Ron Higgins: Defense rules the day in LSU spring game and it’s obvious who are the best two QBs on the field

LSU WR Kayshon Boutte (1) and CB Derek Stingley Jr. (24) waged war on almost every snap of the Tigers' spring game Saturday in Tiger Stadium. PHOTO By Jonathan Mailhes

If you were hoping to discover LSU’s spring football game would reveal major improvements from last year’s 5-5 Tigers’ season of piecemeal offense and W.O.A.T. (worst of all-time) defense, maybe you need to lower expectations.

How about taking baby steps? Wobbly, unsure, falling down but always popping back up knowing you’ve got to walk before you can run.

There were plenty of toddler moments on an overcast, slightly breezy Saturday in Tiger Stadium where the focus was on a four-way quarterback battle and a defense needing to erase 10 games worth of busted assignments that got defensive coordinator Bo Pelini fired after just one season.

At the end of the 120-play (81 passes, 39 rushes) scrimmage filled with basic plays, few formations and no trickery in the finest spring game tradition of revealing no secrets, LSU head coach Ed Orgeron declared the defense as the winner.

“New defensive coordinator) Daronte Jones and (secondary coach) Corey Raymond have done a tremendous job,” Orgeron said. “Those guys (the defense) were playing solid football today.”

Even without three vital starters – cornerback Eli Ricks, defensive end Ali Gaye and linebacker Andre Anthony all sitting out with injuries – the first and second team defenses produced five interceptions, 13 pass breakups and five sacks.

Aside from returning star receiver Kayshon Boutte’s 11 catches for 162 yards and one TD and Jontre Kirklin’s 16 receptions for 209 yards and two TDs as he played for both the White (first team) and Purple (second team) offenses, the eight other pass-catchers had a combined 21 catches for just 133 yards and one TD.

Why?

Because they couldn’t get open.

Unlike last season when miscommunication and confusion ruled the day with LSU’s defense leading to a string of confounding repeated coverage gaffes, there were just two occasions Saturday when receivers caught passes with no one near them.

The wide receiver/defensive back battles, like Boutte vs. all-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., were a fight to the finish every snap. In one instance, Stingley made an apparent interception but Boutte wrestled it from his grasp just enough to be credited with a reception.

“Been like that every day, all day, every practice,” Boutte said of the wide receiver/cornerback mini-wars throughout the spring. “Everybody talk their noise, it’s all about the one-on-ones. . . you’ve got to win yours.”

What was revealed, particularly in the five-wide empty backfield offensive sets, is LSU’s three freshmen wide receiver signees Chris Hilton of Zachary, Brian Thomas of Walker and Deion Smith of Jackson (Miss.) Academy should get extensive playing time. Hilton and Thomas will enroll this summer and Smith had four catches for 28 yards Saturday.

“We’re going to need some young receivers to get after it,” Orgeron said. “Receiver is a place where freshmen can play, especially in this offense, I think it’s very simple for them. Deion Smith has shown us he can play, he’s a talented young man.”

Orgeron and his new offensive braintrust of first-year O-coordinator Jake Peetz and first-year passing game coordinator DJ Mangas have gone to great lengths to make “The Great QB1 Battle of Spring ’21” as equitable as possible.

And Saturday was no different with senior Myles Brennan, sophomores Max Johnson and TJ Finley and true freshman Garrett Nussmeier working with both the first and second team offenses against the first and second team defenses.

Johnson and Finley quarterbacked the first and third quarters, Brennan and Nussmeier the second and fourth quarters.

Here’s how it broke down for each quarterback:

Brennan (37 snaps, produced one TD and two field goals in six series totaling 117 yards team offense, sacked twice): 12 of 20 passing for 116 yards and one TD (11 of 15 for 106 yards and one TD vs. first team defense, 1 of 5 for 10 yards vs. second team defense)

Johnson (34 snaps, produced two TDs in six series totaling 212 yards team offense, sacked five times): 11 of 17 passing for 180 yards and two TDs (4 of 10 for 60 yards and no TDs vs. first team defense, 7 of 7 for 120 yards and two TDs vs. second team defense).

Nussmeier (30 snaps, produced 1 TD in six series totaling 162 yards team offense, sacked once): 15 of 25 passing for 132 yards, 1 TD, 3 interceptions (8 of 13 for 77 yards, 1 TD and 2 interceptions vs. first team defense, 7 of 12 for 55 yards and 1 interception against second team defense).

Finley (26 snaps, produced no points in five series totaling 112 yards team offense, sacked no times): 10 of 19 passing for 84 yards, no TDs, two interceptions (6 of 10 for 36 yards and one interception vs. first team defense, 4 of 9 for 48 yards and 1 interception vs. second team defense).

Last season, Brennan opened the year as the starter and was 1-2 before sustaining a season-ending torn oblique in game three. Finley was 2-3 in five starts in games 4 through 8. Johnson was 2-0 last year as a starter in the final two games (9 and 10) of the season against Florida and Ole Miss.

Going into spring camp and in Saturday’s spring game, Johnson got the first snaps though Orgeron insisted the Tigers don’t have a starting quarterback yet.

“I think what you saw today is what you’ve seen in spring ball,” Orgeron said. “We come off the field one day and Garrett can be the best quarterback. The next day it was TJ. And the next day it was Myles. And the next day it was Max.”

But Orgeron also said once preseason camp hits, everything equitable concerning his QBs is off the table as it should be.

“When we come back to camp, we are going to have to designate a certain amount of reps for certain guys,” Orgeron said. “I don’t know what part of camp it’s going to happen. But we’re going to have to give the first and second guy more reps to see who is going to be the starter.”

It’s pretty clear right now the frontrunners by a large margin are Brennan and Johnson and both have their strengths.

The more experienced Brennan, as he showed Saturday, has a better command of the offense than Johnson and calmly gets to his second, third and fourth receivers without having to flee the pocket. He also throws a Joe Burrow-like deep ball, putting his pass in a place where his receiver can go up and make a play.

Johnson, certainly can make more plays on the run than Brennan and has demonstrated in pressure situations he delivers very catchable, accurately thrown passes.

Only in preseason camp when Brennan and Johnson will have a full complement of healthy running backs with the return of John Emery Jr. and signees Corey Kiner and Armani Goodwin plus the incoming freshmen receivers, that Orgeron can choose a starter.

But know LSU can win with either Johnson or Brennan and may need both.

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