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LSU and Steve Ensminger: How Did We Get Here?

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Discussing how LSU’s offensive coordinator search got to this point.

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Notre Dame vs Louisiana State Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Alright, to recap quick: LSU is expected to promote tight ends coach Steve Ensminger and former receivers consultant Jerry Sullivan to more prominent positions soon — I’m told possibly tomorrow. That likely means Ensminger as offensive coordinator/play-caller, with Sullivan in some sort of “passing game coordinator” title, with heavy involvement in the design and implementation of the offense.

There was no plan to leak anything on Monday night, credit Ross Dellenger of The Advocate for getting the story. Of course, as with any coaching rumor, a deal isn’t done until ink is on paper. No, I do not expect any snags, but again, a deal is not done.

Before we get to the shouting and hot takes, let’s just get a few things out of the way in terms of background:

Ed Orgeron is calling this shot. This is what he wants.

Nobody has tied his hands regarding money, at least not yet, and nobody has told him who he can and cannot hire. If I had to guess, LSU athletic director Joe Alleva has made him aware of what the public perception on this deal is, but this is what he wants.

Last year, when hiring Lane Kiffin fell through, Alleva and other powerbrokers made it clear to Orgeron that they expected another big name. Enter the Matt Canada fiasco — and that’s not a bad word to use. Basically, once the work became serious, Canada became a problem for virtually everybody in the LSU Ops Building to work with. Dave Aranda, in particular, very much wanted him gone. It wasn’t about philosophy or jet sweeps or motions so much as it was just a basic working relationship and trust. And while I’m not privy to any specific incidents, there was enough chronicled that LSU threatened to fire Canada for cause in order to reduce the buyout owed to him (with enough of a case that Canada would have likely had to sue to fight it, which he didn’t want to do).

This comes down to trust, and Orgeron not only trusts Ensminger, but respects him and values his opinion on a host of football matters. I’m also told that it’s an opinion shared by Aranda. This situation was certainly discussed in his recent extension talks. Both Aranda and Orgeron were very much enamored with the job Ensminger did as interim coordinator in 2016.

Jerry Sullivan, for his part, has always had a tremendous reputation as a teacher of receivers. I understand that some may question the wisdom of adding another coach north of 70 years old. The actual coaching part isn’t an issue, though.

Other candidates were discussed, although rumors regarding Kendal Briles and Hugh Freeze are 100-percent false, based on multiple conversations both inside and outside the program. Orgeron never expressed interest in hiring either to LSU leadership, nor did LSU leadership tell him “no.”

Any small chance of a snag may involve money. Ensminger has, previously, made it known that he didn’t want the OC job because, well, he didn’t want to put himself in those crosshairs. Offensive coordinators, in general, are hired to be fired — both OCs from Monday night’s championship game are great examples of that. Ensminger currently makes around $300,000 as a tight ends coach at his alma mater, and he’s happy to do that. He’s a valuable staff member and recruiter who just landed the top prospect in LSU’s class to date. If he is going to take a step up to the bigger chair, he’s also not going to take that risk for a minor raise. He doesn’t expect top-shelf coordinator money, but he does want to be paid like a major program coordinator. Should Alleva balk at that for some reason, things may change.

Now, for all the rest...

Yes, this hire will define Orgeron’s tenure (and Alleva’s by proxy), at least for the first few years. But that was always going to be the case with this position. It was the case when he hired Canada. If he’s here long enough to have to replace Aranda, that move will involve the same stakes. That’s the case for virtually every single program in the country, save for Alabama.

And that point would be just as true whether he hired Ensminger or a “hotter” name like Mike Yurcich or Tee Martin or anybody else. Nobody’s going to give you a break because you made a chalk pick and it didn’t work out. Hell, Canada was the hottest coordinator in the country, and even without all of the interpersonal conflicts, the results were middling at best and wouldn’t have been tolerated next year, either.

So spare yourself from reading every hack columnist writing the 800-word equivalent of “water is wet.”

Yes, Ensminger was far from a hot, or even a lukewarm, name.

His last full-time coordinator job was at Clemson in 1998. He worked at Auburn in a co-coordinators position with Hugh Nall in 2003, and later took over in an interim role for Tony Franklin in 2008. None of these stints produced results of any note.

However, his most recent stint with the Tigers yielded unqualified results: over the final eight games of the 2016 season that Ensminger served as interim OC in place of Cam Cameron, LSU’s offense:

  • increased scoring from 21 points per game to 32 — scoring 38 or more in five of the eight games Ensminger called
  • increased yards per play from 5.7 to 7.1
  • set a school record for total offense in a conference game (634 yards versus Missouri)
  • set two different individual school rushing records (Leonard Fournette vs. Ole Miss and Derrius Guice vs. Texas A&M).

The reason this holds value is precisely that it doesn’t sit in a vacuum. Whether the offense should have been that good or not, 2016 LSU football team wasn’t going to put up those numbers under Cam Cameron. They weren’t even going to come close.

BUT BILLY, LSU GOT SHUT OUT VERSUS ALABAMA!

True, LSU lost to the Tide 10-0 with Ensminger calling plays. If that alone is enough of a reason for you, there’s probably not much point in discussing this further.

However, taking the point further regarding the 2016 offense versus better defenses, let’s use Bill Connelly’s opponent-adjusted advanced statistics:

  • under Ensminger, LSU’s average offensive percentile performance — i.e., a measure of how well a unit performed compared to an average college offense, adjusted for defensive quality — increased from 41 percent to 73 percent. That means the Tigers improved from a unit that was barely in the top 60 percent of all 130 FBS teams to one that was in the top 30 percent.
  • LSU’s average offensive percentile under Matt Canada in 2017? 54 percent, with an S&P+ ranking of 42. In 2016, the Tigers finished 22nd in offensive S&P+, counting both Ensminger’s and Cameron’s games.

There is no credible way to deny, at any level, that Ensminger improved LSU’s offense over his stretch of running it.

That said, running and installing one’s own offense is very different than taking somebody else’s work and applying your own vision, and there’s certainly no guarantee that one translates to the other. That is a very real concern with regards to Ensminger.

What kind of scheme would Ensminger even run?

Here’s where things get speculative. His previous offenses at other stops would mostly be classified as classic two-back, college pro-style offenses. Although in taking over Cameron’s playbook, Ensminger emphasized more spread formations and worked in more run-pass options. If I had to guess, that’s what we’ll see here as well. Some two-back looks, some two-tight end looks, some spread. The strength of the 2018 offense should be the line, so I imagine that will set a lot of the pieces in motion.

In the end, only one thing will determine whether this plan is a success or a failure — how the passing game develops.

Whether it’s Myles Brennan, Lowell Narcisse or some combination of the two. Whether the quarterbacks are taking drops from under center off of play-action or making option reads and throwing pop passes or bubble screens, if LSU has a successful passing attack next year, all will be forgiven.

My advice? Get the venting out of your system, and wait and see what happens. Judge this by the results, just as you would any other move any other coach makes. That may be a radical suggestion, but I can assure you of this much — the results will speak for themselves, one way or another.