The LSU Tigers return seven starters on offense, eight on defense and landed a top-five recruiting class. But it may be the new $400,000-per-year assistant who makes the biggest impact.
Coach Ed Orgeron hired Joe Brady away from the New Orleans Saints to serve as LSU’s passing game coordinator. Brady's tasks: integrate elements of the Saints' potent passing game into LSU's playbook while also incorporating the run-pass option principles he learned as a graduate assistant under then-Penn State offensive coordinator and current Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead.
Believe it or not, LSU's archaic power running game may be a thing of the past.
"I'm so fired up about our offense," Orgeron said during spring practice. "I just see the offense I finally want."
Previewing LSU's Offense for 2019
Senior quarterback Joe Burrow is on board with the transition to the RPO, the type of offense the former Ohio State transfer says he's been running since he was 13. "This is what I'm used to," says Burrow, who threw for 2,894 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2018 and ran for another 399 yards and seven scores.
Though 1,000-yard rusher Nick Brossette is gone, based on pure talent the Tigers should be better in 2019 thanks to the arrival of freshman John Emery Jr., the nation's No. 2-ranked running back prospect. For now, the starting slot belongs to junior Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the top returning rusher with 658 yards and seven TDs.
Burrow quickly developed a chemistry with Justin Jefferson, making him his go-to receiver. Jefferson wound up with 54 catches for 875 yards and six touchdowns. But LSU needs Stephen Sullivan, Ja'Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall Jr., and Derrick Dillon to be more consistent playmakers. Finding a replacement for departed senior tight end Foster Moreau is a big priority as no other tight end caught a pass in 2018. Junior Jamal Pettigrew and junior college transfer TK McLendon are the top candidates.
LSU returns a solid group of offensive linemen. Center Lloyd Cushenberry III and right guard Damien Lewis started all 13 games, while right tackle Austin Deculus started 11 games and left tackle Saahdiq Charles 10. Badara Traore could beat out Charles after he struggled with the transition from junior college in 2018. And Deculus will be fending off freshman Anthony Bradford in preseason camp. Sophomore Chasen Hines, who played the most snaps of any O-line backup, or true freshman Kardell Thomas will win the open job at left guard.
Previewing LSU's Defense for 2019
Rashard Lawrence sat out the spring with knee surgery, but the mere presence of the Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP was a huge "recruiting" coup for Orgeron. Oft-injured nose tackle Ed Alexander departed early for the NFL, but Tyler Shelvin logged a lot of snaps in 2018. He will be pushed by freshman Siaki "Apu" Ika, a January enrollee. Breiden Fehoko is back in the rotation after a biceps tear that required surgery. He can also slide into the middle to play nose but likely will start the fall as Glen Logan’s backup at end.
Replacing Butkus Award winner Devin White may be an impossible challenge, and it will probably take more than one player to compensate for his productivity. Junior Jacob Phillips, LSU's top returning tackler with 87 stops, is a good place to start. He's joined inside by Patrick Queen, while senior Michael Divinity Jr. (tied for first with 5.0 sacks) occupies the F-linebacker slot on the outside opposite K'Lavon Chaisson’s Buck linebacker position. Chaisson suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener against Miami, but he is a talented edge rusher who should automatically regain his starting spot.
LSU's secondary is part veterans, part newcomers — and all talent. Strong safety Grant Delpit, who led the Tigers in sacks and interceptions (five each) and pass deflections (nine), should be everybody's All-American in 2019. After bouncing from offense to defense, junior JaCoby Stevens appears to have found a home at free safety. Kary Vincent Jr. lines up at LSU's nickel back, leaving the true cornerback duties to senior Kristian Fulton and freshman Derek Stingley Jr. Fulton spent the offseason mending from late-season ankle surgery. Stingley took part in some of LSU's bowl practices, giving him a jump on replacing All-American Greedy Williams.
Previewing LSU's Specialists for 2019
All-American Cole Tracy set or tied seven school records in his one season at LSU and finished as the most prolific kicker in NCAA history. His successor will likely be freshman Cade York or big-legged sophomore Avery Atkins, who drilled 71-of-79 kickoffs for touchbacks — an FBS-best 89.9 percent clip. LSU’s punters will again be junior Zach Von Rosenberg (long kicks) and senior Josh Growden (short), but the Tigers need a punt return specialist. Stingley will be given first crack. Edwards-Helaire and Vincent will return kickoffs.
LSU looks to parlay its first New Year’s Six bowl into being a true contender for the College Football Playoff. The road schedule is daunting, with a September trip to Texas and a November showdown at Alabama. But if LSU can manage to drop just one of those and hold serve on its remaining schedule, the Tigers can be in the mix for the CFP provided the new RPO attack is as productive as hoped.