Treon Harris' running ability adds an item to LSU's defensive checklist

LSU's defense hopes to pressure Florida QB Treon Harris into bad throws and limit the damage he can create with his legs. Scott Donaldson/Icon Sportswire

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Although Florida coach Jim McElwain said his offensive scheme will largely remain the same with Treon Harris at quarterback, he acknowledged that Harris’ mobility will add to LSU defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s list of concerns for Saturday’s matchup of unbeaten teams.

Harris, who went 4-2 as a starter last fall and who started the Gators’ season-opening win against New Mexico State, is back in that role following Monday’s announcement that Will Grier is suspended for a year after testing positive for drug use.

“He’s been practicing the same stuff,” McElwain said. “Obviously he’s got a different skillset, so there’s some things with his feet that are a little different. He’s done a great job of extending when he’s been in there. I know this: I know Kevin real well and they’ll have all their bases covered, knowing what we’ve done in the past in these situations with whatever type of quarterbacks we’ve had.”

Steele and McElwain know each other well after having worked together on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama. Their Crimson Tide quarterbacks were mostly pocket passers like Grier instead of dual-threat performers like Harris, however. Covering all the bases will require Steele -- and most of his defensive players -- to account for Harris’ running ability.

“It makes us be more cautious,” LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith said. “When we’re in coverage, we have a guy to kind of keep eyes on him to make sure he’s not scrambling around or anything like that. Also, with the secondary, they’ve got to make sure they stay with their man because he still could throw it. It will be a test for all of us.”

Oddly enough, this will be the fourth consecutive game where LSU will not face the opponent’s No. 1 quarterback.

Syracuse had lost quarterbacks Terrel Hunt and Eric Dungey to injuries and started Zack Mahoney, who opened the season as the Orange’s fifth-string quarterback, against LSU. Eastern Michigan, which lost starter Reginald Bell to a jaw injury early in the season, turned to backup Brogan Roback against the Tigers. Last week, South Carolina was without injured Game 1 starter Connor Mitch and Lorenzo Nunez, who had started the previous two games before sitting out against LSU.

And now comes Grier’s suspension -- the second straight season where Florida announced its quarterback was suspended on the eve of facing LSU. Last year, the Gators suspended Harris for the LSU game in the wake of sexual assault accusations that were eventually dropped.

To say the least, it’s a bizarre sequence of events that the Tigers have no clue how to explain.

“I don’t know, man. I hate to see people go down, whatever the circumstances may be,” safety Rickey Jefferson said. “But we’ve just got to be ready to play Saturday. We don’t chomp our teeth at that, like, ‘Oh, I hope their quarterback’s going to start.’ It happens. We’ve still got to play a football game.”

Without question, that will be Florida’s approach as it turns back to Harris under center.

Harris was generally a liability as a passer last season, but looked much sharper in the 2015 opener against New Mexico State. He completed 14 of 19 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns, but Grier outplayed him. Grier grabbed the starting job the following week and his grasp on the job only solidified when Harris was suspended for the Tennessee game for breaking team rules.

Nonetheless, Harris was at the helm for Florida’s upset win over Georgia last season, and his only losses came in overtime against South Carolina and by five points against College Football Playoff participant Florida State.

“It’s basically a starter replacing a starter,” LSU defensive end Lewis Neal said.

The Gators (6-0, 4-0 SEC) were developing optimism at quarterback for the first time in years with Grier, but McElwain believes Harris can also move the chains, albeit in a slightly different manner.

“Obviously we’re putting things in for him as we kind of go,” McElwain said. “He’s been doing a great job in practice, and as you know, going into this I felt that we’ve had two really good quarterbacks. Now it’s Treon’s opportunity to take the reins and run with it, and he’ll do a great job.”

It will be the LSU defenders’ jobs to keep that from happening, and that job will start with pressuring Harris into bad throws and limiting the damage he can create with his legs -- a style of quarterback play the Tigers (5-0, 3-0) haven’t truly faced since opening the season against Dak Prescott and Mississippi State.

“Any quarterback can run,” Neal said. “You want them to get nervous. That’s a good thing. If you’re not putting pressure on him, he’s not going to run.”