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If LSU makes major offensive changes against Missouri, you’ll see them quickly

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Steve Ensminger isn’t going to install a spread offense, but he could elect to get Malachi Dupre and Leonard Fournette quickly involved in the passing game.

NCAA Football: Mississippi State at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

38 years ago, Steve Ensminger started the 1978 Liberty Bowl against Missouri; on Saturday, he’ll be calling his first game as LSU’s offensive coordinator. Ensminger takes over for Cam Cameron, who was shown the door along with head coach Les Miles earlier this week.

Interim head coach Ed Orgeron was apparently the one who decided to dump Cameron and start over. It’s not hard to see why; LSU currently ranks 66th in Off. S&P+ and has topped 23 points only once this year, against FCS’ Jacksonville State.

Ensminger’s career has had its own twists and turns. He has served as offensive coordinator at McNeese State (1984-86), Louisiana Tech (1988-90), Texas A&M (1994-96), and Clemson (1997-98). Clemson head coach Tommy West was fired in 1998, and Ensminger went to the Louisiana high school ranks from 2000-02. He landed on Tommy Tuberville’s Auburn staff for six years, went back to high school coaching in 2009, and got a gig with his alma mater in 2010.

Ensminger’s history is that of power offense and pro-style concepts; there’s a reason he’s been on Miles’ staff for the last six years. He might be asked to spread things out a bit more, but I’m thinking the identity of this offense isn’t going to change terribly much.

Offense

Quarterback

  • Danny Etling (6’0, 215, Jr.) — 40-for-71 (56%), 433 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, 4 sacks (5.5 yards per pass attempt); 13 carries, 75 yards (5.8), 1 TD
  • Brandon Harris (6’3, 218, Jr.) — 13-for-25 (52%), 139 yards, 1 TD, 2 INT, 2 sacks (4.8 yards per attempt); 2 carries, -5 yards (-2.5)

I defended Brandon Harris a good degree in my 2016 LSU preview.

I get it. I watched him in November, particularly against Alabama (6-for-19) and Texas A&M (7-for-21). I understand the concerns about Harris.

But I also watched him against South Carolina, Florida, and WKU, when he completed 63 percent of his passes for seven touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 186.9 passer rating. And I watched him in the Texas Bowl, proving fully capable of torturing a defense so fully focused on stopping Fournette.

Yes, there were issues, but that is to be expected. Eight SEC teams primarily featured first-time starters at QB in 2015, and among them, LSU was fourth with a Passing S&P+ ranking of 32nd. And none of the three teams above the Tigers (No. 2 Ole Miss, No. 15 Alabama, and No. 27 Georgia) was starting a true sophomore.

In four to five non-sack carries per game, Harris ran efficiently, and for most of the year he provided passing vertical enough to overcome inefficiency. When you've got Fournette, you are allotted a little margin for error, and Harris was an awesome complement for much of the season.

Harris thanked me for my efforts by playing horribly against Wisconsin and getting benched against Jacksonville State. His replacement, Purdue transfer Danny Etling, has been ... fine. More yards per attempt, fewer massive mistakes. He was downright solid against Mississippi State (215 yards, 134.5 passer rating), but there were no big plays to be found against Auburn (118 yards, 104.5 rating).

Ensminger could have some surprises in store in Baton Rouge on Saturday night, but my guess is that QB isn’t one of them. I bet Etling is still the guy. But who he throws to, and on which routes, will probably change a bit.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Auburn
Danny Etling floats what was almost the game-winning pass vs. Auburn
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Backfield

Running Back

  • Leonard Fournette (6’1, 235, Jr.) — 67 carries, 386 yards (5.8), 2 TD; 13 targets, 9 catches, 69 yards (5.3)
  • Derrius Guice (5’11, 212, So.) — 29 carries, 239 yards (8.2), 1 TD; 3 targets, 2 catches, 33 yards (11.0)

Fullback

  • J.D. Moore (6’4, 241, Jr.) — 3 targets, 2 catches, 9 yards (3.0)
  • Bry’Keithon Mouton (6’1, 265, So.) — 4 carries, 15 yards (3.8), 1 TD

Leonard Fournette came into the season battling injury, and he suffered another one late in the loss to Auburn. And he’s still averaging 5.8 yards per carry and leading the SEC with 128.7 yards per game. That’s pretty impressive for a slump.

Still, the run game has been disappointing, and not only because of high standards. Big plays from Fournette and Derrius Guice have helped the averages, but the Tigers are only 97th in rushing success rate thus far. They managed a 33% success rate against Wisconsin (the national average is 40%), 29% against Mississippi State, and 41% against Auburn.

Fournette is listed as probable for Saturday, and if LSU can get him rolling downhill, there almost doesn’t need to be a Plan B for the offense. But if Mizzou is able to slow him down like the Tigers slowed down Nick Chubb, Plan B is where Ensminger could have the largest impact.

Don’t be surprised to see... No. 1: Screens to Fournette. Through his first two seasons, Fournette had 26 catches for 380 yards, an explosive average for a running back. This year, he has nine receptions, but for only 69 yards. If you’re looking for a) ways to continue featuring Fournette and b) ways to open things up and drag defenders out of the box, getting him more involved in the passing game could be effective. Maybe we’re talking flares or quick checkdowns more than organized screens, but in one way or another, be wary of No. 7 when Etling drops to pass.

LSU v Auburn
Leonard Fournette reacts to the end of the Auburn game.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Receiving Corps

WR-X

  • Malachi Dupre (6’4, 195, Jr.) — 25 targets, 11 catches, 99 yards (4.0)
  • Jazz Ferguson (6’5, 223, So.)
  • Drake Davis (6’3, 217, Fr.) — 1 target, 1 catch, 19 yards

WR-Z

  • Travin Dural (6’2, 207, Sr.) — 23 targets, 14 catches, 142 yards (6.2), 1 TD
  • D.J. Chark (6’3, 187, Jr.) — 12 targets, 7 catches, 75 yards (6.3), 1 TD

TE

  • Colin Jeter (6’7, 254, Sr.) — 5 targets, 1 catch, 32 yards (6.4)
  • Foster Moreau (6’5, 250, So.) — 2 targets, 2 catches, 21 yards (10.5), 1 TD
  • DeSean Smith (6’5, 249, Sr.) — 3 targets, 2 catches, 65 yards (21.7), 1 TD

Don’t be surprised to see... No. 2: A concerted effort to involve Malachi Dupre. Going by position, it’s not hard to see where LSU has most definitively lacked so far. Z receivers have been targeted 35 times for 217 yards, tight ends 10 times for 118, and running backs 23 times for 138. X receivers, meanwhile: 26 targets, 118 yards. That’s a dreadful, 2015-Mizzou-esque 4.5 yards per target for what should be the most prolific spot in the receiving corps.

Dupre was a major target for Harris last year, averaging 16.2 yards per catch with a solid 46 percent success rate. He was an all-or-nothing threat with more all than nothing, and he killed defenses in play-action. He has done nothing of the sort this year.

Travin Dural was even more explosive (and less efficient) than Dupre last year, and his production has also lagged this year. But he’s still gained 43 more yards than Dupre in two fewer targets. And counting D.J. Chark, the Z has gained 99 more yards than the X in just nine more targets overall.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see LSU come out of the gates throwing the ball, hoping to find a rhythm for Etling and catch Mizzou off-guard. If it works, then Mizzou could be a step behind all night — adjust for shorter passing, and you run the risk of getting either burned deep or burned by Fournette.

But if it doesn’t work, Mizzou could create an early lead and prevent Ensminger from leaning on Fournette later on.

Jacksonville State v LSU
Malachi Dupre can’t quite reel one in
Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Offensive line

LT

  • K.J. Malone (6’4, 303, Jr.) — 4 career starts
  • Maea Teuhema (6’5, 315, So.) — 12 career starts

LG

  • Will Clapp (6’5, 309, So.) — 15 career starts
  • Garrett Brumfield (6’5, 305, So.)

C

  • Ethan Pocic (6’7, 302, Sr.) — 28 career starts
  • Andy Dodd (6’4, 318, Jr.)

RG

  • Josh Boutte (6’5, 346, Sr.) — 4 career starts

RT

  • Toby Weathersby (6’5, 302, So.) — 4 career starts
  • Adrian Magee (6’5, 309, RSFr.)

Toby Weathersby is listed as questionable for Saturday. I would figure that if he doesn’t play, Maea Teuhema ends up starting instead.

LSU’s biggest issue is that the Tigers rank 112th in standard downs success rate. Predictability has played a large role in that — another reason to guess that LSU tries to mix in a lot more early passing on Saturday — but so has mediocre run blocking. LSU just hasn’t been as good up front as it should be, and once the Tigers have fallen behind schedule, the pass protection has been a letdown, too: They rank 84th in passing downs sack rate (9.5%). Harris was more sack-prone than Etling, but both have gone down quite a bit.

The first quarter will speak volumes in this game, I think. My guess is that LSU holds off on leaning on Fournette for at least a couple of quarters, attempting to both catch Mizzou off-guard and say “Look! We’re trying to change things!” to the home crowd. If the tweaks result in early points, Missouri is in major trouble — early scores will mean an engaged home crowd and a chance for them to lean on Fournette with a lead. If they don’t, Mizzou could be well-positioned for a Death Valley upset.

NCAA Football: Lambeau Field College Classic-Louisiana State vs Wisconsin
Ethan Pocic snaps the ball at Lambeau
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports