BATON ROUGE, La. – Maybe, just maybe, LSU will have its starting quarterback by the end of the week.
Tigers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said that could happen if the eventual starter manages to “stack quality performances” in LSU’s seven scheduled practices this week -- capped by the team’s second full scrimmage on Saturday.
Regardless of when Cameron and head coach Les Miles select a victor in the race between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings, don’t expect Miles to go public with their decision soon, if at all. Miles hinted last week that he might not announce a starter until just before kickoff of the Sept. 5 opener against McNeese State.
“I recognize that the public has a very strong piece in our football. They come to our stadium and we love them, but we’re not in the business of justifying decisions,” Miles said. “I promise you, we’re going to pick the right guy and do so unbiased.”
By all accounts, however, Harris appears to be the man to beat despite Jennings' experience advantage. Harris admitted in the spring that he wasn’t prepared to become a starting SEC quarterback last fall as a true freshman, and he reiterated that thought on Sunday afternoon.
“First of all, it’s hard to play in this conference as a true freshman,” Harris said.
He’s not wrong. The list of true freshman SEC starting quarterbacks is not particularly long, and the list of those who experienced immediate success is even shorter. Rare is the player who possesses the maturity to command the huddle, the mental acuity to digest the playbook and the physical ability to handle the job as a rookie. Harris wasn't in that group.
He had his moments last season -- Harris totaled 452 passing yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions and rushed for three more scores -- but Harris' lone start in a 41-7 loss at Auburn showed that he needed seasoning.
Not that Jennings was setting the world on fire himself. He started the other 12 games but completed just 48.9 percent of his passes as the leader of one of the nation’s worst passing offenses.
Still, his on-field experience gave Jennings an advantage until he lost his grip on the job with a summertime arrest that resulted in a suspension. The East Baton Rouge district attorney eventually decided against pressing charges, but Jennings admits that his time away from the team -- he was not permitted to work out or participate in passing sessions at the football facility during his six-week suspension -- hurt his cause.
“I just missed the cohesiveness with my teammates, missed the cohesiveness with my receivers and just the guys that are blocking,” Jennings said. “I still continued to talk to those guys outside the facilities, played the game with them, just kind of texting them here and there, just to let them know that I’m still with them. I made an immature decision. Obviously I’ve learned from that.”
Instead it was Harris organizing the 7-on-7 passing drills and showing the leadership required from a quarterback. He felt those summer sessions helped him strengthen his connection with LSU’s talented young receiving corps.
“I asked them to do some tough things now, and I think they bought in and did a great job,” Harris said. “[They were] staying late, going through it at 11 o’clock at night, after a tough Friday workout, catching the ball after you don’t have any legs left -- just doing things that I asked them to do, and I think they did a great job.”
Harris apparently took some personal responsibility himself. He followed strength coach Tommy Moffitt and Cameron’s advice and gained 22 pounds between May and the start of preseason camp -- although maybe “advice” is the wrong word.
It was less of a suggestion and more of an order.
“It wasn’t much of a selling point. It was, ‘You’d better have this done,’ ” Harris chuckled.
“When you come into the season, you take some shots and you’re not lifting as much and you’re dropping weight,” he continued. “I think that’s the important thing is coming in big enough where you can sustain licks and your body doesn’t tear down on you during the season.”
He also spent time in California working with quarterback guru George Whitfield to clean up his footwork.
Perhaps the offseason work is paying off, as Harris was reportedly one of the offensive stars of LSU’s closed scrimmage over the weekend. And Jennings apparently held his own as well, although he received a slightly smaller workload than his competitor.
Don’t read much into that disparity though, Cameron said, considering that Miles said Harris played only “half a dozen or so” snaps more than Jennings in the scrimmage. Miles did not provide individual statistics, but said his quarterbacks collectively completed 20 of 34 passes in the scrimmage for about 200 yards, adding that Tigers receivers dropped five passes.
“First scrimmage, some people flip a coin, some people [say], ‘One guy starts this scrimmage, somebody the next scrimmage.’ I wouldn’t read too much into that,” Cameron said. “We’re just trying to focus on both guys getting reps with both groups and if it’s 25 or 30 snaps, I think you’ve got a great question. It kind of speaks to itself, but I wouldn’t read too much into six snaps.”
That said, Harris continues to get more first-team reps in practice, which is a change from last season, and he’s practicing more like the player Miles’ staff expected when he enrolled early last year. Even if nobody on the coaching staff will say it publicly, the circumstances certainly create the perception that it’s Harris job to lose.
Now he has to convince them to say it.
“I don’t think you’re ever going to give away any strategic advantage that you feel like you may or may not have," Cameron said. "So we’ll let it play out and see how Les chooses to handle it."