This is the latest in a series examining the 15 most important assistant coaching hires of the 2018 season. Previous installments:
No. 15: Rod Smith, Illinois
No. 14: Matt Canada, Maryland
No. 13: Harlon Barnett, Florida State
No. 12: Jerry Azzinaro, UCLA
No. 11: Bob Shoop, Mississippi State
No. 10: Clark Lea, Notre Dame
No. 9: Bush Hamdan, Washington
No. 8: Herb Hand, Texas
No. 7: Tyson Helton, Tennessee
No. 6: Kendal Briles/Randy Clements, Houston
No. 5: Ed Warinner, Michigan
Who: James Cregg, LSU
Title: Offensive line coach
Previous stop: Los Angeles Chargers offensive line coach (2017)
Why he’s important: Another entry, another offensive line coach. Such is the importance of the position. It doesn’t matter what plans your coordinator has for his skill players if the linemen can’t block, and Steve Ensminger has a plan that Ed Orgeron can get an board with — and one that Orgeron needs to succeed.
Joe Alleva named Orgeron LSU’s full-time head coach on the Dabo Swinney model: surround the head man with big-name coordinators, give said coordinators autonomy over their side of the ball, and let the head coach focus on recruiting and the big picture. Year 1 was not a picture-perfect example of that model, at least not on the offensive side of the ball. Matt Canada and Orgeron were not a fit, to say the least.
But now Canada is in Maryland and Ensminger is back, this time as LSU’s full-time offensive coordinator. The plan is to attack defenses with a wide-open, straight-ahead attack. Ensminger is a person Orgeron is extremely comfortable with, as is Cregg. The pair worked together for the 2009 season at Tennessee and from 2010-13 at USC.
“I wouldn’t have come back to college football to work for anybody else besides Coach O,” Cregg said in February.
“I know firsthand the type coach he is and how he serves as a mentor to his players,” Orgeron said upon Cregg’s hiring. “He’s an outstanding recruiter that is going to develop our players both on and off the field. He will be a tremendous person to have in our program.”
Despite LSU’s three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust reputation, LSU actually led the SEC in yards per play in 2016, the season in which Orgeron was bumped to interim head coach and Ensminger to offensive coordinator. The potential is there, but Cregg must replace the bulk of the offense line: LSU lost its starting center and both tackles from 2017.
The Bayou Bengals open with Miami and then face Auburn, Ole Miss, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi State all before the First Saturday in November showdown with Alabama in Baton Rouge. Cregg will need to have his rebuilt unit ready to play from Day 1.
LSU hasn’t beaten Alabama since the infamous 9-6 Game of the Century in 2011. Though the Tigers haven’t won any less than eight games in the six seasons since, they haven’t finished in the top 10 in either poll or higher than a tie for second place in the SEC West.
That isn’t good enough at LSU, a program that once (rightfully) saw itself as an equal to Alabama… and has since seen the Tide rack up four national titles while viewing the Tigers in the rearview mirror.
LSU needs the Orgeron hire to work, and for it to work, Ensminger needs to fix the offense. Head coaches don’t often get three shots at an offensive coordinator in three years. And for the Ensminger hire to work, Cregg needs to be the right offensive line coach.