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The Optimist's Case for LSU's Quarterbacks

No one is trying to convince you that the Tigers' signal callers are going to be good this year. Let me try.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Preview magazine season is upon us, which means it won't be long until it's full-blown preview season for everyone else. Inevitably, you'll find people going against the grain for no other purpose than to go against the grain and rile folks up with hot takes and unusual opinions. Most of those are dumb, and many aren't even too far away from the conventional wisdom. They'll just be phrased in a way that makes them seem more daring (ahem) than they actually are.

One unconventional opinion I've yet to see anyone express is this: LSU will be fine at quarterback this year. Not even the trolls will touch that one, as putting Les Miles on the hot seat is the easier angle to attack the Tigers with.

I don't know if I will go so far as to say that the Bayou Bengals are set behind center for sure this year. However, I wanted to see if you could put together a reasonable optimist's case for LSU's quarterbacking situation. Is it possible to build a case that the position won't be a liability again? Here is my best shot.

The story coming out of the spring is that neither Anthony Jennings nor Brandon Harris was able to take control of the starting spot for the Tigers. And, as everyone knows, having two quarterbacks means you have no quarterbacks.

However, saying that neither Jennings nor Harris could beat the other one out is a relative statement, not an absolute statement. It just means they're close in their level of play. It doesn't mean that they're both bad (or good, or average, or anything). It's like what I said in my piece about balance earlier this week: having a perfectly balanced offense means nothing if that means you are equally as bad at running and passing.

It is possible that they've both improved to become at least serviceable quarterbacks, and coming out of the spring game Les Miles remarked that the two of them had improved. I realize that you can only take coaches' statements for so much, but Miles isn't known to be an egregious sunshine pumper.

The spring game itself offered some level of hope too. I know all the issues with taking stats from spring games seriously, so you don't need to tell me about them. Here's one to look at though: completion percentage. If guys throwing and catching can't connect in the comfy confines of an April scrimmage, how are they going to do it in the fall?

Indeed, we saw a glimpse of the coming issues last year. In the 2014 spring game, Jennings went 9/17 (52.9%) and Harris went 11/28 (39.3%). During the fall, Jennings posted a 48.9% mark as the primary guy and Harris a 55.6% mark in his limited duty. In Harris's one start, he went 3/14 (21.4%) against an Auburn defense that eventually got its coordinator fired.

This time around Jennings completed 13-of-20 (65%), while Harris connected on 11-of-17 (64.7%). Perhaps that was just a mirage due to the defense still learning from its new coordinator, but you can't fake completing passes. You can't complete a throw if that throw isn't at least near the receiver, and that was a problem last year. The two quarterbacks largely passed the eye test as well.

Plus, they'll be getting some help this year. As I've pointed out a few times, LSU's skill positions were nearly all underclassmen last year. Jennings and Harris themselves were a sophomore and freshman, respectively. Leonard Fournette became the primary back as a true freshman. The top four receivers on the team were sophomore Travil Dural and three freshman in Malachi Dupre, John Diarse, and Trey Quinn. Having that much youth throughout a unit is going to cause some problems that won't still be around with them all being a year more experienced this fall.

Now, I'm not going to try to tell you that Jennings had a good year as a starter last year. Not even the most dedicated contrarian can make that case believable. In fact, many of the SEC quarterbacks who turned in similar years in the past decade never got another chance to start.

Here is a sampling of quarterbacks who had passing efficiency numbers as a primary QB (requirement: appear in at least 75% of the team's games and average 15 attempts per game) similar to Jennings's figure and who would be a primary quarterback again. I've put up their completion percentages and passing efficiencies along with the best ones they'd later put up. They're arranged by the largest difference between their initial year of struggles and their best year of passing efficiency.

Player Season Class Comp Pct. Best Pct. Passing Eff. Best PE
Matthew Stafford 2006 FR 52.7% 61.4% 108.99 153.54
Mike Hartline 2009 SO 55.3% 66.2% 104.72 146.38
Andre' Woodson 2005 SO 57.7% 63.1% 115.37 154.55
Jarrett Lee 2008 FR 53.2% 62.3% 116.92 152.04
Stephen Garcia 2009 SO 55.3% 64.2% 119.33 148.70
Jordan Rodgers 2011 JR 50.0% 59.9% 113.76 139.13
John Brantley 2010 JR 60.8% 60.8% 116.36 140.83
Brandon Allen* 2012 SO 49.6% 56.0% 109.02 129.19
Brodie Croyle 2003 JR 53.4% 59.6% 117.96 132.78
Larry Smith 2009 SO 46.7% 47.4% 88.00 94.26
Omarr Conner 2004 SO 51.9% 51.9% 104.67 106.74
Tyson Lee 2008 JR 58.8% 58.8% 112.95 112.95
Anthony Jennings 2014 SO 48.9% ? 118.33 ?

*Allen is still active and, barring injury, will start for Arkansas this year.

We'd know by now if Jennings was Matt Stafford, and, well, he's not. I don't think he's Omarr Conner, Tyson Lee, or Larry Smith either. Those guys were playing on bad teams that didn't have anything like Dural or Dupre to throw to or Fournette to back them up on the ground. They also didn't have the expertise of anyone like Cam Cameron to guide them.

Even including those guys on hopeless teams, the average improvement in completion percentage from first starting year to best starting year was 5.5 percentage points, and the average improvement in passing efficiency was 23.59. If Jennings merely got the average bump, he'd be at 54.4% and 141.92. Taking out Smith, Conner, and Tyson Lee, the average improvements go to 7.3 percentage points in completions and 30.52 in PE. Give Jennings those averages, and he goes to 56.2% and 148.85. It'd be tough to have that high a passing efficiency with that low a completion percentage, but last year Rice's Driphus Jackson hit 148.92 with 57.7%.

Of course, Jennings might not hit his highest potential this fall as a junior. He might not even start at all, as Harris and his much better arm could win the job. That said, I'm pointing out that it is possible for a quarterback to go from a dismal season like what Jennings had last year and improve. Going from the 110s to the 140s in passing efficiency can be done, and getting up into the 140s—which should be middle to upper tier for the SEC this year—would be plenty to improve the offense. And if Harris does beat Jennings out, it could be due to his potential to hit that level of play.

I'm not going to sit here and tell you that quarterback isn't a question in Baton Rouge. I will tell you that it's possibly a question with a positive answer.