There is a long road ahead of Brandon Harris.
To be the quarterback that LSU needs to beat Alabama and subsequently win a national championship, Harris must be more consistent. Our running game just so happens to include the greatest running back since I used to use Emmitt Smith on Joe Montana Sports Talk Football on Sega Genesis and it will open up avenues for Harris to throw the football to open targets. Although, most teams won’t be able to stop No. 7 at all and Harris will be able to be his inconsistent self and LSU will come away with "closer-than-they-should-be" victories against teams that don’t match up physically with us across the board. The problem, as we saw, is when a team that can match us physically takes away our run game like the Tide did this past year.
Harris was not good in 2015. Yes, the box score numbers were probably above average, but when you dig deeper into the film, you see a quarterback who lacks accuracy and quick decision making. Yes, these are two broad concepts, but, in my opinion, his two biggest weaknesses. Luckily, they are also fixable. Technically speaking, his back foot often doesn’t come through when he throws and it makes it so that often he is fading away from his target instead of stepping towards it.
He also has a classic mechanical error of dropping the ball below his chest when he decides to start throwing, and then bringing it up over his head.
These are milliseconds of timing lost in a game where those fractions of a second make a lot of difference. The only way to make up for this is to be excellent in terms of your anticipation and decision making. Philip Rivers and even Drew Brees are prime examples of quarterbacks with not so great throwing mechanics who are able to compensate because of their ability to process information at a high rate. A whole offseason of technical work on his throwing mechanics should yield results as early as the 2016 Spring Game, the decision making will take a little more time. Harris has a problem trusting what he sees and this leads to him not pulling the trigger in a timely manner.
This stuff gets fixed, first, in film study, and secondly, by throwing a lot of interceptions in practice. Harris has the benefit of getting to go against a top-10 defense every day in practice. I’ve always felt you need to throw a lot of picks in practice to understand what you’re doing wrong. The good thing about throwing interceptions in practice is that they don’t show up on box scores. Nobody but the people who are trying to help you see them.
You’ll have a lot of people openly question the LSU offensive scheme. I am not one of those guys. Cam Cameron was an NFL coordinator who didn’t just copy/paste his Ravens playbook and force feed it to these players and quarterbacks. This isn’t a complicated offense. Even our running game is almost laughably simple. It’s the same power-toss play that every opponent has seen on film for the last 6 billion years (and it’s what Moses ran to part the Red Sea). The passing game is also pretty simple. 4 Verts, Post-Dig, Y-Sail, Y-Cross, etc...
Here is an example of a seam throw, a route every other team uses, that is just not executed in a timely manner by Harris:
These pass concepts are ubiquitous with modern football – everyone runs them. Would I like to see some more RB screen passes? Sure, but I’m really not complaining. Where you can start to question the coaching staff is on the development of the players in the scheme. I won’t be doing that, because I don’t want to speculate on what happens behind closed doors. But let us not forget, Cam Cameron helped turn Joe Flacco into "Is Joe Flacco Elite?" Joe Flacco. You’re also going to hear people talk about how Miles/Cameron should be incorporating his running ability more in our run game. I don’t think that’s a bad idea in general. One problem, I see, is that Harris doesn’t make very good reads in the zone run option game. Another off season should help him out with this as well.
This is an example of a good read:
This is an example of a bad read:
Could LSU use the shotgun more? Perhaps. The other problem comes from LSU’s general offensive philosophy. When LSU gets in the shotgun on potential running downs, they do let Harris read players -- but how often does Les Miles want to be in the shotgun in non-passing situations? I think Miles wants to be under center as much as he can, and whether he is right or wrong, it would probably be an exercise in futility to imagine us in the shotgun as much as some people think we should be.
Teaching Harris under-center option reads in one offseason would also, probably, be fruitless. The one play you might see is LSU running speed option from under center while on the goal line with heavy personnel like they used to with our former lord and saviour Ryan Perrilloux. With that said, we still can feature Harris’ running from under center. Fournette demands so much attention that it should give Harris some running room on bootleg actions. As far as Harris himself running the ball, it’s more of a bonus than a feature. He needs to be a passer first.
Some are asking the question of whether Harris fits in this offense. It’s a tough question to answer. With the way he threw the ball in 2015, he doesn’t really fit in any offense. With that being said, I do think being in the shotgun more would help him. Harris was in the shotgun almost exclusively in high school so he is probably more adept and comfortable in that setting. I try to avoid ever going under center with the quarterbacks that I coach because it adds more technical points that need to be coached. Most quarterbacks, nowadays, don’t really learn great drop back technique from under center (and being a QB coach whose teams never go under center, I am guilty of this as well). The speed of the drop back and weight transfer are totally different from under center to shotgun. The play action game from under center is also more difficult because the quarterback has to turn his back to the play to fake the hand off. With Harris’ slowness in diagnosing coverage and getting to his reads quickly, this makes things difficult for him. I’ve always just found that it’s a lot easier to throw the ball from shotgun. Unfortunately for Brandon, LSU in 2016 isn’t all of a sudden going to become a shotgun-first team. Les believes he can run the ball better from under center, with a fullback and with at least one tight end. I don’t know if I agree with that. NFL teams are starting to feature more shotgun running games even with heavier personnel packages, so I’m not sure why we couldn’t find a way to run our dominant power scheme from the shotgun (and even read the backside end with Harris -- OMG I’m drooling).
Basically this play but with Harris reading the backside end:
All those things would be nice additions to the offense but being under center hasn’t prevented receivers from finding openings down the field. Harris just needs to hit them in stride once in a blue moon.
Now that we’ve looked at how we can get our QB to get better through technical development, I’d like to focus on the "Zen" aspect. I’ve seen a lot of quarterbacks make great throws in practice consistently, only to lose all composure and throw 3 step slant passes to, what it seems like, some dude 16 rows up eating a corndog. I suspect this is who Harris is. He has all the tools to make accurate, timed passes but lacks a certain composure that would translate those easy practice throws to big time plays on Saturdays.
So, how do we get composed? How do we zen ourselves? Does "zenfulness" entail meditation? My dad wakes up at 5:50 a.m. every morning to meditate for 45 minutes. I, of course, assume that it’s really 6 minutes of meditation and then 39 minutes of him fast asleep. He once offered me his meditation tapes in an attempt for me to become one with the universe and this backfired miserably when, 5 minutes in, his voice came on and told me he was going to start counting down from 10. Trying to be at peace and hearing your dad's voice is not the best coupling but I digress. I don’t know if Brandon Harris needs to get a hold of my dad’s spiritual meditation tapes, but I do know that at some point, he needs to find a way for the game to slow down for him.
I have been thinking a lot recently about spatial awareness in various sports and how it could relate to the quarterback position in football. When you watch a soccer player like Xavi, the former great FC Barcelona midfielder, you see someone with excellent spatial awareness. His head is always on the, proverbial, swivel and is always trying to create space for himself. He knows where he is on the field because he is always looking around, trying to find where the next space for him to move into is.
I’ve tried to relate this attribute to quarterbacking in the form of pocket awareness. The QB who is at peace in the pocket, will always have a place to throw the ball (or run). This led me to a conversation with a quarterback coach and former college quarterback who explained to me how much better he got inside the pocket when he started really watching film on himself. Brandon Harris now has a year of film of him and the more he watches himself this offseason, the more he will improve in this regard. We want to see a QB who can step up in the pocket instead of booting out whenever there is an inkling of doubt in his mind.
With film study and practice, there aren’t a lot of things defenses do at this level that can wholly confuse a QB. There isn’t a lot of pre-snap movement by defenses in NCAA or SEC. There are some teams who do a great job at giving weird looks for a QB (Temple, for example, versus Christian Hackenberg) and some teams who sit back and almost tell you what defense they’re playing (Alabama, for example, versus Connor Cook). The more you watch film, the more you understand who is dropping and who is blitzing on a defense and who is going to be open.
With all that said, Harris is a damn true sophomore with only one full year of starts under his belt. He will improve this offseason, there is no doubt. If all he does is improve his accuracy, that alone may be enough to see LSU through to the college football playoff. We all want to see this kid become a competent college quarterback but it’s not going to be an easy task. Some people don’t have the mental capabilities to play quarterback at this level but let’s hope this kid can turn it around and sling the ball around to the great athletes that LSU has on board for 2016.
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