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LSU 2014 Position Previews: Quarterbacks

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Another year and the man under center is the biggest question mark once again. Jennings or Harris, who ya got?

Roster/Depth Chart

10 Anthony Jennings (Soph.)

6-2, 216

Completed 13-of-29 passes for 181 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Rushed for 18 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Brandon Harris (Fr.)

6-3, 188

Completed 209-of-330 passes (63%) for 3,518 passing yards with 37 touchdowns and 9 INTs, plus 144 carries for 1,153 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior at Parkway High School. Four-star recruit.

17 Jared Foster (Jr.)

6-0, 200

Did not play football - batted .359 in 42 games as an outfielder for LSU baseball.

Who's Returning?

The only quarterback with real game action under his belt here is sophomore Anthony Jennings. The Georgia native had a whirlwind first 12 months on campus, beating out not only veteran Stephen Rivers, but his fellow classmate Hayden Rettig for the backup job in the spring practices of 2013 (inevitably leading to their transfer after the '13 season). Through the season, he saw a handful of garbage-time snaps, along with some situation-specific use for his running skills in short-yardage situations.

Things took a turn when Zach Mettenberger went down in the final minutes of the Arkansas game. The Hogs might have been the worst team in the SEC last season, but that doesn't make it any less remarkable that the true freshman led a 99-yard, game-winning drive in the game's final minutes. Many LSU fans believed we had a future star on our hands.

But the Outback Bowl was some cold water on that. Jennings completed just 7-of-19 passes for 82 yards an an interception, losing another 31 yards on the ground. Granted, the Iowa defense was pretty good and the game was played in wet weather on a sloppy track, but it was still discouraging. Jennings looked jittery and tentative in the pocket, leading to a number of poor scrambles, and missed a number of open receivers down the field.

After spending the previous eight months competing with a true freshman in a similar situation to himself a year ago, the question is which extreme of Jennings' 2013 performance is closer to what we can expect to see out of him in the long term.

N00bs?

In terms of playing time, yes. Harris is a true freshman, albeit one that not only had the benefit of a full offseason in the program, but a full spring practice in an active competition for the starting job. What's more, while both quarterbacks worked with George Whitfield and did other work outside of campus, Harris made it a point to work with his classmates in the recruiting class.

Through the spring Harris really hit the ground running and immediately put pressure, not only on Jennings, but on Rettig. His skill-set is similar to Jennings in terms of size and mobility, but what separates him is a big-time arm. The kid can really spin it, and that was what was really on display in LSU's spring game, when he threw for 195 yards and three touchdowns. As tentative as Jennings has looked at times, Harris was loose and confident -- just out there playing, so to speak. With his legs, Harris doesn't look like the kind of dual threat you want carrying a major load, but he's quick and athletic enough in the open field to make some plays on scrambles and handle whatever read-option additions are in the playbook.

Meanwhile, the loss of Rivers and Rettig to transfers led to Cameron seeking out another emergency quarterback in addition to walk-ons Brandon Bergeron, Brad Kragthorpe and Jake Clise: Jared Foster. The Tiger outfielder had spent a season on the football team a few years ago before deciding to concentrate on baseball. He'll probably handle some third-string duties based on how the walk-ons do. It's not an ideal situation, but I don't know that there really is an ideal way to play the No. 3 quarterback.

Where's the Competition?

Time for the meat and potatoes.

Jennings and Harris have been going back and forth for the last eight months, and even now a week from the opener, the result doesn't appear to be obvious. Which likely means that for now, both guys will play. At least until one player truly asserts himself and grabs hold of the job.

If I'm a betting man, the smart money seems to be on Jennings to take snap one versus Wisconsin. What happens after that is anybody's guess. Overall, Jennings seems to be the slightly steadier of the two. In the spring he looked a little more accurate on the short and intermediate passing game. And while he's struggled a little bit with the deep ball, he has shown that he can hit it regularly enough to make some big plays. And overall, he's generally carried himself with an air of belief that, frankly, this is his job and his team. Which makes the on-field issues we saw at times surprising. Jennings' biggest issue seemed to be confidence. Versus Arkansas, we saw a quarterback that was just out there playing. Versus Iowa and in the LSU spring game, we saw one that looked a little hesitant and unsure of himself at times. So the question is, which version is he?

Harris, on the other hand, seems to be the opposite number in terms of his approach, with the aforementioned looseness and a short memory. It's not unlike most big-armed quarterbacks, be it Jamarcus Russell, Rohan Davey or Zach Mettenberger. If the play doesn't quite work out, they want to keep throwing because they believe they can make the throw. Harris will take the shot when presented -- that was easily the biggest takeaway from the spring game.

Of course, the downside to that playing style is that it can lead to turnovers. And while big plays in the passing game are great, it's a lot easier for a quarterback, especially a young one, to be managed into the high-percentage passing game that keeps the chains moving. Shrugging off mistakes is an underrated trait for a quarterback, so long as the mistakes aren't repeated.

And What's the Bottom Line?

Again, I don't expect this battle to be settled by the first game, whether Les Miles names a starter before the game or not -- and he almost certainly will not do so, publicly. So does that mean a 2-QB system for the season? That probably depends as much upon the players as anything. If neither Jennings nor Harris really takes the job and runs/passes with it (see what I did there?), then the staff will have to try to find a way to make the offense work with both.

It's a less than ideal situation, but one that we're used to here at LSU. Still, I thought it would be best to seek some outside opinions on the matter, so I consulted some outside opinions, from Ian Boyd of Football Study Hall:

The popular expression in football is that "if you have two quarterbacks you really have zero." In the NFL or in certain offensive systems this is often true, but it's not a universal trait of all football teams.  LSU rode with two different QB's en route to a 12-0 regular season in 2011 and didn't see much push back until Jordan Jefferson faltered against Alabama while Jarrett Lee sat on the bench.

It all depends on what you're asking the quarterback to do within the offense and within the overall team strategy. For 2011 LSU, games were being won via special teams, defense, and running the football. Whether it was Jefferson or Lee that was called upon to sporadically make plays in the passing game hardly mattered.

In 2013 under Cam Cameron, the QB was a major part of the winning formula and the Tigers were frequently carried in games by Mettenberger's ability to push the ball down the field and convert 3rd downs.

Offensive systems that require that the QB make audibles at the line of scrimmage, lead the team in the huddle, make complicated reads of the defense, and be in sync with the receivers will generally want a single QB at the head. It would seem that this is ideally how Cameron's LSU offense would work.

Even though this team may again rely more on pounding the rock and making plays on defense and special teams, this system is really going to take off when under the firm direction of a good quarterback. Since this team has a lot of the offensive talent focused in the underclasses it makes sense to rely on the run game/defense/ST strategy of the past while grooming Brandon Harris for the future.

There's also the Tebow/Leak system that Florida used to win a title in 2006. Chris Leak ran the offense most of the time while Tebow had a steadily expanded package that emphasized the run game.

You can imagine Cameron coming up with a strategy that mostly relies on Jennings while frequently infusing a Wildcat-esque Harris package and simply not regularly asking the QB to win games for the team. College football has seen teams do this and win over teams lead by future pro QBs in the past so it's hardly impossible.

At the end of the day, the best way to win a game is to leverage the strengths you have and the team will rally around whatever identity produces results. If that's to shuffle QBs based on situation then that's the way to go. If you have a great QB who can lead the team then great, but it's silly to be married to a single strategy. If you make it all about the QB then you're at the mercy of always having one of the best ones in the nation and that simply isn't a great bet to make.

Boyd makes a good point regarding how LSU has made this work in the past, although it's incredibly important to note that as compared to Jefferson & Lee, Jennings & Harris offer similar skill-sets, meaning that while some play calls might change depending on which in (depending on who runs which plays better, etc...), things won't be as diametrically opposed as they are when one quarterback is dramatically more mobile than the other.

Still, it's always better to have one guy manage the job, says quarterback coach and consultant Grady Breen, aka "The Footwork Guru" on twitter:

It cannot be said enough that the quarterback position is like no other in sports. Quarterback competition happens in the majority of camps, and can greatly beneficial in pushing all players involved to be their best. However, competition between young quarterbacks has its own special set of circumstances, pros, and cons. As fans, we love to think that with a bunch of young talent under center, our team will be set for years to come. Sadly, this is rarely the case. College underclassmen are not typically patient enough to wait in the wings like Steve Young or Aaron Rodgers. Instead, the loser of camp competition often starts to look for transfer opportunities.

In terms of on-field situations, two-QB systems rarely work as we hope. On paper, two-QB systems look like a melding of two very (potentially) different styles of play, or in LSU's situation, two-times the explosive athletes in the backfield. This forgets to take into account the rhythm, comfort or groove that every QB must feel to succeed. It's incredibly hard for a player to simply walk onto the field and succeed, especially at the quarterback position. This is where the adage of "if you have two QBs, you don't have one" comes from. Continuing a two-QB system into the season on a drive by drive or game by game basis does not bode well for either player or the entire team. Playing two QBs is very similar to having pitchers switch every out or inning. No sense of continuation is established and long-term trends are hard to finalize.

In short, competition is highly beneficial for a quarterback, but a short leash and lack of continuation in the name of a two-QB system can negate the benefit very easily. If they are to use a two-QB system, it should be on a week to week scheme, as to best see what a player can do in four quarters worth of work.

Breen brings up another dynamic at play here, and really the biggest drawback to LSU's lack of scholarship quarterback depth: it's not going to improve if Jennings or Harris bails after this season if they don't win the job. The coaching staff, at a minimum, has to keep both players around for one more year while the 2015 quarterback recruit acclimates himself. That isn't to say that one of these guys will definitely bolt if the other takes control of the full-time job, but it's something to keep in mind.

The other question on a lot of fans' minds involve how the offense will evolve with more mobile quarterbacks, as opposed to the statuesque Mettenberger. And at a nuts-and-bolts level, the answer shouldn't be much. LSU will still be a run-heavy team with the offensive line and running backs, trying to move the chains and make some big plays in the passing game with play-action. Yes, there's been some talk of an increased focus on the pistol and some other spread formations, with some zone-read added to the playbook. But honestly, that's not as radical of a change as you might think.

The Tigers used I-formation personnel on two-thirds of their snaps last season, because, as we've discussed several times, with Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill and the Jarvis Landry/Odell Beckham Jr. combination outside, the best way for LSU to attack defenses was by making them choose between using a safety in run support or back in cover-two. Cameron might not have the same luxury with the two-back set, but can find it with a little more formation diversity, which brings us to more one-back looks including the pistol and shotgun.

As for the read-option and other such plays, there's no real reason to have a mobile quarterback if you're not going to try and take advantage of it with those types of plays as well as rollouts and other bootlegs. Does that mean LSU's becoming an option offense? Probably not, unless that somehow turns out to be the best way for these quarterbacks to function.

We've previously covered some ways that Cameron can help to manage the quarterbacks through the high-percentage passing game. Several practice reports have also indicated that LSU has been practicing some variations of the zone-read "pop pass," which Boyd profiled in this page of the SB Nation College Football Guide. I'm curious to see if that looks more like Auburn or Oregon's zone/read bubble:

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(H/T to College & Mag)

Or some of the other pop passes described in the Boyd piece. I know some have concerns about this level of ball-handling on a play and the risk involved, but that's why you practice them over and over again. Most of the time a quarterback should have a good idea whether the bubble screen will even be open pre-snap. But plays like this, especially with a safe throw like the bubble-screen, are a great way to do exactly what we talked about in the Offensive Prospectus this summer -- get an inexperienced quarterback confident and in a rhythm earlier in a game, allowing a coordinator to open the passing game up a little bit more with less risk.

If you forced me to make a guess on who takes snap one versus Wisconsin, my best guess is Jennings. A player with actual game experience might be a bit more comfortable coming out if there's a specific plan to get Harris in after a drive or two. I also think it's fair to say that Harris likely has the more upside here, and if he plays as well as he's capable of, he could have the starting job in hand by conference play.

Efficiency is going to be the key here not necessarily the flashy stats. Look for stats like completion percentage, yards-per-play and third-down conversion rate to illustrate who might be better for the job. I know there's a lot of concern out there that the "bad old days" of 2010-2012 are back for this passing game. But with Cameron's track record with young quarterbacks, I think it's fair to expect a minimum level of competency. Quarterback will almost certainly not be the level of asset it was in 2013. But there's a wide gulf between that and QB play that would be considered detrimental, and somewhere in that gulf is a place for LSU in 2014.

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