to flatten the route – run perfectly parallel to the line of scrimmage and create separation from the defender. Against zone, however, that receiver needs to get higher up the field to create separation from the weakside linebacker.

“Those things as a young kid, it’s hard to learn,” Ensminger said. “They don’t see all that in high school.”

The Year Two Bump Starts Now

The good news is bowl prep offers LSU, essentially, “an extra spring,” in the words of offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry: 15 additional practices to tweak, add, and remove elements of the offense. That will help any unit, but especially one like LSU’s that was inexperienced coming into the season.

“It’s been great,” Burrow said. “We’ve experimented with some things. Some things worked. Some things didn’t. Took some things out, put some things in. When you have 15 bowl practices, you can do that.”

The focus for this week is on beating an undefeated UCF team, but it’s also about laying the groundwork for a 2019 season that will bring with it high expectations. Burrow, his receivers, and a good chunk of the offensive line and running back room will all be back with the reinforcements of a top-five recruiting class.

That’s why Burrow is looking to get a head start on the year two jump that quarterbacks like Mettenberger (128.3 rating in 2012, 171.4 in 2013) and Danny Etling (135.5 rating in 2016, 152.9 rating in 2017) have enjoyed.

“That’s a lot of places where that happens to quarterbacks,” Burrow said of the leap from year one as a starter to year two. “They’re just trying to scrape through wins. That’s what I was trying to do this year, getting a feel for the place, getting a feel for the people, doing what I can to win games. We were able to win some games people didn’t think we would be able to win this year. We also lost some that people didn’t think we should lose.

“As a quarterback, when you have a full offseason with a coach, when you have a full offseason with players from the year before, I think statistically we will be a lot better next year.”