Joe Burrow: from back-up quarterback to likely NFL No 1 overall pick

Joan Niesen at the Superdome, New Orleans
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Sue Ogrocki/AP</span>
Photograph: Sue Ogrocki/AP

It looked like Mardi Gras come early: purple and gold confetti on green turf, laws fallen by the wayside for this one night, at least. Down here in New Orleans they’re always more like suggestions anyway: a red light means pause, sip a beer in the passenger seat, and no smoking in the Superdome means light a fat cigar. So there was Joe Burrow on Monday night, still in uniform but taking a few long puffs before detailing exactly how he and his LSU team, college football national champions now, had just dismantled Clemson, 42-25.

Barely an hour earlier, Burrow threw his 60th touchdown pass of the season, setting a new NCAA single-season record. The quarterback had rebounded from a first quarter in which LSU punted on their first three drives to finish with 463 passing yards, five touchdown passes and another touchdown run. He won the Heisman Trophy last month, will likely be the NFL draft’s first pick in another three, and on Monday he handed off his cigar for safekeeping before making his public comments. “This is special,” he said. “This doesn’t happen – this doesn’t come around every year. This is a special group of guys that really came together, and it’s as close of a group as I’ve ever been around.”

Related: Joe Burrow's six touchdowns power LSU past Clemson to national title

It was almost, though, a group Burrow never met. Raised primarily in Athens, Ohio, the quarterback chose Ohio State out of high school. He never shed his backup role there, though, and transferred to LSU less than two years ago, arriving as a graduate transfer in the summer of 2018. He won the Tigers’ starting job on the eve of that season, and he led the team to 10 wins, with unspectacular numbers.

Now, 15 games and 15 wins later, he’s a Louisiana folk hero – a title he questioned with a smile as Monday night became Tuesday morning. “This is going to be remembered for a long time,” Burrow said before exiting the Superdome’s interview room. Coach Ed Orgeron growled after him: “Take it easy on that cigar.

Burrow ignored the admonition, and that cigar waited to be gripped in the hand that mesmerized college football all season, that racked up 5,671 yards and a 76.3 completion percentage. But those numbers only tell half the story, which is as much about accuracy as arm strength, as much about brawn as the ability to throw into coverage and land nearly every pass in a square inch of perfection. Often Burrow does so under pressure, too, doing far more than simply scrambling to save field position; he’ll scramble, save field position – and lob the ball square into a receiver’s hands downfield. “That’s just Joe,” running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire said.

When Orgeron set out to recruit Burrow to LSU in 2018, the quarterback was persuaded after a single phone call. His visit was almost a formality – and with this season’s championship, both men proved their gut instincts correct. Orgeron locked in on a high school star who’d barely seen the field in college. Burrow trusted an ace recruiter who hadn’t fielded an elite team as a head coach, who led a program that’s struggled to convert talent into a consistent top-10 presence. That was the knock on former LSU coach Les Miles’s teams: He could sure turn out a draft class, but what had those teams done on Saturdays? When Orgeron was promoted in 2016, some wondered if LSU was in for more of the same: Coach O, with his gravely Cajun rumble and gruff endearment, could certainly sign top recruits, but could he get them to play as a team that might unseat Alabama?

Monday proved he could. Every game in 2019 proved it, over and over, thanks to Burrow; to Joe Brady, the 30-year-old passing game coordinator lured from the Saints last year; to Steve Ensminger, the veteran offensive coordinator who’s been at LSU since 2010 and who was promoted last year. Orgeron can recruit, sure enough – players and coaches and brilliant minds to complement his vision for a program that just won its first title since 2007. He wins them over – wins everyone over – with talk of filé in his gumbo and Cajun French, with his name for this place where he’s just become legend: the Great State of Louisiana.

On the confetti-carpeted turf, Orgeron spoke and fans danced. Louisiana is easy to put to music, and it blared: Callin’ Baton Rouge, Louisiana Saturday Night. Interviews, when attempted, were borderline incomprehensible over the sound of a state in song. One cut through the noise, though. Asked if he thinks he’s been a part of the greatest team in LSU history, tight end Thaddeus Moss doubled down, loudly: “The greatest team in college football history, and it feels great.”

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