Inside the uncommon journey that led Jake Peetz to LSU offensive coordinator

There are multiple versions of the story about how a small-town Nebraskan got his first major break in college football. It’s somewhat of a minor legend among those close to Jake Peetz, a 37-year-old journeyman whose adventurous 16-year path to LSU offensive coordinator is one of the most unique you’ll find.

Anyone who tells the story finishes with the same ultimate point: Jake Peetz put himself in the right place at the right time.

How else could an ace football coach emerge from O’Neill, Nebraska, a city of about 3,700 people that’s 200 miles northwest of Omaha?

This is where it all began for Peetz. In O’Neill. The official Irish capital of Nebraska. There’s a giant green shamrock painted on the pavement where 4th Street and Douglas Street intersect. Five blocks away is St. Mary’s High School, where the Cardinals still play eight-man football.

Yes, eight-man football.

There’s a small, privileged percentage who’ve taken in a six-man football game somewhere in the country. Fewer may even know that the eight-man game even exists. Tony Allen, Jake’s former coach, is still at St. Mary’s and says, offensively, it’s basically the same game except you take out one skill player and both offensive tackles.

Still, since St. Mary’s senior class of 2001 had only 22 students, nine of them boys, Allen needed his players to have some versatility. That’s how an undersized guy named Jake Peetz played defensive end, wide receiver and was even the long-snapper for the Cardinals when needed.

Darold Schneider, an assistant coach at St. Mary’s, said Peetz probably wouldn’t have played all that often throughout his high school career if he hadn’t been standing directly next to Schneider on the sideline on game days. Every time he’d turn to look for a substitute, Peetz was there.

“A lot of times people say, ‘Better lucky than good,’” Schneider said. “But it’s more than being lucky. He just knows where to be at the right time.”

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And that brings us back to the story of Peetz’s first big break, of how a 5-foot-9, 175-pound student on Nebraska’s strength and conditioning staff ended up on the roster of a college football powerhouse.

After a brief semester at the University of Arizona, Peetz transferred to Nebraska in 2003 and joined Husker Power, the school’s strength and conditioning program. Some say it was before a Cornhuskers football game — some say it was during practice — that Peetz went out there and started snapping footballs to the team’s punters.

Scott Downing, Nebraska’s special teams coach that year, can’t recall exactly where he saw Peetz snap, but Downing said he was impressed enough that he asked Peetz to join the team as a walk-on.

Downing, now the Vice President of Athletics at Sterling College in Kansas, can’t remember such a transition happening in all of his four decades in college athletics.

He agrees with Schneider: Lucky is certainly the wrong word. Peetz always “made himself valuable,” Downing said, and, because he was willing to do anything to help the program — like snapping a football — he’d earn his next opportunity.

“That was kind of the story of his life,” said Boyd Epley, who retired last summer after 40 years as Nebraska’s head strength coach.

•••

Reggie Bolton remembers fielding that phone call in California, even though it was almost 15 years ago. At the time, Bolton had no idea who the caller was — this 23-year-old named Jake Peetz — but he was calling at the right time.

Bolton was entering his fourth season as the head coach at Santa Barbara City College, and he needed new staff members. Suddenly, here was this young guy saying he was in town and looking for a job. Peetz met Bolton that day during practice, on a football field that borders the beach.

“He kind of just came on the scene,” Bolton said. “He had a lot of energy and he had a lot of knowledge, and I was like, ‘Let’s go.'”

So Peetz, the former walk-on player, became a walk-on assistant coach who made “probably about $2,500 for the whole year,” as Santa Barbara’s special teams coach, safeties coach and strength and conditioning coordinator.

“He wanted to be a football coach,” said Bolton, now athletic director at Bakersfield College, “and he was willing to do whatever it took to get there.”

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That’s the theme behind the rest of Peetz’s coaching story, and people back home in O’Neill watched as he continued to make one unlikely career jump to the other.

He spent a season as an assistant strength coach with the Indiana Pacers, then, in 2007, returned to football coaching as a defensive assistant at UCLA, where Nebraska coach Bill Callan’s son, Brian, was a graduate assistant.

Then, after a coaching change, former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel arrived in 2008 and hired Norm Chow as his offensive coordinator. Chow remembers arriving on campus, and that it was Peetz who ended up showing him around. From then on, Peetz persistently asked Chow to add him to the offensive staff.

“He just felt he was an offensive guy,” Chow said. “He pestered the heck out of me. So it worked out.”

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But it wasn’t just persistence, Chow said. Peetz was a bright young coach, someone who clearly had a grip on not just the whats but the whys of the game.

Allen said Peetz was the same way as a “heady” player at O’Neill. Peetz nearly followed the footsteps of his father, Forrest, a local attorney, and, at one point, had taken the LSAT exams to go to law school. Back at St. Mary’s, Peetz had been a part of his father’s Mock Trial team in competitive litigations.

Schneider always marveled at how Peetz could map out a play in his head and morph out possible solutions against potential problems. Sometimes, early in Peetz’s coaching career, they’d talk ball on the phone while Peetz was on a long drive. Other times, Schneider would present a problem St. Mary’s offense was facing, and Peetz would draw up a solution on a sheet of paper, snap a photo, and sent it to Schneider.

“He’s brilliant,” Schneider said.

It was Peetz’s command of scheme that allowed him to make another unlikely career jump. After a season at UCLA, he was recruited to join the Jacksonville Jaguars franchise as an NFL scout. He spent four seasons as a scout until former Jaguars coach Mike Mularkey was hired in 2012 and brought Peetz over as an assistant quarterbacks coach on his staff.

“It’s hard to make that switch,” said Bob Bratkowski, Jacksonville’s offensive coordinator that year. Hardly anyone ever flips from that scouting world into coaching, Bratkowski said, but Peetz “was very good at what he did.”

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Peetz spent several hours of his first season as an NFL coach in front of the glow of a computer screen. He diagrammed plays. Created game plans. Printed playbooks. He’d sit in on all of Jacksonville’s game plan meetings, Bratkowski said, and would’ve even had a little input on how the plan would be presented to the team.

Mostly, Peetz absorbed the knowledge from the coaches around him. Bratkowski remembers they’d be sitting in the office late at night, finalizing the week’s work, and Peetz would be there with him beyond midnight asking questions and talking about what Bratkowski had seen during his career.

Then came the reality check of the coaching world. After one season, the entire coaching staff was fired under new ownership, and Peetz was once again looking for work. But he’d just begun forming his own portfolio of plays that became the foundation of how he’d eventually run own offense.

“You’re being exposed to all these different philosophies,” Bratkowski said. “That’s the number one thing that develops coaches. You pick and choose what you take from them. That’s what I did. That’s what we all do. You pick and choose the things that create your own way.”

•••

People in Baton Rouge are becoming more and more familiar with the lower-level assistant coaching positions in the NFL ever since a wunderkind coach named Joe Brady rose from the unknown offensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints to the Broyles Award-winning passing game coordinator who helped engineer LSU’s record-breaking offense in 2019 that produced a Heisman Trophy winner and the program’s fourth national championship.

LSU coach Ed Orgeron has not hid his intentions to replicate the success Brady and former offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger created in their one season together.

When Ensminger retired from on-field coaching and LSU parted ways with former passing game coordinator Scott Linehan, Orgeron and his staff reached out to Brady, now offensive coordinator with the Carolina Panthers, for recommendations of coaches who could run Brady’s offense.

Brady recommended two coaches: Peetz, Carolina’s quarterbacks coach, and DJ Mangas, Carolina’s offensive assistant, who also worked with Brady at LSU in 2019 as an offensive analyst.

Orgeron hired both coaches on Tuesday. Peetz signed a two-year deal that pays him $1.2 million in his first season, $1.3 million in his second, and Mangas’ two-year deal is worth $400,000 per year.

“Both Jake and DJ come highly recommended from one of the premier and innovative offensive coaches in the game in Joe Brady,” Orgeron said in a news release upon their hiring.

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Can Peetz-Mangas replicate the success of the Ensminger-Brady offense? The answer’s within a more fundamental question: Why exactly did the Ensminger-Brady offense succeed?

Some might point to the run-pass option schemes Brady learned while a graduate assistant under Joe Moorhead at Penn State or the West Coast route trees Brady picked up while tutoring under Sean Payton in New Orleans. While those were certainly part of it, coaches say in-game problem solving might just be the biggest key.

Mangas sat in the booth with Brady every football game and helped diagnose defenses on the fly. Jorge Munoz, an LSU offensive analyst that season, said once the Tigers reached the toughest stretch of their schedule, defenses started presenting looks they’d never previously shown on film.

Former Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele infamously installed a 3-1-7 defense that held LSU to its season-low point total in a narrow 23-20 win in Tiger Stadium.

“Everything was completely new,” Munoz said. “We were flying by the seat of our pants.”

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From then on, teams with elite defensive minds — Nick Saban and Pete Golding at Alabama, Mike Elko at Texas A&M, Kirby Smart and Dan Lanning at Georgia, Brent Venables at Clemson — all attempted to catch LSU by surprise on the field.

Defenses started to play first-and-10 like it was third-and-10. New pass rush pressure packages emerged. All the game planning LSU had done suddenly wasn’t applicable. So, those like Mangas in the coaching booth had to scramble for new information. Data was compiled and analyzed in real time and fed to Ensminger and Brady.

Sometimes they’d run pre-snap motion and see if the defense would show its hand, and, if so, quarterback Joe Burrow could audible to a better play. It’s the same philosophies Brady carried over to Carolina, and, in his recommendation to Orgeron, Peetz and Mangas can do the same in Baton Rouge.

“He knows the offense, man,” Munoz said of Mangas. “He knows how it works.”

•••

A room full of St. Mary’s 2010 eight-man football team listened to an impassioned speech from their well-traveled alumnus. More than 10 years later, Allen still remembers what Jake Peetz said.

Allen remembers one part in particular: I don’t believe in overachieving. I think it’s just you meeting your maximum potential.

“I’ve actually thought about this many times as a coach,” Allen said.

In some ways it seems to sum up Peetz’s uncommon journey so far, a winding path that’s traveled across both coasts, along which he met and married his wife, Maggie, in Jacksonville, which now has carried them and their six children to Baton Rouge.

LSU is also seeking to meet its maximum potential after a disappointing title defense in 2020.

Those in Baton Rouge are hoping they’ll see what others have seen along this journey.

That Jake Peetz is in the right place at the right time.

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