In 2018, LSU’s offense managed to hit a perfect sweet spot of “not good enough” and “not as bad as most of its detractors probably think.” The Tigers averaged 32 points per game and finished 49th in Offensive S&P+ under controversial coordinator promotion of Steve Ensminger.
There were some challenges for this group: LSU was replacing virtually all of its 2017 production, with a new quarterback who arrived this summer and an offensive line that struggled to keep a consistent lineup for most of the year due to injuries.
But with as many as eight potential returning starters in 2018, those excuses (barring the injury one) won’t apply. So let’s look at those open spots.
LSU Offensive Two-Deep, Spring 2019
|QB||Joe Burrow||Myles Brennan, Andre Sale|
|RB||Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chris Curry, Lanard Fournette, Tae Provens|
|FB||Tory Carter||Aaron Moffitt|
|WR (X)||Ja'Marr Chase||Stephen Sullivan, Dee Anderson|
|WR (Z)||Justin Jefferson||Terrace Marshall Jr., Kenan Jones|
|WR (Slot)||Jonathan Giles||Derrick Dillon, JaRay Jenkins|
|TE (Y)||Jamal Pettigrew, Thaddeus Moss, Zach Sheffer, T.K. Mclendon, Dantrieze Scott, Racey McMath, Charles Turner|
|LT||Saahdiq Charles||Badara Traore, Jakori Savage, Cameron Wire, Dare Rosenthal|
|C||Lloyd Cushenberry||Cole Smith|
|RG||Damien Lewis||Donovaughn Campbell|
|RT||Austin Deculus||Adrian Magee|
|P||Josh Growden/Zach von Rosenberg|
|K||Connor Culp, Jack Gonsoulin|
|PR||Justin Jefferson, Kary Vincent, Ja'Marr Chase, Derek Stingley|
This unit will return some 82 percent of its 2018 production, and improvement will not only be expected, but demanded. That path will center partially on a loaded running back class arriving in the summer, but it will begin in the spring centering on some key areas:
How Does the Offensive Line Reshuffle?
LSU’s principal issue on the offensive line was health; injuries forced six different lineups over the first seven games, and center Lloyd Cushenberry was the only member of the group to start all thirteen games at one position. The upside is that while the group returns four nominal starters in Cushenberry, left tackle Saahdiq Charles, right guard Damien Lewis and right tackle Austin Deculus, there are another four players that saw significant minutes as spot starters or rotational replacements; Chasen Hines, Adrian Magee, Donovaughn Campbell and Badara Traore.
There’s one open spot at left guard, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the overall lineup reshuffles a bit around Cushenberry — who was a fairly consistent starter overall on the year. Lewis will almost certainly lock down one of the open guard spots as well. He showed flashes of the dominance reported of him over the 2018 offseason, but he needs to get more consistent.
For one, redshirt freshmen Dare Rosenthal and Cameron Wire look more like the classic tall, long-armed left tackle prospects. Although Charles does, in my opinion, have the athleticism to play the spot, he has struggled to stay healthy, and the injuries have clearly slowed him down a bit in pass pro. If Rosenthal or Wire assert themselves, he could move to another spot. Likewise, Deculus at tackle, despite his size, struggles on the move.
Hines showed some impressive people-moving skills, but has to improve on assignments. This could also be a spot primed for some attrition — particularly Magee and Campbell — with the freshmen coming in.
Sophomore Ed Ingram is also out there, pending a change to his legal status. He’s certainly considered one of the top talents in this group, but will remain suspended so long as his sexual assault charges are still pending.
THUNDERDOME at the Wide Receiver Spot
LSU’s going to return five receivers who caught at least 20 passes last season, but it wouldn’t shock me if some of the players on that list are knocked down the depth chart or looking for more playing time elsewhere over the summer. Because this group, as much as any area of the team, has to take a big step forward and develop as a group of big-time playmakers.
Junior Justin Jefferson stepped up as the team’s go-to guy with 54 catches for 875 yards, but even he struggled with drops at times. Five-star true freshmen Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall both have the potential to take a big step up in year two but struggled with their own consistency issues at times.
That’s where the competition comes into play. Seniors-to-be Dee Anderson, Stephen Sullivan and Derrick Dillon all had their moments at times last year, but none were reliable and all three could see their minutes cut down by younger players. Chase, Marshall and even Kenan Jones — who was a bulldog on special teams, even if he played little on offense — and Jaray Jenkins.
Ballyhooed transfer Jonathan Giles may have been the offense’s biggest disappointment last season, and will likely be encouraged to move on unless he really shows something between now and the 2019 season. But he may be joined by some of the other vets as well. LSU has two more freshmen coming in this summer, and will need to shed some bodies from the scholarship count in order to get under the 85 limit.
Who Steps Up At Tight End?
Foster Moreau was a rock at this position, but when Jamal Pettigrew was lost to season-ending knee injury in the summer, depth was in such a state that fullback Tory Carter became the defacto backup, with wide receiver Racey McMath converting as well.
Pettigrew is fully recovered and should be the odd-on favorite to step into the lineup this year. He had a strong spring last year, and looked like he primed to contribute before the knee injury.
Behind him. there’s junior college prospect T.K. McClendon, along with elusive transfer Thad Moss, who never seemed to get into the lineup last year with various ailments and eventually had foot surgery. McMath and redshirt freshman Zack Sheffer could also present options as an h-back type. Dantrieze Scott also has the size for the spot, the question is can he translate that into something after moving from outside linebacker. True freshman Charles Turner may work here early on, but his future is likely on the offensive line after a redshirt year.
What is the Ceiling at Quarterback?
Joe Burrow’s first season at LSU had its ups and downs, but ended on a high note, with him completing 63 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns against just two picks in the final four games — including a 394-yard, four-touchdown Fiesta Bowl.
But was that just a product of bad defenses, or Burrow’s evolution and improvement as a player? Is he just a “game manager” or can he add more pop to this passing attack? That remains to be seen.
To my eye, Burrow seemed to be at his best in the old “quarterback as point guard” cliche — he did a good job of keeping the offense in the right play and generally making good decisions with the football. He clearly doesn’t have the biggest arm in the world, but he’s a plus as a runner and definitely had command of the huddle. His teammates took him pretty quickly.
In that mold, as the rest of the offense improves its game, that can still yield pretty damn good results. But if he can take that to another level, that makes things all the more interesting.
Likewise, there’s still more to learn about backup Myles Brennan’s future. He certainly has the arm, but is he still the long-term future beyond Burrow? That question won’t be answered in the spring, but it should offer another data point.