After one of the best offseasons LSU football has had in some time, the 2016 team could be poised for some great things. Les Miles has the best running back in college football, more returning starters than any other team he’s had here, and hired one of the best defensive coordinators in the country to coach a unit that returns eight starters. The pieces could easily be in place for a run at the college football playoff -- the advanced statistics back that up as well.
But as with any team, there are question marks that have to be answered. Things that have to be improved upon, or steps that need to be taken. Over the coming weeks before we get into the meat of really previewing this team, we’ll talk about some of those issues.
In this week’s entry, we look deeper on the offense for LSU and wonder who will become Option C for the Tiger passing game?
LSU is going to lead with its running game in 2016. That should come as no surprise to anybody that has watched this program for any appreciable length of time, but really shouldn’t if you watched Leonard Fournette or Derrius Guice run the ball last season. When the Tigers do throw, Option A is almost certainly going to be junior wide receiver Malachi Dupre, with senior Travin Dural as Option B. They’re a pair of lanky, athletic targets that can stretch a defense relatively well, and have the potential to become one of the best duos in the country if they can make a jump in consistency.
After those two? Well, that’s where the question comes in. LSU hasn’t had a reliable third option in the passing game in a number of years. Even in 2013 with the Zach Mettenberger-Odell Beckham Jr.-Jarvis Landry trio, there was no real "third" target. Sure, Kadron Boone and a young Dural had their moments that season, but with Juice and ODB comprising an astonishing 62 percent of Mettenberger’s targets, nobody else on the team took up even 7 percent. Mettenberger tended to just use whoever else was out there, rather than having a real third option.
Sorting through Bill Connelly’s advanced stat spreadsheets over the years, the typical numbers for pro-style offenses are for the top targets to take up some 20 percent of the passing attempts each, with the No. 3 option in the low teens, maybe 12-14 percent. Last season, that role went to Fournette, who was targeted 33 times (catching 19 passes for 253 yards), a target rate of 12.5 percent. While he’s certainly going to be involved in the air attack again-- maybe even more so -- in keeping with last week’s theme, we want to discuss the use of other players in LSU’s offense. It’s an even bigger question mark given the offseason transfers of wideouts John Diarse and Trey Quinn, who would have been obvious candidates for that No. 3 role.
You may have to go back to the 2007 offense to really find a reliable third option, when Richard Dickson and Demetrius Byrd filled in at times alongside Early Doucet and Brandon LaFell. Doucet, of course, had been Option C in the dynamic 2006 passing game alongside Dwayne Bowe and Craig "Buster" Davis.
There are certainly choices for that role this season. The obvious one may be tight end Colin Jeter, who served as the Tigers’ most balanced tight end in years last season, catching 12 passes for 132 yards and 1 touchdown. "But LSU doesn’t throw to tight ends!" There haven’t been many worth throwing to, and while Jeter’s never going to be mistaken for Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski, his 6-7 frame is an inviting target and if he can just move from a one catch per game average to two, he’s near the 25-30 catch/300-ish yard range. Jeter’s not necessarily the most explosive option, but a big target like that over the middle could be a nice safety blanket for Brandon Harris.
As for actual wide receivers, the competition for that third spot has been hot and heavy ever since Dameyune Craig stepped in as the position coach, and I would expect that to continue through fall camp, especially with super frosh Drake Davis on hand.
D.J. Chark and Jazz Ferguson took a major advantage in the competition due to Dural’s hamstring injury, and worked outside and in the slot at times. Ferguson was a heavy presence there in the spring game, where he was involved in a handful of inside zone/bubble screen run-pass option plays. Chark seems more likely to rotate in behind Dural outside, where his speed can work down the field a little more, but at 6-6, 230-pounds, Ferguson offers a more physical style of running after the catch from the slot, and another big, inviting target over the middle of the field. True freshman Stephen Sullivan provides a similar matchup as well at 6-5, 230.
Former five-star recruit Tyron Johnson is in the mix as well after seeing the field early on as a true freshman, but he and Craig had a few heart-to-hearts this spring over some bad habits on catching the ball, and he’ll have to keep working to stay near the top with a group this talented.
And speaking of big-time talents, the aforementioned Davis hits campus with maybe the best pure athletic gifts of any wide receiver here since Beckham, but in a 6-4, 215-pound frame. If he wants to be great, he’ll be near impossible to keep off the field, and too explosive to keep out of gameplans.
A wildcard here could be Guice. He lined up in the slot on occasion last season, and even got in on a few quick-pitch jet-sweep style plays. The most impactful run of his freshman season even came on an end-around from a receiver position. His increased role in the offense could easily include 20-30 catches in addition to more carries, both leaking out of the backfield on third downs and on screens and other pass plays designed to get him the ball in space.
The simplest explanation may just be a committee approach. This is a very deep, very talented group of wide receivers, and they’re all going to play. We don’t know what the ultimate crunch-time trio will be when LSU spreads the field, but at a minimum Ferguson, Sullivan, Johnson, Chark, Davis and Dee Anderson will all have a chance to play early on, and reserve tight ends like DeSean Smith and Jacory Washington as well. Plus, given that this offense is still going to be run centric, there’s only going to be so many passes to go around beyond the top two receivers. A third option would likely be in the 30-40 catch range at the absolute most -- and that would mean that an even lower number of receivers overall would log catches.
A committee approach here isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Far more important than the pecking order, is the quarterback’s comfort with the overall group and his willingness to use the best option on a given play. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned watching Drew Brees play over the years, is that he’ll go to the open guy as long as he’s open in a game, regardless of where he sits on the depth chart (if you’re a fantasy football owner, you’re well familiar with the uneven nature of receiver production in New Orleans for this very reason). Of course, that level of balance in a receiving corps is more an end to itself in quarterback play overall, not so much a means to it.
And there is some comfort in having that extra commodity known. Whether it’s just a reliable possession threat over the middle of the field to help move the chains, or another speed option to help stretch the seams and keep defenses from playing too much cover-two. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s the actual slot receiver, a tight end of a running back. What matters is that it’s a player the quarterbacks can consistently rely on.
The receiver depth at LSU is maybe as good as its been after an outstanding spring. And that improved consistency could go a long way on its own in terms of helping the passing game -- that hasn’t always been the case in recent years. When Brandon Harris drops back, we know where his eyes will go first and second. But it’s always good to have one extra option to count on.