Mighty Joe Brady is LSU's latest, greatest hope for a pass game on life support for years
BATON ROUGE — Last June, at the last stop of coach Ed Orgeron's and assistants' speaking tour at Walk-On's restaurant in Metairie, he discussed one of his favorite topics — LSU's new pass offense, which has basically become an annual affair that pre-dates Orgeron by more than a decade.
But this time may be for real.
"We've got to go to the spread next year," Orgeron said he told offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger late in the 2018 regular season — perhaps not long after the 29-0 loss to Alabama on Nov. 3, which was Ensminger's second straight shutout at the hands of the Tide as offensive coordinator. Alabama beat LSU 10-0 in 2016 with Ensminger as interim offensive coordinator and 24-10 in 2017 when Matt Canada was offensive coordinator for a season.
"I agree," Ensminger said. "Let's get somebody who knows it, and let him put it in."
Enter Joe Brady, a 29-year-old lower assistant with the state-of-the-art New Orleans Saints offense and coach Sean Payton in 2017 and '18. Brady, a wide receiver at William & Mary in 2013 and '14, does not have a glittering resume to say the least. He was coaching linebackers at his alma mater just five years ago in 2014. He was a graduate assistant at Penn State for two years before latching on with the Saints in 2017. But he can talk a good game.
When wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan told Orgeron last November that he would be retiring, Orgeron remembered Brady from the summer of 2018 when Brady and other Saints assistants spoke to LSU's coaches at LSU about offense.
"I immediately thought of Joe Brady," Orgeron said. "He did a tremendous job in that talk, a big-time job. And I always wanted the Saints' passing game."
Orgeron, who coached the Saints' defensive line under Payton in 2008 and has remained friends with the staff, called Payton and Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael to ask about Brady.
"As soon as the Saints' season was over, we brought him in and hired him," Orgeron said. "It was a natural fit. He's been phenomenal ever since."
Brady, who was hired six days after the Saints lost the NFC title game to the Los Angeles Rams on Jan. 20, has installed run-pass quarterback options he learned in 2016 from then-Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who is the head coach at Mississippi State, for LSU's returning senior starting dual-action quarterback Joe Burrow. And he has installed pass plays to running backs and tight ends — both staples of Payton since he came to the Saints in 2006.
"The tight ends will be getting a lot more balls," wide receiver Justin Jefferson said with a sarcastic laugh. "You won't believe it. This offense, we have everybody getting in the mix."
Ensminger and Brady moved senior wide receiver Stephen Sullivan to tight end for the extra action.
"We're going to make plays at that spot, at all kinds of spots. It's going to be crazy. Everybody's going to have crazy numbers this year. We're ready to throw it," Jefferson said.
"Joe and Steve Ensminger work together wonderful," Orgeron said. "I expect those two to run a very prolific offense led by Joe Burrow. This is Joe Burrow's type of offense. Joe is a dual-threat quarterback."
LSU had a passing game coordinator with as much hoopla — if not more — entering the 2010 season. You may have forgotten his name, though. It was Billy Gonzales, who had much more experience than Brady and more time under a guru of college offense — Urban Meyer. Gonzales, 39, came to LSU after serving as the receivers coach at Florida from 2005 to 2009 and from 2001 to 2004 at Bowling Green and Utah under the tutelage of Meyer.
But Gonzales was either never really allowed to coordinate any passing game at LSU under then-head coach Les Miles or he never had a decent quarterback with whom to do so.
Because Miles had no problem with high-flying, "spread" offenses with quarterback JaMarcus Russell and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher in 2006, with Matt Flynn and offensive coordinator Gary Crowton in 2007, and with Zach Mettenberger and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in 2013. Russell finished No. 3 in the nation in passing efficiency at 167.0 in '06 and still holds LSU records for completions (232), completion percentage (.678) and is tied for touchdowns (28) from that season. The 2007 offense remains No. 1 in LSU history with 6,152 yards. In 2013, Mettenberger became just LSU's third 3,000-yard passer (3,082) as LSU had a 3,000-yard passer, two 1,000-yard receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Jeremy Hill) for the first time in school history.
But with quarterback Jordan Jefferson in 2010, then-new genius Gonzales and Crowton finished last in the Southeastern Conference in pass offense and 107th of 120 upper level schools in the nation with 155.6 yards a game. In 2011, LSU finished 13-1, but Gonzales and new offensive coordinator Greg Studrawa's passing game with Jarrett Lee and Jefferson landed at 10th in the SEC and 106th in the nation at 152.5 yards a game.
Gonzales did not return for 2012 at LSU, and after a stop at Illinois, he has been under coach Dan Mullen as receivers coach at Mississippi State (2013-17) and at Florida last season and this season.
LSU High 5:What must happen for Tigers to max out
Brady will likely have a better chance at succeeding as he has a much better quarterback in Burrow, who learned as a backup at Ohio State under Meyer in 2016 and '17 before transferring. And Orgeron has sounded hellbent on finding a strong passing game with Brady, whereas Miles lip serviced that because it sounded good and was desired by fans. He did the same thing after his last full season in 2015.
"We went to the spread," Orgeron beamed at SEC Media Days last month. "We hired Joe Brady. He came from the Saints and is a very talented coach. He has been a game changer for our staff."
Ensminger will be 61 on Sept. 16 with a contract for $800,000 that expires after the 2020 season. If everything goes well, Brady could well replace Ensminger as offensive coordinator for the 2021 season. He is on a three-year contract through the 2021 season that pays him $400,000 a year.
"Steve is older now," Orgeron said at Walk-On's. "He's like John Wayne — tough, doesn't say much."
Ensminger, an LSU quarterback from 1976-79 and a well-traveled offensive coordinator since 1984 at McNeese State, Louisiana Tech, Texas A&M and Clemson. He lets the hyper Brady do the talking.
"I have no ego," Ensminger said at Walk-On's. "I want help. I've enjoyed it since Joe showed up."
It's like Ensminger, who was a passing game coordinator in his early 30s at Georgia from 1991-93, is the aging gunslinger played by the 69-year-old Wayne in his last movie, "The Shootist," in 1976. And Brady is the wide-eyed, precocious teenager Gillom Rogers, a skilled but untested shooter played by a 22-year-old Ron Howard.
"When I was with the Saints, I was never going to call a play," Brady said at Walk-On's. "But in my mind, I had plays that if everybody's headset didn't work, I was going to be ready."
That never happened. He will get his chance to call a play or two here and there this season.
"Steve's going to call the plays," Orgeron said. "Joe is going to have the next play ready. If Steve wants it, he takes it. If he wants to call his own play, he'll call his own play. I think that's going to be a big plus for us."
At the end of "The Shootist," Rogers (Howard) picks up a fallen Books' gun and shoots the man who shot Books as Books (Wayne) smiles and nods, passing the torch — or in this case, the gun, and in LSU's case, the play-calling headset.
"Joe has put in a lot of plays," Orgeron said. "He's an excellent, excellent, spread and run-pass option coach. He brought all the Saints' tight end plays with him."
There will be very few huddles.
"We'll have a very fast pace," Orgeron said. "The thing we need to do first is get rid of the ball quicker. We can't hold the ball."
Brady has been drawing fast and spreading his men wide.
"We're going to kill it on offense," wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. said. "Can't wait to see what we do. We're just ready to showcase. I love it, man. I love it. It's spread out wide. Everybody can get the ball. Everybody can eat."
LSU fans will get to watch the premier on Saturday when the No. 6 Tigers host Georgia Southern at 6:30 p.m. in Tiger Stadium on ESPNU.
"We have a lot more going in than last year," Burrow said. "Every day there's new stuff coming. So, if you're falling behind, you're going to keep getting left behind. Compared to last year, I would say we have a lot more concepts — a lot more formations."
Ensminger may have trouble not calling the play Brady has cued up.
"When you work for a guy who doesn't say, 'My way is the only way,' you enjoy that interaction," Brady said. "Is it Steve's offense? Is it Joe's offense? This is our offense. You're going to see up-tempo offense that will get our speed in space. When you do that, good things happen. When you can get the best players on the field with the ball in their hands, we're sitting back there enjoying and watching."
So will LSU fans, who have not seen a Tiger quarterback throw for 3,000 yards since 2013 nor seen a receiver finish with more than 900 yards receiving since the same year.
"Having this offense and having Coach Joe to put in these plays, it's going to help us tremendously. You'll see," Jefferson said.
"I say, get your popcorn," Brady said. "It's going to be like when you're sitting there enjoying a movie and everything is good, that's what you're going to be doing when you see this offense this fall."