Jim Engster: There’s a New Gun in Tigertown

LSU freshman quarterback TJ Finley will likely start Saturday at Arkansas.

The emergence of TJ Finley as the possible starting quarterback for LSU until the next governor’s election in 2023 reminds me of the 1983 NFL Draft. The first round that year saw five quarterbacks selected before the Miami Dolphins grabbed Dan Marino with the 27th overall choice.

Marino weathered a disappointing senior year at Pitt and was expected to be an understudy to the Dolphins starter of three years, David Woodley of LSU. Woodley directed the Dolphins to the Super Bowl in his previous season and to a 3-1 start in ‘83, but was only of 4 of 12 for 34 yards in the first half on Oct. 2, 1983 at the Superdome against the New Orleans Saints of Bum Phillips.

Miami Coach Don Shula summoned Marino to take the field in a bid to rally the Dolphins, and he failed in a 17-7 defeat. But the NFL debut for the future Hall of Famer was good enough that Marino never looked back after completing 12 of 22 passes for 150 yards with one interception and touchdown pass. A year later, Marino established a league record for passing yards in a season and led Miami to the Super Bowl as the NFL MVP. Woodley was shipped to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Years from now, observers may recall TJ Finley as a modern day Marino. The 18-year-old freshman from Ponchatoula was rated as America’s 20th best prep quarterback last year as a 3-star performer on a high school team nicknamed the Green Wave. This former Greenie with pedestrian endorsements at the prep level has the aura of inevitability to be the Tiger quarterback. As much as Coach O pledges allegiance to Myles Brennan, it appears there is no stopping the destiny of Finley.

At 6-foot-6, 250 pounds, Finley is reminiscent of JaMarcus Russell, who was great at LSU before he faltered in the NFL. The performance of the new kid at the controls in a 52-24 rout of South Carolina sparked the best output for LSU this season, and Brennan was excellent through three games with 1,112 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Finley possesses the “It Factor” when it comes to taking charge and leading the team. His stature was more significant than his numbers, which were substantial with 17 completions in 21 attempts for 265 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.

Brennan is talented as is Max Johnson, but both of them may finish their careers at other schools. mBrennan and Johnson could start for most major college teams, but it will be hard to get past the impression that Finley is the chosen one after his breakout performance against the Gamecocks.

Former LSU Sports Information Director Bud Johnson compares the Finley start to the beginning of Y.A. Tittle’s brilliant career as a 17-year-old freshman starter for LSU against Alabama on Sept. 30, 1944.

Tittle played superbly in a 27-27 tie at Tiger Stadium. His introduction to LSU fans was marred only by a late interception by the Tide after Tittle drove the Tigers to the Bama 21-yard-line in the closing minutes. Tittle became a four-year starter for LSU and was a four-time NFL MVP. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is regarded as one of the top passers in the history of the game. TJ Finley has light years to travel to reach the Tittle zone, but in time the strong-armed passer from Ponchatoula could exceed the gaudy career stats accumulated by Heisman Trophy recipient Joe Burrow just as Marino obliterated all Miami passing records held by fellow Hall of Famer Bob Griese.

Bengal Bits

Trey Palmer’s 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against USC was the first of its kind for LSU at Tiger Stadium since 1981 when Eric Martin returned a kickoff for a touchdown on Oct. 17 vs. Kentucky. It took 260 games and an estimated 880 attempts for Palmer to join Martin.

The LSU head coach in 1981 was Jerry Stovall, who claims the most significant kickoff return for a touchdown in Tiger history. Stovall took the second-half kickoff 98 yards for a score on Oct. 6, 1962 at Grant Field in Atlanta vs. Georgia Tech. The touchdown enabled LSU to nip Bobby Dodd’s Yellow Jackets 10-7 before a national television audience viewing on NBC. It also catapulted Stovall into Heisman Trophy contention. He finished second to Oregon State’s Tony Baker in the closest race for the Heisman up to that time. Stovall was the second pick in round one of the 1963 NFL Draft. He was a three-time Pro Bowler with the St. Louis Cardinals. The West Monroe product was the team’s strong safety and allowed most of the spotlight on the secondary to shine on eight-time Pro Bowler Larry Wilson, who perfected the safety blitz and was often cited by Stovall as the greatest defender he ever saw.

Wilson died last month at 82 in a sad period for St. Louis sporting greats. Cardinal baseball legends Lou Brock and Bob Gibson also died in the last few weeks. Wilson, Brock and Gibson were among the best in the 1960s, and gained entry into their Halls of Fame. Brock played collegiately at Southern University and is one of two Louisiana college players in the
Baseball Hall of Fame, the other being pitcher Lee Smith from Northwestern State.

LSU has no recognition in Cooperstown, but the Tigers have produced three of the best players currently playing in the big show.

DJ LeMahieu rebounded from COVID-19 to win the American League batting crown this year. He hit .364 for the New York Yankees. He also won the 2016 National League batting crown with Colorado. At 32, LeMahieu is in his prime and is a definite future HOF prospect.

It was an off year for the Houston Astros’ Alex Bregman, who slumped to a .242 average in 2020, but Bregman’s five-year totals are outstanding. At 26, he has 105 career homers and is positioned to reign as a power hitting third baseman for the next decade. He only needs 444 more home runs to eclipse Mike Schmidt as the most prolific third baseman for roundtrippers.

The Philadelphia Phillies’ Aaron Nola was 5-5 with a 3.28 ERA this season, a decline from his previous two campaigns. Nola has developed into a power pitcher and struck out 96 batters in just over 71 innings. Nola has averaged ten strikeouts per nine innings in his six-year career.

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