Jordan Jefferson, a dual-threat thanks to his running ability, was going to be the starter for the third consecutive season, and fellow senior Jarrett Lee, a drop-back passer who relieved Jefferson in 12 games last season, was going to do the same in 2011.
Then eight days before the season opener, Jefferson was arrested and suspended, and the job fell strictly to Lee, who started eight games as a redshirt freshman in 2008.
Lee played so well in guiding the Tigers to a 4-0 start that when Jefferson was reinstated Sept. 28, he was relegated to relieving Lee. Now, as the No. 1-ranked Tigers prepare to face No. 2 Alabama on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Lee is the starter, and Jefferson is coming out of the bullpen and LSU has the blending it always envisioned, sort of.
“I think a team that’s really committed to one another and understands that without a collective push it’s not going to work views change in a productive and a necessary way,” Tigers coach Les Miles said. “Frankly, we needed Jarrett Lee to mature and be the quarterback he has become, and, dang, if that didn’t just happen.
“Then, when we get Jefferson back, we have another quarterback who has different skills and abilities, and now there’s another change factor. I think how those people have reacted to that change has really made a difference in our year.”
Lee is the most efficient passer in the Southeastern Conference but is virtually no threat as a runner. Jefferson is a more capable passer than Lee is a runner, but he has thrown just 10 passes. Jefferson has run 26 times.
“There are things that both Jordan and I do differently, and that’s why we’re doing the two-quarterback situation here,” Lee said. “We don’t have a problem with it. We’re fine with it. We have a goal that we want to get to at the end of the year (the BCS championship). Right now, we’re slowly getting there. We’re moving the ball, we’re putting points on the board and we’re winning football games, and we’re happy with that.”
Jefferson played seven snaps in his debut against Kentucky on Oct. 1 and has averaged 18 snaps in the three games since. Though Jefferson has mainly run the ball, he did throw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Rueben Randle in a 45-10 victory against Auburn last week, and Miles said Jefferson “virtually has the entire playbook on hand when he goes on the field.”
“Our offense is handled well by both quarterbacks,” Miles said. “We need to have both quarterbacks playing well. We’re going to throw the ball with balance like we always have.”
The Tigers are averaging 189 rushing yards and 183 passing yards per game.
Lee said the work he did with first-year quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe during the spring and summer on his throwing mechanics has made him more accurate.
“I’m just trying to manage the game, keep the ball in our hands and not make mistakes,” Lee said.
Though Jefferson’s return to the lineup immediately upon his reinstatement generated much debate outside the team, wide receiver Russell Shepard said, “we haven’t had any type of division on the team; we haven’t had any type of controversy within the team.”
“I think it just shows that (Lee and Jefferson) want to win any way possible,” wide receiver Kadron Boone said. “It’s not about themselves.”
Randle said the fact that Jefferson brings a running element that wouldn’t otherwise be there makes the two-quarterback system the right one.
“It just makes us that much better of an offense,” he said.
LSU has made Jefferson off limits for interviews indefinitely, and he has spoken to reporters just once since his arrest. That was shortly after his reinstatement.
Jefferson called the suspension “probably the hardest thing I had to go through throughout my life.” He added that he was “grateful” to have another opportunity to play and was committed to doing “whatever is best for the team.”
Shepard said the way the two veterans have handled difficult situations — Jefferson enduring his suspension and Lee enduring repeated booing during his rough redshirt freshman season — has earned the quarterbacks the respect of their teammates.
“In 2008, mentally (Lee) took a beating,” Shepard said. “Everybody kind of shamed him and said you don’t need to be here. He took that, and it gave him the courage to want to prove those people wrong. When you have somebody on the field like that, somebody you know who’s been through all that and who still steps in to be that leader for you, that’s amazing for this team.
“Look at Jordan. A month ago, we thought Jordan would probably be in jail with a felony charge. But when you can step in and move on like nothing has happened and he’s still happy that he’s splitting reps with another quarterback, those two quarterbacks’ character is really showing now.”
Lee started his last three seasons in high school in Texas without ever sharing the position. He has started 17 games at LSU, and the Tigers have won 13 of those games. Jefferson has started 27 games, and the Tigers have won 20 of those games.
Shepard, who was a widely recruited quarterback in high school, understands the challenge of having to share the position.
“It’s hard,” he said, “especially at the quarterback position, because there’s one position. This isn’t the offensive line, the receivers, the running backs. The quarterback position is one position, and for two quarterbacks — not a senior and a freshman or a senior and a sophomore, but two seniors — to step in and handle it the way they’re handling it, you have to look at it and just be in awe.”