Gary Crowton had it all figured out.
Matt Flynn was “the guy.” Ryan Perrilloux was “the next guy.” Andrew Hatch and Jarrett Lee were the “developing third guys” and Jordan Jefferson was the guy scheduled for a redshirt.
Flynn graduated. Perrilloux was dismissed. Hatch got hurt. Lee threw a half-dozen interceptions for touchdowns, and Jefferson finished the 2008 season as LSU’s starting quarterback — as a true freshman.
“We ended up 8-5,” Crowton, LSU’s former offensive coordinator, said this week from his newest home, Southern Utah University.
No, LSU’s 2014 quarterback situation isn’t as complicated as the one in ’08, but there are parallels among, maybe, the two worst seasons under coach Les Miles. They surround the most important position on the field: quarterback.
The seasons share similar problems rooted in similar issues: the recruiting of quarterbacks, the attrition of quarterbacks and the inadequacies of young quarterbacks.
Days before Thursday’s season finale at Texas A&M, LSU (7-4, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) finds itself in one of the worst passing funks in school history.
The Tigers haven’t cracked the 200-yard passing mark in six straight games — the first time that has happened in at least two decades. They’re a week removed from the worst offensive day in 40 years in a 17-0 loss (123 yards at Arkansas) and have a team completion percentage (47 percent) that would be the lowest mark for the program in a dozen years.
Fans are threatening sophomore starting quarterback Anthony Jennings online, others are campaigning hard for freshman Brandon Harris and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron has never received so much criticism in his two years in Baton Rouge.
Miles, meanwhile, has spent much of his time this season defending all of the above.
LSU’s offensive line has had momentary lapses, and its receivers have dropped key passes at critical times, but the team’s quarterback situation is at the forefront of criticism for an offense ranked 89th nationally.
The questions: Why is LSU in a situation in which it has just two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, and each is in his first or second year? Where is the capable veteran? And how has the program landed in a similar situation as it did six years ago?
The answers: quarterback evaluation misses on the recruiting trail, a greater-than-average attrition rate at the position, just plain bad luck and being in a state that produces a small amount of high-level high school QBs.
LSU planned to have, at most, four veteran quarterbacks on the roster now: Stephen Rivers, Jerrard Randall, Jeremy Liggins and Gunner Kiel.
Rivers and Randall would be true seniors. They came in with junior-college quarterback Zach Mettenberger in 2011. Liggins and Kiel, part of a 2012 signing class that included no quarterbacks, would be true juniors.
Rivers is the only one of the four who threw a pass at LSU. He threw two.
Liggins (academics) and Kiel (last-minute decommitment) never made it to campus. Randall transferred after his redshirt freshman season.
“Poor evaluation,” said Rivals.com’s Mike Scarborough, a local reporter who has been following recruiting in the state and at LSU for more than 20 years.
Rivers’ recruitment is at the heart of LSU’s current quarterback issue, Scarborough said. Once a three-star product out of Athens, Alabama, Rivers transferred from LSU to Vanderbilt in the spring after being surpassed by Jennings and then Harris.
“He was a major project,” Scarborough said. “You’re going into the state of Alabama and offering a kid that neither Alabama or Auburn want? Then you have Dak Prescott in camp and want him to line up at tight end.”
Prescott, a junior at Mississippi State who’s in contention for the Heisman Trophy, is from north Louisiana.
Crowton, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at LSU from 2007-10, recruited Rivers, in part, because of his success on third downs and in the red zone.
“That’s one of the reasons I liked Stephen Rivers,” Crowton said. “He was taller than we wanted and had a low release, but he was really good in the red area and on third downs.”
Randall (now third-string as a junior at Arizona by way of Northeast Mississippi Community College) and Liggins (now a sophomore, third-string tight end at Ole Miss in his hometown of Oxford) were athletes whom LSU recruited to possibly try at quarterback. They didn’t work out.
Kiel was “a big blow,” Scarborough said. The No. 1 quarterback prospect in 2012 enrolled at Notre Dame three weeks after committing to LSU.
“When you want to point to something in 2012, that’s what you point to right there,” said Sonny Shipp, a 15-year veteran of recruiting in the state who now works for 247Sports. “Why was there not someone else? You look at 2012 … not getting a quarterback.”
Under Miles, LSU has signed 13 quarterbacks in 10 classes, a normal number.
What’s not normal: Only three of those players completed their careers at LSU at quarterback: Lee, Jefferson and Mettenberger.
That total of 13 includes two QBs on the current roster: Harris and Jennings. Still, 3 of 11 is a low percentage compared to other Southeastern Conference schools that have not undergone a head coaching change since Miles arrived at LSU in 2005.
Missouri is most similar to LSU. Three quarterbacks have completed their careers at the position out of nine signees in the same 10 years (excluding four still on the roster).
Georgia has had a whopping five quarterbacks complete their careers at the school out of a possible eight (excluding three on the roster). South Carolina has had four of 10 complete their careers.
Attrition is the rule, not the exception, in college football, especially at quarterback. But LSU has had it worst in the past decade.
Of their 11 signees not named Harris or Jennings, the Tigers have had seven quarterbacks dismissed, transfer or not show up on campus. An eighth never played quarterback full-time: Russell Shepard, the No. 1 dual-threat QB in 2009 who was moved to receiver.
The quarterbacks who transferred under Miles include Rivers; Hayden Rettig, a California native who signed in 2013; Randall, a 2011 signee from Florida; and Chris Garrett, a Mississippian who left after signing in 2009.
Liggins didn’t show. Texan Zach Lee, part of the 2010 class, signed a Major League Baseball contract just before his freshman season, and Perrilloux was dismissed.
Five of those seven never threw a pass. In 10 years, South Carolina and Georgia had only one signee each leave without throwing a pass.
Of those seven departed QB signees, six are not from Louisiana. That can be a problem, said Scott Kennedy, Scout.com’s national director of scouting.
Players who sign with out-of-state schools seem more willing to transfer for playing time elsewhere.
The problem: Louisiana doesn’t produce highly rated quarterbacks at a good clip. Just 10 Louisiana quarterbacks have signed with major college teams in Miles’ 10 years at LSU.
“For a state that size, that’s horrible,” Kennedy said.
The Tigers got three of the 10: Perrilloux, Jefferson and Harris. Of the other seven, two transferred to lower-level universities and a third, Brandon Mitchell, was moved to receiver at Arkansas.
The remaining four are on rosters: Prescott (Mississippi State), Damian Williams (Mississippi State), Zack Oliver (Northwestern) and Donovan Isom (Utah).
“To me, if the state is producing quarterbacks year in and year out, it’s easy to attract that quarterback, if it’s a Louisiana kid, to LSU,” Scarborough said. “If you’ve got to go out of state and recruit a quarterback to come to LSU with the style of offense it runs (run-heavy, I-formation) … tough.”
Crowton has been on about a dozen college football staffs in his 34-year coaching career.
He’s unsure if any head coach at any of those programs has been more detailed, comprehensive and meticulous with his approach to recruiting than Miles.
“One thing I have to say about Coach Miles and LSU recruiting: very thorough,” Crowton said. “I’ve been at a lot of places. Coach Miles is very thorough. He knows what he’s looking for. That’s one of his great strengths.”
The system works, Crowton said. After all, LSU signed two top-ranked QBs (Perrilloux and Shepard), and a third was committed until the very end (Kiel).
Local recruiting analysts said Miles’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach may have the biggest hand in recruiting QBs, but Crowton said the head man is “involved in everything.”
The method in which LSU recruits quarterbacks isn’t different from how it recruits other positions, Crowton said. The staff would first study a list of national quarterback prospects, examining each and then adding him to a list or scratching him. The players on the list are ranked in order of importance — a big board, as some call it.
Each coach, assigned to a recruiting area, was responsible for digging up information on players in that region, quarterbacks included. After enough research was done, the staff met and scoured each list of rankings for each position. Assistants gave feedback on players in their area.
“In our recruiting meetings, we’d go in there, and all of the staff would be in there, and we’d go one position at a time through all of the names, and we’d re-rank them,” Crowton said. “Coaches who had the areas would contact (the QBs) through the proper procedures. Find out what the (high school) coach said about him and background. I’d give them to (Miles), and we’d re-rank them based on that information.
“Sometimes our No. 1 might stay the same. Other times, we’d get more information or somebody else would call us. Some of the guys would be pretty good, but we’d have questions on them.”
Evaluations aren’t always perfect. For instance, Crowton said LSU “passed up” on some guys during his tenure there, and “they ended up being pretty good players.”
Some players didn’t necessarily evolve as expected. Jarrett Lee was a player whom LSU recruited based on, at least partially, his similarities to Matt Flynn, Crowton said.
“He wasn’t the same style as a Matt Flynn,” the coach said. “He turned out with a good arm. He had a strong arm but not as good of legs.”
Recruiting a dual-threat quarterback was always one of the most difficult challenges.
“Sometimes the guys who are mobile are the hardest ones, because their feet buy them time to find receivers in high school,” Crowton said. “But when they get to the SEC, they’re not as good, because the defenses are so good.”
Clearly, recruiting a quarterback is not easy.
“It’s the hardest position to recruit,” Crowton said. “There’s so much in the inner workings of the mind.”
The criteria in picking a quarterback at LSU consisted of size (6-foot or taller), arm strength and quick release, Crowton said.
“If they’re not (6-foot), they’d have to have some intangibles, like (Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks),” he said.
Miles this week called recruiting quarterbacks a “very interesting piece.” He said it with a grin and eye squint as if to say, “Yeah, it’s wild, crazy and challenging.”
“You want a guy that doesn’t throw interceptions, and you want a guy that doesn’t turn the ball over,” he said. “You want ... a guy who has led the team, is a good student. Guy that, intellectually, has a good, quality football IQ.”
Development and the future
LSU’s situation reminds Crowton of 2008 in that the Tigers are being forced to play quarterbacks who are not developed enough.
“You really need to develop in that position,” he said.
Crowton thought he had that in 2008. Perrilloux was a three-year player, having redshirted in 2005. He was dismissed from the team in May, three months before fall camp began.
“It was a late dismissal,” Crowton said. “There was nobody left out there. All of the good ones went other places. We ended up having to start Jarrett Lee as a redshirt freshman.
“He would have been much better had he developed,” Crowton said, referencing the blows to Lee’s confidence with all of the interceptions returned for touchdowns (seven).
“I can see that with Jennings,” he said. “There are some things that happened there that weakened that position. Not recruiting circumstances.”
Jennings is a second-year guy like Lee was. And Jefferson, who assumed the role late that season, was a true freshman like Harris.
Having a young quarterback doesn’t automatically lead to losing. It doesn’t help, though.
Nine teams in The Associated Press’ top 10 this week have starting quarterbacks in their third, fourth or fifth years of major college football. Ohio State is the exception, with a starting QB in his second year after senior Braxton Miller was lost for the season in August with a shoulder injury.
Is bringing in a more skilled veteran an option? Maybe.
LSU reportedly is interested in East Mississippi Community College quarterback Chad Kelly, a former four-star guy from New York who was dismissed from Clemson in the spring. He’s in his third year out of high school.
The Tigers have three quarterbacks committed over the next four years, including three-star Justin McMillan in the 2015 class, a kid Scarborough calls “a project guy” like Rivers.
The phrase likely sends an uncomfortable chill up fans’ spines.
“Everybody wants instant gratification,” said Alan Risher, LSU’s starting quarterback in the early 1980s and now a radio personality who’s in sales in Baton Rouge. “Everybody wants to win now, win fast. There’s no grooming anybody anymore.”
PURSUING THE QUARTERBACKS
LSU has signed 13 quarterbacks in 10 signing classes under Les Miles. Three of them completed their career at QB at LSU. Two are still on the roster, one was moved to receiver and seven were dismissed, transferred or never made it to campus:
Name, Stars, Position rank, Noteworthy
Ryan Perrilloux, 5, 1st, Dismissed after redshirt freshman year
No QBs signed
Jarrett Lee, 4, 8th, Started 18 games over four years
Jordan Jefferson, 3, 13th, Started 32 games over four years
Russell Shepard, 5, 1st, Converted to receiver
Chris Garrett, 3, 19th, Transferred after freshman season
Zach Lee, 3, 19th, Signed baseball deal before first camp
Zach Mettenberger, 4, 1st, Started 25 games in three years
Jerrard Randall, 4, 8th, Transferred after redshirt freshman year
Stephen Rivers, 3, 19th, Transferred after redshirt sophomore year
Jeremy Liggins, 4, 19th, Never made it to campus
Anthony Jennings, 4, 14th, Has started 10 games this season
Hayden Rettig, 4, 9th, Transferred after freshman season
Brandon Harris, 4, 3rd, Has started 1 game as a freshmans
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter @DellengerAdv.