There’s no white smoke yet coming out of Les Miles’ office when it comes to this quarterback derby between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.
So we wait and we watch for hints, clues, tells as to what decision is blowing on the hot wind when it comes to this position battle on which so much of LSU’s football fortunes this season seem to hinge.
Going into preseason camp, it was wise to take a Missouri “Show me” approach to this quarterback derby. If Harris were to beat out Jennings, to get that first snap Sept. 5 against McNeese State, it needed to be seen to be believed, and maybe not even then.
The handicappers have always said Harris is the more talented quarterback. That Harris had the better Spring Game. And certainly Harris got in much more if not all the work in seven-on-seven drills compared to Jennings, who spent a good chunk of his summer suspended after an arrest on break-in charges now dropped.
That summer work has made a big difference in where Harris is compared to last season, wide receiver John Diarse said.
“We all know he had the physical talent to play quarterback,” he said. “It was a mental thing with him. He definitely, definitely took it to heart this summer. This offseason, he really, really matured.
“Brandon was here 24/7 (over the summer). He was already in the film room. Big leap (from last year).”
But Jennings has shown he had the better head, at least until he lost his head and unlawfully entered another person’s apartment in June. He’s also had the huge advantage in experience, 13 career starts to Harris’ one. In Miles’ world, which takes a conservative approach to quarterback play, experience counts for a lot.
Jennings and Harris aren’t talking yet. I’d be surprised if we hear from them before next Sunday’s LSU Media Day. Same for offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
And yet, the early signs from the few minutes of individual drills we media types observe, the few comments from the quarterbacks’ teammates on the subject, are beginning to form a picture.
The picture looks like Harris is, at least for now, LSU’s No. 1 quarterback. Miles has admitted as much, though he said starting first in this contest is not as important as finishing first.
Rightly so. There are four weeks until the season opener. A lot can change.
But the question isn’t whether Harris has the upper hand, but whether he can keep it.
When Harris practices in individual drills, he works with the No. 1 backfield battery: tailback Leonard Fournette and fullback John David Moore. Jennings was working on option plays Saturday morning with walk-on Miquel James, a converted receiver, as his tailback.
Their passing? Well, Harris has always thrown a better ball. Come to think about it, no LSU quarterback has thrown a more effortless deep ball since JaMarcus Russell. Harris’ throws are crisp and tight. Jennings simply doesn’t have the same velocity. Probably never will.
Then there’s body language. Jennings’ has been bad, defeatist even. There are whispers that Jennings may be bothered by a sore shoulder or arm, though certainly no one has said for sure. But clearly at practice, especially Friday morning, Jennings has looked glum.
Not to say everything is perfect in Harrisburg. During a Saturday morning drill, he was well high of the mark throwing in the direction of receiver D.J. Chark. Cameron asked what he was doing, and Harris indicated he thought Chark was going to run another route.
It was just one pass, but it gives credence to the knock on Harris since last season: He hasn’t had the grasp of the offense that Jennings has, though tight end DeSean Smith said that has improved.
“I remember Brandon coming in last year freaking out like, ‘I don’t know what to do,’” Smith said. “Now, Brandon’s back there, comfortable, hitting his targets, doing everything right. You can tell.
“He now knows what to tell us. If you don’t know something, or we need a little help or something, he knows what to do. He knows what we have now. It’s the same thing with Anthony: he’s good, he knows the whole system. He’s always helped us, so I feel both those guys are very good quarterbacks.”
Very good quarterbacks would have helped LSU rank higher than 114th nationally in passing last season, but in truth, neither has to be very good this season. Given the talent arrayed around them, they merely have to be adequate.
But just for a moment, imagine that Harris does grasp the offense, does maintain his hold on the quarterback position. Imagine that he doesn’t have an All-Southeastern Conference season, but a solid one. It could be the kind of effort that makes LSU a 10-win team and sets the Tigers up as a championship contender in 2016.
I still have to see it to believe it really might happen, but the picture is slowly taking shape.
Advocate sportswriters Ross Dellenger and Sheldon Mickles contributed to this column.