ATLANTA – A gaggle of reporters gathered in the hallway outside of LSU’s locker room waiting for a man in Air Jordans. Out he came in a gray suit, a light purple tie and a $250 pair of white and black tennis shoes, the Air Jordan 11 Concords. Joe Brady is “cool” like that, says one LSU assistant coach. Quiet, somewhat unassuming while also bold and brash—just like his quarterback, Joe Burrow, the surefire Heisman Trophy winner who carved through another top-10 SEC defense on Saturday.
For the first time all year, Brady can think about something other than the next opponent, because he doesn’t know the next opponent—at least not immediately after No. 2 LSU’s 37-10 shellacking of No. 4 Georgia in the SEC championship game. So why not reminisce on this whirlwind of a 2019 season? A year ago, Brady was a low-level Saints assistant coach, one of the lower paid on New Orleans’ staff, spending most of his time in a dark room breaking down film. He’s now become the hottest assistant coach in all of college football, a 30-year-old wunderkind responsible for overhauling LSU’s archaic offense this offseason, implementing a no-huddle spread attack that has helped lead Burrow to a record-breaking year.
“It’s hard to put in words,” Brady, whose title is passing game coordinator, says in his first interview session since the season started. “It felt like everything happened so fast.”
That’s because it did. Brady went from a virtual unknown to one of the most sought-after assistants in the game, and Burrow went from a Heisman longshot to a shoe-in to take home the prize next week in New York. Brady is quick to heap praise on everybody except himself. They say he’s the hottest coach in the country? Well, “they haven’t met Steve Ensminger,” says Brady of his working partner, the Tigers' 61-year-old offensive coordinator. Without the offensive staff, Brady says, none of this is possible. Same goes for Burrow, his fifth-year senior quarterback. “God,” Brady says, “he makes us look good with everything he does.”
Don’t be fooled. He’s a large piece of this turnaround. Brady is popular enough with LSU’s rabid fanbase that during a dinner Friday night with his family in downtown Atlanta, he tried his best to hide, burying his head into a gray LSU hoodie. By the end of the night, Brady had been identified by dozens of Tigers fans who descended on this place. The entire restaurant chanted his name. “Joe Brady! Joe Brady! Joe Brady!” they screamed as he ducked out into the Atlanta night. After the game, Brady celebrated on the field with friends and family, far away from most of the postgame action, distant from the stage on which the Tigers partied, a ways away from television cameras following head coach Ed Orgeron and Burrow. “When you got a guy like Joe Burrow, there’s really nothing you can’t run and can’t call,” Brady says.
Brady’s future, a hotly debated subject over the last month, is in Baton Rouge, he says. Asked if he’ll be at LSU in 2020, he quipped, “Absolutely,” but side stepped a question about potential contract negotiations with LSU. Tigers officials and Brady’s new agent, Trace Armstrong, have been involved in discussions about his future, including a lucrative contractual offer that those at the school expect will keep him in Baton Rouge. A deal isn’t necessarily signed, but all signs point to it potentially happening soon. “I’m not going to comment on that stuff,” Brady says when asked. “Just going to enjoy time with the guys.”
Especially Burrow, who had more yards himself Saturday (406) than Georgia had allowed to any team this season. He had a half-dozen Heisman moments against a defense that entered fourth nationally in yards per game, many of them involving spectacular pocket presence that coaches describe as inane. He spun out of two sacks and ran for 13 yards on one play. On another, he avoided a blitzing defender, completely unblocked, by dumping off a pass to a running back. At one point, he even caught his own tipped pass and then ran for a first down. “He’s got a sense,” receivers coach Mickey Joseph says. Ensminger, a 40-year coaching veteran, described Burrow as “the best I’ve been around.”
His greatest escape came during a second-half scramble in which he displayed footwork in the pocket that rivals some of the best at the next level. The play ended with him rifling a 71-yard pass to Justin Jefferson. “That’s an NFL quarterback,” says Brady. You don’t have to tell Bill Busch, the LSU safeties coach who must strategize against Burrow every day in practice. “It’s miserable,” Busch says.
Now it’s on to New York for Burrow, who might just be the most lopsided Heisman winner in decades. As for LSU, the Tigers hope a convincing victory will have them back in the No. 1 spot over Ohio State. Since the CFP committee replaced the Tigers with the Buckeyes two weeks ago—citing OSU’s stronger defense—LSU has allowed a combined 17 points in eight quarters, holding each opponent (Texas A&M and Georgia) to less than 300 yards of offense. “There’s your eye test,” an LSU staff member quipped during the postgame celebration.
Meanwhile, the offense continued to chug along, Burrow, Ensminger and Brady, of course, doing their respective things. Brady is a man that players refer to as a “situational master.” Many of his dropback passing concepts have roots in New Orleans, where he worked two years as an offensive assistant, the NFL’s version of a graduate assistant, he says. Burrow is operating from such a similar offense as the Saints that New Orleans players recognize the plays while watching the Tigers.
“When I can put a play on that Drew Brees has done for 10 plus years and you see Joe Burrow doing the same read and same progression,” Brady says, “it’s pretty special.” The result has been an offense that ranks second nationally, gobbling up more than 550 yards a game. They had 481 on Saturday, including a dropped touchdown that would have added 70 more yards. “It’s hard to put into words how it’s all came together,” says Brady.
Brady is a native of Florida who grew up hoping to be an NFL quarterback. That dream died as a freshman in high school when he injured his throwing arm at a camp and was moved to receiver. He signed out of high school with Air Force, broke his wrist during his freshman season, played out the rest of his college career at William & Mary and then cracked into coaching at his alma mater, at first on the defensive side under then-defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. “I lucked out,” Brady says. “We ended up having a coach end up getting a job. It opened an assistant position. That really opened my eyes as an offensive coach, working on defense.”
Shoop left for Penn State, providing a connection for Brady to join the Nittany Lions the next year as a graduate assistant. He landed the Saints job two years later because of assistant offensive line coach Brendan Nugent, who coached with him at William & Mary. “Funny,” he says, “how it all works out.”
Yes it is. Like, for instance, how a little known tennis-shoe wearing 30-year-old became the hottest coach in the land or how a quarterback who was at 200-to-1 odds to win the Heisman in preseason has been the odds-on favorite since late October. Funny, indeed, how it all works out.