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Cam Cameron and The Baseline Competence of QB Play

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What can LSU expect from it's young QBs in 2014? Are they doomed to failures past? Or is Cam Cameron ushering in a new era?

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport

Les Miles knows how to win with bad quarterbacks. Over a four-year span, he won 41 games and an SEC Title with a QB pair that produced this:

Completions Attempts Completion % Passing Yards Yards Per Attempt Touchdowns Interceptions QB Rating
714 1243 57.35 8,682 7.2 66 41 126.95

It's not a screaming, woeful lack of production. It's an inefficient, turnover prone nightmare. There's not one thing in that stat sheet that screams "decent." Not only were they inconsistent in completions, they weren't connecting on long throws, while also managing to turn the ball over at a high rate, despite featuring multiple dominant rushing attacks. The issues on offense are too immense to detail here, but suffice it to say that LSU routinely trotted out two warm bodies and prayed for four consecutive seasons and still managed to win 41 games, two bowl games, and an SEC title while playing for a National Championship. If quality coaching is being able to work around your weaknesses and play to your team's best assets, then Miles did it as capably as anyone in the country. Mark Richt only won 34 games in that same time frame. His QBs from 2008-2011? Matt Stafford, Joe Cox and Aaron Murray (2x). Sure, Cox was miserable, but he's book-ended by a pair of SEC legends... that won 7 fewer total games than LSU did with a couple of forgettable players.

The miserable QB play of Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee leaves a stain on the minds of most all LSU fans. It's entirely unfair to judge either Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris against that history, but that is exactly what happens. For most LSU fans of this era, our expectation is that our QB play will be bad, but we will probably still win. It's the same pattern we've seen pretty much every season since 2008, excluding Mettenberger's dazzling 2013. Even that, we can toss out as an outlier. Senior QB tossing to a couple of NFL-quality WRs and an NFL-quality RB? Easy to explain why that would be productive.

Yet, that may entirely gloss over the strong work done by Cam Cameron. Consider, for a moment, that this is what we saw from Zach Mettenberger, with that same trio of weapons, prior to Cameron's arrival:

Completions Attempts Completion % Passing Yards Yards Per Attempt Touchdowns Interceptions QB Rating
207 352 58.8 2,609 7.4 12 7 128.3

Doesn't that look awfully familiar? Sub-60% completion percentage? Sub 7.5 YPA? Narrowly above 1.5 TD:INT ratio? QB rating hovering around 130? This is three entirely different players all mirroring the exact same levels of production across a five year span. At some point, the question stops being: "Why are these players underachieving?" and swiftly becomes, "Why aren't these coaches developing these players?"

Hiring Cam Cameron

After 2012, that became clear to Miles. He demoted Greg Studrawa and hired long-time pal Cam Cameron. Cameron was ousted Baltimore, likely due to interpersonal conflicts with Joe Flacco, but his lengthy resume dictated amazing success as a coordinator. Sure, he's a duplicate time failed head coach, but as an offensive coordinator, he trained Drew Brees, Philip Rivers and Flacco to immense success. There's little question of his qualifications, which can't be also said for the previous regime of Crowton/Kragthorpe/Studrawa.

If the 2013 LSU offense looked and felt different, that's because it was. Previous regimes taught QBs to read the field left to right. Cameron completely re-wrote that book, instructing his players to now read deep-to-short. While the intentions of the offense scarcely changed, the methodology did. LSU continued to emphasize power running, but gradually shifted out of man-blocking schemes into more and more zone looks that allowed RBs more freedom to identify gaps and hit them hard, rather than following a previously identified path. There's no better illustration of the continuance of that philosophy than the hiring of Jeff Grimes, a long-time zone blocking aficionado. Pair that with vertical passing and that is the Cam Cameron offense, or, at least, the current iteration of it.

Cameron's impact would be felt immediately:

Completions Attempts Completion % Passing Yards Yards Per Attempt Touchdowns Interceptions QB Rating
192 296 64.9 3,082 10.7 22 8 171.4

Mettenberger, who admittedly played in 1.25 fewer games in 2013, traded a higher number of short completions for more big plays, while increasing his efficiency, keeping his turnover rate steady and delivering in the end zone more. Add in the fact that LSU lead the nation in 3rd down conversion percentage in 2013 (up 27% and from 63rd in 2012), and you are talking about a complete 180-degree change in QB play in the matter of a single season under Cameron's tutelage.

That said, it's a fair point to argue that a matured, Sr. QB, along with a trio of NFL targets, make for an optimum environment for success. The indisputable point here is that Cameron took the present talent and elevated it. Suddenly, on offense, players overachieved, something we've not seen since the 2006 season with Jamarcus Russell.

So, the question becomes, what can Cameron do with a an offensive unit long on talent but short on experience? How quickly can he coach up a group heavily built of true freshmen and sophomores to become productive? What is the baseline competence of the Cam Cameron offense?

Let's take a look at some of Cameron's pupils for an idea of what type of production can be expected from a typical Cam Cameron QB.

Drew Brees

Completions Attempts Completion % Passing Yards Yards Per Attempt Touchdowns Interceptions QB Rating
278 446 62.12% 3,031 6.8 20 13 84.6

Quite clearly Brees didn't become a superstar until arriving in New Orleans, but his basic level of play under Cameron looks nearer to Mettenberger's single season under Cameron rather than the previous five years of QB play at LSU. QB ratings are tallied differently in college and pros, but sans the YPA, the numbers skew much closer to 2013 Mettenberger than 2008-2012 Jefferson/Lee/Mettenberger.

Philip Rivers

Completions Attempts Completion % Passing Yards Yards Per Attempt Touchdowns Interceptions QB Rating
284 460 61.7% 3,388 7.4 22 9 92

Rivers played only one full season under Cameron, though he was drafted during Cameron's regime in San Diego and mentored to become the heir apparent to Brees. Yet again we see numbers more similar to Mettenberger's 2013 than the previous years in Baton Rouge.

Joe Flacco

Completions Attempts Completion % Passing Yards Yards Per Attempt Touchdowns Interceptions QB Rating
301 498 60.6% 3,526 7.08 20 11 86.28

Flacco's numbers are less impressive, but still solidly above the production of LSU QBs from 2008-2012. Flacco's numbers wavered from season to season, though he stabilized around 20+ TDs and 3,600 passing yards, while notching right around 10 INTs and a Y/A nearish 7.0. None are numbers that jump off the chart, but they do illustrate a solid level of performance.

Freshman QBs

LSU's starting QB this season will either be a true sophomore with very little playing experience or a true freshman with absolutely zero playing experience. Over the past few seasons, more and more young QBs are excelling at early ages. Both Johnny Manziel and Jameis Winston won Heisman trophies starting as RS Freshmen. Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley each threw 29 or more TDs in their freshmen campaigns. Aaron Murray topped 3,000 yards, 20+ TDs and a 150+ passer rating as a true freshman. Success, therefore, is not entirely unseen. Yet, those five are largely outliers to what is generally a mixture of average play or absolute failure.

I pulled data from of all QBs since 2009 from Sports-Reference, filtered out any non-freshmen. Here's the average line of a Freshman QB (true or RS) since 2009:

Completions Attempts Completion % Passing Yards Yards Per Attempt Touchdowns Interceptions QB Rating
181 302 59.2% 2,122 6.97 15 10 126.92

On average, your freshman QB looks a lot like what we saw from all four years of Jefferson and Lee. He won't kill you, but it's not likely he'll win you a bunch of games either. The odds of landing a generational type of talent, that can immediately take college football by storm at a young age, are exceptionally shaky. Only 12 QBs, as true freshmen, since 2009, have thrown for 20+ TDs. Only nine have topped 3,000 yards passing. The moral of the story is that it's really hard to be great right away, no matter how talented you may be.

What Should We Expect in 2014?

Simply put, a mixed bag of results. One of the major issues that plagues all young players is inconsistency. The play fluctuates with highs and lows, as young players typically struggle with rebounding from mistakes and failures. Though both of LSU's QBs this season will not be freshmen, the playing experience is exceptionally light. Anthony Jennings seemed to adapt to high pressure situations very well during Arkansas, yet, against Iowa, we saw him crumble as the passing game failed to ever be ignited. In the Spring, he struggled, while Harris took center stage at LSU's spring game. Yet, Miles remains mum on the starter. It's a good bet that Jennings will see the season's first snaps, but will also yield time to Harris in some capacity.

The main thing to keep in mind here is that the level of coaching is exponentially different from that which we saw from 2008-2012. The primary issue with both Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson is that neither ever improved from their early forms. Both flashed potential, in moments, but each remained firmly rooted in their continual mistakes. Lee often crumbled under pressure and struggled to beat complex coverages. Jefferson never developed any intermediate or short passing ability, nor the ability to read the full field as a passer. All of these issues can be pointed back to a lack of quality coaching.

What's exhibited throughout Cameron's career is the ability to bring QBs to a baseline level of competence. It's not so much producing Peyton Manning-levels of productivity as it is mitigating mistakes, while generating positive production from young players. Cameron's shown an early ability to identify his player's best abilities and put those into practice. Let's see how he does with a young crop of players at both QB and WR. But don't expect LSU to regress to 2008-2012 lack of production. Cameron's offense is the dawn of a new era. One where QBs progress on a normal trajectory. The fruits of that progress may just be a couple seasons away.