LSU’s quarterback battle between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris was so close last year that even players didn’t know who should be the starter.
Most of them just wanted the competition resolved.
“Pick somebody,” said one former LSU player who was part of the 2014 team.
The massive talent gap fans believe exists from the gun-slinging, highly touted Harris to Jennings isn’t necessarily there, another ex-player said. The two were “neck and neck” in practice.
“So close,” he said.
When Harris got his first and only start against Auburn, the fans got what they wanted, the former player said. LSU got a guy who wasn’t ready.
“He wasn’t the savior everyone thought he was going to be,” the ex-LSU player said. “I think this year is going to be completely different.”
A few days before LSU opens preseason camp, two players from last year’s team offered a window into the past — and present — of the starting quarterback slugfest between Jennings and Harris. The players spoke to The Advocate on the condition of anonymity.
Round 2 of the Jennings vs. Harris fight for the starting job begins Thursday when the Tigers open drills.
For a second straight year, the competition is the focal point of preseason practice. It’s a talking point for national sports pundits. It’s the deciding factor between a good season and a great one — the difference, they say, in another middling bowl trip and a championship run.
The competition doesn’t just make headlines. It’s not just message-board fodder. It’s such a hot topic that at least one player joked about it recently on social media.
Cornerback Ed Paris gave fans a virtual tour of LSU’s football operations building earlier this week using the app Periscope. Just before walking into the quarterback meeting room, Paris told the handful of people following him, “I’m not going to tell you who’s gonna be the quarterback.”
The door swung open to expose an empty room, with a lounge area and pool table.
The buzz regarding the quarterback battle is palpable. Around Baton Rouge. Around Louisiana. Around the South. Around the nation. Heck, even outside of the U.S.
An off-shore betting site, BookMaker Sportsbook, set odds on which LSU quarterback will start the opening game against McNeese State. Anthony Jennings is at -155 as the heavy favorite. Harris is at +120.
Even coach Les Miles, multiple times this offseason, has conceded that LSU has quarterback issues and that, if they’re fixed, the Tigers can make a title run.
The coach said in January that the “quarterback misery” is over, reiterated in spring that the QBs have progressed significantly and told reporters this summer that he expects much better play.
One thing is clear, ex-players say: LSU’s quarterback competition isn’t in the same state as it was last year at this time.
Harris “should be the guy,” one player said. The sophomore and former highly touted four-star prospect is “meshing” with receivers more than ever this summer while Jennings has been suspended.
“Receivers feel great because they’ve only solely worked with Brandon,” the player said. “They have that bond.”
Harris is emerging from a learning curve that kept him on the bench for the last half of last season. There are signs of it everywhere, one player said — even down to the way offensive coordinator Cam Cameron speaks to the Bossier City native.
At times last year, Cameron seemed “irritated” at Harris and spoke to him “with a chip on his shoulder,” the former player said. That’s changed.
“He talks to Brandon more man-to-man,” the ex-player said.
Harris is asking more questions in meetings, and he’s accepting more criticism. They were things missing last year.
“Coaches wanted the most talented guy to work hard,” one player said. “Last year, he didn’t.”
Harris has gained about 15 pounds from his playing weight of last season. He weighs about 210, the goal coaches asked him to meet. He spent more time earlier this summer with QB guru George Whitfield, too.
In a way, it seems the staff wants Harris to take the job by the reins and hold on tight. Some of Miles’ recent comments paint a picture of a coach who wishes his young talent from north Louisiana would emerge as the No. 1 guy — or at least do enough to earn it.
“After the summer, it’ll be interesting to see what Brandon Harris looks like,” Miles said with a smirk. “I’ve heard a lot of wonderful things. It would be nice to see.”
The door seems open for Harris, after Jennings’ suspension and his rocky play last season. He’s just got to walk through it.
“I think there’s going to be plenty of opportunity for Brandon Harris to make his case long before we play the first game,” Miles said at SEC Media Days, before adding, “Same thing is true for Anthony.”
Jennings is back on the team after having the case against him and two other players dismissed Friday. Jennings, defensive back Dwayne Thomas and defensive lineman Maquedius Bain have been reinstated and will begin fall camp with the team Thursday.
Jennings was suspended for six weeks. He did not participate in voluntary 7-on-7 workouts, Miles and players said. So what has he been doing?
“He’s working out some place, trying to stay in great shape,” Miles said last week before Jennings’ charges were dropped.
The coach kept in communication with Jennings during the suspension but did not speak to him routinely or “in a football matter,” Miles said.
There is no specific time frame in making a decision on the starter, but it’s clear from Miles’ previous comments that he wants the competition over sooner rather than later. In May, the coach said he wanted to see a candidate “separate” himself from the other and for it to be “a clear-cut decision.”
Ex-players said Jennings won’t be backing down. He didn’t last season after winning the job and then losing it in an error-filled performance against New Mexico State that saw Tiger Stadium serenade him with boos.
Harris got that one and only start the next week at Auburn. He went 3-for-14 and had a couple of mental lapses as the Tigers suffered their worst defeat of the Miles era, 41-7. LSU reinserted Jennings for the next game, and Harris never played significant time in the last seven games, including a loss in the Music City Bowl.
Miles, indeed, picked somebody, as many players wanted.
“I don’t think anyone had a preference,” one ex-LSU player said. “We were just kind of like, ‘Pick one.’ ”
Jennings and Harris have different styles in every way, former players said. The obvious, even for fans and media, is their delivery. Jennings has more of a floater type ball that he delivers from a high arm slot. Harris has a “rocket” of an arm, one player said. He spins the ball in a tight spiral.
It goes beyond their delivery.
“Even down to the delivery of the play in the huddle is all different,” the former player said.
It hurt the consistency of the offense, alternating the two with the first string in practice and then doing it in a game, one ex-player said. What was obvious the entire time: “I always thought Jennings had a better grasp of the playbook,” another former player said.
So who’s winning the job this season? One ex-player reiterated that it “should” be Harris. Another disagreed.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s Anthony off the start,” he said. “If there’s not a significant improvement from last year for whoever starts, the other guy will play the rest of the season. I don’t think there’s going to be that flip-flop.”
In the end, he said, “It’s a toss-up.”
Follow Ross Dellenger on Twitter: @DellengerAdv.