Brandon Harris (above) is expected to make his third college start on Saturday.
1. How different is Brandon Harris than the guy that Auburn played last season in Jordan-Hare Stadium and why is he the right guy for the offense?
TSD: The biggest difference is in how Harris commands the offense in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, and that’s what has finally made him the right man for the job at quarterback. There was never a question from the LSU staff about Harris’ physical talents and ability to hum the football across and down the field. But, as a freshman, he was constantly playing catch-up to Anthony Jennings on pre-snap matters, at times having trouble calling the plays in the huddle and even freelancing from the original play call.
After an offseason that saw Jennings sidelined for a month due to a legal issue, Harris took the reins and hasn’t let go since. He is a definite number one for the Tigers at this point, with no more “or” on the depth chart between him and Jennings and little chance in general, barring injury, that Jennings sees the field in competitive play. Harris also played with too much adrenaline at Auburn last season, habitually throwing high. The sophomore is showing signs that he’s a cooler customer now when the LSU staff trusts him to put the ball in the air.
2. What do you think LSU does to try to disrupt the Auburn offense under first-year coordinator Kevin Steele? How different is his look compared to John Chavis?
First, I believe Auburn fans might be surprised to learn just how similar LSU’s scheme is defensively with Steele to what it was under Chief. It might help a light bulb go off to know that those two are also close friends, from the same home town in South Carolina and that Chavis reportedly recommended Steele for the job. So, with the recruited talent LSU has on campus, the defense still operates from a base 4-3 but is likely to stay in nickel (4-2-5) often against Auburn’s spread attack, as LSU did primarily at Mississippi State.
That means true freshman Kevin Toliver will man one cornerback spot, opposite Tre’Davious White, and veteran Dwayne Thomas will cover slot receivers as the nickel back. Maybe the biggest difference we saw from Chavis to Steele is that the latter likes to blitz his linebackers (Chavis relied more on nickel and dime corners to blitz). Look for Kendell Beckwith and Deion Jones to come crashing in on Jeremy Johnson more than the ‘backers were allowed to last season under Chavis.
3. LSU's defense was strong against the run, but gave up a ton of passing yards to Mississippi State. What are the problem areas against the pass for this group?
TSD: Honestly, a large chunk of those passing yards came in the fourth quarter, when LSU’s offense couldn’t stay on the field and the Tigers’ defense, short on depth on the front two levels, got tired. So, if it makes sense, the key contributor to the secondary getting sloppy was the offensive game plan going full turtle mode and keeping its head inside the shell, submitting three-and-outs regularly.
But the depth is a real issue defensively for LSU, in particular up front. Once the likes of Arden Key, Tashawn Bower and Lewis Neal stopped getting consistent pressure on Dak Prescott, he had more success late in the ballgame when State had to have it, trailing. The only other thing to add: Prescott picked on LSU’s linebackers and Dwayne Thomas a bit in coverage. Those are more vulnerable areas in pass coverage than the starting four DBs (Toliver, White, Jamal Adams and Rickey Jefferson).
4. LSU only threw a handful of passes in the win over the Bulldogs and Les Miles made it sound like that could be a theme for this season. Do you see LSU trying to open things up more this weekend or stick to Leonard Fournette and the ground game almost exclusively?
TSD: Brandon Harris was adamant with reporters earlier this week that he had a lot of audibles at the line of scrimmage, checking into runs to Fournette. So, if that and what Les Miles is saying are to be believed, than Mississippi State’s defense was giving LSU the Fournette run option (especially from the Shotgun, where Harris and Fournette ran some read-option, almost all of which ended up as handoffs to Fournette).
But let’s not kid ourselves here. Miles isn’t ready to put full trust into Harris yet. That much was obvious by Harris’ second-half line: 4-of-6 for 15 yards. So, no, I don’t see LSU opening things up too much more through the air or more routinely throwing the ball downfield. However, I have a sneaking suspicion we’ll see Harris keep the ball and run more on Saturday.
Leonard Fournette rushed for 149 yards in the opener vs. Mississippi State.
5. We have seen how well LSU plays at night in Death Valley over the years so how much impact will playing in the afternoon possibly have on this week's game?
TSD: Seven or eight years ago, I’d have told you the difference between LSU’s energy level at day and at night in Tiger Stadium were worlds apart. Now, I think the gap has closed a good bit, primarily because the Tigers have been enough of a marquee program during that span that they’ve been called upon to play the CBS game at 2:30 p.m. often. So I don’t anticipate it’ll make much of a difference on Saturday. Plus, think about it this way: Those home fans are frothing at the mouth to see LSU play in that stadium. Only got nine plays’ worth versus McNeese State. The Alabama game last season (Nov. 8, 2014) was the last time LSU fans have seen the Bayou Bengals at home. They’ll be jacked up.