Brandon Harris’ eyes never leave the defensive end.
He watches the player while holding the football against the belly of running back Leonard Fournette. In a split second, LSU’s sophomore quarterback must decide to yank the ball and keep it himself or release it to Fournette.
It all, of course, depends on that defensive end. If he stands his ground on the outside, Harris releases the football for Fournette to run inside. If the end crashes into the line toward the running back, Harris keeps it for an outside dash.
“It’s a situation,” Harris said, “where they crowd down on Leonard and I have to pull the ball and run and get what I can get and take advantage of it.”
LSU ran the zone-read play 11 times for 45 yards in the 21-19 win at Mississippi State last Saturday. Those numbers might be rising this week.
The 13th-ranked Tigers (1-0) host an Auburn team that’s one of the worst nationally in defending the play through the first two weeks of the season. Auburn has allowed a whopping 293 yards on the zone-read – the most of any Power 5 conference school, according to ESPN stats and info. Louisville and Jacksonville State, AU’s first two opponents, combined to average 5.98 yards a play on the zone-read, according to ESPN.
The play helped the Gamecocks, a Football Championship Subdivision team, take Auburn to overtime in a 27-20 loss at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Harris is probably well aware of much of that.
“I’ve been watching film on them all this morning,” Harris said Monday during interviews with reporters. “Me, Anthony (Jennings) and the other quarterbacks are in there breaking them down right now.”
When Auburn and LSU meet at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, fans might be wondering just how much Harris will throw the ball after last week’s 71 passing yards.
Forget the air yards – the Tigers’ starting QB might do more damage on the ground. Harris flashed his speed in the victory in Starkville, Mississippi, last week, rolling up 48 yards on five carries – a couple of those on zone-read keepers.
It’s a key play in a key game. LSU is opening the season with a second straight ranked SEC Western Division foe in a highly anticipated, nationally televised duel.
No one wants to reveal the Tigers’ game plan against Auburn, but you can bet it’ll involve the zone-read.
The question: How many times will Harris pull the ball from the belly of Fournette, or his backup Darrel Williams?
“At the end of the day, it’s Brandon’s choice,” Fournette said. “He’s reading the end. If he takes it, I’m fine with it.”
Harris didn’t take it often against the Bulldogs – about two or three times in 11 zone-read calls. But when he did, he had success. Two of those zone-read keepers picked up more than 10 yards. Coupled that with two 10-plus gains on scrambles, and LSU all of the sudden has two running threats in the backfield.
It’s what coach Les Miles wants.
“We enjoy his abilities to scramble out of the pocket,” Miles said. “We think we’ll get a couple of those a game, and we also think that there’s an opportunity for some dial-’em-up quarterback carries.”
LSU called just one designed run specifically for Harris – a keeper in a five-receiver set that resulted in a Mississippi State facemask penalty and first down.
The zone-reads were equally as successful. Fournette said it’s one of LSU’s “strongest plays,” and it’s a play the two of them – Fournette and Harris – continue to try to master.
After all, it’s not as easy as it looks. Fournette and Harris’ hands are both clutched around the ball at the same time.
During that span, Fournette is watching the defensive tackle “to see if he goes in or out,” and, of course, Harris is watching the defensive end.
How does Fournette know when to strengthen his grip for a run or let loose for Harris to take it?
“It’s something you have to feel for,” Fournette said. “At times, you might see me going crooked. He was trying to pull it, but I had a tight grip around it.”
Fournette ran the zone-read in high school at St. Augustine, but he was the quarterback lineup up in the Wildcat. As the nation’s No. 1 high school recruit, surely he didn’t release the ball to the running back right?
“Sometimes I did,” he smiled.
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.