Assessing the fall's starting passers, in no particular order. Today: LSU junior Jordan Jefferson.
• Typecasting. Fourteen games into his career as a starting quarterback, Jefferson is still a bit of an enigma, a well-regarded recruit with the body of a big (6'4"/220 pounds), athletic, NFL-bound bombardier who so far has played more like a within-the-offense manager whose coaches are reluctant to cut the apron strings. On one hand, the Tigers' general offensive malaise was palpable throughout last season when they finished dead last in the SEC in total offense, worse than Vanderbilt. For the season, Jefferson and Co. cracked 400 total yards and/or 40 points only once (in a 42-0 laugher over hopelessly outmanned Tulane) and failed to top 300 yards in four of the last five games.
On the other hand, though, it was hard to drop the blame on Jefferson, who had no support from the running game and was generally efficient with what he was asked to do in coordinator Gary Crowton's system. In between odd flashes of the athleticism and arm that made him one of the top incoming quarterback prospects in the SEC in 2008, Jefferson spent a lot of his time as a sophomore dinking and dunking to varied effect, becoming something of a Rorschach test for fans' patience and optimism in the process. With the possible exception of the 13-3 home loss to Florida, he was never bad, but he didn't turn in any revelatory performances, either, leaving us to wonder exactly what the Tigers have on their hands for the next two years: A developing comer set to bloom with a looser rein as an upperclassmen, or a standard issue bubble screen/check-down artist who they hope won't get them beat?
• At his best ... Even in high school, Jefferson wasn't considered the most electrifying scrambler, but he can move, and he can throw on the move if necessary, which it frequently was last year behind one of the SEC's most porous lines:
Last-second debacle at Ole Miss notwithstanding, Jefferson is a pretty good decision maker, at least in the sense that he doesn't make a lot of bad decisions – a highly valued quality for LSU fans after a year under the emotional guillotine of pick-six king Jarrett Lee in 2008. Jefferson, by contrast, completed an impressive 61.5 percent of his passes last year with only seven interceptions, has never thrown more than one pick in a game and has never had an INT returned for a touchdown. He was allegedly "taking ownership" of the team in the spring.
And yes, in a pinch, he can challenge a secondary with his arm: As conservative as the Tiger passing game was in '09, Jefferson still managed to strike for at least one 25-yard completion in every game but one, and passed for multiple touchdowns in six of the team's nine wins.
• At his worst ... Be that as it may, he didn't attempt to stretch secondaries very often: For a guy with such a solid completion percentage, Jefferson came in with a thoroughly mediocre 7.3 yards per attempt, with only one completion all season (a 58-yard play-action bomb to Brandon LaFell at Mississippi State) covering more than 45 yards. His average completion averaged fewer yards than almost every other regular starter in the conference.
You can see at right that Jefferson's downfield numbers compare very favorably with Alabama's Greg McElroy, and if you gave Jefferson a Heisman-winning running back, the best defense in the country and an offensive line that didn't yield three-and-a-half sacks per conference game, he could probably lead that team a national championship, too. On a team that couldn't run and couldn't protect him, though, Jefferson obviously isn't (or isn't yet) the kind of quarterback who can put the operation on his back when things are going so well, as the offense's lo-fi performance in losses to Florida (162 yards, 3 points), Alabama (253 yards, 15 points), Ole Miss (290 yards, 23 points) and Penn State (243 yards, 17 points) clearly proved.
• (Moderately) Fun Fact. No matter what happens over the last two years of his career in Baton Rouge, Jefferson will probably always be remembered first and foremost for his role in one of the most bizarre endings of the 2009 season, as the guy who tried to spike the ball with one second left against Ole Miss – even though he had a little help from his head coach:
Next time, Jordan, just call the timeout yourself after third down.
• What to Expect in '10. With massively hyped quarterback prospect Russell Shepard now spending all his time at receiver, the Tigers' top three receivers – senior Terrance Toliver, Shepard and sophomore Rueben Randle –- were all five-star recruits out of high school, and another, Chris Tolliver, came out ranked as the top prospect in Louisiana in 2007. Somewhere in that group, especially among the highly-touted sophomores, there must be a playmaker or two on the verge of restoring some of the pop the offense was badly missing, but only if Jefferson able and allowed to create a spark of his own.
With a mediocre running game, a less-than-elite defense and occasional special teams heroes Trindon Holliday and Chad Jones leaving the return game in unproven hands, the Tigers have no hope of a darkhorse SEC championship run without some kind of reliable downfield passing attack. Without it, facing a schedule that throws North Carolina, West Virginia, Tennessee and Florida at them in the first six weeks, things could start to spin out of control by midseason. The primetime opener against North Carolina's unusually stacked defense will tell us a lot about how far Jefferson's role in the offense has come, and whether the rest of the unit has made any part of the trip with him.
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Previously (alphabetical by school): Ryan Mallett, Arkansas. ... Kevin Riley, California. ... Chris Relf, Mississippi State. ... T.J. Yates, North Carolina. ... Landry Jones, Oklahoma. ... Tom Savage, Rutgers. ... Andy Dalton, TCU. ... Garrett Gilbert, Texas. ... Tyrod Taylor, Virginia Tech. ... Scott Tolzien, Wisconsin.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.