No Burrow, no problem? Despite star-studded exodus, LSU is ready to roll

Myles Brennan leans on a tried and true metaphor when he looks back on the long arc of his career at LSU. It has been a mountain he has had to climb, he says. Even before he set foot on campus, there were missteps. A blue-chip quarterback prospect, he originally committed when Les Miles was head coach. He had a great relationship with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. But then Miles and Cameron were fired and he forged ahead anyway.

Brennan put his faith in LSU and coach Ed Orgeron, even as he struggled to learn a complicated system under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, and even as his dreams of playing as a freshman were dashed when Danny Etling was named the starter. Brennan kept his chin up and told himself to be patient, to wait until next year. By then, Canada and Etling were gone, and the road seemed to stretch out before him.

But then Joe Burrow transferred in from Ohio State, and then Brennan suffered a back injury that might have cost him what was by all accounts a close competition. That was tough, Brennan says. It's the only time he has felt personally defeated. The temptation to turn around and find a different path was there. He never told his parents -- never whispered a word to anyone -- but he considered transferring.

He stuck it out, though, and when Burrow came back for his senior year, Brennan cheered him on all the way to the Heisman Trophy. Brennan says he was ecstatic as the Tigers went undefeated and won the national championship. After waiting and waiting and waiting some more, it was finally going to be his turn. And through it all, he says he learned, "That I can't be stopped. No matter what's thrown in front of me, I'm going to persevere through it."

"I'm going to climb the mountain," he says. "And I know on top of that mountain, on the other side, is going to be a lot prettier than what it's been like climbing up."

The day after the championship, Brennan reached out to wide receivers Ja'Marr Chase, Terrace Marshall Jr., Racey McMath and Jontre Kirklin. "Hey," he told them, "we have nothing going on the next couple of days. Let's go get some routes in." They gave Brennan a hard time at first about not getting a moment's rest. He responded, "We've got to start somewhere." So they met up on campus for a quick 30-minute workout to go over footwork, depths and timing.

At the championship parade a few days later, Brennan watched as everyone celebrated a magical season. And, truly, he was happy, too. He just couldn't shake a sense of detachment -- that not being a starter meant he wasn't as much a part of the accomplishment.

"That's going to stick with me," he says, "until we get back there and until I know the other side of that feeling."

For the next few months, Brennan worked tirelessly. He started speaking up more and holding others accountable during winter conditioning. He hadn't been named the starter, but he was damn sure acting like one. And by the time spring practice began, he was fired up -- about the opportunity, about the team coming back, about everything. He took the bulk of first-team reps and the offense was humming. Brennan says it was "identical" to what they'd done the year before, when they broke nearly every record imaginable.

Then, after three practices, everything came to a screeching halt due to the coronavirus pandemic. Then came the doubts that a season would happen at all. And when it did, who would rejoin Brennan in Baton Rouge? He was already without 15 starters and both coordinators were gone from the previous year.

LSU finally started practice again in August and then came the opt-outs, including Chase, who was perhaps the best receiver in college football.

Brennan had waited all this time and climbed this treacherous mountaintop to get to this? Replacing a Heisman Trophy winner is hard enough. To do it with a depleted roster in the middle of a pandemic while navigating a grueling 10-game, conference-only schedule is so preposterously difficult, it's almost laughable.

"In my eyes, it's just one more thing I have to overcome," Brennan says matter-of-factly. "Here I am still at LSU, and here I am still having to overcome adversity. I'm going to persevere."

Orgeron walked into a staff meeting on the morning of Sept. 1 and sensed something he hadn't experienced in a while: doubt. It was as if the joy and confidence of the national championship they'd won eight months earlier had evaporated onto shaky ground. In the past few days, two of their most talented players -- Chase and defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin -- had unexpectedly left the program.

There were suddenly dark clouds overhead, Orgeron said, and they had nothing to do with an overactive hurricane season brewing in the Gulf of Mexico.

Looking around the room, it felt like Troy all over again. Who could forget that loss and the swirl of doubt it kicked up in 2017? It was Orgeron's first full season as head coach then, and everyone was still wondering why he and not some hotshot like Tom Herman was given the job. Losing by 30 points to Mississippi State in Week 3 was bad enough, but then Troy came into Death Valley and dealt the Tigers one of the biggest upsets of the past decade.

In some ways the situations weren't comparable. Orgeron and LSU had clearly recovered from the loss three years earlier, and they hadn't lost a game in 647 consecutive days. Their tricked-out national championship rings said they were perfect. But what was left of that perfect team? Coordinators Joe Brady and Dave Aranda were gone. Seventeen of 22 starters had turned pro and a handful of players had left via the transfer portal.

"I caught myself thinking, 'Hey man we've got to do this, we gotta do this, it's gotta be this way,'" Orgeron said of that staff meeting three weeks ago. "And that's the wrong thinking. The best thinking is, take it one day at a time, this is the team we have, let's get them better, let's see what's going to happen."

Taking a step back, he could look out to the practice field and see promise. They were young and they lacked depth, but nevertheless this was a team in which he could believe.

Sure, he'd lost wunderkind offensive coordinator Brady, but he loved what Scott Linehan brought to the table in terms of the tweaks he could make to the playbook and the experience he provided as a former head coach in college and the NFL. He still had Steve Ensminger as an OC, too. And while losing Aranda certainly hurt -- his leadership of the defense was perpetually underrated -- scooping up another former head coach in Bo Pelini as his replacement felt like a home run. Switching to a more attacking style of defense appealed to Orgeron's instincts.

So what if the national pundits predicted that LSU would struggle? Orgeron said it didn't bother him one bit. "We've been picked high, we've been picked low," he said, "and none of them usually pan out."

If anything, Orgeron acknowledged their reasoning -- "They lost this. They lost that. New quarterback." -- and welcomed the challenge. Brennan still needed to be tested under fire, of course, but Orgeron loved his new quarterback's accuracy. He could extend plays with his feet and Orgeron said he believed Brennan might even have a stronger arm than Burrow.

"I think we are underestimated because they don't know the young talent that we have, they don't know the new coaches that we have," he said. "But, again, we have to go out and prove it week in and week out."

He smiled. He loves the doubters, who add to what he calls his "internal fuel."

"Ten SEC games, man." he growled. "Buckle up, it's going to be fun."

Some programs like Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State choose to project a quiet -- borderline mute -- sense of confidence. There's a reticence to say anything remotely inflammatory, to set expectations or place some sort of imaginary target on their backs.

LSU doesn't subscribe to that way of thinking. Not by a long shot.

Burrow decidedly projected that confidence. He told anyone who would listen last summer that the offense, which had long been the laughingstock of the SEC, would score "40, 50, 60 points a game." Some snickered. Some called B.S. But then Burrow went out and proved it, putting together the best statistical season by a quarterback ever.

Brennan's attitude is no different. He believes his talent is on par with Burrow's. If anything, he says he thinks they're similar. He can make every throw. He can pick up extra yards with his feet. He's tough, too. They both ran the spread in high school and they both waited three years to get their shot to start. If he'd transferred, Brennan said, "That would make the story identical to Joe's."

Time and time again, Brennan has insisted that the offense won't change with him at the helm. Regularly scoring 40-60 points a game, he said, "is pretty accurate."

"I still feel very, very confident in what we have," he said.

And his confidence is not without reason.

The defense is young, but the secondary is in good shape with the return of veteran safety JaCoby Stevens and everybody's All-American, cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.. Former FCS All-American linebacker Jabril Cox has been everything coaches have hoped he'd be and more. At one point in preseason practice Orgeron said Cox was the best player on the field. And last week Orgeron got some more good news when defensive lineman Neil Farrell Jr. decided to opt back in, providing some much-needed depth up front.

"We are so much better on defense right now than any part of the season last year," Orgeron said.

They've had to retool the offensive line, but bringing in Harvard transfer Liam Shanahan to play center was a huge help. Austin Deculus returns after starting 13 games at right tackle last season, and word is that left tackle Dare Rosenthal might be the most improved player on the team.

People forget, but wideout Marshall was a handful when he was healthy last season, catching 13 touchdowns. What's more, the staff has raved about the development of McMath and believes in youngsters Kayshon Boutte and Koy Moore.

Then there's the buzz surrounding freshman tight end Arik Gilbert. A source typed a short but eye-opening response when asked about the former Gatorade Player of the Year: "He's a FREAK." Marshall has started calling Gilbert "eye candy" because at 6-foot-5 and 249 pounds he's bigger than some linebackers and can move like a wide receiver. In fact, there's been talk about Gilbert playing some receiver this season, with some comparing him to Megatron.

"I'm not comparing him to Calvin Johnson," Orgeron said in reference to the former Detroit Lions All-Pro receiver. "I don't want to put too much on him, but he's that type of football player and has that type of body and can do those type of things."

You'd almost think that Chase and Justin Jefferson and their 200-plus receptions last season weren't missing.

"We're LSU," Marshall said. "We're always stacked. It's next man up."

There's that trademark LSU confidence again. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs and now there's talk of a dynamic three-player attack at running back with Tyrion Davis-Price, John Emery Jr. and Chris Curry. Orgeron recently described the speedy Emery as a "home run hitter."

"You know what we're going to do, but at the end of the day are you going to stop it?" Marshall said. "We may have some tweaks or whatever, but we're going to keep being LSU, keep doing what we do and nobody is going to be able to stop us."

Time will tell, of course. Depth is still a huge concern, especially in the age of COVID-19, and now every team in the SEC will be aiming to take down the defending champs.

Ask Nick Saban or Urban Meyer or Dabo Swinney and they'll tell you the hardest thing to do in football is to have repeat success.

In many ways, it's Brennan's job to shoulder that responsibility. But he already has gotten a taste of those lofty expectations. On the rare occasions he leaves his apartment, he's almost always stopped by strangers who tell him, "You've got some big shoes to fill."

Brennan says he laughs it off as if it's no big deal.

He's good-natured about it, but he said he's not concerned about Burrow's stats or his records or any of his other accomplishments. He said he throws those things out, wakes up and tries to get better every day.

"That's how I'm going to be successful," he said.

Brennan's predecessor is gone, it's a new day and now it's his turn.

This is a new team. His team.