Preview: Tigers Open 2019 Season vs. Georgia Southern

by Cody Worsham
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Preview: Tigers Open 2019 Season vs. Georgia Southern

When the lights come on Saturday night for No. 6 LSU’s 2019 season opener against Georgia Southern (6:30 p.m. CT, SEC Network, LSU Sports Radio Network), they’ll shine on a Tiger team with much to prove.

Times of Interest

A new-look offense, a revamped defense, and an opponent coming off a 10-win season offer ample opportunity for LSU to make a statement in front of a home crowd eager for football’s return to Baton Rouge.

The Tigers are back after finishing the 2018 season 10-3, capping off the campaign with a 40-32 win over Central Florida and a No. 6 ranking in the final AP polls.

On offense, LSU returns eight starters from last season, including quarterback Joe Burrow, who threw for 2,894 yards and rushed for 399, accounting for 23 touchdowns in his first season under center for the Tigers. Of those 23 touchdowns, 13 came in LSU’s final four games, when Burrow graded out as the third-best quarterback in the country, according to Pro Football Focus.

This season, the Ohio State transfer leads the charge in a spread, no-huddle attack under second-year offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and first-year passing game coordinator Joe Brady.

“Joe has been stellar since he got here,” head coach Ed Orgeron said. “He’s quiet, unassuming. He is very professional when he comes to work. He’s into it, wants to win, wants to get better every day. He’s had an excellent camp. He thrives in this offense. This is his type of offense.”

At receiver, he’ll target an experienced and talented receiver corps. Justin Jefferson (875 yards, 6 TDs), Ja’Marr Chase (313 yards, 3 TDs), and Terrace Marshall (192 yards) form a dynamic trio of targets in the passing game that also includes Derrick Dillon, Racey McMath, freshman Trey Palmer, and tight ends Thaddeus Moss and Stephen Sullivan.

The running backs also offer plenty of depth for the Tigers, led by Clyde Edwards-Helaire (1,170 all-purpose yards, 7 TDs). Helaire, Lanard Fournette, and Chris Curry bring experience to the position, while blue-chip freshmen John Emery and Tyrion Davis-Price offer an infusion of elite talent to the position.

Meanwhile, the offensive line brings back 88.9 percent of its scholarship snaps from last year, including four starters in center Lloyd Cushenberry, guard Damien Lewis, and tackles Austin Deculus and Saahdiq Charles.

Expect the Tigers to play faster in their no-huddle attack and to distribute the ball all over the field, with the goal of getting “speed in space,” a common coaching refrain this offseason.

“No question, we’re coming guns blazing,” Orgeron said of the offense. “First game, let’s go. Every game is important on our schedule. This is Georgia Southern, and we’re giving it everything we’ve got.”

LSU’s offense might operate differently this year, but it’s important to Orgeron not to deviate from a powerful running attack.

“We have to be able to run the ball at LSU,” Orgeron said. “We’re going to be physical. Just because we’re not in a power set doesn’t mean we’re not going to have some power plays, some double teams, some gap plays. We have to be able to run the football and sustain drives and keep the ball away from our opponent’s offense.”

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On defense, the Tigers return nine starters, including Unanimous All-American safety Grant Delpit, the only player in college football with five sacks and five interceptions last season. He spearheads a secondary featuring preseason All-American Kristian Fulton at cornerback and freshman Derek Stingley Jr., the No. 1 player nationally in the 2019 recruiting class, at the other corner spot.

“I think this is the best defensive backfield group I’ve been around,” Orgeron says. “We have Kristian Fulton back. We have Derek Stingley, who I think is phenomenal. Cordale (Flott) has had one of the best camps. We feel like we’re good at corner.

“I’ll say it again: I think Grant Delpit is the best defensive player coming back in the country. Todd Harris, JaCoby Stevens, those guys are premier safeties.”

Up front, LSU will look to be more aggressive in year four under coordinator Dave Aranda, with outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaission expected to provide pressure off the edge all season. Michael Divinity, the SEC’s leading returner in pressures (43), moves inside, while Rashard Lawrence and Breiden Fehoko anchor a defensive line intent on being more disruptive in 2019.

Against Georgia Southern’s triple option attack, LSU will have to blend that aggression with discipline.

“You gotta be in your gap,” Orgeron said. “You gotta show color in your gap. If you jump out of your gap, that guy is going to go 60 yards. It’s assignment football.”

On special teams, the Tigers return punter Zach Von Rosenberg, who ranked third nationally in 2018 in net punting, as well as fifth-year deep snapper Blake Ferguson. Freshman Cade York, who has shown signs of a strong, accurate leg in camp, replaces the NCAA’s all-time field goal king, Cole Tracy.

The Eagles add ball security to their prolific run game, leading the nation with a plus-22 turnover margin in 2018. Quarterback Shai Werts exceeded the 1,000-yard mark on the ground and was the only FBS quarterback to go without throwing an interception last season.

Meanwhile, Georgia Southern features two of the nation’s top-75 cornerbacks from 2018, according to Pro Football Focus, including a top-10 player in Kindle Vildor.

All in all, LSU has its hands full with its home opener, and Orgeron wants to see his team handle the pressure well in week one. He wants to play fast on offense, get off the field on defense, win the turnover battle, and, most importantly, start the season with a victory.

“We have to get off the field on third down on defense,” he said. “We have to get off the field on defense and sustain drives on offense. We have to keep our defense fresh… I want us to tackle well. Tackling in space is a premium with the teams we’re going to play this year. I want to win the turnover battle. And then, win the game.”