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Examining similarities, differences between LSU QBs in last two seasons

BATON ROUGE, La. – Although they have different methods of getting the job done, the results between LSU quarterbacks Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings are somewhat similar.

Harris’ 2015 passing numbers (53.8 completion percentage, 2,165 passing yards, 13 TDs, 6 interceptions, 67.7 total quarterback rating) are superior to Jennings’ statistics from 2014 (48.9 completion percentage, 1,611 yards, 11 TDs, 7 interceptions, 46.1 QBR), but neither set of statistics resembles one from an all-conference performer. Most importantly, their win-loss records (Harris is 9-4 as a starter and Jennings is 8-4) are almost identical.

However, there are noticeable differences between the two quarterbacks – and some of them look like positive signs if Harris remains the starter. With an assist from the ESPN Stats & Information database, here is a look at how the last two seasons by LSU’s quarterbacks differed and what those stats might mean moving forward:

HOW THEY DIFFER

Throwing deep: This is one encouraging area for Harris. He was far more effective throwing the ball downfield last season than Jennings was in 2014.

LSU’s No. 1 passing weapon in 2014 was a deep ball to the right, typically to Travin Dural. Jennings attempted 28 such passes of 20 or more yards in 2014, connecting on seven for 381 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions. When throwing deep to the other four horizontal zones, Jennings was just 4-for-23 for 128 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

Harris, meanwhile, attacked nearly every deep zone effectively. He had a QBR of 92.8 or better on four of the five zones on passes of 20-plus yards, completing 12 of 31 deep shots for 549 yards, five touchdowns and one interception. Oddly enough, his weakest deep zone was the same vicinity where Jennings directed most of his deep shots the year before. Harris was 4-for-21 for 143 yards, one touchdown and one interception to the deep right corner.

Leading targets: Harris did a better job of spreading the ball around among pass-catchers. He attempted 79 passes to Malachi Dupre and 55 to Dural last season, completing more than 50 percent of his pass attempts to both wideouts. He also targeted Leonard Fournette 32 times and even launched 20 passes toward Colin Jeter, who plays a position (tight end) that was nearly absent in the passing game the previous season under Jennings.

In 2014, it was typically Dural-or-bust for the LSU passing game. Jennings targeted Dural 73 times (with 32 completions for 682 yards, six TDs and five interceptions). Trey Quinn (31) was the only other player with more than 30 targets, and Travis Dickson had the most targets among tight ends with just 10.

Although Quinn and John Diarse have both transferred, LSU still returns every other notable player in the passing game. Another season with Harris throwing their way should help things progress in Year 2.

WHERE HARRIS CAN IMPROVE

Harris’ starting status is not guaranteed. Perhaps Purdue transfer Danny Etling or redshirt freshman Justin McMillan will make things interesting, or maybe Jennings could elbow his way back into the job. For now, though, let’s assume that Harris will remain the starter.

How could he perform his job more effectively? Aside from the basic things that good quarterbacks do – staying sharp on fundamentals and leading the huddle effectively – statistics show two areas he can address: taking care of the football and consistent passing on key downs.

Avoiding turnovers off pass rush: Harris fumbled four times after a sack – three of which he lost – last season. Granted, sack fumbles are not always a quarterback’s fault, but only a handful of FBS quarterbacks had more (his three lost sack fumbles tied for 119th nationally). Jennings fumbled just once after a sack in 2014 and LSU recovered that fumble.

Passing on clutch downs: Harris had an 80.0 raw QBR on third down (47-for-93, 839 yards, 7 TDs, 2 interceptions), easily his best rating for any down. However, his completion percentage (50.5) on third down was his lowest of any down.

The greatest number of LSU pass attempts came on downs where the Tigers needed 6-to-10 yards to achieve a first down or touchdown, and Harris could throw the ball more effectively in those situations. He generated a 52.8 raw QBR on those downs (100-for-184, 1,402 yards, 6 TDs, 4 interceptions).

Finish strong: In five of LSU’s first seven games last fall, Harris posted a well-above-average raw QBR of 75.9 or better – and nothing below an 81.9 in SEC play. But here are Harris’ raw QBR scores in LSU’s November games, the first three of which were losses: 34.8 against Alabama, 20.9 vs. Arkansas, 33.2 against Ole Miss and 16.2 against Texas A&M.

Performances like that from the quarterback are how a team can go from College Football Playoff contender at the start of November to nearly losing a head coach by the end of the month.

These numbers paint an accurate overall picture of Harris’ first season as a starter: some good, some bad. He has provided enough highlights to indicate that he is capable of more than he has shown. It’s a matter of developing consistency.