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LSU Spring Football: the Quarterbacks

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Another year and the tradition of LSU fans’ justified dissatisfaction with this position lives on.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Name

Height/Weight

2014 Season

10 Anthony Jennings (Jr.)

6-2, 211

Completed 111-of-227 passes (48.9%) for 1,611 yards (7.1 YPA) with 11 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. Rushed for 292 yards on 108 carries.

6 Brandon Harris (Soph.)

6-2, 184

Completed 25-of-45 passes (55.6%) for 452 yards (10 YPA) with 6 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Rushed for 159 yards on 26 carries with 3 touchdowns.

12 Justin McMillian (Fr.)

6-1, 177

Three-star recruit.

We're going to break the usual pattern here, because the position doesn't really fit into the same categories as the other. I think you'll agree.

Besides, these guys have to earn their way back to five things. Let's start with three.

The Past

There's really no other way to put it. LSU fielded arguably the SEC's worst passing attack in 2014. Maybe the worst in the country. A step back was certainly expected, but Anthony Jennings was out-and-out dreadful, completing less than half of his passes for an average of just 123 yards per game. Freshman Brandon Harris appeared ready to take the reins after a few games, but was absolutely dreadful in an attempted start at Auburn, and suffered a (dreadedTM) high-ankle sprain. By his own account, he wasn't ready, and after the fact the coaching staff had no faith in him as an alternative. So, with nothing but Jennings, the offense was pulled into a risk-free shell for most of the final six games, before adapting slightly in the final two with an increased focus on receiver jet-sweeps and getting Jennings on the edge in the running game.

The reality of the struggles seemed to slap LSU's offensive staff in the face, hard. Surely, they expected some issues replacing not only an incredible amount of production and experience, but a special level of talent at that. It's one thing to break in a new quarterback. It's another to do it with a new group of receivers as well. It's something else entirely when most of the parties involved are all still teenagers.

But Cam Cameron didn't really try to dial things back for Jennings and Harris early on. He placed them and the receivers in the same circumstances as Mettenberger, Beckham and Landry and expected that level of execution. With the same checks, audibles and responsibilities. Every quarterback in every offense is asked to check a play every now and then, whether it's changing the direction or the gap of a running play or a basic alert. It's another thing to ask them to check runs, receiver patterns, formations and protections. Cameron hasn't dealt with this level of inexperience in a long time, but he still should have known better.

The inexperience and issues getting open at receiver were no small part of the passing failure either. There was no real "safety net" throw for the quarterbacks really. LSU did throw some 61 passes to running backs. And while the ol' Spider-2 Y-Banana pass play is an excellent constraint to LSU's style of rushing attack, it's not something an offense can really live with. Playcalling still could have helped by mixing up the throws slightly on first down, when the defense is more likely be looking run. But that goes back to what we discussed with the tight ends as well.

When studying the struggles of Jennings himself, it becomes a little easier to understand why there was some surprise at his struggles. He doesn't make dramatic number of horrible mistakes. He's relatively safe with the football. He rarely chucked the ball up for grabs or into obvious coverage -- at least three of his seven interceptions could be blamed on receivers being in poor position or running the wrong route. That's not to say he always made the right read. There were times where he was a bit late on some reads, early at others. Nothing unusual for a first-time starter getting used to the speed and rhythm of the game. But there was no running thread or common theme, the way there was with the struggles of quarterbacks past. He wasn't consistently late like Jordan Jefferson, or consistently early like Jarrett Lee. And Jennings could anticipate throws and move to secondary and tertiary options, which neither of the other two could do with regularity.

He just...couldn't make the throws. Jennings could be stunningly inaccurate, scanning the field, finding an open receiver and then just throwing it right at his feet. His passes were consistently low, a problem I can't really discern a reason for on limited film study. His release isn't awful in any way that's apparent besides the ball itself. The inaccuracy also manifested itself in terms of velocity, with balls that weren't late out of his hand but slow finding their mark; giving defensive backs time to break on the receiver.

In the rush to pigeon-hole Jennings, the easy comparison, of course, was Jordan Jefferson. But as many of us pointed out, his play was actually worse. If you really want to link Jennings to a past Tiger QB, you need to go back about 13 seasons. Marcus Randall, circa 2002. The numbers are pretty damn close, with Jennings slightly ahead on completion rate and yards per attempt.

The difference in the two is that Randall was a much better overall athlete, who would likely play a different position, such as linebacker or safety in the current era of LSU football. But in both cases, the players' principle passing malady was accuracy. Even by his senior season, Randall was never able to throw the ball with any consistency game-to-game. He was better, sure, and had a couple of signature moments. But there were still wild swings game-to-game, which is why the job yo-yoed back and forth between Randall and Jamarcus Russell.

Likewise, both players were considered hard workers and fine representatives of program who were liked and respected by coaches and teammates. Randall was eventually able to make an NFL camp as a safety, and just landed his first high-school head coaching job here in Baton Rouge.

The Present

The thing with that Randall comparison is that when you run down all the list of similarities and attributes, what you're really describing is a career backup. And that is likely Jennings' ceiling here. LSU can win games with him under center and a very specific, limited gameplan, but it's not sustainable over the course of a season.

Can he improve? Certainly. We all know how hard he works, and we've seen quarterbacks like Mettenberger and Russell make significant jumps in their accuracy from year one to year two as a starter. But we're all going to have to see that before we believe it.

In the meantime, I think it's been made clear that the offense's best chance to move forward comes from getting Harris ready to take over.

There's simply no debating that his ceiling is higher than Jennings, even under the best of circumstances. Honestly, Harris has the kind of arm that puts his ceiling higher than most quarterback prospects. What's telling is that Cameron has referred to the competition this spring as "not a throwing" one. There's more to playing the position than just throwing impressive passes. It's those areas where Harris has to improve, and it's those areas where Jennings has been able to fend him off.

The best news that I can offer on that front is that the word I've most heard used this spring has been "progression," regarding both players, but mostly Harris. The indications have been that the playbook, getting in and out of the huddle and checks at the line are no longer issues. The problems have been more typical and rudimentary for a young quarterback: ball security (Harris has got some huge hands, and a tendency to carrying the ball with only one of them, which is a HUGE no-no), taking chances on throws, looking off safeties, staying with his progressions, stuff like that. On the one hand, those are all extremely correctable problems. On the other, they're all things that will have to improve if he's going to take this job from Jennings.

And make no mistake, Harris is going to have to take the job. There isn't some grand secret to it, or any sort of backstage soap-opera politics involved. Show the coaches that he's the superior alternative. It isn't enough for Jennings to lose the job. Harris has to win it.

The Future

Whether or not that happens is something that we are definitely not going to find out when these spring practices end. At a minimum, it probably isn't happening until the week of the season opener versus McNeese. Mainly because depth is still too thin here to risk losing whoever comes in second place, at least until 2016. There are only three scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, and No. 3, Justin McMillian is an undersized recruit that's most likely going to be a project and not ready to play for a few years.

Honestly, I think the main competition for Harris and Jennings may be within themselves. Certainly for Harris. He has the tools to be as good as he wants to be. And the guy that does the best job of controlling the things that he can control will likely be the guy that winds up as QB1 in a few months. Like Cameron said -- this isn't just about throwing the ball.

Regardless of the winner, it will be incumbent to Cameron and the rest of this coaching staff to FIND A WAY TO MAKE IT WORK. Be it Harris, or Jennings or Brad Kragthorpe, this offense simply cannot be allowed to stagnate again just because the non-Leonard Fournette principals can't necessarily do all of the things that Zach Mettenberger, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry could do.

When Cameron arrived here in 2013, his first spring practice was largely spent, in his own words, figuring out what Mettenberger did well and adjusting. In 2014, the offense was still trying to do that. LSU, for the first half of the season, was still incredibly fixated on 21 and 22 personnel groupings, and deep sideline routes, like the comeback. As we discussed before last season, it fit those players incredibly well. With Beckham and/or Landry out wide and Jeremy Hill in the backfield with Mettenberger, the defense had to pick it's poison, and it didn't really matter that much. Safety help didn't really matter for the receivers -- they'd still get open. The width could be a factor as well at times -- teams wouldn't just try to bracket the outside receiver with a safety, but linebackers were usually at least aware of trying to clog the throwing lane, meaning even more defenders were at least thinking about the pass instead of the run. It would give the offense numbers in the running game, and Mettenberger was generally smart enough to recognize that. And the big reason that comeback route was so effective was that, aside from the fact that Beckham and Landry could run it and get open blindfolded, was that the quarterback could throw it accurately at almost any depth from anywhere on the field, even to the far sideline at a tremendous width. If the coverage was tight, Mettenberger could put the ball into a difficult window and both receivers could easily get at least one hand on it. And one hand was usually all it took.

Cameron asked players on both ends to solve an equation that was far too difficult. That can't happen again. I do that we'll see the wide receivers make the improvements needed for more of the safety blanket-type plays to work better. Slants, sticks and quick hitches. Maybe the increasing athleticism on the offensive line will help with more screens as well. But until the one or two receivers in the pattern are at Beckham and Landry's levels, there's going to have to be more variety and more movement in formation to help create more mismatches. Give these guys some help getting open through formation and alignment. It won't just create more space for the receivers, it'll also help widen the throwing lanes for the quarterback. If somebody emerges that can make that deep, power throw to the sideline, then you definitely take advantage. But let it the offense swim its way into the deep end before you make them jump into it.

Is that to say LSU needs to "change" its offense? No. Spread, pro-style, the designations have become so diluted that they've become meaningless in a lot of ways. A flood concept, or a sail, or a vertical concept is read the same way whether a wide receiver, tight end and fullback are running it or three wide receivers. The rest often just comes down to whether or not there's a fullback in the backfield and how you use the tight end.

Could some verbage, or checks be streamlined? Sure, and that seems to be in the process, per reports of more wristbands and no-huddle work this spring. Do Harris and Jennings need to be in the shotgun more? Opinions vary. I spoke with a few high school coaches on the topic back around the LSU Coaching Clinic, and opinions were mixed. Some think that it's just as easy to let a quarterback take a snap and throw, some say that dropping back provides for more variance.

I do know that LSU will be without a true, established fullback for the first time in about five years or so, so that may necessitate more one-back looks, depending on the development of guys like DeSean Smith, David Ducre, Tony Upchurch and John David Moore. But LSU will certainly never get too far away from the I-formation, nor should it. Frankly, it pisses me off whenever I see a team in the shotgun in a short-yardage situation anyway, even if it's not my team.

Either way, even if QB play takes a massive leap forward this season, LSU's still going to be run-heavy because of No. 7 back there. Which is exactly as it should be.

Regardless to the answers to any or all of these questions, LSU's playing the cards they have here. Graduate transfers like Braxton Miller or Everett Golson seem like pipe dreams. For one, neither has actually left their current programs, and for another, Miller's coming off a significant injury and may wind up at another position (and given that Miller's NFL future likely isn't at QB regardless, it would make a lot of sense to just stay at home in Ohio and try another position than learn a new playbook elsewhere) while Golson is a South Carolina native that would likely find the Gamecocks' now open QB spot more enticing. Obviously, things can change, but as of now help ain't comin' y'all.

Quarterback will tie this team to something in 2015. It's just a question of whether it's a bow on a wonderfully explosive package, or an anchor dragging the Tigers down again.