BATON ROUGE, La. -- You know what early enrollees typically do when they play in their first spring game? They stink up the joint -- and understandably so.
By all rights, they should still be in high school, making prom plans or figuring out where to go for spring break. They’ve had only a couple of months to digest a complex college playbook, and they’re competing against more seasoned, more physically mature athletes.
But not only did Brandon Harris not stink up the joint in LSU’s spring game on Saturday, he was arguably the star of the show with three touchdown passes and 195 passing yards. He also flashed impressive escapability when the pocket collapsed, rushing six times for 76 yards and another score.
It was an eye-opening performance, but let’s pump our breaks before declaring the Tigers’ quarterback race over -- even if Anthony Jennings followed an underwhelming performance in the Outback Bowl by going 9-for-17 for 157 yards and tossing interceptions that linebackers Deion Jones and Kwon Alexander returned for touchdowns.
Let’s be clear: if LSU had been playing Alabama -- which seems to be the measuring stick for anything around this program these days -- the performances by either Jennings or Harris would have probably led to an LSU loss.
“There needs to be improvement at the position for both guys,” LSU coach Les Miles confirmed afterward.
Obviously the pair of pick-sixes determined the day’s narrative for Jennings, but Harris had plenty of misfires himself. He displayed a phenomenal skillset and made some remarkable plays, without question, but he simply must reduce the mistakes before he can fulfill his obviously sky-high potential.
Case in point: in the second quarter, Harris overthrew a wide-open DeSean Smith -- wide open as in there was nobody within 10 yards of the big tight end -- and then floated an ugly throw over fullback Connor Neighbors' head on his next pass attempt. Later, he made a debatable decision to throw into double coverage in the end zone, with the pass luckily falling incomplete.
“I really think he made, I don’t know, four, five, six major errors in the scrimmage and yet had the ability to get beyond it, which always is a tremendous mark,” Miles said of Harris, whom LSU has not made available to speak to the media. “And if we can eliminate the mistakes and really play to the advantages, that’s what we’re looking to do.”
If there was anything positive that Jennings could take away from the day, it’s that he at least finished with a flourish. In the first two quarters, Jennings presided over seven drives -- the longest of which covered 31 yards -- with those seven possessions ending in five punts and the two interception returns for touchdowns.
He wrapped up his day with an efficient 73-yard touchdown drive in the third quarter, concluding the possession with a 13-yard scoring pass to Travin Dural.
“If you throw an interception and you don’t come right back, you’re not a good quarterback,” Jennings said afterward. “So every quarterback goes through adversity. It’s how you respond, it’s not how you fall.”
He seemed to take a nasty fall on Saturday, but Jennings now has plenty of time to respond. The good news for the Tigers is that they don’t play Alabama for seven months. In fact, they don’t play anybody until the Aug. 30 kickoff against Wisconsin. That’s nearly five months for both quarterbacks to keep developing a rapport with their receiving corps and battling for the right to take the first snap against the Badgers.
Asked about the message he will send the quarterbacks going into summer workouts, Miles’ message was simple: “Compete. That’s it.” This after saying in his press conference that the coaches plan to “let the competition continue and see how this thing plays out” this summer.
Competition was also the theme of this spring, and it was apparently a productive period for both players, of whom Miles reiterated after Saturday’s game that “I think both guys are talented enough to be our quarterback.”
The talent was apparent, particularly when Harris was throwing darts and sprinting away from defenders for big gains. But will LSU’s coaches be able to harness that talent quickly enough to beat opponents like Wisconsin, Auburn, Florida, Mississippi State and, of course, the mighty Crimson Tide?
That is going to be the deciding factor in LSU’s 2014 season. With what should be an improved defense and with Leonard Fournette, Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard in the backfield, the Tigers should be able to pound most of their opponents into submission. But against the nastiest teams on the schedule, they need to be able to at least make opposing defenses respect the pass -- and not make any catastrophic errors when they do choose to put the ball in the air.
Both quarterbacks made some potentially catastrophic throws on Saturday, and that’s OK for now. Jennings and Harris need to make great strides in this summer’s passing sessions, however, or it will be 2015 at the earliest before the Tigers again rank among the top contenders for a national championship.
LSU SPRING AWARDS
Here is the full list of spring practice awards that LSU coach Les Miles presented after Saturday’s spring game:
Jimmy Taylor Award (Comprehensive spring award for outstanding leadership, effort and performance): D.J. Welter
Alvin Roy Fourth Quarter Award (Outstanding performance in LSU offseason program): Danielle Hunter, Duke Riley, K.J. Malone, Ethan Pocic, Travin Dural, Christian LaCouture, Lewis Neal, Tre'Davious White, Tre' Sullivan, Terrence Magee, Luke Boyd, Jeff Lang