GUILBEAU: Brandon Harris will have every chance to improve this offseason

By GLENN GUILBEAU
Tiger Rag Featured Columnist

BATON ROUGE – Few in college football had a better off-season than LSU coach Les Miles. He hired one of the best and brightest defensive coordinators in young and rising Dave Aranda. He kept two of his best defensive players out of the NFL Draft in cornerback Tre’Davious White, who would have likely gone in the late first round, and middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith, who would have likely gone in the second or third round. And he signed one of the elite recruiting classes in the nation on signing day.

Miles also was able to keep offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Cam Cameron, possibly winning a power struggle with LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, who may have wanted Cameron out as did a growing LSU fandom. Cameron’s pay was deservedly cut by $300,000, but he will remain. This may not look like good news to most, considering how poorly Cameron’s pass offense performed in 2014 and ’15 – 114th and 105th in the nation and 68th and 65th in passing efficiency, respectively.

But since LSU’s offense is full of players heading into their junior seasons with Cameron, 55, heading into his fourth season, the carryover and familiarity with the offense from stability at offensive coordinator could help the offense in the short term more than a coaching change would have. This could end up being particularly true with quarterback Brandon Harris, who will be a junior in the 2016 season. Harris will be the first starting quarterback at LSU for two straight seasons under Cameron, who had Zach Mettenberger in 2013, Anthony Jennings in 2014 and Harris in 2015.

Jennings has left the program, and the Tigers have a new No. 2 quarterback in Purdue junior transfer Danny Etling. But the so called quarterback competition is more Miles’ mind games to motivate Harris and media talk than reality. Miles did the same thing before the 2006 season with backup Matt Flynn, and JaMarcus Russell remained the starter and blossomed without ever really being threatened. If Etling plays any significant snaps, it will only be if Harris regresses during the season.

Harris was erratic last season, but he did improve throughout the year, and this was while playing the second half of the season with a hernia and with a bad defense. He did complete 26 of 51 passes for 324 yards and a touchdown in the 38-17 loss to Ole Miss. LSU was behind 24-0 early, but it was still the most passing yards by a LSU quarterback since Mettenberger threw for 372 in a loss at Georgia in 2013. Harris also completed 21 of 35 passes for 271 yards the week before that in a 31-14 loss to Arkansas, which also took an early lead at 21-0 in the first half.

Many do not realize it because of the Quarterback on the Brain Syndrome that has inflicted LSU fans since Jordan Jefferson’s terrible 2010 and ’11 seasons, but looking back, LSU’s defense was more of a problem during the Tigers’ three-game swoon last November than was Cameron’s and Harris’ offense. LSU’s defense allowed 434, 440 and 508 in the three-game losing streak to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss. In the end, it was LSU’s worst defense since the 2008 season when defensive coordinator Doug Mallory was fired after one season, and the 2015 defense was likely more talented than that one.

So, now the defense should be better with Aranda doing a better job of getting the most out of talented players. And both Cameron and Harris and most of the offense will be back, and Harris will be 100 percent healthy physically without the hernia and better mentally without a new coordinator. Quarterback is the most difficult position on the field, therefore adapting to a quarterback coaching change is the most difficult.

Miles did, though, deftly add a new coach with a strong quarterback flavor, which should also aid Harris’ development. LSU’s new wide receivers coach is former Auburn quarterback and former Florida State quarterback coach Dameyune Craig, who coached wide receivers at Auburn the previous three years. On paper, Craig says he will only help LSU’s quarterbacks when asked. So, uh, we’re asking. And the 41-year-old Craig, who remains the Auburn record holder for passing yards in a season with 3,227 in 1997, has already had an impact on Harris.

“Coach Craig came in, and we have a bond,” Harris said during spring practice last week. “He recruited me to Auburn. He’s able to help me. He was a similar player (in body type and scrambling ability). He’s a guy I look up to, and he serves as a role model to me. He, along with Cam, gave us some great quarterback drills – stuff that helped me with touch. It’s really helped me. After practice when we get our accuracy numbers and our completion percentages, you can see where it continues to go up.”

Harris struggled frequently last season with his touch on shorter passes, particularly in the win over Texas A&M when he was 7 of 21 for 83 yards with an interception in the regular season finale. But this was also when his hernia injury was at its worst.

“I understand you’ve got to take something off of it if guys are wide open,” Harris said. “The drills he (Craig) has us doing and has given Cam to help me, it’s helped tremendously. It’s also helping with him coaching the receivers. He knows. He played quarterback. He can kind of teach the receivers what the quarterbacks are thinking.”

Cameron also played quarterback, but that was at Indiana in the early 1980s. Craig operated out of a spread-oriented attack at Auburn under Coach Terry Bowden and a quarterback coach named Jimbo Fisher, who would coach LSU’s quarterbacks from 2000-06 when the position was a strength and not a reason for mass fan therapy. Craig has long seen Fisher as his mentor and coached quarterbacks for him at Florida State from 2010-12.

Craig was good right off at Auburn in his first season as a starter in 1996 under Bowden and Fisher, but his improvement was large in his second year much like Mettenberger in 2014 after 2013.

“You normally see a huge gain from year to year with experience at quarterback,” Craig said when he was hired last month. “Matter of fact, Brandon came by my office to see me, and I talked to him about my experiences playing this position. One thing I took out of playing a full season was the flow of the game – just understanding that you have to manage it. And he said he understood that. Managing shifting momentum, whether it’s positively or negatively, is important. And once you feel it going a negative way, you make sure you’re doing something to calm you players or make a play to change it. So, you’ll see a huge difference in him from last year to this year. That’s just part of the growth and part of the position. You won’t be the same player you were from your freshman year to your senior year because you’re playing. You’re playing. You can’t substitute experience.”

Craig was 169-of-310 passing for 2,296 yards and 16 touchdowns with 10 interceptions in 1996 and 216 of 403 for 3,277 yards and 18 touchdowns with 13 interceptions in 1997 as Auburn won the SEC West.

“The game slowed down for me,” Craig said. “And I wasn’t as emotional. Didn’t get too high. Didn’t get too low as far as my demeanor. Stayed in control of what was going on in my surroundings. Was able to help my teammates get lined up and in position to be successful and calm guys who were nervous. And still at the same time, when I had to turn the lights on and compete and get in somebody’s butt, I could do that. I knew when to do that and when not to. Playing with confidence is not easy in your first year. It’s a learning curve.”

Craig hopes to help Harris when he can.

“He’s a great kid. Smart, humble and very, very talented,” Craig said. “I just knew he had a bright future when I recruited him. So it’s good to have an opportunity to come here and work alongside him now and compete for championships.”

1 Comment

  1. I’ve been hearing good things about Ettling from sources inside the LSU team. When asked if Ettling would start, one LSU offensive lineman replied, “I hope so.”

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