The numbers translate into criticism, multiplying in a loaves and fishes sort of way. Volumes and truckloads and barges full of words about LSU’s quarterbacks, Messrs. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. Little of it positive, other than shouts of “Put in Harris!” directed at the Tigers bench.
It’s nice to be wanted.
And the ire is mostly justified. Jennings averaged 124 passing yards per game. Harris was trusted to attempt just one pass in LSU’s last seven games, and that was intercepted.
Overall in 2014, the Tigers averaged a meager 162.9 yards per contest through the air. That wouldn’t earn enough frequent-flyer miles to cover the cost of a drink at the airport bar.
LSU’s inability to throw the ball effectively has been so dramatic that Jennings’ arrest earlier this summer for breaking into an apartment — charges that were dropped well before foot met ball for the opening kickoff — drew not panic but applause in many purple-and-gold-covered corners. Not, “Oh no, our quarterback is in trouble,” but more like, “Yay, our quarterback is in trouble!”
Translation: It might pave the way for Harris to take over the job. But that one intercepted pass in the last seven games thing despite Jennings’ struggles illustrated as much as anything that the LSU coaching staff’s motto is not “In Brandon We Trust.” The opinion of this column has been clear: If Jennings is cleared, he takes the first snap Sept. 5 against McNeese State.
For the Tigers to improve in 2015 on their 8-5 record of 2014, the quarterbacks — either or both of them — must improve. This isn’t an Area 51 type of secret.
But upgrading the passing game to something, well, passable isn’t a chore that should be reserved only for Jennings’ and Harris’ shoulder pads.
There’s plenty of blame — and room for growth — to go around.
The receiving corps has to improve as well. This was an exceptionally unproven unit last season, a lack of experience personified by the fact that then-sophomore Travin Dural was the graybeard of the bunch.
Their inexperience showed. They ran wrong routes. They dropped passes. One former LSU player told me last season that one of the Tigers’ freshman receivers went out on a single receiver pattern and blocked instead of working open. That left Jennings with literally no one to throw to. Of course, to most of us it looked entirely like his fault.
But there had to be numerous examples last year when LSU’s receivers could have admitted that the fault was not in their offense’s most important star, but in themselves.
Of course, one can argue the merits of a one-receiver route. That’s where LSU’s coaches should pull up a seat at the table.
Cam Cameron’s offense ran like a bullet train two years ago when it had Zach Mettenberger throwing to Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, a trio of players who made the spectacular third-and-long conversion look as easy as running off tackle for a 1-yard gain.
They were all gone last year, and the offense struggled. Naturally. That trifecta of talent and experience isn’t going to be at your disposal every year.
So Cameron is charged with having to run an offense that better fits Jennings’ and Harris’ relatively complementary talents. Mettenberger was a statue in the pocket. LSU’s current quarterbacks are both like the Sundance Kid — they’re better when they move.
LSU under Miles will never abandon the run as a staple of its offense, just as balance between the run and pass is never the true goal. That’s fine. But LSU has to come closer to 50-50 than it did last season.
The Tigers passed the ball only 276 times in 897 offensive snaps — only 30.7 percent of the time. Both numbers were lows for Miles’ 10 years at LSU. (The 162.9 passing yards per game were third-lowest.)
The Tigers should run, of course. They only have Leonard Fournette, a legit Heisman Trophy candidate, in their backfield. But run out of the spread along with the Power I. And here’s a thought: Throw to a tight end more than once per game (12 receptions in 13 games).
LSU’s passing game doesn’t have to improve that much. The Tigers don’t have to be Western Kentucky, which visits Baton Rouge in October and threw for 374.3 yards per game last season (second nationally).
LSU ranked 114th in passing last season. Just imagine if LSU ranked where Tulane ranked: 85th nationally, averaging 201.3 yards per game. How much would an extra 40 or so yards per game open up things more for the vaunted rushing attack?
It doesn’t take a caped crusader or super heroes to make the Tigers a better passing team. But it does take a village. Because neither Jennings nor his ever popular understudy can do this alone.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.