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Roadmap to the Playoff -- What LSU Needs for a Title Run in 2016, Part 9: Improved Quarterback Play

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Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

After one of the best offseasons LSU football has had in some time, the 2016 team could be poised for some great things. Les Miles has the best running back in college football, more returning starters than any other team he’s had here, and hired one of the best defensive coordinators in the country to coach a unit that returns eight starters. The pieces could easily be in place for a run at the college football playoff -- the advanced statistics back that up as well.

But as with any team, there are question marks that have to be answered. Things that have to be improved upon, or steps that need to be taken. Over the coming weeks before we get into the meat of really previewing this team, we’ll talk about some of those issues.

We’ve talked about nearly every area of this football team, at every level from offense to defense to special teams. It’s time for the final step on this roadmap, and the question that is on everybody’s lips: quarterback, and namely, will LSU get better play from that position in 2016?

Before we get started, just know that despite this being the most obvious question regarding the Tigers this season, this was easily the hardest post to put together for that very reason. We’ve talked about this from nearly every angle possible, and at a certain point there’s really only so many ways you can say "Brandon Harris needs to start playing better."

But if there’s one thing I think we like to pride ourselves on here at ATVS, it’s been our ability to illuminate as much as we can about things when it comes to LSU Football. Seth has graded every single pass Harris threw last season. I charted every single play in order to create a more complete picture of the offense beyond the typical narrative other media outlets have put out. Dan offered an exhaustive statistical context of exactly where No. 6 in comparison to other recent SEC quarterbacks at a similar place in their careers. It’s a lot to read, but I recommend it to anybody looking to gain a full perspective of where exactly LSU sits at the moment at this position.

That said, none of this really matters to anybody -- we all just want to see the improvement happen, right? So let’s explore exactly where Harris sits at this moment.

I asked Seth to give me his best end-of-the-year evaluation from 2015:

Brandon Harris' natural athletic ability is his best asset right now -- his ability to use his legs to accentuate his arm. It's not something that's going to make or break LSU's season but it is an asset. We're going to be able to run the ball whether or not Harris is involved in the running game but, but the threat he provides does help the Tigers break down eight-man fronts. A quarterback who can read a defender and make him wrong helps to even out the numbers advantage that a defense has when it wants to bring down a safety and play with a stacked box. He isn’t a great zone-read QB, and LSU doesn’t exactly need to call too many designed runs, but he made good decisions, he made plays. Not very fast, but super slippery in the open field. He'll pick up his share of first downs.

With regards to the passing game, breaking down a stack box proved more difficult at times (read: almost all the time). Even though he threw quite a few in the dirt, he was still decent at throwing comebacks and hitches against Cover-1 or Cover-3. He showed signs of getting better on his seam throws as the season hit the halfway mark (until Cam Cameron stopped calling 4 Verts). Seams require touch and anticipation, not Harris' best qualities, but they hit a Cover 3 defense in its soft spot.

His throwing motion is really not bad either. Even though he dips the ball down before bringing it up, once he gets it up, the mechanics are pretty sound. He gets very close to "Position Zero" or "Scapula Neutral" right before he releases the ball and that's a very good thing.

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The weakness in his throwing ability, namely in underthrowing his targets, comes, in my less-than-expert opinion, when he's not able to follow through with his feet. I little doubt that the sports hernia affected this. Your core is so active when you throw a football it would be tough not be in pain with this injury. You can't get the power you need, from your legs up to your arm, to throw with enough velocity. You can see later in the year when he was throwing deeper passes that his feet never finished pointing at his target.

If he's healthy, throwing those deep posts should be a strength. Early in the season, he had trouble reading LSU's favorite post-dig route concept but he got much better at reading even though he had trouble throwing it with the injury. I would put a lot of money on this concept being one that gets used often this season. These are the big plays this offense needs to make to be successful. His receivers will be open down the field, Harris just needs to put the ball in front of them let them make a play.

Seth’s observations largely jive with mine: Harris has nice power in his arm, and he can use his feet to accentuate that, but he’s not what I’d call a "runner" as a quarterback. From a decision-making standpoint, he tended to bounce around between being early and late at times, which certainly hurt his accuracy as well. At times, he also failed to trust the pocket as well, which hurt his ability to make some reads as well.

When he was on rhythm and decisive, he did great things. As Pro Football Focus pointed out this offseason, Harris had the best completion rate in the SEC under pressure at 67.2 percent. What that tells you is that when he read blitz and man coverage, he knew what to do and got the ball out quickly. In conversation with Jack Farrell of PFF, Harris’ best throws were short passes that call for lots of zip, or down-the-middle throws that require a little more touch. On the season, Harris completed 100 of his 140 throws that traveled less than 10 yards in the air. Once you get beyond 10 yards, the percentages plummet, but he was at his best over the middle, completing 31-of-63 for 870 yards and 7 touchdowns against three interceptions (and while the completion rate there is low, 13.8 is a fantastic yards-per-attempt). But outside the numbers he was just 17 of 55 for 409 yards, with 4 touchdowns and 3 picks.

Slants, crossing routes, sticks, comebacks and posts were his bread-and-butter, but those numbers on the power throws near the sideline were way too poor for a player with Harris’ arm. How much of that was tied to the hernia -- which, per a source, was originally aggravated in October but became much worse against Alabama -- is hard to say, but his completion rate did drop nearly 10 percent from one month to the next. November made it really easy to forget that Harris was the SEC’s highest rated passer in October.

I’ve mentioned it before, but Harris’ 2015 season was very similar to the first season of the Tigers’ last multi-year starter, Zach Mettenberger.

Compare Mettenberger’s 2012 statline:

Split

G

Att

Comp

Pct.

Yards

Yards/Att

TD

Int

Rating

All Games

13

356

208

58.4

2607

7.3

12

7

127.13

SEC Games

8

239

131

54.8

1640

6.9

5

4

116.00

To Harris:

Split

G

Att

Comp

Pct.

Yards

Yards/Att

TD

Int

Rating

All Games

12

277

148

53.4

2158

7.8

13

6

130.03

SEC Games

8

205

112

54.6

1381

6.7

8

5

119.22

Even on third down, where Mettenberger hit 53.6 percent of his passes at 7.7 yards per attempt with a 6/4 touchdown::interception ratio, Harris completed 50.5 percent at 9 YPA, 7 touchdowns and 2 picks.

Now it is true that the light seemed to come on for Mettenberger down the stretch in year one, with big games against Alabama and Mississippi State. But he also followed that up with relatively mediocre games against Ole Miss and Arkansas, before a woeful 120-yard outing against Clemson, in which he whiffed on a basic rollout pass that could have allowed LSU to run out the clock and win the game. Harris can at least say he rebounded with a fairly solid bowl game.

Speaking of the Texas Bowl, one of the features of that gameplan was Cameron working with Harris on the sideline as opposed to in the booth like most offensive coordinators. It’s hard to know for sure, but it did seem to have a calming effect for Harris, especially when he hit a rough patch at the end of the first half and start of the second, where he missed on five straight passes and threw an interception that allowed Texas Tech to cut the lead to just one point. Harris hit on six of his next nine throws after that, passing for 155 yards and leading five consecutive touchdown drives.

Seth’s thoughts:

On Cameron’s move from the booth to the sideline for the bowl game: obviously, it's much easier to read another human when you're talking to him face to face than on the telephone. Conversely, you're less aware what is going on during a play when you are at ground zero. I've been both in the booth and on the sidelines as a QB coach, and I struggle with where the best place to be is. You're a better help to the quarterbacks psyche on the sideline, but being in the booth makes you a better strategist. I can’t help but wonder if Dameyune Craig, as a former college quarterback, can maybe now be that nurturing sideline figure that Harris needs, and Cameron will go back to the booth. I think that would give LSU and Harris the best of both worlds.

It’s an interesting thought, because Craig will also need to be managing his wide receiver rotation as well. Time will tell how the staff will juggle that dynamic.

Ultimately, the only real answer here is just what we’ve been saying this whole time: play better. It’s certainly a reasonable expectation for a second-year starter in this league, but we know that it’s also not something any LSU fan should feel comfortable taking for granted.

And of all the questions the Tigers will have to answer this fall, it is easily the most important one.

LSU’s Roadmap to the Playoff:

Part 1, Turnovers from the Secondary

Part 2, Arden Key Becomes a Dominant Pass-Rusher

Part 3, Figuring Out the Starting Offensive Tackles

Part 4, Kendell Beckwith Becomes a Consistent Playmaker

Part 5, Malachi Dupre & Travin Dural Become Consistent Receivers

Part 6, Special Teams Improvement

Part 7, More Efficient Running Back Usage

Part 8, Finding a Third Option in the Passing Game