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Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

...and neither will LSU’s offensive line

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Florida
The bright spot, Lloyd Cushenberry
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are again, talking about the LSU offense. I don’t read much into LSU failing to score against Bama. LSU drove to the red zone twice, so we didn’t have a 2012 situation, and let’s face it, Bama’s defense destroys everyone. Ole Miss has one of the most prolific offenses in the country. They scored 7 points.

However, LSU’s offensive tallies are depressingly familiar. The offense ranks 74th in the S&P+ offensive rankings, 69th in passing and 95th in the run. It’s not just the advanced metrics either. LSU ranks 83rd in the nation in scoring offense and 112th in yards per play.

The numbers get really ugly when we boil it down to the SEC. LSU ranks 10th in scoring and 14th in yards/play. Furthermore, LSU ranks 13th in yards per rush and 14th in yards per passing attempt. The offense ranks 11th in third down conversion rate and 13th in sacks allowed.

About the only thing the offense does well is possess the football. LSU ranks 4th in total plays, 3rd in time of possession, and 2nd in turnovers lost. So while the offense doesn’t do much with the ball, it holds it for a long time, which is a nice breather for the defense at least.

So what’s going on here? First, it should be noted that LSU has played a ridiculous schedule. It doesn’t explain away the numbers, but it does give credence to the idea that maybe LSU’s offense isn’t awful, maybe it is simply mediocre. In LSU’s six conference games, it has played five of the top seven defenses, and only one defense ranked in the bottom tier of the conference. And their out of conference Power 5 opponent was Miami, who has an exceptional defense.

Again, this doesn’t wave away LSU’s offensive woes, but they have at least outperformed the hypothetical average team against Power 5 defenses. The seven Power 5 defenses LSU has faced have allowed a combined 136.6 points per game, and LSU has scored 174 points against them. They aren’t wildly outscoring the defensive scoring averages, but they are outscoring it, which a truly inept offense wouldn’t be able to do.

It’s also at least comforting LSU’s offense is failing in a new way. People are frustrated by the lack of production, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say this is more of the same. The “old” LSU ran the ball with impunity, played at a glacial pace, and tried to suffocate the game. LSU ‘s offense is playing with more pace than before and from watching them, they look more organized and not as confused at the line of scrimmage. This still isn’t the Fun n Gun or anything, but it no longer looks like we took a time machine back to the 1930s.

However, the problem is pretty easy to identify: the offensive line hasn’t been very good. If you can’t block, there’s not much else you can do. Joe Burrow rushes through his reads because he’s learned by now his line is not going to give him time. He’s the second most sacked QB in the SEC, and that’s eventually going to take its effect.

Looking at the advanced metrics, LSU ranks 92nd in the nation with its 7.6% sack rate and 88th in adjusted line yards. The team isn’t just ineffective at pass blocking, they can’t run block either, as the line boasts as 20.5% Stuff Rate, 88th in the nation. That means in one-fifth of the team’s running plays, LSU gains zero yards or less. One-fifth.

This is the part of the column you’re supposed to demand somebody do something. Maybe call for people to get fired and all that. However, James Cregg took the job this offseason, and frankly, he’s made chicken salad out of chicken shit. It’s amazing he’s gotten the production he has so far.

LSU’s line wasn’t exactly great last year. It had even an even worse sack rate though its running numbers were better, maybe because Derrius Guice is a damn wizard. This year’s backs are decent, but they can’t overcome poor line play. Let’s look at what Cregg inherited: he returned only five players who appeared in multiple games and just two players with multiple starts. All in all, he returned 61 games played and 23 starts from last season. Only one returning player, Garrett Brumfield, started all 13 games, and only one more, Shaadiq Charles, played in all 13.

The offensive line has used seen different combinations of starters in nine games, primarily out of necessity. Those two experienced players who should have formed the rock of this line? Charles has played in six games and Brumfield in five due to injuries. The left side of the line, supposed to be the team strength with virtually all of the returning starts (22 of 23), instead became a turnstile.

Four different players have started at left tackle while four different players have started at left guard. The injuries to Brumfield and Charles were simply devastating to the unit, and forced Cregg to start moving guys all over the line, ruining any chance at consistency. And this is the side of the line the team was counting on to provide stability.

The only other veteran lineman is junior Adrian Magee. He’s managed four starts at three different positions despite suffering a knee injury in the season opener. Only three linemen on the team boasted a start prior to this season, and all three went down with injury. Really, what’s a line coach supposed to do? But the hits keep coming.

Due to the arrest of Ed Ingram, the right side of the line is almost entirely populated with newcomers and underclassmen. Lloyd Cushenberry played in 11 games last season, all as a backup. So did Austin Deculus. Now, the two sophomores find themselves as key cogs. Cushenberry has started all nine games at center, giving the line one thing it can rely on, while Deculus has started 8 games, moving over to right tackle after debuting on the left side to cover for the loss of Charles.

The other starting slots have been plugged by JUCO transfers. Damien Lewis has been a rock at left guard, starting every game. Badara Traore was supposed to be another JUCO starter, but he has settled into a backup role and a spot starter wherever another injury pops up.

The rest of the offensive line depth chart is two freshmen and two sophomores. The freshmen seem to have taken a more important role on the team, which is probably good news going forward. Chasen Hines earned his first career start already and Cole Smith is the only other player listed in the two-deep at center. The staff appears content to try and redshirt two of the big name recruits, Cameron Wire and converted defensive tackle Dare Rosenthal.

What this offense needs is better line play. But to get that, it needs to be able to roll out the same line maybe more than twice a year. Cregg is essentially working with injured vets playing at partial capacity or underclassmen and JUCO transfers in their first go around in the SEC. The results have been predictable, but what Cregg hasn’t done is break the glass and panic.

He’s keeping the redshirt on the potential studs of Rosenthal and Wire, and he’s letting guys build experience. It may not pay off this year, but it probably will next year. After going into this season with virtually no experience on the line, next year’s unit, if it does not suffer any early departures for the NFL, will return between 65-70 starts of the possible 75. LSU will return eight different linemen who started a game this season. That’s even before we get into the redshirts and the impressive class the staff looks to bring in this spring.

So what’s to be done this year? Not much. Play easier defenses. That’s the plan for November. LSU’s offense doesn’t have to perform at an elite level to beat the teams remaining on the schedule. But as for the future?

I think we need to appreciate the mess that James Cregg inherited and the further challenges he experienced that were beyond his control. However, next season, he will have a deep, experienced unit plus a gaggle of talented prospects. He may even have a season in which he can keep the line relatively healthy to introduce some semblance of continuity from week to week, instead of wildly trying to plug up each new hole in the dam.

What this offense needs is a better offensive line. And what this offensive line needs, unfortunately, is time. The good news for LSU is it seems Cregg was able to build up the offensive line from scratch without costing LSU any wins. At least it hasn’t so far.