Perhaps the biggest question facing LSU before the start of preseason camp was whether the Tigers would get much-needed improvement from the quarterback position.
That was before Jordan Jefferson was suspended, before Jarrett Lee replaced him and before Jefferson was reinstated and started getting some snaps in relief of Lee.
But lo and behold, midway through the season, the top-ranked Tigers have the second-most efficient passing game in the Southeastern Conference.
“It’s amazing,” wide receiver Russell Shepard said Monday. “(Lee and Jefferson) are preparing way better going into a game. They’re doing their part in the film room and at practice to play great on Saturday.”
The one team ranked ahead of LSU in passing efficiency, Tennessee, is preparing to host the Tigers on Saturday without their quarterback, Tyler Bray, whose standout season was interrupted for an estimated six weeks by a broken thumb. Senior Matt Simms will replace him.
It’s a similar situation to the one LSU’s last opponent, Florida, faced last week when the Gators’ top two quarterbacks, John Brantley and Jeff Driskel, were sidelined by ankle injuries, and true freshman Jacoby Brissett was forced to make his collegiate debut on the road against the No. 1 team in the country. The result was the Tigers’ 41-11 rout.
Elsewhere in the SEC, defending East Division champion South Carolina has gone back and forth between Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw in search of consistency at quarterback. Even Georgia, with preseason All-SEC quarterback Aaron Murray, and Arkansas, with Tyler Wilson already having a 500-yard passing game, haven’t passed the ball as efficiently as LSU has.
The Tigers have a fifth-year senior in Lee, a fourth-year senior in Jefferson, and starter-in-waiting Zach Mettenberger, a sophomore who began his apprenticeship in relief of Lee against Northwestern State in Week 2. The Tigers, who had the lowest-rated passing attack in the SEC last season, suddenly are the envy of much of the SEC when it comes to quarterback play.
“I’m looking at everybody else,” Shepard said. “They’re losing their quarterbacks, and everybody is like, there goes their luck. We’ve got two, really three, great quarterbacks that can step in and play at any point in time. That’s a great feeling to have when you can have three people who can step in and the level of play doesn’t go down at all.”
First-year quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe, who was the offensive coordinator until he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and had to relinquish those duties at the start of camp, worked closely with the quarterbacks in the offseason. Jefferson was the unquestioned starter until his arrest eight days before the opener led to his suspension and Lee’s ascension to the starter’s position.
Lee played well enough during a 4-0 start to hang on to the position when Jefferson returned two weeks ago.
“They put in a lot of work during the summer, and we got behind them,” wide receiver Kadron Boone said of the quarterbacks. “We were going to be comfortable with whoever they put in at quarterback Both guys made a lot of strides from the end of last season to get better for this season. I think all of the hard work that they put in is starting to pay off.”
Lee has completed 60 percent of his passes and has eight touchdowns and just one interception. Jefferson didn’t throw a pass in his debut against Kentucky, then went 3-for-4 for 61 yards and a touchdown against the Gators.
“I think we’re passing the ball a lot better,” Boone said. “Last year that was our big struggle. We were totally reliant on the run. This year, trying to defend the run and the pass is giving teams problems. Last year, they didn’t really respect the passing game; and this year, they have to respect it with both quarterbacks playing well.”
Tackle Alex Hurst said the offense has more confidence when a pass play is called than it did last season.
“The quarterbacks worked with the receivers a lot during the offseason,” he said. “Steve Kragthorpe came in here, and he coached both Jordan and Jarrett in the spring, but the credit goes to all the hard work they did during the offseason.”
Coach Les Miles gave Kragthorpe credit for tweaking the playbook and making it work better for the quarterbacks.
“Steve has really interpreted it so well that the quarterbacks are making decisions very quickly,” Miles said. “I think that speaks to the efficiency that’s going on there right now.”
LSU is 11-4 in games Lee has started and 20-7 in games that Jefferson has started.
“We always knew that Jordan and Jarrett had the talent,” offensive lineman T-Bob Hebert said. “Watching those guys mature and become the leaders they’ve become is very impressive. And you add that maturity and growth with a great coach like Kragthorpe coming in who really knows his game and knows the quarterback position, and they just seem to have really blossomed under his tutelage.
“It seems like every week they continue to improve, so I can’t wait to see by the end of the year how well those two are playing.”