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On LSU's offense and The Narrative

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Sometimes it helps to dig a little deeper.

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, the evergreen topic that is the LSU offense and quarterback issues.

Source of constant blog posts. Source of constant sorrow. Such a versatile topic.

And indeed, where would The Narrative be without it?

But then, if there's one thing I love doing in this space, it's shoving a nice big wooden stake into the heart of The Narrative.

We, as LSU fans, tend to think of issues with the Tigers offense in constant terms.

"Can't develop a quarterback."

"Stodgy Bo Schembechler offense that's trapped in the 60s."

"I-formation"

My favorite, for what it's worth, is the one where we play make-believe.

"Well if you just take out Jamarcus Russell/Matt Flynn/Zach Mettenberger Les Miles has NEVER had a good quarterback."

Fanfiction is great, and so is that old saying about your aunt becoming your uncle. But it doesn't count much for analysis.

And maybe it's just me, but if you're going to talk about a problem professionally, it helps if you take some time and effort to actually understand it.

Now -- and I want to be explicit about this for the Humanoids that are going to skim this and treat it as a defense of LSU and quarterbacks -- there is no question that the coaching staff hasn't been able to put much of a passing game on the field in the last 6 seasons or so.Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee never made much progress from 2008-2011 (improvement , yes, but not much). Les Miles & Co. also never really tried to replace the two with a stop-gap measure, and in the meantime, they continued to make recruiting mistakes: not getting insurance for Zach Lee, not pursuing Dak Prescott until it was too late, signing non-contributors like Stephen Rivers and Jerrard Randall and losing out on Gunner Kiel. That, in turn, led to the issues of the last two seasons with true sophomores starting.

Quarterback is the most important position on the field, and it's been the area LSU has been the most deficient at.

Could Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris have been handled differently or better? Of course. We'll get to that later.

But there are reasons. There are factors. Things that actually happened. There isn't some magical blindspot for the position. Nobody in the football ops building is sitting around and thinking "how can we find a way to win without a quarterback today?" If Les Miles truly "couldn't" develop a quarterback, it never would have ever happened on his watch. And it has. Reality doesn't just change to fit message-board logic.

This is reality. Not Tiger Droppings. Maybe we should learn to see the difference.

For starters, Brandon Harris was fine. Not great, by any stretch. But fine. And well on pace for a first-year starter in the SEC. Does he need to get better? Damn skippy. Just like every other member of this roster, save for maybe Leonard Fournette. The wide receivers, the offensive line, the defense. All of it.

And then there's the ever-present "change the offense" sub-plot of every spring:

"But Billy, Harris just isn't a fit for a pro-style offense. [insert square peg/round hole comment]. LSU needs to run a modern spread offense and stop using the I-formation and two tight ends 80 percent of the time."

Well, let's take a look at following table, which contains the number of plays in each personnel grouping that LSU ran in all 12 games of the 2015 season.

Reminder: grouping numbers indicate the number of backs in a set, followed by the number of tight ends.

  • "21" personnel refers to what we think of as the classic pro-set I-formation -- two backs, one tight end and two wide receivers.

  • 22 personnel would be a "big" I-formation, with two backs, two tight ends and one wideout.

  • 20 personnel: two backs, no tight ends, three receivers.

  • 12 personnel: one back, two tight ends, two receivers.

  • 11 personnel: one back, one tight end, three receivers -- in LSU's case, this was usually in the shotgun or pistol, although there were a handful of plays in the classic "ace" set with the quarterback under center.

  • 10 personnel: one back, no tight ends and four receivers. 

  • Goal-line/Specialty: for my purposes, this included the typical "heavy" sets in short-yardage and the handful of times LSU used a "wildcat" set, which also used extra linemen and tight ends.

Grouping

22

21

20

12

11

10

GL/Sp

Opponent

Miss. St

4

19

0

3

24

0

2

Aub.

6

23

0

3

22

0

6

Cuse

10

16

0

6

25

0

0

EMU

12

33

2

1

14

0

2

S. Car

18

17

0

3

40

2

1

Fla.

8

21

6

2

21

1

1

WKU

15

16

1

3

19

0

1

Bama

8

9

3

2

19

1

3

Ark.

2

8

1

0

46

7

1

Miss.

11

8

0

1

59

1

7

A&M

3

25

0

4

29

0

1

Tex. T.

8

18

1

1

30

0

6

Totals:

105

213

14

29

348

12

31

Percentage:

13.90%

28.30%

1.80%

3.80%

46.20%

1.50%

4.10%

(Individual game leaders are italicized)

Or, if you're more of a visual learner:

Offense Formations Chart

LSU's dominant set in 2015 was the "11" grouping -- one back, three wide receivers. The Tigers lined up in that grouping, through various specific formations and alignments, on approximately 46 percent of their plays, and it was the lead set in 10 of the 12 games.

The I-formation, meanwhile, represented just 28 percent of the plays via the 21 grouping, while 13 percent were run in the 22 set. Combined, LSU used the I-formation on 42 percent of its plays, compared to 53 percent in a one-back and/or three-wide grouping.

But hey, Big-10-1970s-Bo-Schembechler-3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust, right? Now, LSU did shift away from the fullback after J.D. Moore suffered his knee injury against South Carolina, but even in games before that the splits are pretty even, and favor the spread in two of the four games.

So what's the point of this?

The fact that LSU has had the troubles that it's had on offense surely matters more than the specific nature of the troubles themselves, right? Of course.

Because the same old narratives and biases that fans and the media keep repeating are every bit as silly and stubborn as the beliefs they ascribe to Miles. It's just repeating the same thing over and over again, kind of like how people think LSU is just running an I-formation dive over and over again.

Maybe it's just me, but I think it's better to actually describe what happened accurately instead of just repeating that same old line every single time LSU loses a game. This offense spent the majority of its futile snaps in the shotgun against Alabama, and it spent nearly 50 plays in it against Arkansas, but when those games were over, it was the same old "yeah well if they'd just open the offense up some."

Fans love to talk about Les Miles' alleged offensive philosophy without any understanding of just what it, or any offensive philosophy even is. "HURR MIDWESTERN FOOTBALL WITH FULLBACKS AND TIGHT ENDS AND PULLING GUARDS DURR"

Offensive philosophy isn't about formations or plays. If you asked coaches like Urban Meyer or Art Briles or Rich Rodriguez about theirs, they'd talk about using the whole field or creating matchups. Not "running the spread." If you asked Gus Malzahn or Chad Morris, they'd probably talk about things like setting the pace and controlling the tempo of the game. And if you asked Miles and Cam Cameron, they'd tell you that they want to have a physical running game and an explosive passing game.

And yes, LSU has failed to do both of those things at the same time on a consistent basis. I'm not even really going to try and say why, because as much as I can tell you what isn't the problem, I can also say that it's impossible to know what is the problem exactly without being able to see behind the curtain as to the specifics of coaching these players.

I do know that Cameron had tremendous success in his first year with a group of experienced talents the likes of which he hasn't had since. Yes, a lot of teams have done better jobs of breaking in younger players faster -- it's a question of teaching things quickly, and it's clear that it's not Cameron's strong suit. But it is something he can get better at -- learning how to do things better is something that every coach works at. And it's something that Dameyune Craig is attempting to help with, in addition to cleaning up a receiving corps that have contributed to the passing game issues in their own right the last two seasons as well.

I also know that the experience excuse won't fly with the team Miles and Cameron will have in 2016.

So is it all going to work? Your guess is as good as mine. But I can tell you this much -- if it doesn't, it won't be because of square pegs or pro-styles or dual threats or spreads or any of that. It's not about style. It's about substance. Teaching. That's what LSU needs, and whether they can admit it or not, it's what fans want to see.

And it would be nice to see the fans, media and commentators stuck on the same tired narratives to try and add some as well.