Joe Brady's name wasn't exactly buzzing around coaching circles this time a year ago. He was part of the New Orleans Saints offensive staff at large for two seasons, sitting in on meetings and breaking down film without coaching a specific position.
Before that, he was in a similar off-field role as a graduate assistant at Penn State, living life in the shadows of the sport as a part intern, part right-hand man to the offensive coordinator.
Granted, Brady had impressed everyone he'd worked for, but that was a small circle and a far cry from the national spotlight. No one knew that a lot of the things the Saints did on Sundays with do-everything quarterback Taysom Hill traced back to the 28-year-old's cubicle. How could they?
One meeting changed all that, though. LSU invited the Saints coaches to campus to talk shop one day, bringing the anonymous coach front and center with a program desperate to transform its offensive identity and regain its footing as a national powerhouse.
Though Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael was the main draw during the get-together in Baton Rouge, Brady got his turn on the whiteboard in front of the LSU staff as well, sharing his thoughts on the run-pass option that was spreading quickly throughout college football and bubbling up in the NFL. Tigers offensive coordinator Steven Ensminger perked up as he watched and listened. He was impressed. Every question he had, Brady had an answer.
LSU head coach Ed Orgeron wasn't present for the meeting, but he heard about it. And a year later, when a position opened up on the offensive staff, and the program still looking to overhaul its Stone Age era offense, Brady's name bubbled back up. Orgeron made some calls, including one to Brady's former boss at William & Mary, Kevin Rogers, who told him, "You'd be nuts not to hire the guy."
Brady was in Baton Rouge hours after the Saints' season ended. He was the only candidate LSU formally interviewed, and he was hired within days.
"I listened to him and I loved his presentation," Orgeron told ESPN. "But I did some research on him with some people I know very well and trusted them. They don't throw the word 'excellent' around easily. And they said excellent. So I went with my gut."
(Brady was unavailable to comment for this story, as LSU does not make its assistants available to the media during the regular season .)
Nine months have passed since his hire, and the Tigers' offense is unrecognizable to those who've watched the team over the past two decades. Alabama coach Nick Saban, whose No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide host No. 1 LSU this Saturday, said, "They're a completely different offense. They've completely changed their style of play."
A year ago, no one could have predicted this. A former William & Mary walk-on receiver who turned 30 earlier this season, and five years ago was coaching linebackers in the FCS, has become the talk of college football.
"He goes by Joe Brady now, I hear," former William & Mary head coach Jimmye Laycock said. "He was always Joey when he was here."
Or, if you were looking to tease the former Air Force cadet who walked onto the program in 2009, you might call him "Ginger." Trevor Andrews, an assistant under Laycock, certainly did.
Andrews couldn't understand how a kid from Florida would have such fair skin. Even if the temperature was upward of 80 degrees, Joey would inevitably have on a long-sleeve shirt and full-length compression pants.
"Pale," Andrews said, laughing. "Those redheads can burn."
Brady didn't play at all in 2009 and barely sniffed the field the following season. In three seasons, he caught three passes for 34 yards and started only once -- his final game. He never scored a touchdown.
Still, he managed to make an impression. In meeting rooms, Brady had a presence, asking all the right questions and helping the younger players along. If a quarterback made a mistake, William & Mary offensive coordinator Zbig Kepa said Brady wasn't afraid to ask, "What the hell are you doing?"
When he did get into games, even though he wasn't much of a receiving threat, he got the coaches' attention.
Kepa remembers a favorite call back then: Cal screen. It was a swing pass to the running back in which the X receiver had to perform a crack-back block on either a defensive end or outside linebacker. "It was a feather in your cap if you could do it," Kepa said.
Brady did it -- a lot -- earning the coveted Big Block Award.
When Brady's playing days ended in December 2012, it was no secret he wanted to get into coaching.
In fact, looking back on it now, a few of those coaches guessed that Brady chose William & Mary with that in mind. The college, which is the second oldest in the nation, produced Marv Levy and Lou Holtz. Laycock isn't a household name, but he's a giant in the profession, having coached for just shy of 40 seasons, winning 249 games and producing a number of successful coaches, including NFL head coaches Sean McDermott, Dan Quinn and Mike Tomlin.
"It's become kind of a cradle of coaches," said former offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers, who took over for Kepa following the 2012 season.
Laycock couldn't recall hiring any of his players straight off the field before Brady. There was just something about him -- maybe it was how he understood everyone's job on the field -- that made Laycock comfortable bringing him on as a graduate assistant.
"He sat in every meeting," Rogers said. "He wanted to know every concept. He wanted to know the protections. He wanted to know the run schemes."
It was such that when a position coaching linebackers opened up a few months later, Brady was the obvious choice. It didn't matter that he had no experience on defense.
"He was the best thing we could do for our program," said Rogers, who gave up his assistant kicking and screaming. "We were not going to hire a guy better than Joe Brady."
Andrews, who worked closely with Brady for the next three seasons, was blown away by how quickly he absorbed the defense. As the only one with an offensive background in the room, he could speak to where an opponent might attack a certain look.
But it was the detail and breadth of work he did that Andrews still marvels at today. Andrews would ask for a report on an opposing offense, expecting it to be done within a week. Maybe it would be 1-2 pages. Instead, Brady would turn in a typed report the very next day. It would be six pages, in full color, with graphs and charts.
"The volume of excellent work he could do was astounding," Andrews said.
That obsessive, perfectionist streak was something that Andrews had to manage, though.
"He wanted every defense to stop every play," he said. "And you can't do that. Nothing stops everything."
Andrews paused a moment, putting the pieces together.
"Maybe that's something he carried over offensively, that not every defense can stop every play, so how do we pick on that?"
Bob Shoop, who was defensive coordinator at William & Mary from 2007 to 2010, could relate. A former receiver himself, he started assisting on offense before making the transition to defense. Only he never switched back.
Shoop moved on to Vanderbilt 2010 and then Penn State in 2014, but he maintained contacts on the old staff. He heard about Brady's progress and bumped into him once at a coaching convention. And when the Nittany Lions had a last-minute opening for a graduate assistant in 2015, he didn't hesitate to put his name up.
"I had no doubt when he got to that level with Joe [Moorhead] and James Franklin and that staff he'd have the chance to work with, he'd make the most of that opportunity," Shoop said.
Moorhead, who was Franklin's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, was arguably at the cutting edge of offense at the time. Penn State didn't hesitate to put four and five receivers on the field. It sometimes used two quarterbacks at once, and it pushed the tempo relentlessly. Under Moorhead's direction, the already new-age run-pass option was expanded to where the quarterback was capable of reading more keys and putting even more pressure on already stressed defenses.
Brady was Moorhead's right-hand man, his personal GA, through it all as Penn State averaged 30.6 points per game over the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Following the 2016 season, the Saints needed an offensive analyst, and another William & Mary alumnus, Brendan Nugent, told offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael, "I got a great candidate. He's smart, detailed, knows football."
Like Andrews, Carmichael wound up blown away by the workload Brady could handle.
"Really, we put a lot on his plate and he was very organized, could multitask," Carmichael told ESPN. "All those things you need to be able to do in that position he did at a high level."
When Orgeron, who worked with the Saints in 2008, eventually called asking after Brady, Carmichael raved about what a great part of the staff he'd become, how well he communicated and how he took remarkably detailed notes.
"Absolutely he could handle the job and was going to handle it well," Carmichael said.
No one knew how it would work, though, this unknown former analyst and graduate assistant who was only 29 years old at the time he was hired to supposedly reshape LSU's offense as its passing-game coordinator. Orgeron had tried once to step into the 21st century, hiring a more established coordinator with more impressive credentials in Matt Canada, and that blew up spectacularly.
Ensminger, who was twice Brady's age and had more pro-style roots, was still going to be the playcaller, after all. To say the pairing was met with skepticism would have been an understatement.
But Orgeron had a vision that went back to his time at USC when an older, wiser Norm Chow was the offensive coordinator calling plays while a younger Lane Kiffin supplied many of the more forward-thinking concepts. Orgeron still wanted to be 50-50 in terms of run vs. pass, but he didn't care whether it came out of the I-formation or a spread look anymore.
Whatever it took to get athletes the ball in space, he said, "It's exactly what we want."
And by doing so, by allowing Brady to bring his own blend of the RPO and West Coast offenses to LSU, those athletes have finally been put in space and set free. It's a shame it happened too late for Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, but wideouts Justin Jefferson, Ja'Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall Jr. have taken off because of it, becoming one of the most dynamic groups of pass-catchers in college football.
Quarterback Joe Burrow, who took his first seven-step drop since middle school a year ago, is back in the shotgun again and has transformed into a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate. It took only seven games for him to set an LSU record for passing touchdowns in a single season against Mississippi State.
Afterward, a giddy Jefferson spoke about how much the mindset on offense has changed and how grateful he was for the way they've gone from two-receiver sets to four-wide.
Now, he said, "everybody eats."
"No one can guard our offense," Jefferson said. "We're going to continue to say that and we're going to continue to put up points."
The credit isn't Brady's alone, of course, but he deserves a lion's share.
"He doesn't get that much recognition," Jefferson said.
Though that might be true for now, people in the college football world are slowly getting to know him, piece by piece and point by point. They're beginning to understand the rocket-like trajectory of his career and how everywhere he has been has come together so perfectly for this moment.
When the television cameras find him in the coaches box, you can tell he wants to turn away. But from William & Mary until now, there's no going back.
As Shoop points out, the path he's on feels fairly obvious.
"He's going to make him a good head coach one day."