Of all the many impressive things about Joe Burrow’s 2019 season, what stands out most was that he posted those numbers quarterbacking LSU, the team that had been starved for quality quarterback play for a decade. Between its 2007 championship and the 2019 season, you had better chances at winning the lottery than LSU did of getting decent production from the quarterback. LSU ranked 88th in both passing yards and passing yards per game between the 2008 and 2018 seasons.
The 2008 season was when the struggles at the quarterback position began for LSU, but it could easily have been avoided if things went just a little bit differently. This week across SB Nation platforms, sites have been posturing different “what if” situations, and today we’ll look at maybe the biggest what if in modern LSU history: what if Ryan Perrilloux stayed at LSU?
Perrilloux was arguably the best high school football prospect Louisiana has ever produced. Coming out of East St. John in LaPlace, Perrilloux was a five-star prospect and the No. 1 dual threat quarterback in the class. In his career he was responsible for over 12,000 yards of offense and scored 155 touchdowns: 84 in the air and 71 with his legs. He won the Hall Award, the Heisman Trophy of high school football, and was the Louisiana Gatorade player of the year.
But would Perrilloux stay home and play for LSU? At first the answer appeared to be no; Texas secured a verbal commitment from Perrilloux, the thought being he’d be the heir apparent to Vince Young. Perrilloux’s skill set fit Texas’ offensive philosophy perfectly. While Texas may have transitioned seamlessly from Young to Perrilloux, there were still questions about how viable spread quarterbacks would fair in the NFL.
In stepped Les Miles and offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher, who sold Perrilloux on LSU because there he’d run a pro-style offense. More importantly to Perrilloux, was Miles and Fisher selling him on the idea that he’d be LSU’s quarterback from the day he stepped foot on campus. In fact, Perrilloux said “JaMarcus Who?” when asked about the idea of possibly being Jamarcus Russell’s backup when he first got to campus.
“Jamarcus Who,” turns out, was arguably the most gifted passer in program history, and was taken by the Oakland Raiders first overall in the 2007 draft. Perrilloux was the the third-string quarterback in 2006 and Matt Flynn’s backup for the 2007 national championship team. Perrilloux saw significant playing time for a backup quarterback in the 07 season and started a pair of games thanks to injuries to Flynn. Against Middle Tennessee State, Perrilloux was 20-25 for 298 yards and three touchdowns; and against Tennessee in the SEC Championship, he was the game’s MVP going 20-30 for 243 yards and a touchdown. The door for LSU to get back into the national championship opened when both No. 1 Missouri and No. 2 West Virginia lost, and Perrilloux’s MVP effort was what got LSU to New Orleans.
While Perrilloux helped get LSU to the title game he was a non-factor against Ohio State, taking only two snaps even though he said Miles and Gary Crowton installed a 10-15 play package for him.
But even if he barely saw the field against Ohio State, so what? Flynn was now gone, so Perrilloux was without a doubt going to be QB1 for LSU the following season. Sure the 2008 team would lose some key pieces from the 2007 title team, but it brought back a plethora of talent at the skill positions: Brandon LaFell, Demetrius Byrd, Trindon Holliday, Richard Dickson, Terrence Tolliver were going to be the Tiger wide receivers and tight ends; LSU also had a solid running back stable with returning players like Charles Scott and Keiland Williams and incoming freshman Stevan Ridley. It was all set up perfectly for Perrilloux to take over from Flynn and have a stellar season.
Unfortunately, the two snaps Perrilloux took against the Buckeyes would be the last two he would ever take in an LSU uniform. Perrilloux was dismissed from the program in May of 2008. A failed drug test would be one strike too many against Perrilloux who was suspended three times in his LSU career. In November 2006, he was allegedly caught trying to buy gas with a fake $20, but Perrilloux said a friend was using it to buy candy. No charges were filed but Perrilloux received six months probation.
The following May, he was caught trying to use his older brother’s ID to get on a casino boat. That led to his first suspension. That November, Perrilloux was involved in a fight at the Varsity and was suspended for the Alabama game. Following the national championship, Perrilloux missed classes and mandatory team meetings. Add in the failed drug test and Miles’ hand was forced saying “Ryan was given every opportunity to be a part of this football team. In the end, he didn’t fulfill his obligation as an LSU student-athlete.”
We know what happened next. With Perrilloux out, suddenly LSU is weak at the quarterback position. Instead of leaning on Perrilloux who had been with the program for four years, now the Tigers have to pick between true freshman Jordan Jefferson, redshirt freshman Jarrett Lee, or sophomore Andrew Hatch who transferred from Harvard.
Hatch starts the first three games of 2008 before a broken bone in his leg ends his season. Then Lee takes over and has a nightmare first year completing 53 percent of his passes and throws 16 interceptions, seven being returned for touchdowns. Jefferson mercifully starts the final two games and looks like a true freshman against Arkansas, completing 9 of 21 passes in a 31-30 loss; but Jefferson has an impressive bowl game and is the MVP in LSU’s Chick Fil A Bowl win over Georgia Tech.
What if all that could have been avoided though? What if Perrilloux stays on the straight and narrow and is the starting quarterback for LSU in 2008? If Perrilloux starts that means Lee never has that disaster of a freshman year and Hatch doesn’t break his leg. Against Georgia and Alabama, Lee threw seven interceptions, three which were returned for touchdowns; two were in the Georgia game (that LSU loses by 14 points) and the third came against Alabama (LSU lost in overtime by six). If Perrilloux is quarterback, it’s fair to say LSU probably wins those two games. And a Perrilloux-led Tiger team more than likely beats a 5-7 Arkansas team. That’s three extra wins for LSU and suddenly a 7-5 regular season is 10-2 and the Tigers are probably playing in the Cotton Bowl or the Capital One Bowl instead of the Chick Fil A .
But the Perrilloux ripple effect isn’t just a few extra wins in 2008. Imagine if Hatch, Lee and Jefferson spend all of 2008 backing up Perrilloux and being groomed to be an eventual starter, then what? Do one of those three have a better, more successful careers? Does Les Miles, who became ultra-conservative after 2008, trust the quarterback more? Does he adapt to a more modern offense? Is he perhaps still coaching at LSU and the 2019 season never happens?
And what if Perrilloux is as good as advertised? Let’s say Perrilloux is 70 percent of what Vince Young was. In 2006 Young completed 65 percent of his passes for 3,036 yards and 26 touchdowns and also ran 155 times for 1,050 yards plus 12 touchdowns. If Perrilloux is 70 percent of that, he’d have thrown for 2,125 yards and 18 touchdowns while picking up 735 yards on the ground and eight touchdowns. Is that an unreasonable season for a fourth year junior?
Let’s say it is. After all Young was one of the best quarterbacks in recent college football history, expecting some semblance of peak Vince Young is a lot to ask from a first year starter. Well what if we average out the numbers from Russell and Flynn’s first years as starters? With the similar supporting cast, coaching staff and level of competition is this a more realistic first season for Perrilloux?
First year LSU starting quarterback stats
|JaMarcus Russell (2005)||188||311||61%||2,443||15||9|
|Matt Flynn (2007)||202||359||56%||2,407||21||11|
|Ryan Perrilloux (Hypothetical 2008)||195||335||58%||2,425||18||10|
I say this is a fair projection for Perrilloux. He wouldn’t have leading receiver Early Doucet to throw to, but Brandon LaFell led the 2007 team in receiving yards and Demetrius Byrd was the leader in touchdowns. Both LaFell and Byrd were on the 2008 team, plus Richard Dickson who caught 30 passes at the tight end spot.
There’s another question if Perrilloux stays at LSU and is successful: what happens to the caliber of quarterback LSU could sign year in and year out? LSU had JaMarcus Russell picked first overall in 2007 and Flynn was drafted in 2008; add in Perrilloux and that’s potentially three consecutive starting quarterbacks LSU could have sent to the NFL. Imagine the high school prospects LSU could land if it’s a program with a recent history of getting its quarterbacks drafted. LSU has never had issues recruiting outstanding wide receivers, running backs, defensive linemen and DBs. Now LSU could pick and choose whatever Elite 11 type quarterback it wants? Is LSU the dynasty program of the 2010s instead of Alabama or Clemson?
LSU being inept at quarterback for so long isn’t owed solely to Ryan Perrilloux’s dismissal. The best programs replace five-star players with more five-star players and LSU didn’t do that. Oklahoma went from Baker Mayfield to Kyler Murray to Jalen Hurts; Clemson had Deshaun Watson and then signed Trevor Lawrence; Alabama lost Tua Tagovailoa to the NFL Draft and made up for it by signing the No. 1 quarterback in the 2020 class, Bryce Young. LSU tried finding the best quarterback prospects but failed to bring in the right guy, and even if they did sign talented quarterbacks the offense the Tigers ran was made for the stone age.
But now LSU seems to be reaping the rewards of Joe Burrow’s Heisman season on the recruiting side of things. Garrett Nussmeier committed to LSU earlier this month, the highest rated quarterback commit since Myles Brennan signed in 2017; and now the Tigers are in the final three for Caleb Williams the No. 1 quarterback in the 2021 class. Burrow showed that quarterbacks can come to Baton Rouge and have uber successful seasons.
But where would Ryan Perrilloux and LSU be if he could have done something similar all those years ago?