Engster: Joe Burrow is the heir to a tumultuous history of LSU quarterbacks

As LSU enters its 125th football season, the focus has zoomed in on the quarterback once again. The laser beam is aimed at the 6-foot-3 frame of Joe Burrow, the new kid in town. When Burrow bolted the Buckeyes of Ohio State for the Bengals of Louisiana State a few months ago, he should have been made aware of frequent spats about who calls the signals for the Tigers.

LSU has been a hotbed for quarterbacking arguments about who should start and how often he should play since Warren Rabb directed LSU to a national title 60 years ago. Rabb may have reigned as the uncontested starter, but as we know, he was also a star defender. Notably in the 7-0 Sugar Bowl victory over Clemson to complete LSU’s only perfect season in modern time, it was Billy Cannon, not Rabb, who tossed the winning touchdown pass.

Some quarterbacking battles have been intense, but hardly deserved attention. When Billy Broussard and Carl Otis Trimble were vying for the starting job in 1974, it was not a showdown of spectacular talents. It was a last minute dilemma for Coach Charles McClendon to fill a position voided by Mike Miley’s decision to sign a baseball contract with the California Angels.

In ’74, Broussard led LSU with 700 yards passing for the season and a year later, the top passer was Pat Lyons with 457 yards.  A quarter-century later, Rohan Davey passed for 528 yards in one afternoon against Alabama as Nick Saban guided the Tigers to a 35-21 victory at Tuscaloosa in 2001.

LSU has produced a Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback in Y.A. Tittle and a league Most Valuable Player QB in Bert Jones, but neither man was the kind of college passer to light up the scoreboard like a pinball machine.

Jones has quipped that he was the only quarterback ever to win AllAmerica honors in the environment he faced in 1972. He lost out to Terry Davis of Alabama for AllSEC distinction and once that season watched from the sidelines as Paul Lyons started a game in lieu of Bert. Charlie Mac was a two-quarterback guy to the dismay of many fans and to No. 7 of Ruston.

Here is the evolution of most yards passing in a season by an LSU quarterback.

[table] Year, Player, Yards

1937,Young Bussey,712

1945, Y.A. Tittle,780

1953,Al Doggett,822

1967,Nelson Stokley,939

1969,Mike Hillman,1180

1972,Bert Jones,1446

1981,Alan Risher,1780

1982,Alan Risher,1834

1983,Jeff Wickersham,2542

1989,Tom Hodson,2655

2001,Rohan Davey,3347 [/table]

It is curious that Davey’s record for season yards has survived for 17 years even though bowl statistics were not included in 2001 official stats. Today a quarterback at LSU starts the season with the potential to have 15 games recorded in his statistical column.

Davey had just 12 games in his 3,347 yard passing season of 2001. His 444 yards in a 47-34 Sugar Bowl win over Illinois should have lifted his official total to 3,791 yards. The NCAA has chosen not to retroactively include bowl games before 2002 in its stats. If President Mark Emmert has a shortage of calculators in Indianapolis, a collection plate in pursuit accurate numbers is advisable.

When Alan Risher departed LSU after the 1982 season, No. 7 from Slidell ranked as the most accurate quarterback in SEC history. Risher finished a 62.0 percent completion percentage with 381 completions in 615 attempts. The percentage now ranks 19th in SEC history, but at the time, Alan was a cutting edge precision passer.

Risher inherited the starting role from Steve Ensminger and David Woodley, who shared duties from the close of the 1976 season through 1979. Ensminger and Woodley are remembered as stellar players, but neither would survive today with the stats they produced 40 years ago.

Ensminger completed 196 of 434 passes in his career for 2,769 yards and a percentage of 45.2. Woodley, who as an NFL rookie took the starting quarterback job from Hall of Famer Bob Griese in Miami, completed 146 passes in 308 attempts at LSU for 2,081 yards and a 47.4 completion percentage.

Ensminger and Woodley were superior runners to any of their successors. In three years, they combined for 25 rushing touchdowns, 10 for Steve and 15 for David. Both men had magnificent arms, and if they were playing in contemporary competition, the guess here is that both would adjust to the times and be effective passers and not run much at all.

In 1989, Tom Hodson retired as a four-year starter with a school record 9,115 yards passing and 69 touchdown strikes. Those were both SEC records when Hodson capped his tenure at TigerTown.

Today, Hodson ranks 16th in career SEC passing yards and 18th in the league in touchdowns. Both numbers remain LSU records, which says something about the lack of marquee talent at LSU over the past three decades in the game’s most glamorous position.

Between 1992 and 1995, Jamie Howard fired for a school highest 47 interceptions. The dubious figure ranks fifth in SEC history. Howard also holds the LSU record for six interceptions in one game against Auburn in 1994. The league record belongs to the late John Reaves of Florida. He was picked off nine times by Auburn as he threw 66 times for the Gators in their lone defeat in 1969. LSU’s Mike Hillman led the 9-1 Tigers in the same year of 1969 with 167 passes hurled for the entire season.

The longest touchdown pass for LSU occurred in 2014 as Anthony Jennings connected with Travin Dural for a 94-yard score against Sam Houston State. Receiver Cris Collinsworth set a conference and national mark that will not be broken in 1977 when he passed 99 yards to quarterback Derrick Gaffney for Florida against a hapless Rice unit, which lost 48-3 to the Gators one week before bowing 77-0 to LSU.

If Joe Burrow wants to consult with a veteran of quarterbacking drama on the Bayou, he should reach out to Bert Jones in Ruston.

Jones was an afterthought most of his career at LSU. He was the consolation prize when LSU lost a recruiting war to Arkansas for the services of Joe Ferguson of Shreveport Woodlawn. Jones was poised to be redshirted in 1970 when Butch Duhe’ died in pre-season practice with a brain hemorrhage.

Bert shared starting duties in 1971 and 1972 with Paul Lyons, but he was impressive enough to be selected as the second choice in the first round of the NFL Draft in 1973. Three years later, he was the league MVP at 25. Jones saw his NFL career end at 31 with a series of shoulder injuries followed by a broken neck in his lone season with the Los Angeles Rams in 1982.

Jones is now revered as the best quarterback in LSU history. But the process was inexact as it will be in this season’s uncertain quarterbacking derby. It is uncertain if Burrow is the next Bert, but he must be outstanding if LSU resumes its status as a contender for league and national crowns.

The days of a superior team and an average quarterback winning it all are over.


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Jim Engster | President, Tiger Rag

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