George Whitfield, a respected quarterback guru, knew before anyone else.
This is the year, Whitfield thought in May, as he watched Brandon Harris throw passes on a football field in southern California.
He saw LSU’s quarterback drop 30-yarders over linebackers and hit receivers in stride. He spotted Harris scribbling plays on napkins during lunch breaks and tossing passes on the San Diego beaches.
He watched as Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell educated Harris on a receiver’s thinking during a deep out or a skinny post. He saw Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook fill Harris’ head with leadership lessons, including how to prepare before a game and how to make a halftime speech, to name a few.
Whitfield watched all of this. And he knew, right?
“Yes,” Whitfield said in an interview this week. “There is a pilot light in his chest. You can see it from 100 yards away. He’s so self-motivated. He’s one of those kids. I’d liken it to Cam Newton. If Cam was a bank teller, he’d get employee of the month every single month. Brandon has that same mentality.”
Whitfield got a sneak peek of what everyone else is now witnessing. He was there for the continuation of a metamorphosis that began during spring practice.
Harris has gone from a starry-eyed true freshman to a sophomore beginning to show poise and expand his passing repertoire, from a kid chucking attempts to a 20-year old rifling completions. The quarterback you saw struggle to deliver the play call in the huddle against Wisconsin last season is shifting receivers at the line of scrimmage, spotting blitzes and recognizing coverages.
No. 4 LSU (7-0, 4-0 Southeastern Conference) heads into a prime time showdown against No. 7 Alabama (7-1, 4-1) equipped with something it lacked while slumping to an 8-5 finish last season: a consistent, competent quarterback.
And, to think, the guy was here all along. He only needed the experience allotted to most SEC quarterbacks.
The result: Harris is believed to be one of just two active starting quarterbacks in the Football Bowl Subdivision not to have thrown an interception to this point in the season.
He has attempted 128 passes with no picks. He needs only 10 interception-less attempts Saturday against the Crimson Tide to break LSU’s all-time record for pass attempts without a pick — held by Alan Risher, who had 137 in 1982.
Harris’ streak is notable in many ways. He’s thrown for at least 200 yards in three straight games without an interception and at least one of those three games came against an SEC foe. That hasn’t happened since JaMarcus Russell in 2006.
He has started seven games without throwing an interception — the most by an LSU quarterback since at least 1994. No LSU team has gone this long — eight games dating to last season — without an interception since at least 1937, according to the school.
What’s happened to that youthful, nervous kid who fumbled over plays and threw blindly downfield last season?
He’s long gone, most say.
“Completely different quarterback,” said Brian Griese, the former Michigan and NFL quarterback who is now an analyst for ESPN.
“They’re adding to Brandon’s plate each week,” said Jordan Jefferson, the last LSU quarterback to beat Bama who’s now quarterbacks coach at Destrehan High. “As the weeks go on, you’re seeing a lot more of him as a passer. I believe he is an efficient passer. I think this Saturday will be a big game for him.”
‘He can’t spit the play out’
Brandon Harris trotted onto the field in LSU’s season opener against Wisconsin in NRG Stadium in Houston in August 2014.
Alan Risher saw Harris bark out his first collegiate play inside LSU’s huddle. Players looked confused. ESPN cameras caught offensive linemen breaking the huddle and then, with confused expressions, approaching Harris for confirmation.
“I sat there and said, ‘He can’t spit the play out,’ ” said Risher, a three-year starting quarterback for LSU in the ’80s. “It’s hard. You have millions watching on TV and 75,000 watching there. You lose all of the saliva in your mouth. You’re nervous as hell. You can’t even spit the play out.”
That one series against Wisconsin — a three-and-out — served as one of the downs to a rollercoaster ride that was Harris’ true freshman season.
The ups? He nearly led LSU to an improbable comeback against Mississippi State, passing for two touchdowns in the final two minutes. He carved up New Mexico State to claim the starting job the next week against Auburn.
The lows? The 3-for-14 outing at Auburn, a game LSU lost 41-7; the jumpball interception he tossed in mop-up duty against Kentucky — his last interception and last pass thrown of last season.
That came on Oct. 18, 2014 — 384 days and 54 weeks ago.
The explanation behind Harris’ up-and-down rookie year is simple, said Jefferson, who started two games as a true freshman in 2008.
“The transition from high school to college is a big jump for a quarterback,” Jefferson said. “It’s different for a corner, receiver, running back. There’s different situations you’ve never faced before. The game was a lot faster, players were a lot bigger and coaches were a lot smarter.
“You have to know how to prepare yourself for a defensive scheme, knowing how to pick up a blitz,” he said. “It comes with experience.”
Harris’ woeful performance at Auburn illustrated those transitional struggles more than anything. He ran out of the pocket under little or no pressure, threw 3-5 yards over receivers’ heads and whiffed on a few plays, running the wrong direction.
“He probably shouldn’t have been in that Auburn game,” Griese said, “but circumstances called for it. I give him credit for rebounding. Some guys go in the tank.”
“No one should have to do that,” center Ethan Pocic said. “It’s so hard for an 18-year-old to come play quarterback in the SEC.”
True freshman quarterback starters in the SEC are a rarity. In the past decade, less than 20 rookies have started at quarterback in the league. The stunning part of that: Very few of those players had successful sophomore seasons.
In fact, Harris is in the midst of accomplishing a rare feat in this league – starting at least one game as a true freshman and then starting most of the next season.
Since 2005, three players have done such, and two played at LSU: Anthony Jennings (13-14), Jefferson (08-09) and Georgia’s Matthew Stafford (06-07). Kentucky’s Maxwell Smith and Tennessee’s Tyler Bray were on the way to starting their complete sophomore years before injury. Florida’s Treon Harris is in the process of joining that list, but only because of starter Will Grier’s suspension. Oddly enough, Harris is the only other starter nationally who has not thrown an interception. He has attempted 78 passes.
Cook and Harris
Whitfield purposely planned this.
Harris’ six-day stay in May at his renowned San Diego-based quarterback camp would include only three players: Brandon Harris; Cook, a rising senior Quarterback at Michigan State; and Ole Miss’ Treadwill, a much-ballyhooed wideout recovering from a broken ankle in the previous season.
“A lot of unique things take place when you get veterans in the realm of a youngster,” Whitfield said.
Cook and Harris had trained with each other at Whitfield’s camp the year before. The reunion was a wonderful marriage. Old guy taught young guy. Savvy veteran and Rose Bowl MVP tutored highly touted high schooler with little college experience.
The two spent hours together in the six days Harris attended the camp, Whitfield said. Aside from their sleeping quarters — each at a hotel room — they did everything together. The camp consisted of two sessions each day separated by a lunch break around noon. And at lunch?
“You know the little napkins restaurants give you?” Whitfield asked. “They’d be drawing plays on those.”
The two “really pushed” the mental aspect during the week-long camp, said Whitfield, an analyst on ESPN’s “College GameDay” program. Physically, Harris’ focus was on the touch passes. Everyone knew he had a rifle for an arm, with an unusual fast-spinning, tight spiral that awed some of the best in the game.
Whitfield remembers Harris attending his camp before his freshman season last summer.
“Everybody would stop when Brandon was in the middle of a drill about to make a throw,” he said. “I’d stop and say, ‘Guys, get back to the drill. You guys have seen Brandon throw it before.’
“Then I’d catch myself watching him,” Whitfield laughed.
This summer, Harris and Cook worked specifically on the quarterback’s touch — like dropping a 30-yard pass over a linebacker’s head or hitting a receiver, in this case Treadwell, in stride with a cornerback on his heels.
Harris has made some of these exact pinpoint throws this season. They’ve helped him roll up some impressive numbers in addition to the 128 attempts and zero interceptions.
Harris is second in the SEC in passing efficiency, and that’s a number upon which a quarterback like Harris should be judged, Griese said. Harris, for instance, is 99th nationally with 1,098 yards passing this season.
“It’s more from efficiency knowing who he has in the backfield,” Griese said. “That’s how Brandon Harris should be looked at.”
There’s something else, too, Griese said. Harris sets up Fournette — something overlooked by many.
In offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s pro-style system, the quarterback is responsible for situating the offense into the best set based on the defense’s front, said Griese, who played under Cameron for one season at Michigan.
“Certain plays are run into certain fronts and looks,” he said.
Harris might change the play if he notices a shift in the defensive front. He might move a run from the left to the right or from the outside to the inside — all contingent on making it easier for the Heisman Trophy front-runner.
“You want to make it easier for a guard to get to a backside linebacker,” Griese said. “You want to make sure you’re not running the stretch play with Leonard with a safety ready to come down and hit him.”
Whitfield compares the current LSU offense to the one Cameron ran as the San Diego Chargers’ offensive coordinator. That team had a young quarterback in Phillip Rivers and one of the best running backs in the nation, LaDanian Tomlinson.
“Similar stuff,” Whitfield said.
Similar streaks, similar games
At the time, Risher didn’t even know he was on a streak. He had attempted 115 passes without an interception entering a game against Tulane in 1982.
“I was dialed in,” he said. “Everything was moving slow for me. Game was coming to me fairly easy.”
Risher doesn’t remember any passes nearly intercepted. Harris has one, at least. The SEC office changed Harris’ interception against Eastern Michigan to a fumble after that game. The quarterback was hit by a defender, jarring the ball loose and into the hands of another defensive player.
Risher’s streak began after an interception in a blowout win over Kentucky, just like Harris’ streak began. It ended on the final play of a loss to Tulane: a heave with 23 seconds left. In between, that ’82 squad traveled to Alabama in a similar position for a similar game as the 2015 group does this week.
LSU was ranked 11th and 6-0-1. Bama was No. 8 and 7-1. The Tide had won 11 consecutive against the Tigers, while Alabama enters Saturday with a four-game winning streak against LSU).
“I imagine Alabama was a touchdown favorite that day, too,” Risher said. “I know we were underdogs.”
LSU won that game 20-10, holding the Tide to six first downs in a sloppy game played at Legion Field in Birmingham. Risher was 20 for 26 for 183 yards and a touchdown, and LSU’s offense possessed the ball for 40 minutes of the 60-minute game.
“For some reason in ’82, I really felt like we had our best chance to win in a long time. I was confident we had to win,” said Risher, now self-employed in Baton Rouge as the owner of a finance company and a real-estate broker. “They put it us on us a couple of times in ’80 (28-7), ’81 (24-7 in the season opener against Alabama).”
LSU’s four-game slide against the Tide has included two ugly 21-point losses and a pair of nailbiters. Bama scored in the final minute to win 21-17 in 2012 and amassed a nine-play, 55-yard drive in 47 seconds to tie the game last season. The Tide won 20-13 in overtime.
Is LSU ready to end this streak? Risher says the Tigers need it.
“It might be starting to be a little bit of a psychology problem, because they had some games they should have won,” Risher said.
Much of the talk entering this collision in Bryant-Denny Stadium surrounds Fournette, Bama running back Derrick Henry and two talented, athletic defenses who swarm to the ball. Many think all of the above are a wash, and that the game will hinge on the passing of Harris and Jake Coker.
Who makes that 60-yard touchdown strike? Who hits that crossing route on third-and-goal from the 4?
In a quasi-national semifinal playoff game, the stakes haven’t been higher for a regular season duel since LSU’s last win over the Tide, that 9-6 overtime victory in 2011.
Jefferson quarterbacked that team to the rousing road win as the last LSU quarterback to beat Alabama.
“I talk about that every now and then to folks around town. It’s a true fact,” he said with a laugh, “but I believe Brandon will be the next one.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.
Brandon Harris hasn’t thrown an interception in a very long time. Since his last interception…
Game Time: 426 minutes, 18 seconds
*All stats are only in games in which Harris attempted a pass
128 and counting
Brandon Harris has thrown 128 pass attempts without an interception this season. That’s the fourth-longest streak in school history.
Most career consecutive pass attempts without an interception
1. 137 Alan Risher (1982)
2. 131 Jarrett Lee (2010-11)
3. 130 Zach Mettenberger (2012)
4. 128 Brandon Harris (2015)
5. 125 Rohan Davey (2000-01)
Brandon Harris is experiencing a sophomore surge that’s somewhat rare for a quarterback thrown into the fire as a true freshman in the SEC. Since 2005, just a handful of quarterbacks who had at least one start their true freshman season went on to start a complete season the next year as a sophomore. They all showed marked improvement in Year 2.
Anthony Jennings, LSU (2013-14)
Jordan Jefferson, LSU (2008-09)
Tyler Bray, Tennessee (2010-11)
Maxwell Smith, Kentucky (2011-12)
Matthew Stafford (2006-07)
Criteria: 1) Quarterback must have recorded at least one start as a true freshman and sophomore. 2) Those who transferred schools between their freshman and sophomore seasons – like Mitch Mustain and Ryan Mallett – were not counted. 3) Quarterback’s freshman season must have been 2005 or later (those freshman who started in 2014 were not counted because their sophomore seasons are on-going).
How Brandon Harris is stacking up
*only seven games played