They’re eager, front-row viewers to perhaps the largest, freshest wrinkle in college football this year: the fact that LSU can throw the football as well as run it, in giddy violation of custom. They’re keen on this because the first-year LSU passing game coordinator, the one whose hiring Coach Ed Orgeron last summer called “a game-changer for us,” is Joe Brady, the former Joey Brady, their former William & Mary teammate (2009-12) who just inched past 30 himself, who caught three passes for 34 yards in college and who probably could recite the William & Mary playbook, probably backward and probably sideways.
For eons, people have said that if run-minded LSU could diversify, look out.
LSU can diversify, and its national ranking in passing yards per game — 114th in 2014, 105th in 2015, 101st in 2016, 84th in 2017 and 66th in 2018 — has leaped to second in 2019, as quarterback Joe Burrow is up from 65th to third in passer rating and has thrown 22 touchdown passes, just six from tying the program’s season record. All this entering Saturday’s showdown in Baton Rouge between the No. 5 Tigers (5-0, 1-0 SEC) and No. 7 Florida (6-0, 3-0), so look out.
Clearly, Brady works well with offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger, and clearly, the 61-year-old Ensminger and the 58-year-old Orgeron have shown the guts to welcome someone about half their ages.
On Sept. 7, the night LSU visited Texas and bummed out its home fans with 471 passing yards and 45 points, a whoa went up at a gathering in Northern Virginia; a cheer went up at a bachelor party in, by chance, Austin; a former quarterback marveled in Scotch Plains, N.J.; the chat groups did percolate; and none of it related to anybody with LSU purple and gold in the veins.
All of it related to the moments Brady turned up on television screens.
In Northern Virginia, the watch group included former William & Mary defensive end Quincey September, cornerback Jesse McNeal III, tight end Evan McGill, safety Ivan Tagoe and linebacker Alex Goodman. “They just kept showing Joe Brady, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is wild,’ ” said Airek Green, former William & Mary linebacker and party host.
In Austin, the bachelor party feted former tight end Nolan Kearney and included probably 12 former players. “His face shows up, we all started cheering,” Kearney said.
In New Jersey, William & Mary’s passing leader from Brady’s senior year, Raphael Ortiz, sat in a sports bar with his fiancee and future brother-in-law. “I couldn’t believe someone I played with could be coaching in the SEC at that level,” Ortiz said. He marvels that Professor Herbstreit of the ESPN faculty raved about Brady, saying: “It’s definitely strange seeing his name and picture popping up on ‘College GameDay’ and Kirk Herbstreit talking about him as having a major impact on the game. I just think it’s wild.”
The whole thing is wild because the whole thing has been rapid, a quick coaching rise through William & Mary, Penn State, the New Orleans Saints (who do not dawdle with the football) and now LSU. It’s also newly normal in these Sean McVay days of young honcho coaches, even if a fresh star of a coach hailing from William & Mary hardly rates as fresh news. Somehow, four universities have yielded two current NFL head coaches each — Miami of Ohio, Texas Tech, Michigan State and, somehow, wee William & Mary, with Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh and Sean McDermott in Buffalo.
“I just think the one thing not to be overlooked is this is not a surprise,” Kearney said. “And with the legacy of coaches from William & Mary” — he listed Marv Levy, Lou Holtz and Dan Quinn, who coached there, and Tomlin and McDermott, who played there — “he’s the next one. He’s the next one up, in my opinion.”
Often in the eccentric annals of American football coaching, there’s a coach everyone saw coming before he began coaching. This does not appear to have been one of those stories. This appears to be one of those stories times 10.
Ortiz, Brady’s senior-year quarterback, thinks the car was black, and he thinks it was a Nissan, but he definitely remembers the license plate: Florida, and BRADY IV. One could spot it outside William & Mary’s Laycock Football Center at many an hour — maybe even 4 a.m. if one so chose — and could surmise that Brady, whom they addressed as “Brady” or even “Coach Brady,” might be in there gazing at the nuances of game film.
If you went Sunday morning, Monday morning, he’d be there already.
“He was there more, if not the same amount of time, as maintenance was,” Green said.
A coach? Yeah: “I would always get advice from him academically, socially and about how to go about the game,” Green said. And yeah: “He always sat in the front row of meetings, always helping out the younger guys,” Ortiz said.
“He was so knowledgeable about blocking schemes and what we were trying to accomplish in a play,” Ortiz said, “that we would throw him in ahead of somebody who might athletically be more gifted.”
Ortiz found Brady an interesting case of the value of knowledge. “You can watch hours of film and not get anything out of it,” Ortiz said. “It’s just being a student of the game and understanding the whys of it.”
Brady and fellow wide receiver D.J. Mangas might kill you at strategy-centric video games, Kearney said, and the latter has become both William & Mary’s offensive coordinator and, as of last offseason, an LSU offensive analyst.
Brady, a South Floridian to start off, had transferred into William & Mary after one season on the practice squad at Air Force. He would stay on after his playing days for two seasons as a graduate assistant on the William & Mary staff, helping out with linebackers, making him an emblem of the value of having coached on both sides of possession.
His coaching of the linebackers, said linebacker Green, often felt more like a conversation. He would ask, “What do you look for when you’re watching film?” He would say, “Hey, I don’t want to come in thinking I know everything, so if I say something that’s off, step up and say it.”
“He was very upfront with it,” Green said. “We all knew the situation. He was literally [just finished being] a player.”
As he moved along briskly, he learned more under current Mississippi State Coach Joe Moorhead at Penn State when Moorhead coordinated the offense and oversaw the quarterbacks in the Nittany Lions’ Big Ten-winning year of 2016. He reached the Saints and their renowned offensive laboratory. He impressed Orgeron with his precision and expertise when Orgeron had Saints coaches visit for a little teaching session.
He took the LSU job once veteran assistant Jerry Sullivan retired, generated the happy wintertime talk that can grace SEC towns and showed an engaging personality when he met with Louisiana reporters during the summer.
He said: “Look, the thing about LSU is they’re always going to have speed and, you know, it’s our job as coaches to put our speed in space and to allow them to win their one-on-one [matchups],” and, “I’m not an in-front-of-the-media-type person. I like to be kind of in my office.”
Now he’s in front of the media, causing little cheers around the land and lighting up certain chat groups such as the one with the 10 or 11 former William & Mary football players and the one javelin thrower (because every chat group can use a javelin thrower).
“It’s not something we ever doubted,” Kearney said, soon adding: “I don’t think this is shocking. I think it’s just how he is and how he’s always been.” Still, it does light up a chat group.