This being Louisiana, perhaps it’s natural for everyone to over-focus on the negative. But the caterwauling and whining about LSU players and coaches moving on following Monday’s completion of a college football national championship, breaking a 12-year drought and painting the Mercedes-Benz Superdome purple and gold for the third time this century is completely over the top, and it’s time to relax.
Today, the team will be in Washington, DC to visit the White House. President Trump will have them over for, we imagine, something a bit more interesting than burgers and fries like Clemson’s national championship team partook in last year. You’ll remember that there was a government shutdown in mid-January 2019, and the White House kitchen staff were off – so Trump made do by bringing in a gigantic fast-food lunch for those other Tigers, and while the cookie-pushing Acela set (the types who don’t consider LSU – or Clemson, for that matter – a “real school”) soiled their undies over the horror of this uncouth president serving plebe food to the kids, nobody from Clemson was too upset; in fact, they seemed to like it fine.
For LSU, the spread will probably be a lot more first class, even though Ed Orgeron would be perfectly satisfied with a ham sandwich and some boudin.
And then tomorrow, there will be a national championship parade for this team in Baton Rouge. It’s not quite Mardi Gras season, but there’s no better way to kick that off than with a massive, raucous celebration of the best season a college football team ever had.
Beyond that, sure – the 2019 team will be breaking up to a significant extent. And while that’s a bittersweet thing, it’s also anything but unexpected. It’s been planned for. Coaches leave for better opportunities, players graduate and turn pro. It’s the way of the world. It’s why, when interviewed Monday night by ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt following the national championship game, Orgeron said that after he had his ham sandwich and maybe some boudin, he was getting back out there and doing some recruiting.
Yes, he’ll have some work to do. Starting with coaches. LSU is losing at least three fairly important ones, and quite probably more. Joe Brady, the team’s passing game coordinator, took the job Tuesday as the offensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers. He’ll be working for Matt Rhule, the Baylor coach who was hired last week as the NFC South team’s head man. With the Baylor job open, LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda got hired yesterday as that school’s new head football coach. And graduate assistant John Decoster, who’d been LSU’s de facto tight ends coach given Orgeron’s somewhat unusual formation of his offensive coaching staff, jumped on an opening at Old Dominion to be a full-time tight ends coach.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Aranda took LSU safeties coach Bill Busch with him to Baylor as his defensive coordinator. Brady has already taken LSU offensive analyst D.J. Mangas with him to Carolina. And running backs coach Tommy Robinson, who doubles as LSU’s recruiting coordinator, has been rumored to be looking for an NFL coaching job. What’s more, LSU defensive analyst Dennis Johnson, who until this year was the team’s defensive line coach but had to be replaced after he blew out both knees in an offseason accident, is thought to be pursuing a full-time assistant’s job somewhere else as well.
So sure, there will be a lot of turnover on the coaching staff. But here’s the thing: that’s perfectly normal.
Anybody who thought Dave Aranda – or Joe Brady, for that matter – would be at LSU forever was dreaming. Those two guys were always going to move up, and more power to them. Maybe at some point if and when Orgeron is ready to retire, one of them might be the next guy as the head coach in TigerTown. That’s what’s known as building a coaching tree, and it’s what top college football programs do.
Aranda leaving might have something of a silver lining, because if you look at LSU’s defensive personnel a pretty good argument can be made that this ought to be a 4-3 base defense going forward, rather than the 3-4 Aranda has been playing since he came aboard in 2016. Yes, LSU’s best defensive lineman is Tyler Shelvin, who’s a nose guard, but modern 4-3 defenses very often employ nose guards; they’ll play a nose, a defensive tackle who lines up in the gap between the guard and the tackle on either the strong or weak side of the offense depending on the look the defense is showing, a strong-side end and a rush end. That isn’t all that different than the front Aranda played, though in the past few years the rush end position Arden Key, Michael Divinity and K’Lavon Chaisson have been playing has been called a Buck linebacker. The difference being that Aranda would drop the Buck into coverage once in a while, where the 4-3 rush end very seldom does that.
The real reason to move to a 4-3, though, is at linebacker. We’ll get into that in a minute when we talk about the exodus of players to the NFL.
It’s going to depend on who Orgeron wants to bring in as his defensive coordinator. Who can Orgeron get to replace Aranda? Pretty much anybody he wants! LSU is a premier college defense and has been for two decades, and the job pays up to $2.5 million per year. In another post next week we’ll go through a list of some of the top potential candidates, but be assured that Aranda’s replacement is going to be somebody who’s highly respected and who’s capable of fitting his scheme to the personnel he has. LSU will have a stout defense next year.
On offense, there’s really good news.
Something those who freaked out about Joe Brady leaving might not have considered is that Orgeron, cagey and deceptively smart as he is, made several copies of LSU’s offensive playbook. They’ve even got an electronic copy of it. And because they do, Brady leaving doesn’t mean LSU loses their offensive scheme. Brady might have brought it to Baton Rouge, but it’s now LSU’s system. Everybody on the offensive coaching staff knows how to run it. Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger has in fact been calling all the plays from it for 15 games, and set a new collegiate record by scoring 726 points with it. Every year you tweak what you’re doing to keep it fresh, but that Saints passing game is now a fixture of LSU football, with or without Joe Brady. Brady didn’t invent it, and he can’t steal it.
Furthermore, LSU has a guy already on its coaching staff who very well might replace Brady without too much of a bump in transition. Jorge Munoz has been an offensive analyst for a couple of years, and Munoz’ biggest specialty has been breaking down film so as to prepare Heisman-winning quarterback Joe Burrow for opponents’ blitz packages. Burrow was so impressed with Munoz that not only did he bring him to New York for the Heisman celebration, in the post-award presser he gave a special call-out to Munoz for the quality of his contribution. By all indications he’s going to move up to take over for Brady, and he’s qualified to do so. Munoz came to LSU from ULL, where he’d been for more than a decade as that school’s offensive coordinator, setting records along the way, and receivers coach. He’s very highly regarded and everybody over there already knows him.
So, perhaps some changes on defense but more of the same scheme-wise on offense. Who’s going to play on the field?
That’s what seems to be generating a good bit of whining, since LSU has a ton of juniors declaring for the draft. Grant Delpit, Justin Jefferson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Patrick Queen, Jacob Phillips, Lloyd Cushenberry and Saadiq Charles have already declared, and it’s expected that Chaisson and Thad Moss will also turn pro. That, on top of a pretty stout senior class including Burrow, Damien Lewis, Adrian Magee, Stephen Sullivan, Derrick Dillon, Rashard Lawrence, Breiden Fehoko and Kristian Fulton who’ve used up their eligibility.
Yes, LSU will be new on the field next year. That isn’t the end of the world. Happily, LSU recruits players every year to replace the ones who leave.
A lot, certainly, will depend on Myles Brennan and how well the junior-to-be plays as Burrow’s replacement behind center. Here’s a prediction: Brennan will be just fine. Will he throw 60 touchdown passes and come close to the college record for completion percentage? Probably not, but Brennan will key one of college football’s most explosive offenses nonetheless.
The problem with Myles Brennan for the first part of his college career was that he was too skinny. Well, that’s not a problem anymore. He’s filled out and he looks the part of a college quarterback. Brennan also has a cannon for an arm, which he’s learning to use effectively. He put a lot more touch on his short passes this year than he’d done in the past, when he’d zinged rockets into receivers and made his ball hard to catch. With a spring camp, an offseason and a fall camp as The Guy, there is no reason not to be confident he’s going to do perfectly fine this fall.
If that doesn’t convince you, think about it this way: who’s going to cover Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall? Nobody could this past year, and between them they accounted for 130 catches for 2,451 yards and 33 touchdowns. That’s a whole lot more than a lot of really good teams will bring back for 2020, and it doesn’t include Racey McMath (17-285, 3 TD) and Jontre Kirklin, Jaray Jenkins, Devonta Lee and Trey Palmer, who in limited action combined for another 10 catches for 175 yards. In other words, LSU’s wide receivers will bring back 157 catches and 36 touchdowns from 2019. A year ago, LSU was bringing back 137 catches and 13 touchdowns, and you saw how that went.
And LSU loses Edwards-Helaire, but with John Emery, Ty Davis-Price and Chris Curry coming back they’ve got three running backs who all showed flashes of being top-tier college backs. The running game won’t be a problem.
Sure, the offensive line loses four starters with Lewis, Magee, Charles and Cushenberry departing. That isn’t the end of the world, either. Dare Rosenthal picked up several starts when Charles was suspended for six games, and for a redshirt freshman he did pretty well. Expect Rosenthal to make a big jump as a sophomore, and Austin Deculus was maybe the most improved player on the team in 2019; he’s ready to become a star at right tackle in his third year as a starter. Ed Ingram played almost as much as Magee did at left guard in the second half of the season and he’s an all-conference contender for 2020. Chasen Hines has a ton of experience heading into his junior year; he’ll start either at center or right guard. So all LSU needs is to find one more offensive lineman to fill out the starting lineup, and they’ve got a ton of candidates: sophomore-to-be tackle Cameron Wire, sophomore center Charles Turner, redshirt freshmen Kardell Thomas and Anthony Bradford, both of whom were extremely highly rated recruits, senior guard Donovaughn Campbell, who has some starting experience, redshirt freshman behemoth Thomas Perry or even incoming freshman stud tackle Marcus Dumervil. They’ll easily find two strings of quality linemen, and after offensive line coach James Cregg molded what had been a suspect unit in 2018 into one which won the national award for the best offensive line in the country, nobody should question his ability to get his guys ready to play.
Defense might be a little more of a challenge, and until Orgeron picks a new coordinator we won’t quite know how the pieces will fit. But we do know this – while there were some big losses on defense there were also some big retentions from 2019.
Tyler Shelvin is coming back. So is Jacoby Stevens. So is Kary Vincent, and so is Glen Logan. Those four guys returning to LSU give the Tigers possibly the best quartet of seniors on defense (Shelvin is actually a junior, but he’s in his fourth year since joining the program) of anybody in the country. Add them to a bunch of players which includes Derek Stingley, the national defensive freshman of the year in 2019, Damone Clark, Neil Farrell, Mo Hampton, Siaki Ika, Marcel Brooks, Todd Harris and Cordale Flott and you’re building from a position of strength.
The problem they’re going to have, though, is twofold, and it starts on the defensive front. One weakness LSU has had at times on defense over the past couple of years has been with a pass rush. LSU’s defensive linemen under Aranda were run-stoppers who clogged up the line of scrimmage; they haven’t generated a lot of interior pass rush, and that has meant it’s fallen almost totally on Chaisson and Divinity to get a rush from the outside when LSU wasn’t blitzing. With one or both of them being out of action as often as they’ve been over the last two seasons, the pass rush has been fleeting, at best.
And with the offense LSU has, this shouldn’t be a defense that rushes three and covers with eight all game long. It ought to be a gambling, high-impact, aggressive defense which gets turnovers in bunches – because as often as LSU’s offense is going to score, the defense only has to get five or six stops in a game and the Tigers are going to win. Produce three turnovers in a game and it’s going to be hard to lose.
Which is why we’re thinking a 4-3, with the fastest outside linebackers and defensive ends the Tigers can find, is the way to go. Stevens and Brooks could be a scary pair at the Sam and Will spots in a 4-3, and Logan is a prototype shifting 4-3 defensive tackle. Shelvin can play what he’s been playing, and Farrell, who might need to shed 10 pounds or so, could be perfectly fine as a strong-side defensive end. They’re going to have to find a rush end to replace Chaisson, but that’s only one position in the front seven to fill, as opposed to two if LSU stays with a 3-4.
In the secondary, you’re largely set. Stingley and Flott are your corners, Hampton and Harris are probably your safeties, and Vincent stays as your nickel. Depth abounds with Jay Ward, Raydarious Jones, Eric Monroe, Cam Lewis and three killer freshmen in Elias Ricks, Joran Toles and Dwight McGlothern.
Then there’s Cade York, who had a solid freshman season as the placekicker in hitting 21 of 26 field goals and 89 of 93 extra points (have you ever heard of a college football player scoring 152 points in a season?), who’ll be back. Avery Atkins, who was the best kickoff man in college football, is back. So is Zack Von Rosenberg, who averaged 42.8 yards per punt and pinned 21 of his 47 punts inside the 20; Von Rosenberg will be 30 years old playing college football next year. Talk about your senior leadership.
Yes, they’re losing a lot. But LSU has a lot. This will still be an elite program this fall, and they’ll still win a whole lot more than they lose.
Now is the time to celebrate a national championship and the best team ever to play the game. It’s not the time to fret about all the guys moving on. The new guys we’ll see replacing them are in purple and gold for a reason; they’re damn good, too. Give them a chance and they’ll prove it.