If there’s hope for an LSU offense that’s underachieved for the better part of … well, a really long time, it’s represented by former University of Pittsburgh tackle Brian O’Neill.
O’Neill — a former high school tight end but very, very much a tackle at 6'6", 300 pounds — scored two touchdowns in 2016, one on 24-yard catch-and-run against Georgia Tech and another on an end-around vs. Virginia Tech. That’s right: A 300-pound ball carrier running an end around.
Welcome to the mind of Matt Canada, the former Panthers’ offensive coordinator who was hired in the offseason by LSU head coach Ed Orgeron to revamp the Tigers into a scoring attack befitting all those four- and five-star recruits the program has historically piled up.
Under Les Miles, LSU saw a string of play callers with largely similar results, especially after the Tigers’ 2007 national title win: vanilla play calling, a fierce adherence to the ball-control philosophies of yesteryear and diminishing returns on the scoreboard. Even as traditional power-running programs such as hated Alabama evolved to modern attacks, LSU seemed stuck in a rut of 1970s ideas.
There were exceptions: In Cam Cameron’s system, Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger had back-to-back 2,500-yard passing seasons for the first time in LSU history. But Mettenberger fell into the Tigers’ lap after his dismissal from UGA, and his production was never replicated. The inability of one of the nation’s best programs in one of the most fertile recruiting territories to develop a dynamic passing attack began to hang over Miles.
Ask Tigers fans and they’ll argue about the low points:
- The dismissal of potential superstar Ryan Perrilloux in 2008, creating the infamous Jarrett Lee vs. Jordan Jefferson debate.
- A 2011 offense that ranked 17th nationally in scoring and sixth in offensive S&P+ that collapsed in the national title game loss to Alabama with Jefferson running a stunted option attack. LSU scored 40 or more points six times against ranked teams that season, and nine points in two games vs. Nick Saban’s team.
- The Tigers’ lax recruitment of Sulphur, La., quarterback Dak Prescott. Miles and his evaluators saw Prescott as a potential tight end. Mississippi State and Dan Mullen saw a star QB in their spread-option.
- The failed development of both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings after Mettenberger’s graduation, the flop that arguably cost Miles his job. LSU has failed to finish in the top 40 in scoring offense nationally the last three seasons, averaging 28.3 points in the Miles-Orgeron transition of 2016.
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Enter Canada. The morning after Orgeron’s first game as head coach, a 42–7 blowout vs. Missouri, he stressed a need for the Tigers to pass more and pass deeper, taking shots to their talented wide receivers to better open up running lanes for Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice. In a nutshell, that’s where the new head coach and OC agree: There’s no such thing as scheme or system — just get your best players in the best position to make individual plays. To hell with what it looks like.
“It’s a non-traditional system to everyone else. To me it’s very traditional,” Canada says. “You just build out on a foundation like any other offense. I don’t know where the perception comes from, I don’t read anything [in the media]. Maybe it’s the pigeonholing. It’s not a West Coast, it’s not a spread. We aren’t but we are. If you watch a West Coast team, we have the same throws, if you watch a spread we have the same formations. We have RPOs [run-pass options], all the things we have. We’ve changed it for running quarterbacks, we’ve changed it for whatever we’ve had. It’s just our offense.”
You can’t scout Canada’s offenses by personnel or formations and find an obvious connection. He’s used extra offensive linemen on the majority of run plays when the position group was deep enough to do it, then spent the next season with four wideouts per play.
“Certain years at Wisconsin, we’d have three running backs we could do a lot with — we had them playing a lot because those guys were Montee [Ball] and James [White] and Melvin [Gordon]. The goal there was simple, to get those guys the ball,” Canada says.
“A couple years ago, we had the tight end position catch 100 balls between three kids. To me, I don’t ask if it’s a running back or a fullback or a tight end. We just want to score as many points as we can. To me that doesn’t matter at all.”
From his alma mater, Indiana, through a stop in the MAC, managing Wisconsin’s famous running game and then scheming against ACC powers while at NC State and Pitt, the only consistency has been Canada’s mandate to change to fit his talent, not the other way around. Contrast that with a prevailing sentiment in Baton Rouge that superstar players from a variety of modern high school offenses wilted under Miles’ old-school rulebook.
Canada’s Pittsburgh offense was impossible to label using traditional terms. Pro, spread, no-huddle, motion, etc. — it was at one time or another any or none of those things, depending on the scenario. It was also 10th in the nation in scoring (40.9 ppg), 13th in yards per play (6.71) and third in offensive S&P+. And yeah, they put 43 points on Clemson at Clemson to give the national champions their sole loss of the season. Of Clemson’s 13 passing TDs allowed all season, five came against Pitt.
Under interim offensive coordinator and former tight ends coach Steve Ensminger, LSU immediately shifted its tight ends from a pure run-blocking role, creating matchups that made them legit scoring targets.
“You could see it right away in the meetings, too,” Ensminger said in November. “Not that guys didn’t care about their jobs or didn’t put in the work, but when you’re creating those kinds of opportunities they’ve never had, you’ve got their attention in a new way.”
Canada hasn’t identified (or divulged) a particular group he wants to feature this coming season, but the Tigers’ roster automatically becomes one of the deepest he’s coached, especially an offensive line he says has been really, really impressive early in system installation. Does that mean LSU’s massive tackles are trying on receivers’ gloves already?
“Well, we’re not quite there yet at the moment,” Canada says with a laugh. “We’ve installed a lot of our offense this spring, but we’ve got a ways to go. So we haven’t gotten to those kind of wrinkles yet, but I’ve seen a few guys certainly excited about the possibility.
“But that’s an example of a unique thing with a unique player. Brian was a tight end before he became a lineman. He did everything he was asked to do, got bigger and stronger as a lineman, but his ability to run was something special. And it wasn’t us being silly. One TD was on the first drive of the game vs. Georgia Tech, and we really thought that was the best play at the time. You can’t waste a play against those guys because they control the ball so well.”
Canada can scheme against anything, but ultimately an LSU quarterback will have to utilize the variety of pre-snap motions, formations and quick audibles that turn Canada’s pro-style alignments into option-style RPO’s and zone runs. The catalyst could be the incumbent Danny Etling, a former Purdue transfer who found himself the starter after Miles’ firing last season. Behind him is a familiar LSU story: raw talent but little polish in true freshmen Lowell Narcisse and Myles Brennan, and redshirt Lindsey Scott. LSU isn’t expected to name the starter until preseason camp, but Etling is the overwhelming favorite.
“I couldn’t ask for any more from the kids with the way they’ve been working at it so far,” Canada says. “Nobody likes change, but these guys have embraced what we’re trying to do. ... I do think they got excited when they saw the film. Everybody likes the final product, how it looks like, but there’s real work involved in getting there and learning the terminology and building it out.”
There will be trick plays, but when and how fast Canada can’t yet determine. At some point, a version of an offensive tackle end-around will undoubtedly happen. How that happens is up to Canada.
“Going back to when I was at Indiana, we had a great time out there, but we were definitely outmatched at times. But that didn’t matter. We had to find ways to score points. That’s what your job is as a coach. To win today, to win right now, and to find out how to do that with what you have. And we have a lot here.”
Written by Steven Godfrey (@38Godfrey) of SBNation.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.