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Among changes for Brandon Harris: No splitting LSU's first-team QB reps

BATON ROUGE, La. – Among the ways this spring is different for Brandon Harris is one major factor: his battle with Anthony Jennings for the starting quarterback job is a thing of the past.

Harris clearly won that competition last season, playing every significant down at quarterback – plus Jennings has since announced plans to transfer – and he now sits atop the depth chart as his junior season approaches.

“I’m taking all the first-team reps and this is the first spring where I’ve done that,” Harris said after Tuesday’s practice. “I’m just more confident, I guess, and I guess the guys are familiar with hearing one voice. So it’s just been an exciting spring so far.”

After completing 53.8 percent of his passes last season, Harris said improving that percentage is a goal for this season. He credited new wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig, who played quarterback at Auburn and in the NFL, for introducing new drills that have helped him put better touch on his throws.

In one such drill, the objective is for the quarterback, standing in the end zone, to loft passes just over the crossbar to a recipient perched a few feet behind it.

“[Craig is] a guy who I look up to and serves as a role model to me,” Harris said. “He came in and along with Coach Cam [Cameron] gave us some great quarterback drills and some stuff to help me with touch and different things that he had to deal with over the course of his career. It’s really helping me. I really mean that a lot. It’s really helping me.

“From practice when we get our accuracy numbers and our completion percentage after practice, you can see where your completion percentage is continuing to soar and go up, I think it’s helpful.”

An improved completion percentage would be a great benefit for LSU, whose passing offense ranked 105th nationally last season with an average of 180.4 yards per game. Harris was clearly ahead of Jennings in the pecking order before the senior opted to leave the program, but now he must contend with Purdue transfer Danny Etling and Justin McMillan, both of whom are coming off redshirt seasons.

However, Harris said he does not mind engaging in yet another competition for playing time.

“We play at LSU. We expect competition every single year,” Harris said. “It’s a thing that brings out the best in every player. I don’t want anything handed to me. I don’t. It’s just that simple because the minute you get relaxed, that’s where you start to see your play decline. Every day you come out there, you want to feel like your job’s on the line.”

It may be. Tigers coach Les Miles made it clear last Saturday that Harris sits atop the quarterback depth chart, but Etling did a fine job guiding the scout team offense last season while sitting out under NCAA transfer rules.

Etling has not played in a game since midway through the 2014 season, so he is admittedly a bit rusty. But he is not concerned whether he will get a fair shot to compete for the starting job in the fall.

“I think that everyone views it as that position just needs to play well and whatever I can do to help that position play well is what I’m going to do,” Etling said. “Other than that, I’m just excited to be here and ready to keep getting better.”

In 13 games at Purdue (including 12 starts), Etling completed 55 percent of his passes for 2,490 yards and 16 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions. He lost the starting job five games into his sophomore year, so he said he fully understands the criticism Jennings and Harris faced over the last two seasons.

“We’re the only kind of people who understand what [a quarterback] has to go through. We understand where the ball’s supposed to go,” Etling said. “Everyone’s always being critical of them, but I think we’ve always got to stay supportive of each other and I think that we do a good job of that. We don’t try to hold any animosity toward each other.

“I know I had to go through the same thing at Purdue and I understand what he might have had to go through. People say things to you and it kind of sucks, but I think that we get each other with that and I think we’ll continue to grow as teammates.”

Harris shares that sentiment with his new competitor, praising Etling’s work ethic and calling him a role model. Perhaps a friendly competition is exactly what the Tigers need after two consecutive seasons where the passing offense lacked consistency.

Harris accepted the blame for the times the Tigers struggled to execute on offense last season, but said he expects that to change. He cited Cameron’s move from the coaches’ box to the sideline in a bowl win over Texas Tech, where LSU’s offense generated 638 yards of total offense, as further evidence that better times are ahead.

“There was a lot of comfort, from communication to getting to hear his voice,” Harris said. “I think you will see this upcoming season, with him on the sideline, that our offense will soar and be what we want it to be, just because his voice and him being down there and being able to communicate with the quarterbacks, it’s paramount.”