If you polled the 21,000 or so folks in Tiger Stadium watching Brandon Harris and LSU play Saturday’s spring game as to their confidence in their team’s incumbent quarterback, the results might be mixed.
But Harris has a fighter jock’s mentality. When the storm clouds are boiling and the instrument panel is lighting up red and ringing with alarm bells, Harris believes he has the natural stick and rudder talent to bring Flying Tiger Airlines in for a safe landing.
In this case, the objective is to pilot LSU’s football team from Tiger Stadium to Tampa, Florida, site of this season’s College Football Playoff championship game.
Purdue transfer Danny Etling was supposed to give Harris a run for his job this spring. If he did, apparently it was only to further imbed Harris as the starter.
After the spring game, Harris exuded the smooth confidence of a man possessing the right stuff. A man who knows in his heart he’s taking that first snap Sept. 3 against Wisconsin and every meaningful snap after that.
“You’re always in a quarterback battle, regardless of whether they say you’re not or whatever,” Harris said. “Every position on this field is up for grabs. It’s so competitive being at a place like this. I feel I’m in a battle every time I touch the field. But at the end of the day, you’re competing with yourself and trying to get better.”
Upgrading the passing game was Priority No. 1 for LSU football this season, a stated objective before last December’s Texas Bowl win over Texas Tech was even played.
The results Saturday frankly looked mixed. Among Harris and his backup crew — Etling, Justin McMillan and others — only McMillan made good on a long throw. That was a 70-yarder to Dee Anderson, and that was with a walk-on trying to play coverage.
But they tried to throw, and while LSU’s offense no doubt remains committed to the running game — you’d have to commit Les Miles and Cam Cameron if they didn’t want to hand the ball to Leonard Fournette, wouldn’t you? — there seems to be at least the attempt at this stage to make the passing game more of a threat.
One thing that was clearly in evidence for Harris was his touch. His passes from the line of scrimmage to 10 to 12 yards last season often had a brute force about them. Harris has a mortar launcher for a right arm, but there are times when a jeweler’s touch is the necessary tool. More than a couple of times Saturday, he flicked some side-armed, Zach Mettenberger-like passes in the flat to Malachi Dupre with highly effective results.
“Coach Cam and (wide receivers coach Dameyune) Craig have come up with some tremendous drills that have helped me,” said Harris, who said he needs to get from 214 pounds now to 220 by the start of summer workouts June 8 to withstand the rigors of a long season. “Drills I’ll take this offseason when the coaches are out recruiting. I’ve got to make tremendous strides through the fall. I’ll take the drills that we’ve been working on this entire spring and get better on them.”
It’s worth remembering that Harris just now has barely over a season’s worth of starting experience. As he readily brought up Saturday, it’s time for him to make the jump from apprentice underclassman to seasoned upperclassman.
“I’m done talking about last season or my freshman woes or my sophomore woes,” he said. “I’m focused on my junior year. That’s when you make your biggest leap. I’ve got the right guys around me, and it’s going to be a productive season.”
“He’s growing,” Cameron said of Harris. “He’s learning. I’m really pleased with where he’s headed. As we all know, it’s about consistency and tacking great performances one on top of another — especially in this conference and our half of the conference.”
Conventional wisdom says LSU will go not as far as Fournette can take the Tigers, but how far Harris can. Yes, Fournette will be counted on to be a workhorse tailback who should wind up sitting on the front row at December’s Heisman Trophy announcement.
But for all the yards Fournette can run for, there will be times when LSU needs to convert that third-and-long to drive for a game-winning score or keep the ball out of the other team’s hands. And it will be all on Harris then.
To that, Harris says, bring it on.
“This team knows the ability I have,” he said. “I think you’ll see it this season.”
A season filled with 15 games. That’s the Harris flight plan.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.