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Previewing the 2017 Tigers: Quarterbacks

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Would you believe this position isn’t the biggest question on offense?

NCAA Football: Citrus Bowl-Louisiana State vs Louisville Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a lot of talk about a new era for LSU Football this upcoming season, and for good reason with a new head coach and a new offense.

But what’s really changed is that the quarterback position has become relatively stable.

2017 LSU Quarterbacks

Player Ht, Wt Comp-Att Yards TD INT Comp Rate Sacks Sack Rate Yards/ Att. Misc.
Player Ht, Wt Comp-Att Yards TD INT Comp Rate Sacks Sack Rate Yards/ Att. Misc.
16 Danny Etling (Sr.) 6'3, 215 160-269 2123 11 5 59.50% 17 5.90% 7.9 24 non-sack carries for 148 yards, 1 TD.
12 Justin McMillan (So.) 6'3, 210 1-1 19 0 0 100.00% 0 0.00% 19
2 Lowell Narcisse (Fr.) 6-2, 231 Four-star recruit.
15 Myles Brennan (Fr.) 6-4, 194 Four-star recruit.
Stats via Football Study Hall.

There’s a fifth-year senior starter, another vet with three years in the program, plus a pair of talented, highly recruited freshmen ready to develop for the future. That’s as good a depth chart as any program could ask for in a typical season, even with the recent departure of redshirt freshman Lindsey Scott.

Of course, time will tell if this holds up.

SWOT Analysis

Strengths: Solid veteran starter with a high floor and exciting talent behind him.

I’ve said it. Other people have said it. Danny Etling is a perfectly fine starting quarterback.

He makes good decisions. He avoids negative plays like sacks and interceptions, and he’s respected in the locker room as a team leader. Last year, Etling proved to be a steadying force for LSU under center. The offense improved almost immediately upon his insertion, and we saw what happened once the coaching changed happened.

He wasn’t good enough to beat the best defenses on LSU’s schedule, but he lit up bad teams, and that’s a lot more than we’ve been used to. And it is worth noting that he came pretty damn close on game-winning drives in two of LSU’s losses, against good defenses. And in both cases, the final result couldn’t really be blamed on Etling.

A minor amount of improvement could yield nice dividends. Up his completion rate to 60 percent and his yards-per-attempt to 8.0, and at his 2016 rate stats he completes 180 of 300 passes for 2,400 yards in a 12-game season. With some more help from his teammates and coaches, moving from one touchdown pass per game to 1.5 bumps him to about 18 on the season.

No LSU QB has been in that neighborhood since Zach Mettenberger.

And freshman QB Myles Brennan has been one of the great surprises of camp. Over the summer, most people I spoke with expected Brennan and classmate Lowell Narcisse to redshirt. But Brennan has been that good of a passer so far to merit No. 2 snaps over third-year sophomore Justin McMillan (who had asserted himself well in the spring). It’s doubtful Brennan sees any meaningful time, barring injury, but look for LSU to try and work him in with an eye on 2018 at some point this season.

And that still leaves another four-star player in Narcisse, who is mostly dealing with a re-adjustment to playing time after missing most of his final two years of high school with knee injuries. Narcisse has the strongest arm on the team and the ability to add a significant bonus to the running game.

Weaknesses: Low ceiling.

Thing is, when we talk about Etling needing his teammates and coaches to help him create opportunities, that’s really just a way of saying that he can’t create them himself. It just doesn’t seem like he’ll ever be a quarterback that can really create big plays with his arm or his legs.

Yes, he can run an offense and keep things moving throwing the ball some, but Matt Canada will want to manage him with calls that play to his strength and down-and-distance situations that will force a defense to stay off balance. Alabama has mastered this over the years, but it’s a whole lot easier when you can out-talent everybody. Just last season, we saw Etling’s passer rating dip a good 50 points for ranked opponents versus unranked ones.

Brennan or McMillan may offer a higher ceiling due to their superior arms, but they can’t match Etling’s decision making. So their higher highs could also come with lower lows.

Opportunities: Reset the cycle in a new offense.

LSU quarterbacks have found consistent ways to let fans down in recent seasons. Etling alone is at least good enough to avoid that and put together a solid, workmanlike season.

If Canada can coax more out of him in the same way he did Nathan Petermann at Pitt, or Jacoby Brissett at NC State (Brissett was clearly a talent, but had never shown any sort of sign that he could be consistent), that could pay some immediate dividends, both in terms of results and in terms of perception. For Orgeron’s program moving forward, and for recruits on the trail — particularly the big-time receivers LSU is still pursuing, and the quarterbacks it is still trying to get in on.

Threats: Injuries and attrition.

Etling’s back procedure is a double-edged sword. It’s very easy to envision his arm strength and accuracy improving if he’s not playing in as much pain. Back issues can absolutely affect passing performance, just look at late-career Peyton Manning. But, without knowing more about the nature of the injury, we also have to assume that he’s still vulnerable to it. Especially behind a weakened offensive line.

Which brings us to the other balancing act that Orgeron and Canada will have to conduct. One that is much more of a long-term thing, beyond even this season.

Behind Etling, there are three scholarship quarterbacks on this team. And LSU needs all three to stick around through, at minimum, the end of the 2018 cycle, at which time there should be at least one, preferably two, other QBs on hand. That shouldn’t matter for the freshmen, but that does put something of a premium on McMillan. And if Brennan does clearly jump him in the pecking order, he may look to bolt sooner, rather than later.

It’s not the most urgent of issues, but it is something that LSU will have to be mindful of.