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December 29, 2015: LSU Tigers quarterback Brandon Harris (6) following the 2015 Advocare Texas Bowl featuring the LSU Tigers vs Texas Tech Red Raiders at NRG Stadium, Houston, Texas. (Photo by Ken Murray/ICON Sportswire)

LSU’s success hinges on the growth of Brandon Harris

(Photo by Ken Murray/ICON Sportswire)

When LSU hauled in a top-five recruiting class in 2014, headlined by the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit in running back Leonard Fournette, lofty expectations were immediately set. 2016 is the final chance for this group to capitalize on its full potential.

The first season was a learning year. The Tigers had just lost nine players to the NFL Draft, including starters at every offensive skill position, and a handful of true freshmen were given extensive playing time as a result. Fournette set the school record for rushing yards by a freshman in a single season, Jamal Adams was a Freshman All-American safety and Malachi Dupre recorded 318 recieving yards and five touchdown catches despite making only two starts.

An 8-5 record made fans restless, but the future was undoubtedly bright. One uncertainty still loomed large, though, and that was the quarterback position.

It became apparent rather quickly that Anthony Jennings was not the long-term answer under center. Jennings completed only 48.9 percent of his passes while leading one of the nation’s most abysmal passing attacks that year, and would relinquishing his starting job after the team’s Music City Bowl loss to Notre Dame.

Brandon Harris, then a freshman, showed glimpses of promise that validated his billing as one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterback recruits, but he also displayed shortcomings that generated warranted concern. During the only start of his freshman campaign against Auburn, Harris could not have been more outmatched. He completed 3-of-14 passes for 58 yards as LSU was blown out in a 41-7 rout. Struggles grasping the playbook became a common theme, and he would rarely see the field for the remainder of the season.

2015 brought about higher hopes, something that would become amplified early in the season as Fournette became the first player in SEC history to rush for 200 yards in three consecutive games. The dynamic running back finished the year as the nation’s leading rusher with 162.8 yards per game. He would also set single season school records with 1,953 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns.

The defense was not elite, but it was formidable enough to carry the talent-laden team into the national title picture as late as November. The same could be said about the Tigers’ wide receiving corps, where by the end of the season, Dupre and Travin Dural emerged as two of the top receiving threats in the conference.

And through the first seven games of the season, Harris gave the Tigers just what they needed to contend for an SEC title — and beyond. He did not take over games, and he did not need to. He simply made quality decisions, protected the football and, when called upon, moved the chains. He entered LSU’s Nov. 7 showdown with conference rival and eventual national champion Alabama with 12 total touchdowns and zero interceptions, with the Tigers sitting at 7-0 and holding the No. 2 spot in the College Football Playoff rankings.

September 05, 2015:  LSU Tigers quarterback Brandon Harris (6) warms up before the game between the LSU Tigers and McNeese State Cowboys at the Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, LA.

Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire

With an unfortunate start to the month of November, though, LSU fell from national championship favorite to unranked. The Tigers lost three consecutive games during this stretch, and the performance of Harris took a coinciding dip. After not throwing an interception all season long up to that point, Harris tossed a total of four picks in losses to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss.

LSU rebounded with a win over Texas A&M in the regular season finale, as well as a Texas Bowl victory over Texas Tech — providing some much-needed momentum heading into the offseason. But as had lingered a year prior, concerns at the quarterback position still remain prevalent.

The Tigers enter 2016 as one of the most experienced teams in the country.

Their 18 returning starters, nine on each side of the ball, is tied for the most in all of college football. Fournette will begin the season as one of the frontrunners to win the Heisman Trophy. Dupre and Dural both possess All-SEC talent, and with the likes of Kendell Beckwith and Tre’Davious White returning for their senior seasons, the defense is shaping up to be dominant in its first year under defensive coordinator Dave Aranda.

If Harris is able to take significant strides forward in his improvement, this team is going to be something special.

When looking back at the heralded 2014 recruiting class, 2016 was always the moment. Fournette — and for the most part the rest of this group — will have two seasons of experience under the belt. And with a handful certain to bolt to the NFL next offseason, this could be their final shot at greatness.

The growth of  Harris will be the difference in whether or not the Tigers realize their potential.

LSU’s success hinges on the growth of Brandon Harris

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