In his first and perhaps his only appearance before the media until the 2015 season begins, LSU sophomore quarterback Brandon Harris seemed ready.
Ready for the questions. Ready with the right answers. Ready with some substantial evidence that he has matured since a freshman season when he seemed like a kid who had just been invited to the adults’ table at a Thanksgiving gathering.
Does that mean the talented gunslinger that tantalized in a few relief performances but fizzled badly in his only start is ready for matters most? That’s a question that won’t be answered for another month or so.
Tigers coach Les Miles won’t flat-out identify Harris as the starting quarterback and that’s OK. Coaches have every right to play things close to the vest, regardless of how much media and/or fans squawk about their right to know.
But it doesn’t take a very strong limb to wander out on to figure out that Harris–the 6-foot-4 and now 220-pound or so QB–is the clear-cut frontrunner for the starting job when LSU’s season opens Sept. 5 against McNeese State.
Off limits to the media until Sunday at LSU’s annual media day, Harris had time to formulate answers and it showed.
Peppered with inquiries about his growth since last year, Harris’ answer was like a perfect and on-target spiral on a 20-yard out pattern.
“The game has slowed down a lot,” he said. “When you get to the point where you don’t have to do too much thinking, you can play fast – get the ball out of your hand quickly and make decisions. That’s what it’s all about playing quarterback. Now you’ll be able to have fun and not overthink things.”
There were certainly some fun moments for Harris a year ago. He surged into the spotlight and up the popularity totem pole with LSU fans when he came on in the fourth quarter against Mississippi State and engineered a pair of touchdown drives and then threw himself into immediate budding legend status with an explosive effort against New Mexico State the following week.
That was as a still-raw product, a freshman who had been with offensive coordinator Cam Cameron for a spring and pre-season practice; but he still needed to experience the nuances of playing college football, especially against SEC defenses.
Where is Harris with that now?
“My knowledge of the game has improved,” he said Sunday. “I’m not trying to go off of just talent. I know where I want to go with the ball. It’s realizing my job as the quarterback is to distribute the ball. I don’t have to make plays. I’ve got a great running back (Leonard Fournette) who is an All-American. We’ve got All-American wide receivers, great tight ends and a great offensive line.”
Most of those same guys surrounded LSU starting quarterback Anthony Jennings last season and he was never able to find a consistent comfort zone. He took better charge of the huddle than Harris, yes. The offense, while not explosive and sometimes not even very productive, at least operated the way it was supposed to most of the time.
Jennings’ performances lacked pizzazz, though, which wouldn’t be such a big deal had Harris not rode in like a knight on a white horse in those two games and made the disparity seem some vast.
When Harris got the starting nod at Auburn, though, that white horse bucked and veered off the path in what turned out to be the worst performance by either Tiger QB of the season.
It was tough to detect if that was an aberration because Harris rarely got on the field again. Miles was emphatic Sunday about how different this Harris is compared to that one.
“Night and day,” Miles said. “His experience, the things he’s done. He understands much more of what’s required of a quarterback. No similarity to how he played against Auburn.”
Jennings slid back in the saddle in the second half of the Auburn debacle and left it only briefly a few times, no matter how bumpy the ride got. Understandably, because of that, Jennings isn’t ready to concede the job to Harris, regardless of how things seem to be headed.
What affected his status at least equally as much as Harris’ evolution was a June arrest for a ridiculously bad decision when he and two teammates entered another student’s apartment without permission, resulting in a summons. The incident allegedly revolved around property that belonged to Jennings and no charges were filed.
Had it been just two ordinary students, the whole thing could’ve been waved off as young adults figuring out how to handle conflict. But when you are the incumbent starting QB for any college team, especially in the SEC where the fishbowl is so visible, the decision to inject not only yourself but two other teammates showed an incredible and inexcusable lack of leadership.
All of which Jennings owned up to Sunday.
“It was a mistake,” Jennings said. “I was immature at the time and I’ve matured. I’m ready to show people who I really am, who I’ve always been. I don’t think one mistake can shape a person’s character. I’m happy to be back with the team.”
Back being a conspicuous four-letter word.
When Miles learned of the incident, he immediately suspended Jennings and the other two players. That meant no participation in team activities for the six weeks leading up to fall camp.
No seven-on-seven work with a crew of receivers who had matured. No chance to work on chemistry. No chance to keep in step with Harris as he shouldered the mantle of leadership.
“I didn’t have the time to work with my teammates this summer,” Jennings said. “I worked on my own, but it wasn’t the same as working with these guys. That’s what you cherish most when you’re not on the team. It did push me back.”
How far back remains to be seen.
In the handful of practices the media observed in early August, Harris looked much sharper than Jennings and was almost always on the field with the first unit. And them, from first blush on Sunday, Harris is not only doing all the right things on the field, he has embraced the notion that he can and needs to say the right things.
Essentially, more than any time last season, Harris sounded like an LSU quarterback who is ready to seize the job and be the kind of leader that neither he nor Jennings was a year ago.
“I like expectations high and pressure being put on me,” Harris said. “I think any guy you ask on our team would say my expectations are very high. When Coach Miles puts guys out on the field … you’re expected to play at a high level.
“Coach Miles puts you on the field and expects you to perform. I didn’t do that very well last year. I worked hard in the offseason, improved my footwork and accuracy, stayed in the film room, and I like where I’m at right now.”
No better time than the present.