A year and a half ago none of this was part of “the plan” at quarterback for LSU.
At that time – circa January 2013 – Greg Studrawa was still offensive coordinator, although on his way out, and Stephen Rivers was heading into his third season with the Tigers, the presumed heir to Zach Mettenberger’s throne once 2014 rolled around.
But, as is often in the case in major college football, the deck’s been reshuffled several times over since then. Now LSU finds itself in the midst of a quarterback duel this August between two players not even on campus when the calendar flipped over to 2013.
Sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris, both players more heavily recruited than Rivers coming from high school, are squaring off for the starting job under center. And the man pulling the strings on the competition between the two youngsters is not Studrawa but Cam Cameron, former NFL and NCAA head coach who guided the Tigers to historic offensive levels in his maiden voyage on the bayou last season.
While the revolving door at quarterback and coaching staff shake-up may have altered the blueprint, head coach Les Miles remains confident that LSU’s options have gotten better over time, even if they are newer.
“If we can get the quarterbacks to facilitate and function, we're going to be good. I say that with the idea that young players are going to play,” Miles explained Sunday. “I say that with the idea that they're talented and they were recruited to that void. We're going to coach them hard. We're going to make sure that we try to anticipate mistakes and avoid them. But, yeah, I'm not anticipating just terrible growing pains there.”
The progression of Harris vs. Jennings, and how Cameron is grooming both, continue to be dominating storylines from Fall Camp. Here, in their own words, the trio breaks down the state of LSU’s quarterback competition.
KNOWING WHAT YOU’VE GOT
For all the microscopes being put on these two, as fans, reporters and coaches alike rush to point out their differences and where one is better than the other, they believe they’re actually quite similar between the lines.
“I think we’re more alike than anything,” said Jennings. “We both can extend plays. We both have great arms. We’re both very talented and smart. I think all of those things we’re very alike on, but we have some little things that are very different.”
Jennings, a 6-foot-2, 216-pound native of Marietta, Ga., first arrived on campus in the spring of 2013 as an early enrollee, a move Harris replicated the following spring. The duo’s elder statesman believes Harris has learned the ropes well during his brief time in Baton Rouge, something Jennings anticipated given his pedigree.
“I think he’s doing a great job. I expected that,” Jennings leveled. “He came in highly recruited and was pedal to the metal (this spring) trying to get better and work with no ego. So I think he’s done a great job so far throughout Fall Camp, and I think he’ll continue to do that.”
Development has been the name of the game for Harris, who at 188 pounds (and a dubious 6-foot-3 listing) isn’t as thick or prepared for punishment as Jennings but compensates with better speed and a stronger arm.
“I’ve just developed so much, and I know so much now compared to when I first got here,” said Harris. “It’s unbelievable where I’m at now versus before I got here. So I think I went through all my learning curves. Obviously I’m still learning. I mean I’m a young guy, I’m a freshman, but that’s the perks of being able to graduate early and get here. When you’ve got a teacher like Cam Cameron, the sky’s the limit.”
Part of Jennings’ progression is learning from what little in-game experience he possesses in an LSU uniform. Some of it went spectacularly well and some of it yawningly subpar, but it’s all part of his make-up and constitutes an area where Jennings has a leg-up.
On his takeaways from the Outback Bowl, Jennings submitted, “It helped me because I have something to go back on now in terms of how to prepare for a game, how to come into a game with a steady mind. All the things I’ve been doing since, yeah, it kinda helped me to lean on something for this season here. I think that it was a great experience. I’ve just got to learn from it and get better.”
His offensive coordinator has a difficult time dialing up memories that long ago. Cameron prefers to keep his guys in the present.
“That game seems so far from right now. I really don’t know any other way than to focus on this season,” explained Cameron. “Any freshman quarterback learns and grows in his first opportunity to play. I think that’s what I’ve seen over the years. The great quarterbacks thrive on learning as they go, putting things in the past and focusing on today. That’s where my focus is. That’s where our focus is, and that’s how we’ll do it going forward.”
To date Jennings has done his best to adhere to that mantra, stating he’s evolved not only as an athlete over the past few months but also in his understanding of the position. “I’m definitely a different player,” he said without hesitation. “I’ve become faster, stronger, mentally smarter in the aspects of the game. All those things that I’ve been working on throughout the summer and into Fall Camp, I feel like I’ve become a better player than I was at the end of spring.”
As for Harris, who hails from Bossier City and became the first quarterback hand-picked and recruited to LSU by Cameron, there are expectations aplenty. The more media-friendly of the two, Harris has handled it all in stride, but there’s one comparison he’s not exactly welcoming.
“I don’t know if I want to be compared to Johnny [Manziel],” Harris told reporters recently. “That’s a lot of pressure. That guy was unbelievable.”
The freshman did concede he’s capable of giving LSU’s defense that type of dual-threat look, which he’s more than happy to do. Through another anecdote Harris also provided a reminder of what he and Jennings are not – Mettenberger.
“I’d like to say I’m pretty accurate. I think, and I don’t want to sound cocky, but I think I’m a nine (out of 10),” Harris responded to a question about his accuracy. “I’m not going to lie, I don’t go through practice and go 48-for-48.
“I used to call Cam and he would tell me Zach went 48-for-48 in practice. I said that guy must be the most accurate thing since sliced bread. But no, I like to think if a guy’s open right now I can throw a ball and hit him. I mean I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t. I would hope every quarterback’s close to a 10 around here throwing it. Otherwise we’re not here anymore.”
One of the more widely discussed topics of late surrounding LSU football is the offensive playbook and whether Cameron is carving different portions of it out for Harris and Jennings. So goes the thought process: Harris is a more modern quarterback who can expand the Tigers’ rushing attack from Pistol and Shotgun formations while Jennings is a touch more traditional and can operate under center from looks more familiar to LSU.
If that’s the case both players are either unaware of Cameron’s plans or are good, practiced liars on the subject.
Said Jennings: “It’s probably the same playbook for both of us. We run two plays here, two plays there and flip-flop (in practice), so I feel like the playbook’s the same. You’ve just got to know what you’re doing.”
And Harris: “I think both of us have the same type of skillset – running and being able to throw the ball. I think they’re putting it in for both of us.”
While the “it” Harris referred to is the playbook, he could just as easily have been talking about the zone read, a look shown and taught regularly by Cameron throughout the first week of Fall Camp. The second-year LSU coach didn’t speak specifically to that concept, but Cameron did acknowledge he’ll tailor certain aspects of the offense to his players’ strengths.
“Every guy’s skillset is a little bit different. None of the guys are exactly the same,” noted Cameron. “We’re not going to run the same thing with every guy, but we do expect them to do certain things. We expect them to be tough, we expect them to lead, we expect them to be able to execute our running game and our audible system, and we expect them to flourish in whatever passing game fits them. One quarterback, two quarterbacks, three quarterbacks, four quarterbacks, five quarterbacks, it doesn’t matter. They all have to play, and they have to play well at a championship level for us to get what we want done.”
When examining individual approaches Harris is big on emphasizing and growing his mental game. He feels it’s what may ultimately separate him from other physically talented quarterbacks now and on the next level, where many of his NFL idols have already blazed a cerebral trail.
“The other players saw us throw (in the spring), and they realized this kid can throw and this and that. But at this level it’s much more than you throwing a football,” Harris recognized. “Guys like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady and Drew Brees, all those guys get older and their bodies aren’t the same as they were when they were 25. Those guys are using their minds and able to articulate and do different things with the defense. I think Drew came out and said he could play until he’s 45. It’s not because his arm has gotten much stronger. It’s just because he’s so smart and so intelligent that his mind is starting to take over and he’s letting his body do the rest.
“I think that’s the most important thing when you’re a young guy. You’re kinda like that young, new shiny toy. Every guy likes you because you can do this and that, but at the same time you’ve got to have the mental part of the game down.”
On his side of the fence, Jennings is concerned with mastering the little things. Having seen and felt firsthand what it’s like to lead the LSU offense on a big stage, he knows he’ll succeed when everyone around him is on the same page.
“I think we need to just hone in on things like what cadence is it on, running this route to 12 yards and not 11, the small things that outside people may not see,” said Jennings. “We see them, and it’s the little things that count. Once we hone in on those little things, we’ll start to get better.”
The ultimate decision on who starts and how often each plays, Cameron reminds, rests with Miles.
“Les will make the right decision,” Cameron continued. “Our job in the quarterback room is to make sure every guy is ready to play like a starter. We have a first starter, a second starter, a third starter, a fourth starter and a fifth starter. We’ve got five guys in that room. We expect them all to prepare like starters, and when the opportunity arises the expectation is simple – go in there and play like an LSU starter.”
WHERE IT’S HEADING
The tension may be mounting in bars and restaurants and around water coolers throughout Louisiana regarding Harris vs. Jennings, with the locals ready for white smoke to emerge from the Ponderosa with an answer, but neither combatant is losing much sleep over it with the Wisconsin opener less than three weeks away.
“I don’t know (when the coaches will decide) and to be honest with you I really don’t care,” said Harris. “I really don’t. It’s not that big of a thing to me. I think any of our guys are ready to play. I don’t care if it’s me, Anthony, Brad [Kragthorpe], Jake [Clise] or Jared [Foster]. I think we’re all ready to play.”
Jennings sang a similar tune but hit a high – and important – note at the end of his assessment of the position battle at quarterback. “The competition makes both of us better,” he explained. “We’re going to keep doing it until that first game to see who starts, and into the season.”
The more time that passes, the more that final sentiment begins to stand above the rest within the confines of their competition. Cameron, Miles and the LSU staff are likely to utilize both players in LSU’s first three games, which includes the clash with the Badgers in Houston followed by two home non-conference tune-ups against Sam Houston St. and UL-Monroe, if not longer until one emerges.
Neither Harris nor Jennings put up much resistance to the idea of being part of a two-quarterback system, even if their reasons why varied.
“I wouldn’t care,” claimed Harris. “As a freshman you’re kinda not even expected to play at quarterback, so if they’re playing both of us I would not care. It’s not like I’m going to come out and say something. I want to play. That’s just simple.”
“Oh that’s fine with me,” Jennings said to possibly sharing time. “I feel like coaches make the best decisions for this football team to win. Even at the end of the year, if we’re still playing two quarterbacks and we win the national championship, we still get the rings. That’s the ultimate goal of this football team, not who’s the starter and who’s the backup. It’s just who’s the best player and who’s going to play to win.”
Putting a bow on things Cameron shared insight into how Miles and the staff will make determinations at quarterback on a weekly basis. In the process the former Miami Dolphins head coach expressed a vote of confidence in his young guys to do more than just tread water in 2014.
“It’s a collective effort. We’ll follow his lead,” said Cameron of Miles. “He does a tremendous job of asking for input, from not just me but our entire offensive staff. We’ve got a staff that’s been around a lot of good quarterbacks, people that know what good quarterbacks look like and what they feel like. It’s really a lot of conversation, but the bottom line is whoever steps out there – just like Anthony did in the Arkansas game – that’s the expectation. If one guy goes down, the next guy steps up and plays at a high level.
“Our quarterbacks understand they’re not out there by themselves. We’re leading the unit, but our quarterbacks will play within themselves and within the system. The number one thing is to come out of the stadium with a win. We’re all about winning, and I think we’ve got quarterbacks we can win with.”