Battles for the starting quarterback position are regularly the most scrutinized preseason storyline in the college football spotlight. It’s also laced with hyperbolic language that requires coaches from time to time to temper expectations by humbling players in front of the media by rattling off each signal caller’s shortcomings.
Kenny Hill’s triumph over the No. 1 true freshman quarterback prospect in the nation has observers priming him for a monster year in the Texas A&M offense.
At Arizona, callow redshirt freshman Anu Solomon’s obstacle between him assuming a place in Rich Rodriguez’s is “Bucket List” redshirt senior Jesse Scroggins.
Down in Tuscaloosa, former Crimson Tide running back Blake Sims is suddenly neck-and-neck with heralded FSU transfer Jacob Coker for the starting job while trailing by a wide margin in media mentions.
While Ohio State has already figured out its backup situation, as of Aug. 22 LSU’s quarterbacks are stuck at an impasse while Les Miles takes his time mulling over who to make his starter between two greenhorn quarterbacks.
LSU’s grapple between sophomore Anthony Jennings and true freshman Brandon Harris requires no modulation of fan expectations. Jennings has been developing too slowly despite his experience advantage. Harris has been flying up the depth chart since he stepped on campus and is considered the leader in LSU's competition.
Unlike Solomon who was a four-time state champion at Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High School and the second-highest ranked quarterback nationally, or Hill who will be have eyes trained on him as he attempts the highwire act of filing into Johnny Manziel’s chamber within Sumlin’s explosive shotgun, Harris and Jennings’ hype hasn’t elicited much excitement within the SEC.
Much of that muted anticipation is due to a trio of factors.
One is that LSU’s offense is that the hype machine is working overtime for true freshman running back Leonard Fournette. LSU’s backfield is its strongest muscle and Miles’ offenses tend to matriculate the ball by ground and eschews the prodigious passing offenses that have proliferated throughout college football.
A second extenuating factor explaining the dearth of hype over the Harris-Jennings race is that neither is all that well-known to the casual fan. Here's a preliminary introduction.
Who should start… Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings? pic.twitter.com/kdDJay0bAg
— College GameDay (@CollegeGameDay) August 5, 2014
Depending on what recruiting service you follow, Jennings was either the 221st best player in the Class of 2013 (ESPN) or the 127th if Rivals is the recruiting ranking you revere.
His resume is aided by his 99-yard game-winning drive against Arkansas, capped off by a 49-yard completion to Jeremy Hill after Mettenberger was helped off the field.
Harris on the other hand is a higher caliber prospect. In addition to being rated No. 37 nationally by ESPN and 99th by Rivals, Harris was also invited to compete in the Under Armour All-American Game last January.
Harris only threw five passes in the annual all-star prep exhibition, but four were completions including a 64-yard bomb to Speedy Noil, who spurned LSU just before Signing Day.
Jenning’s abysmal Outback Bowl showing in his first start left Tiger fans sour.
Jennings’ execution in LSU’s game-winning drive over Arkansas was masterful, but in the Outback Bowl against Iowa, Jennings submarined it with a 7-for-19, 82 yard passing performance that included an interception for good measure, snuffed out any positive momentum he had in his favor.
His struggles continued into the spring game when Jennings wilted by getting sacked four times and throwing a pair of touchdowns –to the defense. An LSU defense bullying a quarterback is nothing new. However, staring competitions with receivers makes the job too easy.
The perception from the exterior is that if the competition is between a true freshman and “that guy”, then this offense is headed for the gutter.
However, the most glaring reason for the paucity of fans on bullhorns, shouting from the rooftops about their preference between Young Mettenberger, Jennings and RG4 Brandon Harris, is because Miles has the Sadim Touch. Every dazzling quarterback Miles touches loses his luster.
Golden armed quarterbacks are the annual highlights of LSU’s recruiting classes. Zach Mettenberger, Ryan Perrilloux, Russell Shepard, Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee have all come in highly touted. None have left that way outside of Mettenberger.
Even Mettenberger tore his ACL at the tail end of an underwhelming senior season for the Tigers.
Matt Flynn and Jamarcus Russell are omitted because they’re success is attributed to Nick Saban’s labor.
Harris’ promise is exciting, however, so was Perrilloux, Shepard and Jefferson’s before they arrived on campus.
Perrilloux couldn’t stay off the police blotter, but even when he could get on the field, he looked nothing like the most prolific offensive player in the history of Louisiana football and the No. 1 prep passer in the Class of 2005 – ahead of USC’s Mark Sanchez.
A few recruiting cycles later, the nation’s top dual threat passer chose LSU because he believed he had the best chance of playing quarterback there.
Unable to figure out what to do with their hybrid athlete, Miles stuck him at receiver after his freshman campaign.
As pure pocket passers and zone read schemes have accelerated offensive output across the nation, and especially in the SEC, LSU’s remained resistant to evolution.
In reality, this quarterback grapple isn’t a complete crapola. In fact, the true freshman battling Jennings could be the first great quarterback of the Miles era.
Harris has glimmered since the moment he stepped on campus.
In the same spring game that Jennings flung vomit all over the field, Harris became one with the football, throwing for 195 yards while completing 11-of-21 attempts and three touchdowns. He also flashed an auxillary element of his skillset by displaying his elusiveness by scrambling for 77 yards and a rushing touchdown.
Miles may have qualms with starting two freshman in the backfield for his offense, but times are changing. Actually, they already have. Freshman quarterbacks competing for starting jobs aren’t the lepers they were once treated as.
From all accounts, Jennings is being outplayed by the Under Armour All-American true freshman and at 6-3, you can be assured that Harris won’t be shuffled into the Russell Shepard swiss army knife because of concerns over his size.
Cam Cameron has very little experience formulating his offense around a dual-threat quarterback like Harris, but the adjustment shouldn’t be too much turbulence.
While Harris can get out and run, it’s often to create something out of nothing behind the line of scrimmage, to buy time or to gain yardage when a play breaks down.
Miles has played it coy with media and teased the possibility of going into the season opener against Wisconsin with a tandem quarterback platoon, but not only is Harris’ upside higher, but he may already have advance past Jennings as a signal caller.
ESPN’s analyst and recruiting expert Tom Luginbill called the poised Harris the closest thing he’s seen to a can’t miss prospect in the last eight years.
Miles hasn't had the best of luck with elite prep prospects and if you ask anyone who remembers him choosing Jordan Jefferson over Jarrett Lee, he hasn't always chosen correctly. Its plausible he doesn't want to ruin Harris by thowing him out there without a parachute. The two quarterbacks rated ahead of him, Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Jerrod Heard won't be full-fledged starters in Week 1. Likewise, Jameis Winston and Johnny Manziel redshirted their entire freshman seasons.
This decision has hidden layers to it. The hare doesn't always win the race, but at the least Harris should be given a head start.