The past three days at LSU football practice, true freshman quarterbacks Max Johnson and TJ Finley evenly split first-team reps, preparing for the likelihood one of them would receive their first college start against Florida.
LSU needed them because starting quarterback Myles Brennan's status degraded over the course of the week, moving to "doubtful" Wednesday morning, coach Ed Orgeron said, and becoming definitive later that night.
"Myles wouldn't have played this week," Orgeron said during his weekly radio show.
If LSU’s game this weekend hadn't been postponed because of coronavirus cases within Florida’s football program, LSU would have relied on its true freshman backups to lead the offense in a road game as the Tigers tried to recover from a 1-2 start.
Instead, an unexpected open date replaced LSU’s toughest opponent yet, allowing Brennan plenty of time to heal before the Tigers’ next game Oct. 24 against currently unranked South Carolina.
Brennan got hurt on a 7-yard run in the first quarter against Missouri last weekend. He sprinted toward the end zone and leaned into a tackle as he approached the sideline. Safety Tyree Gillespie walloped Brennan’s left side, knocking him out of bounds.
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Brennan hopped up and didn’t miss a play, soon throwing a touchdown to wide receiver Terrace Marshall Jr., but the hit left him bruised. Brennan felt sore at halftime, Orgeron said, and the pain made it “hard for him to rotate to throw the ball."
Despite the lingering soreness, Brennan threw for a career-high 430 yards and four touchdowns in LSU’s 45-41 loss — with 323 yards and three touchdowns coming after the hit.
“He didn't blink,” Orgeron said. “So I was very proud of him.”
Though Brennan played the entire game, he hadn’t practiced as of Wednesday morning, three days before LSU was scheduled to play No. 10 Florida in The Swamp. Orgeron thought Brennan would return to practice later this week, but Wednesday morning he described Brennan’s status as “doubtful" and later revealed Brennan wouldn't have played at all.
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The sudden possibility of playing without Brennan put all eyes on Finley and Johnson. Neither of them have taken a college snap, the extent of their experience coming in practices and three preseason scrimmages.
Finley and Johnson enrolled early at LSU. Finley came from Ponchatoula, and Johnson signed out of Oconee County, Georgia. They arrived about the same time and attended bowl practices, observing former LSU quarterback Joe Burrow as they learned the offensive scheme.
The freshmen, who became Brennan’s primary backups after LSU suspended former quarterback Peter Parrish, played well at times during preseason camp. Johnson broke off an 80-yard touchdown run the first day of practice, and Finley often received praise.
“Max is more of a runner a little bit,” Orgeron said. “TJ has a strong arm. He had an excellent camp. I think both of them are phenomenal young players. It's hard to distinguish the difference between both of them.”
Orgeron gave no indication who would’ve started if Brennan couldn’t have played against Florida. LSU listed Finely and Johnson as co-backups on its initial depth chart, and neither player had seen the field through three games.
A day of deficient defense could have been salvaged in any of four plays that began a yard away from the Missouri goal line.
“They're both equal right now,” Orgeron said. “Both of those young men are doing a great job, and if we have to start one of them, we're going to do it. I believe in them.”
LSU may need its freshman quarterbacks at some point this season, but now the Tigers have an extra week. Brennan had become the first player in LSU history to throw for more than 300 yards in each of his first three starts, improving from week-to-week, and he ranked fourth nationally in touchdown passes with 11.
The last thing LSU needed was to lose Brennan as it tried to buck a losing streak. He can now heal in plenty of time for South Carolina, perhaps giving LSU a needed break in a season that hasn’t started the way anyone expected.