BATON ROUGE, La. — The LSU offense knows it has a gimmick on its hands.
“It’s a little tricky look,” offensive guard Josh Boutte said. “The defenses, they probably see something that they think they can stop. But they can’t stop it.”
The unstoppable play Boutte is referring to is LSU’s jet sweep package. The play gets the ball into the hands of D.J. Chark, a man so quick that he’s nicknamed “Flash,” in space with a caravan of three lead blockers to pave the way. Over LSU’s last three games, the play has been nearly unstoppable. Dating back to the Tigers’ loss to Auburn, Chark has carried four times for 80 yards and a touchdown.
Though the package has been in LSU’s playbook for years, it’s become a more prominent part of the LSU offense since Steve Ensminger has taken over as offensive coordinator. Chark explained that a lot of this has to do with the defenses the Tigers have faced. Missouri and Southern Miss boast aggressive, attacking defenses that tend to overpursue ball-carriers, creating lanes on the outside for Chark to cut through.
The beauty of the play isn’t just that it works because it isn’t just a play. It’s its own formation.
When the Tigers line up to run a jet sweep, they do so with a unique personnel package. Chark lines up off the line of scrimmage as the lone receiver on the short side of the field. In the backfield, fullback J.D. Moore and one of LSU’s running backs stack in an I-formation behind the under-center Danny Etling. Over on the wide side, a tight end is lined up adjacent to the tackle, but is covered by a wide receiver flanked out by the sideline, meaning the tight end is ineligible to run a route.
Before he snaps the ball, Etling brings Chark in motion. If the play is a jet sweep, he’ll snap the ball just before Chark gets behind the guard, giving Etling enough time to pivot and hand the ball off to Chark in motion. Moore fires out of his three-point stance and leads for Chark on the perimeter, while the tight end cleans up linebackers pursuing from the middle of the field and the wide-side wide receiver stalk blocks a cornerback out of position.
But that isn’t the only play the Tigers can run out of the formation. On occasion, the Tigers line up in the formation and send Chark in motion just to shift the defensive front, before handing the ball off to a running back on a weak-side dive or dropping back for a pass play.
“It keeps defenses honest,” Chark said of the setup. “Say we’re running that jet and they’re not respecting it, we can give it to me and make them respect it. It’s just a good thing to add on to what we’re doing and I can help out those guys in the backfield.”
Chark’s analysis of the play makes it sound like a change-of-pace, a ninth-inning curveball after eight innings of fastballs courtesy of Derrius Guice and Leonard Fournette. But to Moore, this isn’t just a wrinkle. It’s a big play waiting to happen.
“Any time we put the ball in D.J., one of the fastest guys’, hands, if you get him to the edge, he’s going to make something big happen,” Moore said. “So there’s always that expectation. With D.J., he can blow by you in a split second. So a lot of times you just have to block a guy for just long enough to get him off.”
The most intriguing thing about the package isn’t so much what LSU has done, but what it hasn’t. For example: The way the formation is set up, left tackle K.J. Malone is an eligible receiver. Since every time Chark comes in motion the defensive line and linebackers shift with him, there’s no one manning the flats down the weak side of the field.
Theoretically, this opens up a huge opportunity for either Malone to walk in for a big-guy touchdown, or for Etling to run a naked bootleg with Malone out in front as a lead blocker, with only one defensive back to block.
Only time will tell if Ensminger will pull try that. For now, why mess with a good thing?
“I really like the play,” Chark said. “I really like getting the ball in my hands early to use my abilities. I’m always confident that I’m going to have great blocks because I usually do.”