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LSU Football: Tigers Turn to Steve Ensminger to Find Right Mix on Offense

LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger

LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger

LSU’s decade-long quest for an explosive offense has been bafflingly futile. Despite consistently fielding some of the best athletes and most physical offensive lines in the country, the Tigers have routinely been unable to light up the scoreboard without considerable help from their defense and special teams.

The offensive design for much of the decade has been a traditional, under-center offense with a heavy focus on a diverse, downhill run game bolstered by play-action. On obvious passing downs, the offense would mix in shotgun-spread sets and run pro-style passing concepts, much like any other pro-style offense at the NFL or collegiate levels.

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The ground-based part of the offense has been exceptionally effective. The only seasons in which LSU failed to produce a 1,000-yard rusher in the last decade came as the result of a committee approach. Where the program has run into problems has been in the passing game, especially against teams with the size and athleticism to limit the run game. That’s been the main reason for the Tigers’ struggles against Alabama (the Tide are on a seven-game winning streak against the Tigers), but it’s also been an issue against many of the Auburn, Georgia and Florida squads LSU has faced.

LSU has learned that it’s very difficult at the college level to build a high-level, under-center running game and simultaneously teach your players to execute a pro-style passing game. Both endeavors require layered concepts and high-level teaching, particularly the passing game -- which requires that the QB and receivers get on the same page with timing and route adjustments while the OL has to master pass protection and blitz pick-up. A college football player’s jam-packed schedule doesn’t lend itself to reaching proficiency in both realms.

The issue has been made worse by LSU’s tendency to recruit QBs who are athletic and strong-armed but inexperienced and raw as passers. The Tigers have fielded athlete after athlete at the position who struggled to master the passing game and whose physical abilities were consequently wasted.

2010s: LSU’s Passing-Down Woes

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The powers that be determined that they’d seen enough of LSU’s limited pro-style offense after Auburn defeated the Tigers 18-13 in 2016 while holding LSU QB Danny Etling to 118 passing yards and 4.4 yards per attempt. The Tigers’ futility even with explosive running back Leonard Fournette (who ran for 101 yards at 6.3 yards per carry in that game) was deemed unacceptable, and head coach Les Miles was fired in favor of defensive line coach and ace recruiter Ed Orgeron.

Orgeron immediately fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and promoted tight ends coach Steve Ensminger to OC and QB coach.

Ensminger understood that while LSU had a dominant offensive player in Fournette, opposing teams knew he was getting the ball, and LSU wasn’t able to attack the full field or make use of its other skill athletes to keep pressure and attention away from the run game.

Under Cameron, the foundational play of the LSU offense had been the lead stretch play, run from under center with a tight end and a fullback on the field. The O-line would execute outside zone blocks looking to stretch out the defense horizontally, while the fullback would lead through a resulting crease to drive block a laterally moving linebacker and clear a lane for the running back.

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With Ensminger in charge, the first play that LSU ran against Alabama that season was instead a spread staple:

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The Tigers traded the fullback for another receiver and moved star wideout Malachi Dupre into the slot. Etling read the Alabama nickel DB lined up over Dupre, and when that player charged in to blitz the run game, Etling quickly flipped a bubble screen out to Dupre in space.

With Ensminger in charge, the Tigers looked to spread the ball around more, involving backup running back Derrius Guice on some of these screens as a receiver until Fournette went down with an injury and Guice took over the duties as the main back. Dupre was perhaps the primary beneficiary of Ensminger’s takeover as he became much more involved in LSU’s game plans after the change. The Tigers were now mixing in spread-option plays to force opponents to cover their skill athletes in space rather than relying on the occasional play-action rollout or deep shot to punish teams for loading the box against their standard run game.

The Tigers were still shut out by Alabama and thwarted against Florida due to a pair of fumbles and, ironically, a goal-line stand by the Gators against the Tigers run game. However, the trend line was positive, and the team showed enough progress -- most notably on the offensive side of the ball -- that Orgeron had the interim tag removed.

The Canada Foray 

Part of Orgeron’s pitch to LSU in his interview was a smaller personal salary and an emphasis on going out to hire the best and brightest coordinators in the country and paying them enough to stick around. That meant a raise for brilliant defensive coordinator Dave Aranda (and subsequent raises of incredible value) as well as the demotion of Ensminger in order to pursue higher-profile OC targets. The Tigers eventually landed Matt Canada, fresh off a highly successful 2016 season with the Pittsburgh Panthers that included a thrilling shootout victory over eventual national champion Clemson.

Like Ensminger, Canada wanted to include the Tigers’ other skill players within the basic run game package so that opponents couldn’t zero in on LSU’s running backs. However, Canada’s offense did so with the jet sweep.

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The Tigers continued to run zone and power run schemes for their star RBs but would leave the backside defensive end or outside linebacker unblocked and send receivers on sweeps across the formation. If the DEs or OLBs would crash to stop the running plays, LSU would mix in the sweeps and hit them with punishing gains around the edge. Many teams had to use a defensive end to contain the sweeps, leaving them more vulnerable to the downhill run game.

Despite the new creativity in the run game, LSU’s passing game continued to be limited, and teams that could handle their sweep constraints without leaving big creases for the run game were able to squeeze the Tiger offense.

Back to Ensminger

The dynamics between Canada and the rest of the LSU staff were evidently strained; Canada negotiated a buyout so that he could leave the program before the Citrus Bowl against Notre Dame. Rather than seeking out another big name hire, Orgeron took the opportunity to reinstall Ensminger as the OC for the 2018 season.

The difference this time is that Ensminger can run his own system rather than working with an offensive shell created and installed by another coach. That system promises to look more like the plan that LSU brought into the Alabama game back in 2016, emphasizing spread sets and pass options attached to the running game.

The major evolution here is one towards spread tactics that can make the wide receivers a major part of the plan on first down rather than occasional deep-shot targets who mostly wait around for third-and-8. LSU has remained a standard bearer for the blocking tight end and traditional fullback for some time now, but that will finally change this season.

Instead of teaching those positions to execute a variety of blocks, the Tigers will put more receivers on the field to run a variety of routes designed to “block” those defenders. For instance, the inside zone play is often a favorite building block for the spread offense and served as the run call in the play above that Ensminger called against Alabama. But the offense can attach a variety of route combinations to the run in order to punish different defenses for the way they try to bring extra players up to stop the run. If the other team wants to play zone, then the receivers can run screens as described above, but if they want to play man coverage, then perhaps the receivers will run slants:

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When an offense has a go-to receiver who excels at running quick routes, he can become a de facto running back who regularly gets the ball on standard downs via these quick passes. The benefits are two-fold: First, the defense has to worry about two star skill players on first down (the RB and a WR) rather than being able to focus more easily on just the back. Secondly, the offense can fit QB reads and route combinations into the practice schedule more easily since the run game and passing game are no longer divorced.

The offensive line still has to learn how to execute pass protection for passing downs when run-pass options (RPOs) aren’t a good fit, but at least the practice of reading coverage and nailing down timing and chemistry with the wideouts is getting more play throughout the week.

This is the path that other formerly I-formation-based offenses such as Alabama and USC have chosen. Now, Ensminger will aim to update the LSU offense in an effort to keep up and finally end years of offensive struggles in Baton Rouge.

Written by Ian Boyd (@Ian_A_Boyd) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2018 SEC Regional Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2018 season.