Ed Orgeron isn't certain yet if LSU will get Myles Brennan back from injury in time for the Auburn game on Saturday, but the starting quarterback began a steady return to practice on Monday.
Brennan, who missed LSU's win over South Carolina with an abdominal injury, was sidelined after starting in the Tigers' first three games of the season. He dressed out on Saturday, but he only threw very light tosses during warmups and never fixed his helmet on for any team drills.
True freshman TJ Finley started in place of Brennan, and he led the Tigers in a 52-24 win over South Carolina while completing 17-of-21 passes for 265 yards and two touchdowns.
After the game, Orgeron reaffirmed that there was no quarterback controversy, and the head coach told reporters again Monday that Brennan remains the starting quarterback when healthy.
"If Myles is healthy, he's our first-team quarterback," Orgeron said. "But I'm not putting him in unless he's 100%."
Orgeron has said that Brennan's injury requires time to heal, and the 6-foot-4, 210-pound redshirt junior has to gain back his rotational ability to make throws.
Orgeron said Brennan will practice at "about 25%" today, and athletic training director Jack Marucci will oversee his progression throughout the week.
"I don't know yet if he's going to play," Orgeron told reporters Monday. "He may play. It all depends on how practice goes this week... see what he can do, feel it. He's probably going to be sore."
The LSU coaching staff will make decisions on who runs with the first team offense on a daily basis, Orgeron said, and, on Monday, Brennan and Finley will split reps along with true freshman Max Johnson.
Finley edged out Johnson in practice last week to earn his first career start. Johnson entered the game for one play on the first drive, when Finley was sidelined after his helmet jarred loose on the field, and Johnson played more on the final series when the game was out of hand.
Johnson never threw a pass, but he had two carries for 19 yards.
Finley impressed Orgeron in his debut. The 6-foot-6, 242-pound Ponchatoula High graduate showed poise and command in the pocket, and he delivered crucial throws that helped LSU convert eight of its 10 third down opportunities.
Finley's two touchdown passes both went to Terrace Marshall. The first was a seven-yard fade route to the right corner of the end zone, and the second was a third-and-6 slant that Marshall turned into a 51-yard score.
The throw to Marshall came after Finley's first, and only, mistake against South Carolina, when he threw a second-quarter interception on what was either an underthrown pass or a miscommunication with a receiver on a back-shoulder throw.
Finley still hustled down and tackled South Carolina cornerback Israel Mukuamu, limiting the turnover to a 56-yard gain. LSU's defense held the Gamecocks to a 45-yard field goal on the following drive.
"I've got to work on his tackling a little bit," Orgeron joked. "Kind of a shoulder tackle. But I love his effort. TJ came alive, man. It was his night."
Finley also showcased his arm strength when he lofted two long passes of 26 and 36 yards to Jaray Jenkins.
"I told y'all he had a cannon for an arm," Orgeron said. "So pleased with TJ's poise. He looked like a veteran out there. I think that's what made the difference in the football game."
Had Finley not played so well in his debut, Orgeron admitted he'd be in more of a hurry to bring Brennan back into the lineup against Auburn (3-2) —another crucial game for the Tigers (2-2), which are still attempting to crawl back from losses to Mississippi State and Missouri.
The fifth-year head coach said he's considered the benefits of resting Brennan this week, because, paired with the off week before LSU hosts Alabama on Nov. 14, Brennan would essentially have three weeks to fully recover for the No. 2-ranked Crimson Tide (5-0).
Auburn has underwhelmed this season. The Tigers began the season No. 8 in the AP Top 25, and they've since dropped out of the polls after losses to Georgia and South Carolina. It's likely Auburn would have also lost to Arkansas, had officials not blown a late play dead after quarterback Bo Nix spiked the football backward, a fumble, moments before Auburn kicked the game-winning field goal.
Still, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn's offense has scored an average of 29 points in its last three games, and the dual-threat Nix poses a threat to an LSU defense that still has issues giving up explosive plays.
Orgeron will have to consider if he'll need Brennan for a possible offensive shootout in a game LSU can't afford to lose if they intend to stay in competition for the SEC West Division title.
"It's just a matter of if he's ready to play," Orgeron said. "At this point in the season, we've got to do what's best for the football game, and I can't think about nothing but beating Auburn. So whatever we can do, whatever personnel we have to beat Auburn, that's what we're gonna worry about."
If Finley indeed starts against Auburn, Orgeron said the offense will need to support him with a renewed run game like they did with 276 rushing yards against South Carolina — a "night and day difference," Orgeron said, from the previous three games, in which the Tigers rushed for a total of 290 yards.
Ty Davis-Price and John Emery combined for 40 carries, 229 yards and two touchdowns rushing, and Orgeron said many of the runs came off run-pass option plays. He complimented Finley's ability to read defenses within the scheme.
If Auburn's defensive presents an advantageous opportunity to run the football, Orgeron expects LSU's running backs to help control the game again.
"That paved the way for TJ's success," Orgeron said. "We couldn't put it all on his shoulders."