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New LSU Offensive Coordinator Thought Burrow Was A Cincinnati Bearcat In 2018: ‘That Was Over’

In early May of 2018, University of Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell and his offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock thought they had a new, promising quarterback.

His name was Joe Burrow, an Ohio kid from Athens – 150 miles east of Cincinnati – who was on time to graduate from Ohio State, where he had been a backup since his redshirt freshman season of 2016 during an injury-riddled career.

“That was over,” Denbrock said on Thursday after being introduced as LSU’s new offensive coordinator. “He was coming to Cincinnati. That was over.”

Fickell, who became head coach at Cincinnati before the 2017 season and hired Denbrock from Notre Dame, knew Burrow well from his time as an assistant at Ohio State from 2002-16. Burrow and his father, then-Ohio University defensive coordinator Jim Burrow, drove to Cincinnati for the visit, and Denbrock and company thought he was about to become a Bearcat.

“We were all involved in making the decision to go after him,” Denbrock said. “Normal stuff. We showed him the campus. Obviously, from Coach Fickell being with him and his family – their relationship the Ohio State days and all that was why we felt like we were in a really good spot.”

But soon, Burrow informed Fickell and Denbrock he would be visiting LSU.

“He said, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it,'” Denbrock remembers. “I’m just going to go down there to LSU.’ You know how those conversations go, right? And we’re like, ‘Yeah, sure, go down to LSU.'”

Burrow got to Baton Rouge on Friday, May 11, and then-LSU coach Ed Orgeron fed him crawfish, and they talked spread offense with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger.

“Could not do that,” Denbrock said of crawfish, which was in-season in south Louisiana at the time. “We did not have that ability.”

And it was over.

“Probably by Sunday after he went down there,” Denbrock said laughing “Yeah, it didn’t take very long. God bless him. That’s the best decision they ever made. He’s just an incredible kid.”

Burrow beat out sophomore Myles Brennan, who had played briefly in the 2017 season as a backup, to become the starter in 2018. And the rest is history. In 2019, Burrow won LSU’s first Heisman Trophy since 1959 and led the Tigers to the national championship with a 15-0 record.

“I don’t think anybody really knew how good he would become,” Denbrock said. “We knew he was a really tough, gritty guy because of some of the things that Luke had let us all know from his time with him at Ohio State. I don’t think anybody knew he could throw the ball and make the decisions that he makes because he really hadn’t had an opportunity to do it.”

Burrow progressed from a mid-round projection draft choice entering 2019 to the first pick of the 2020 draft by Cincinnati and led the Bengals to the Super Bowl this past season.

“But when he did get the opportunity, boy oh boy oh boy. If there’s another one of those, let’s figure out who it is,” Denbrock said. “We’re all in this together, right?”

LSU head coach Brian Kelly does have a scholarship available for a quarterback transfer. Denbrock was coy about that.

In the meantime, Denbrock has Brennan, who will enter his sixth season at LSU in 2022 after red-shirting in 2018 and getting another year via COVID, along with incoming freshman Walker Howard and redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier – both highly ranked prospects.

“There’s no question, he’s got, I think, above average arm talent,” Denbrock said of Brennan, a hard-luck quarterback who was impressive in three starts in 2020 before an abdomen injury ended his season. Then he broke his left, non-throwing arm on a fishing trip before the 2021 season when he slipped entering a boat.

“You can tell he was comfortable standing back there and running the show, good poise,” Denbrock said. “I was intrigued. I’m anxious to see what he brings to the table.”

Howard and Nussmeier do not have the experience of Brennan, who played in six games in 2017 and 10 in 2019 before the three in 2020, completing 121 of 201 passes for 1,712 yards and 13 touchdowns with six interceptions.

“Oh, of course, yeah, I mean considering the other guys,” Denbrock said when asked how much it helps to have a quarterback with the experience of a Brennan as he enters a new program. “One of them hasn’t done anything in college (Howard), and the other one (Nussmeier) has barely dipped his toe in the water to somebody who’s been in hostile environments and pressure situations. Yeah, that’s really important.”

Nussmeier completed 29 of 57 passes for 329 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions in four games last season and one start.

But Denbrock knows what it’s like to develop a quarterback basically from scratch as well. Redshirt freshman Desmond Ridder was a skinny freshman in 2017 who then beat out senior Hayden Moore to be the starter in 2018 as a redshirt freshman. He started four seasons and led Cincinnati to the College Football Playoff in the 2021-22 season, finishing No. 14 in the nation in passing efficiency.

Ridder, who completed 251 of 387 passes for 3,334 yards and 30 touchdowns with eight interceptions, is considered a low first round or early second round pick for the 2022 NFL Draft in April.

“The biggest thing for freshmen quarterbacks is them gaining an understanding of how much more complicated it is running a college offense than it is running a high school offense in a lot of situations,” Denbrock said. “The defensive looks and the multiplicity of defenses at this level are very different. The recognition of defenses, understanding protections because we ask our quarterback to know how to protect himself and change the protection. That’s a huge piece.”

So far, Denbrock has only been able to meet and talk with his quarterback prospects – aka the next Joe Burrows. Spring practice starts on March 24. And LSU’s offense finished 12th out of 14 SEC teams and No. 91 nationally in 2021 with 368.5 yards a game with sophomore Max Johnson at quarterback. Johnson transferred to Texas A&M after the season.

“I love new challenges,” he said. “And we’ve got a challenge on our hands. We’ve got to be way more productive offensively to win the type of games that we want to win. I’m excited to get that process on the field.”

Written by Glenn Guilbeau

Guilbeau has been on the LSU beat since 1998 with multiple outlets in Louisiana, prior to that he had covered both Auburn and Alabama. He won first place for his game feature on LSU's upset at Florida last season from the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He was also named Beat Writer of Year, by Louisiana Sports Writers Association in July; placed in three Associated Press Sports Editors (APSE) categories – Beat Writer, Explanatory, Game Coverage – last spring. Guilbeau was also the FWAA first-place winner for columns in 2017 and was also the top overall winner in 2016 FWAA placing first for his game story, second in columns, and receiving honorable mention for features.

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