THIBODAUX, La. — Maybe it was sharing a field with Peyton and Eli Manning that had LSU senior quarterback Joe Burrow feeling so confident. Or it might have been the throwing session he had with Sam Darnold a day earlier.
Or maybe, just maybe, Burrow knew something we didn’t as he sat down with a group of reporters at the Manning Passing Academy in late June and started talking about how different the Tigers’ offense had become.
“I don’t think a lot of people are used to LSU scoring 40, 50, 60 points per game,” he said, “and I think we have that capability.”
The comment raised some eyebrows, to say the least, but Burrow didn’t appear to be joking or saying it for shock value. If anything, he sounded excited to be part of something that hadn’t been done before.
LSU potentially having a potent offense, and what that could mean for the SEC and the national college football conversation, had been one of the more interesting subplots of the offseason. From head coach Ed Orgeron to his staff and to Burrow, many pieces of the puzzle have been put into place to quell the skepticism.
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Months earlier, during SEC media days in July, Orgeron seemed to acknowledge the doubters. Since taking over as head coach in 2016, he had hired former Broyles Award winner Matt Canada as offensive coordinator; Canada brought the spread and run-pass option to town for all of 15 minutes before it fell by the wayside. Replacing Canada with a more conservative playcaller, Steve Ensminger, led to a return under center and an offense that ranked 68th nationally in yards per game last season.
So when Orgeron took the stage to face the media, it was no surprise he got a little pushback when he talked about his latest staff addition, New Orleans Saints offensive assistant Joe Brady as passing game coordinator, and installing the spread. One reporter took the mic and said, point-blank, “You keep threatening to go to this upbeat spread offense, [like] a lot of schools — I’m taking you at your word this time.”
“It’s in the playbook,” Orgeron said. “So it’s not a threat.”
Brady installing the offense and Ensminger serving as the playcaller might sound like an awkward operation, but Burrow said it has had a positive impact on his game.
When the quarterback transferred to LSU from Ohio State in May 2018, he struggled like anyone else would with a similar move. He routinely got lost trying to find his apartment and couldn’t come up with the names of more than 10 players on the team. Being from the Midwest, he wasn’t used to the Southern summer heat lingering until December, and he lost weight because of it.
The game was unfamiliar, too. He hadn’t taken a snap under center since the sixth grade. He had never taken a seven-step drop and had to learn how in about a month and a half. Managing the offense, he helped the Tigers beat Auburn and Georgia, but he threw for 300 yards in a game only once during the regular season (against Rice) and oversaw an offense that didn’t score a single point against Alabama.
Heading into Year 2 at LSU, Burrow said he feels more comfortable in Baton Rouge. He traded his long hair for a buzz cut to better manage the heat and can now tell you who his teammates are. The game is also familiar again, thanks in part to Brady’s arrival, as Orgeron has charged the co-coordinator with bringing a 21st century offense to the unit, complete with the shotgun, the spread and even the run-pass option.
When we met with Burrow at the Manning Passing Academy earlier in the summer, he was already saying how fired up he was to play Texas — Longhorns coach Tom Herman, who recruited Burrow to Ohio State, would be on the opposite sideline. It was shaping up to be a “special season,” Burrow said. He believed the Tigers could have one of the best offenses in college football.
“It’s going to be a lot different,” Burrow said. “I’ll try not to tell you how different it’s going to be.”
Burrow was guarded about the details, other than to say to watch what little they revealed during the spring game. He pumped up his receivers on how they’d get the ball in open space and added that the running backs would become a threat in the passing game. The offense would be explosive, where “that hasn’t always been the case in the past,” he said.
And with Burrow in “Joe’s type of offense,” where he can be a dual threat and run the ball, Orgeron expects fireworks. Fans and skeptics alike got a glimpse during the season opener in Baton Rouge. Against Georgia Southern, the Tigers opened up in the shotgun with three receivers and one tight end. The running back, who began by Burrow’s side, motioned out of the backfield to set up a — gasp! — empty formation. The pass ended in an incompletion, but it was one of only four all day from Burrow.
When Burrow competed his first pass moments later, it took only 10 seconds before he was snapping the ball again. The offense was moving so fast at times, Burrow actually barked at the referees for not letting the Tigers snap the ball as quickly as they’d like. There were bunch formations and RPOs, and the Tigers even went into the shotgun inside on first-and-goal inside the 5-yard line. They barely huddled. It was positively un-LSU-like. Burrow had said to expect 40 points per game, and LSU had that before halftime. Burrow completed 24 of 27 passes (to more than 10 different players) for 278 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.
After the game, Burrow joked about his “40, 50, 60 points” comment and how he “took some heat” for it.
“Hopefully we can keep building on this thing,” he told reporters. “I wanted 60 tonight.”
It took a decade for LSU to earn the reputation as an offensive black hole, so Burrow knows one game isn’t going to change everyone’s minds.
“It was nice,” he said of the offense’s debut, “but, at the end of the day, it was Game 1 and we have 11 games left. We could tank the final 11 games and everyone would be right back bashing us.”
Ahead of Saturday’s prime-time game against Texas, he said the offense needs to clean up short-yardage situations, which he estimated took 14-21 points off the board against Georgia Southern. The offensive line held up well in the opener, but the Longhorns have much more talent up front. On top of that, going on the road and playing in a raucous DKR-Texas Memorial Stadium will make communication difficult. Orgeron said there might be some checks they just can’t use in that environment.
Burrow said he expects an array of blitzes and different looks meant to confuse him; he will have to watch out for Caden Sterns, whom Orgeron called “one of the best safeties we’re going to see.”
If LSU does find a way to win, it could land in the thick of the playoff hunt. “I’m fired up about it,” Burrow said. “We have our work cut out for us.”
ESPN reporter Edward Aschoff contributed to this report.