Everyone wants their pre-pandemic life back. LSU head coach Ed Orgeron is no different.
After a 5–5 season in 2020 marked by a steady stream of opt-outs, injuries and player protests, Orgeron's mission is to recapture the magic of the Tigers' 2019 national championship run.
He overhauled his coaching staff, led by new offensive and defensive coordinators. While LSU had to replace 16 starters last year, Orgeron convinced most of his veterans to return in 2021. The Tigers return 16 starters plus their kicker, hopeful that the pain of last season will pay winning dividends in 2021.
Orgeron says that the work of climbing back up the mountain starts with him.
"I'm not going to let things slip by," he says. "Not one thing. I'm going to identify it and tell the coaches. They might think nothing's good enough, but I'm going to be hands-on."
Previewing LSU's Offense for 2021
Joe Brady, LSU's passing game coordinator in 2019, helped transform the Tigers into the nation's No. 1 offense. Now he's the offensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers. Orgeron hired two of Brady's assistants on his recommendation to take over, with former offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger downshifting into an analyst role. New offensive coordinator Jake Peetz and passing game coordinator DJ Mangas will run an offense designed to bring showtime back to LSU's attack. The lofty goal: numbers like the huge ones put up by former Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow.
"We want to make this Quarterback University," Peetz says. "Joe Burrow set the bar very high."
Quarterback Myles Brennan waited three years to start, then was lost for the season to a freak abdominal muscle tear Week 3 at Missouri. The injury was so unusal that had he opted for surgery, an LSU team physician told him they'd name the procedure for him. "I didn't really feel comfortable with that," Brennan says.
Freshmen TJ Finley and Max Johnson split the starts over the final seven games. When spring practice opened, Johnson took the first snaps with the No. 1 offense, a sign Brennan wouldn't automatically reclaim his starting job. Finley decided to transfer after spring ball and eventually landed at Auburn.
"The competition is open," Orgeron says, "and the best man is going to win."
Juniors Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. teamed for 824 yards rushing and six touchdowns in 2020 and return to front a deep running back corps. Kayshon Boutte went off for an SEC-record 308 receiving yards in LSU's finale against Ole Miss and will be the top wideout for 2021. And in a rare development, all five of LSU's starting offensive linemen are back. "We didn't come back just to go through the motions and mess around," center Liam Shanahan says. "We're trying to attack every day."
Previewing LSU's Defense for 2021
"D" wasn't for defense at LSU last year. It was for disaster. The Tigers ranked dead last in FBS in surrendering 323 passing yards per game. They allowed 34.9 points per game, most in school history dating to 1952. Orgeron replaced defensive coordinator Bo Pelini after one season with former Minnesota Vikings defensive backs coach Daronte Jones. Jones vowed to bring a physical style back to an LSU program that prides itself on its defense.
"We want to minimize error, make sure we're overcommunicating and have an attacking style of defense where we dictate the terms and play fast," Jones says.
LSU's defensive front returns intact with four senior starters: ends Ali Gaye and Andre Anthony and tackles Glen Logan and Neil Farrell Jr. The Tigers are confident they can go eight deep with a rotation that includes sophomore BJ Ojulari and freshman Maason Smith.
One of LSU's few questions is at linebacker. Senior Damone Clark is back, but senior Micah Baskerville missed spring practice with academic issues. He's in danger of being eclipsed by junior college transfer Navonteque Strong. Clemson transfer Mike Jones will also provide a boost to this position.
While the secondary was regularly abused in 2020, the Tigers return perhaps the nation's best pair of cornerbacks in junior Derek Stingley Jr. and sophomore Eli Ricks. Stingley was an All-American in 2019, Ricks in 2020, when he returned two of his four interceptions for TDs. Georgia transfer Major Burns provides another option to compete for snaps at safety.
Clark knows that LSU's hopes for success start with the defense, which is eager to atone for last season. "We want to hold the trophy again," he says. "We want to be champions again."
Previewing LSU's Specialists for 2021
Junior kicker Cade York earned AP second-team All-America honors in 2020, capped by his school-record 57-yard game winner through the Florida fog in the Tigers' 37–34 upset win. York made 18-of-21 field-goal attempts and all 36 of his extra-point tries.
True freshman Peyton Todd takes over at punter from 30-year old Zach Von Rosenberg, who turned pro. Trey Palmer ran a kickoff back 93 yards for a TD against South Carolina. Stingley averaged 16.2 yards per punt return in 2020 and will be a threat in that role again.
Experience counts in college football, and LSU has veterans everywhere. If the Tigers sort out the quarterback position and adequately answer key questions at tight end and linebacker, a nine- or 10-win season and a New Year's Six bowl are within their grasp.
National Ranking: 17
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(Dereky Stingley Jr. photo by Gus Stark/LSU Athletics)