By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
When Les Miles nearly lost his job in November, there was really only one root cause.
It wasn’t play calling – Miles cannot be faulted, much less fired, for giving the ball to Leonard Fournette hundreds of times in a season. It wasn’t time management – Miles hasn’t had a costly clock catastrophe in years. And it damn sure wasn’t recruiting – Miles just wrangled what some have called “the best recruiting class of the modern era” for 2016 to follow up several top-five hauls.
More than any other underlying cause, Miles neared the culmination of his tenure at LSU because of one thing, and one thing only: quarterback play.
Throughout Miles’ time as a Tiger, no position has plagued him more – on the field or on the recruiting trail – than the most important position of them all. He inherited his two best in JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn. His first signee at the spot was perhaps the most talented, but Ryan Perriloux’s off-field issues undercut what could’ve been a bright career. And the rest have been average at best, and flat out bad at worst.
Since Perriloux’s dismissal ahead of the 2008 season, the pinnacle of LSU’s quarterback play was half of a season from Jarrett Lee in 2011 and a whole season from junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger in 2013. That’s the silver lining around a dark cloud of quarterbacking incompetence, from development to recruiting.
First, the former. The development of quarterbacks at LSU has been start and stop, and mostly stop. Jordan Jefferson peaked as a sophomore. Mettenberger needed two years in the system to shine. Anthony Jennings endured a disastrous 2014, and Brandon Harris regressed from excellent to subpar in 2015, shining vs. Florida in October before plummeting from November onward.
Evaluation has also been an issue. Russell Shepard threw zero passes in purple and gold, fewer even than Leonard Fournette. Chris Garrett, Stephen Rivers, and Hayden Rettig arrived with ample fanfare and departed with none, while Dak Prescott was pursued as a tight end before spurning LSU for Mississippi State and becoming one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks.
Perhaps the biggest issue, however, has been the talent pool LSU has had to pick from. Louisiana produces more five-stars and NFL players per capita than any other state, but among that bountiful yearly crop are few quarterbacks.
Take this stat and chew on it: since Miles took over in 2005, only three Louisiana quarterbacks have been full-time starters for a season at a current power five conference school: Jefferson, Prescott, and Harris, according to Brian Lazare of Rivals.com.
Longtime Louisiana football scout and writer Mike Detillier says it hasn’t always been this way.
“Growing up in the 70s, I saw Bert Jones, Joe Ferguson, Doug Williams, Bobby Hebert, Norris Weese, David Woodley, Terry Bradshaw – all these guys from the state of Louisiana coming out,” Detillier says. “It’s a quirk in the high school system, where 7-on-7 has become vogue. You would think in this state, you would produce a high number of quarterbacks.”
In Detillier’s opinion, Louisiana’s best athletes, since the 70s, have been moved from quarterback to other positions, and the state’s high school offenses became run-first. The emergence of 7-on-7 in recent years is changing that, but slowly.
“Back then, the best athlete played quarterback,” he says. “Today, the best athlete is playing wide receiver or defense back. And what is Louisiana known for today? Wide receiver and defensive back. We’re still seeing the transition from some high school teams from being run-oriented to throwing the football more. That has some effect on it.”
With a shallower pool of talent to pluck prospects from and plug them in under center, LSU has been forced to scour the nation for quarterbacks, with mixed results. Mettenberger was from Georgia, as was Jennings. Rettig was from California; Rivers from Alabama; Garrett, Lee, and Shepard from Texas. Only Jefferson and Harris hail from Louisiana.
There’s also a risk, when recruiting national players, of losing out to in-state schools. LSU thought it had its 2016 quarterback situation addressed with the longtime commitment of Feleipe Franks, but the Crawfordville, Fla. native flipped late for nearby Gainesville to be a Gator.
Losing Franks was doubly painful. Not only did the Tigers whiff on a four-star prospect with huge potential, but Franks also insisted, after he committed in 2014, that LSU recruit no other quarterbacks.
Even worse, LSU listened. If a kid is calling the shots for you before he ever even arrives on campus, it’s probably a recruiting red flag and merits looking elsewhere for a player not intimidated by competition and less prone to telling coaches how to do their jobs, but for whatever reason, LSU capitulated to Franks’ ridiculous demands, and paid the price when he flipped. Late pursuits of Dwayne Haskins, Anthony Russo, and the strong-armed kid on Cam Cameron’s paper route proved fruitless.
According to Shea Dixon of 247Sports, the “all eggs in one basket” approach the program took to quarterback recruiting this cycle won’t be back.
“My guess is they learn from this cycle,” Dixon says. “The staff all saw they can’t do that, no matter how much a kid tells you he is committed or he doesn’t want other players in the class.”
Luckily for LSU, Zachary product Lindsey Scott bailed them out at the last minute by committing on the final weekend before National Signing Day. Scott, who picked LSU over Maryland, Tulane, Harvard, and Rutgers, is just a three-star player because of his 5-foot-11 frame, which made it easy for LSU to overlook him until the clock neared midnight, but his production (5,003 total yards, 61 total touchdowns, Louisiana Gatorade Player of the Year) and intelligence (3.8 GPA) could be enough to overcome any physical deficiencies, real or imagined.
That Scott is the first quarterback from the Baton Rouge metro area to sign with LSU since Lester Ricard in 2002 is only further evidence of the uphill battle Miles has had to fight to obtain talented quarterbacks. With Scott on board, Harris entrenched as a starter, and 2017 target Lowell Narcisse from nearby St. James lined up to spearhead next year’s class, Miles might have found homegrown solutions to his ever-present quarterback conundrum.
And it only took a decade.