Wednesday, August 27, 2014
LSU's quarterback battle has just begun
By David Ching
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Once Les Miles publicly reveals LSU's starting quarterback -- probably sometime right before kickoff on Saturday -- that will settle ... exactly nothing.
Perhaps the most persistent question surrounding the Tigers since spring practice opened was whether sophomore Anthony Jennings or freshman Brandon Harris would take the first snap in Saturday's opener against Wisconsin. But no matter which inexperienced quarterback Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron choose to start against the Badgers -- Miles has already said both will play in the game -- that will resolve only the first phase of this competition.
Since neither player has run away with the job, their battle will play out publicly over the next several Saturdays.
Brandon Harris has a good arm that may be a better compliment to the Tigers' running game.
"Our team understands that we have talented quarterbacks and we have guys that can play," Miles said at his Monday news conference. "But right now they have not separated themselves, and we are not certain. If we were certain, then I promise you, we would play the one guy that would give us all the advantage. But if two guys can give us greater advantage than one guy, then let's certainly play two."
Here's the main dilemma No. 13 LSU's coaches face against a difficult opening opponent like No. 14 Wisconsin. This isn't some directional school that the Tigers are likely to push around regardless of who plays quarterback. Wisconsin is capable of beating LSU, which is why the Tigers probably can't afford to take many chances with this decision.
Despite some unimpressive performances in his first couple of starts, Jennings at least has actual game experience. He came off the bench to lead the Tigers' game-winning, 99-yard touchdown drive to beat Arkansas and appeared in a total of nine games against opponents like TCU, Florida and Ole Miss. But he also went 7-for-19 for 82 yards and tossed an interception that should have been a pick-six as a starter in LSU's 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa. In the Tigers' spring game, Jennings had two interceptions that went back for touchdowns.
"I know a lot more of the offense [than last season], I'm more comfortable in my skin, I have guys around me that I've known for a year now," Jennings said. "So it's easier now to talk to the guys and to get them going as opposed to last year when I didn't really know anybody and I was staying to myself."
Without question, Jennings possesses the intangibles to become a successful college quarterback. But at some point, the Tigers will need someone under center who is capable of striking fear in opposing defenses.
The running game should be superb, but the Tigers must pose at least a threat with the pass to keep opponents from focusing solely on stopping Leonard Fournette & Co. on the ground. During LSU's spring game, it didn't require a coach with Cameron's experience at molding quarterbacks to see which player possessed the more electric skillset.
The freshman boasts a next-level arm and is also a shifty runner, providing a nice balance to the bigger Jennings, who can bowl over a defender if necessary. But he's also a true freshman quarterback -- a group not known for their down-to-down consistency.
"You know any young quarterback is going to have a setback at some point in time and that's where the team comes in," Cameron said. "We've got to make sure that when they have that setback, it's not one that gets us beat."
So, for now at least, plan on seeing both quarterbacks play until one of them shows he deserves to take the lion's share -- or maybe even all -- of the snaps.
"I think eventually one of them is going to end up separating himself, but right now I think they're on an equal playing field and both having great success throughout fall camp and the scrimmages we've been having," running back Terrence Magee said.
Beyond Wisconsin, LSU plays Sam Houston State, Louisiana-Monroe and New Mexico State in September -- with the Sept. 20 SEC opener against Mississippi State crammed in between -- so the next several weeks will play a huge role in settling this battle before the Tigers fully dive into conference play. They can compete in real games without the probability of a major screwup costing LSU a victory.
That won't be the case on Saturday, so if Miles' history with such decisions is any indication, he might play it close to the vest against the Badgers and then let the competition continue in the ensuing weeks.
"I think our system lends itself to allowing young quarterbacks to play well against quality opponents because we believe in the running game and we believe that we can take the ball back, hand it off to a running back, give him a three-way break and we can be successful running the football in a way some people can't," Cameron said.
"Les and I cut our teeth in this system that way. We believe in it."