You’ll have to excuse LSU quarterback Brandon Harris this season if he seems a bit uncomfortable at times. That’s because the 6-foot-2 junior from Bossier City, La literally carries the entire weight of LSU’s SEC and National Championship goals and aspirations on his shoulders.
Harris enters his third year with the program, and his second-year as a starter.
LSU returns 9 offensive starters and has a plethora of talent at every position, and backed-up with quality depth.
However, based on the way that things for Harris and the Tigers passing game last year, one might be persuaded to scale back those championship expectations.
Oct 17, 2015; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers quarterback Brandon Harris (6) throws as Florida Gators defensive lineman Alex McCalister (14) defends during the second quarter of a game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
In 2015, the LSU passing offense finished 105th out of 128 teams in 2015. Harris finished the season with 2158 yards, 148 completions in 276 attempts, with 13 TD’s and 6 ints.
Harris understands the criticism and the doubters. During the off-season, Harris tweeted out this out to those who doubt his abilities:
“I play with a chip on my shoulder. Keep doubting me.”
Harris also has taken responsibility for his poor play at times last season, and is dedicated to getting the program back to a championship-caliber level.
This year’s rumblings from Tiger fans like previous years will revolve around LSU’s QB play, which it’s safe to say of late has been fairly inconsistent.
The “Geaux Tigers” contingent’s question this year is the same it has been of late:
“But what about the QB play”?
More important story-lines are that LSU has a new Defensive Coordinator in David Arranda, Cam Cameron was resigned as offensive Coordinator (to some Tiger fans dismay), Les Miles is back eating grass on the semi-hot seat, Leonard Fournette is in for another Heisman type year, and LSU had another Top 5 recruiting class.
Yet, ask ANY LSU fan what they’re most concerned about heading into the 2016 season, and they’ll quickly tell you: quarterback.
Sep 27, 2014; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers quarterback Brandon Harris (6) stiff arms New Mexico State Aggies defensive back Adaryan Jones (19) during the second quarter of a game at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
LSU’s QB play has been mediocre at best the past few years, and offensively the story coming into this year is eerily familiar.
Harris — a phenomenal athlete who’s been a mediocre passer at best — is expected to lead a loaded team.
The QB quandary has reared its head throughout Miles LSU tenure, with a few exceptions. LSU doesn’t need a Heisman season from Harris but they need his best season: both an effective and efficient “breakout”-type of season.
LSU doesn’t need Harris to throw the ball 25+ times a game, but when they do pass they must be able to convert at least 60% of the time.
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Harris has the arm strength and physical ability to prosper in Cam Cameron’s offense. Unfortunately, Harris hasn’t been consistent with his rhythm, timing, accuracy, and mechanics.
Harris relies heavily on his arm strength, to get him though any sort of difficulty.
“I really do feel like i have the best arm in college football.”
Harris’ biggest critics say that his dependence on his arm strength causes the ball to come out late; and it delays his decision-making.
In tight throwing windows, the ball can’t be late or inaccurate — especially playing in the SEC. Harris is an efficient runner, who runs the zone read adequately, but needs to progress as a pocket passer.
Cam Cameron uses various schemes in his repertoire, including pro-style, spread, and power -“I”; none of what would be regarded as complicated. But yet, Les and Cam’s Achilles heel has been QB development.
The past few years LSU’s offense has leaned heavily on the run game. Cameron’s offense when the run game is in rhythm opens up play action, and one-on-one opportunities down the field.
This allows boundary WR’s to predominantly face man coverage or a single high safety, but timing and ball delivery to those wide receivers is essential.
Harris has a very strong arm but his accuracy is a major issue; and last year he only managed to complete 54% of his passes. Harris ranked at the top of the SEC in completion percentage on throws under pressure.
Cam Cameron’s offense hasn’t been able to consistently convert when LSU’s run game has been stymied. Part of that is due to the fact that TE’s in LSU’s offense are primarily run blockers, not pass catchers. Cameron also likes to use a lot of 2-TE sets.
Additionally, LSU’s O-Line has to do a better job of protecting Harris, by giving him a cleaner pocket.
Cameron spoke about some new offensive wrinkles that the Tigers are looking to implement this season:
"“There will be improvement, there will be a noticeable change.”We’ve made some changes. We’re evolving. You adapt or die. You’ve got to continue to adapt the teaching, the practice schedules. . . I know he’s (Miles) tweaked our practice schedule some, tweaked our walk-throughs. Our walk-throughs at one time were 65-70 percent run and 30-35 percent pass. Now they’re 50-50.”"
If Cam can devise his scheme with some shorter routes, it could help Harris execution and confidence.
LSU runs an inordinate amount of “go routes” on the boundary; but for LSU to win the College Football Playoff national championship, the pass offense has to be more efficient 15 yards in and on 3rd downs.
Simply put, LSU hasn’t been able to keep defenses honest.
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LSU plays it conservatively by running the ball and then falling back upon the field position game. For Harris to improve his game and for LSU to land in the College Football Playoffs, the offense has to keep defenses guessing.
Harris has notably gained weight in the offseason, in an effort to stay healthy and help him absorb hits.
“After a year of being a starting quarterback, now you’re going into your second year and you understand the speed,” Harris said.
“Obviously you know how to get your body up to where it need to be. I’ve gained like 10 pounds since last season. You understand body structure and body mass. Hopefully I can go into the season at 222. “I hope to sustain it through the course of a season and I can stay healthy.”
Sep 26, 2015; Syracuse, NY, USA; LSU Tigers quarterback Brandon Harris (6) is sacked by Syracuse Orange safety Antwan Cordy (8) during the first quarter in a game at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
“Smash mouth” football and “3 yards and a cloud of dust” will only get LSU so far.
The offense has to evolve and understand that the passing game is a form of attack. LSU’s lack of offensive imagination has drawn fans ire.
Whether its play-calling, playbook, game planning or QB execution, these factors have prevented LSU from winning the SEC and National Championships.
Teams are stacking 9 defenders in the box at times and daring Harris to beat them.
“If your quarterback’s not confident, you’re not going to follow,” said LSU RB Leonard Fournette of Harris in a recent interview.
“I’m ready to see the new Brandon Harris when September 3rd comes.”
The LSU faithful wants to see the new Harris, too. They aren’t content anymore, with settling for the “same ol’ same ol'”.
In 2016, it’s up to the young man with the best arm in college football and a gigantic-sized chip on his shoulders, to deliver a national championship