Why you should care
The wide receiver hotbed is shedding its reputation as a quarterback backwater.
It’s as if Louisiana State University’s football program finally has electricity — or running water in its pipes. The Tigers’ 100-year reputation was rock ’em, sock ’em run-game football, but two not-so-ordinary Joes — Joe Burrow, the season’s Heisman Trophy–winning quarterback, and Joe Brady, the 30-year-old passing game coordinator — have synchronized LSU with contemporary football.
The rest of college football, starting with Clemson on Jan. 13 in the national championship game, should shudder. LSU, which routinely has NFL-caliber talent at every other position, is laying the foundation to emerge as the next Quarterback University. The Tigers’ new aerial era extends from their four and five wide-receiver schemes to an innovative scientific approach to pass catching.
From 2016 to 2018, LSU ranked 101st, 84th and 66th, respectively, in passing offense in Division I football. This year, with Burrow and Brady, it ranked second. Experts believe this is no one-off interruption, with head coach Ed Orgeron determined to have LSU join the league of Clemson (DeShaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence) and Oklahoma (Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts) as the next QB U.
“Ed Orgeron ain’t going back from this,” says ESPN analyst and former LSU All-American Marcus Spears, who watched from the sidelines as the Tigers thumped Oklahoma 63-28 in the playoff semifinal on Dec. 30.
When Burrow came to Baton Rouge to visit in 2018 as a transfer from Ohio State, it was Orgeron who sat him down and convinced him LSU was shucking the power run game. Orgeron hired Brady, an assistant coach for the New Orleans Saints, in 2018. The LSU head coach recognized Brady’s acumen in the pass game, say experts, and told him — with buy-in from long-time assistant coach Steve Ensminger — it was OK to install the Saints’ offense. “This is our offense now going forward,” says Terrace Marshall Jr., one of LSU’s wide receivers.
It’s just going to pick up from here after what Joe Burrow did.
Myles Brennan, sophomore quarterback
Orgeron is making sure a new contract is coming to at least keep Brady in the fold for another couple of seasons before he inevitably gets a head coaching job. “Some head coaches don’t like to be upstaged by great assistant coaches,” says recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. “But coaches with a lot of confidence in themselves wind up with the best assistants. When Brady leaves, and he’ll leave soon, Ed will go get another great offensive mind to go with Ensminger.”
Science is playing its part too. In 2018, athletic trainer Jack Marucci cataloged dropped passes by LSU receivers. His project — which he called ocular science — determined the dominant eye of LSU’s receivers. The receivers ran routes in practice and came up with personalized receiving routes where they saw the ball better. For instance, wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase discovered which shoulder he preferred to turn toward the quarterback on deep throws. The data was given to Burrow and the coaches to optimize play-calling. “We don’t want a guy with left-eye dominance running an out route to the right side of the field,” says sophomore quarterback Myles Brennan, the heir apparent to Burrow.
Brady joined the squad for spring practice in 2019 and added more passing-game science. In practice, receivers have put fishnets over their heads or worn googles with sidepieces. The idea is to obscure their vision, forcing them to focus and watch the ball into their hands. In another drill, junior wide receiver Justin Jefferson says, a door is flung open and the receiver sees a football in the air just a few feet away. The receiver must react in an instant with hands up to snatch the ball — or get hit in the face. Brady will gather receivers in a circle around him and toss tennis balls back and forth lickety-split while a student assistant asks the players random questions as a distraction.
Ocular science includes using a radar gun to teach quarterbacks how to take something off their intermediate routes, not zinging every throw. “He [Orgeron] is thinking ahead. Where’s the game going? He will keep doing things like this to stay ahead of the game,” says Marucci.
Meanwhile, Brady asked his quarterbacks to throw 10,000 passes in the offseason. Their arm strength, timing, touch and chemistry with receivers improved. He installed the wildly successful New Orleans Saints’ spread offense, which is similar right down to the No. 9 jersey, worn by Burrow and Saints’ All-Pro Drew Brees. “We have options to throw the ball and make plays and, if you’re a quarterback, you like that,” Brennan says.
But what if the ascension of LSU is more Brady than Orgeron, ocular science and recruiting? What if Brady leaves — NFL teams are knocking — and the wheels come off?
Experts say this success is built to last beyond Brady and Burrow.
Brennan has the inside track for the QB job this coming fall, but two incoming freshmen whom Lemming rates as four-star quarterbacks will push him. They’re TJ Finley, a 6-foot-6, 250-pound pro-style quarterback, and Max Johnson, the 6-foot-4.5-inch son of former NFL quarterback Brad Johnson. “They are skilled,” Lemming says. “Think about it. LSU is having success with a quarterback [Burrow] who was an Ohio State throwaway, and developed him. They could do the same with either of these three.”
The receiving talent that comes through Tiger Stadium can also make a quarterback look good. LSU arguably has the best wide receiver corps in college football with Jefferson (102 receptions), Chase (75) and Marshall Jr. (43), not to mention running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire (50). “The thing about LSU is they’re always going to have speed and, you know, it’s our job as coaches to put our speed in space and to allow them to win their one-on-one [matchups],” Brady says.
The legs have been there for a while. The difference now is how LSU has joined the arms race. “This system is going to attract quarterbacks,” says Brennan. “It’s just going to pick up from here after what Joe Burrow did.”