By CODY WORSHAM
Tiger Rag Editor
The expression “spring football” is only a half-truth.
Sure, the flowers are blooming and the crawfish are boiling. Spring is undeniably full bloom.
But football? What happens across college campuses every March and April may resemble football, what with the pads and oblong pigskins and coaches barking orders at players. But the sport in spring only approaches football. When coaches are on the field and quarterbacks are wearing non-contact jerseys greener than the freshly cut grass they’ll not be tackled to, a more accurate, though less flattering, label would be “spring football-adjacent activities.”
Still, there is some value to spring football-adjacent activities. It’s like a sonogram: if you don’t know what to look for, you come away more confused than you were to start with. But with some direction, you can leave with critical knowledge to make the next few months easier to navigate.
Here’s what to look for at Saturday’s National L Club LSU Spring Game.
1. How has the passing game progressed?
Before you charge me with plagiarism, no, I didn’t copy this question from any other column spanning the last nine years of LSU football.
Once again, LSU’s high hopes for 2016 lean very heavily on its passing game being passable. Anything meeting or exceeding that very low bar should see the Tigers thick in the hunt for the College Football Playoff in November.
Last year, Brandon Harris flashed signs of being an SEC Championship-caliber quarterback. Through the end of October, he was the conference’s most efficient passer, taking advantage of boxes crowded by the presence of Leonard Fournette to pick apart some very good defenses, including Florida’s, against whom he had perhaps his best game of the season.
But November – and maybe an injury sustained that month – saw Harris do a 180, reverting back to some bad habits from his freshman year as LSU lost three straight.
Harris is a year older and has continuity with his head coach and offensive coordinator. Just twice in the Les Miles tenure has LSU returned the same starting quarterback and offensive coordinator from the year prior: in 2006 with JaMarcus Russell and Jimbo Fisher, and in 2010, with Gary Crowton and Jordan Jefferson.
Year, Starting Quarterback*, Offensive Coordinator, Final AP Ranking
2005, JaMarcus Russell, Jimbo Fisher, 6
2006, JaMarcus Russell, Jimbo Fisher, 3
2007, Matt Flynn, Gary Crowton, 1
2008, Jarrett Lee, Gary Crowton, N/R
2009, Jordan Jefferson, Gary Crowton, 17
2010, Jordan Jefferson, Gary Crowton, 8
2011, Jarrett Lee, Greg Studrawa, 2
2012, Zach Mettenberger, Greg Studrawa, 14
2013, Zach Mettenberger, Cam Cameron, 14
2014, Anthony Jennings, Cam Cameron, N/R
2015, Brandon Harris, Cam Cameron, 16 [/table]
* Starting quarterback based on quarterback with most starts during the season
For all the Cameron detractors out there, the continuity he’ll provide for Harris is invaluable. The junior quarterback should be poised to build on his first seven starts from 2015 and learn from the five that followed.
But continuity, fans hope, will only go so far. Miles has made much noise about revamping LSU’s passing game in the offseason, with discussion of visits to other programs to glean what knowledge he can concerning the finer points of aerial football.
Whether that’s lip service or legitimate legwork remains to be seen, and we probably won’t get a full answer until the fall. Still, with Leonard Fournette likely laying on his couch coated in bubble wrap until August, the Tigers will have no choice but to toss it some on Saturday, giving fans a chance to see if they’ll show some new concepts and refine some familiar ones, or simply regress to the Miles mean.
2. Is Danny Etling a serious contender under center?
The Purdue transfer has turned some heads since his arrival last fall. In work with the scout team last year, and now in his capacity as Harris’ backup in the spring, Etling has earned rave reviews for his accuracy, intelligence, athleticism, and work ethic.
There’s been some buzz that Etling might even push Harris for the starter’s nod under center, though Miles seemed to tamper those expectations after the team’s final spring scrimmage.
Still, Etling was a four-star recruit who started as a freshman in the Big 10 at a school known for producing pros at quarterback. He has tossed for nearly as many touchdowns and yards as Harris in a similar number of starts.
On the other hand, he transferred from a program that has won two conference games in three years after losing his starting job.
Donned in his green cloak of protection, Etling won’t be able to showcase all of his talents for LSU fans, but should be able to provide some insight into just how reliable a backup – or how viable a starter – he can be.
3. What does a Dave Aranda defense look like?
Sure, I’ve buried the lead here, but unquestionably, this is the most interesting aspect of Saturday’s glorified scrimmage.
The ex-Wisconsin defensive mastermind has worked wonders in the Big 10. With a stable of SEC talent at his disposal now, the college football world will join with LSU fans to see what Aranda’s capable of in arguably the game’s elite conference.
The big shift is up front, as LSU transitions from a 4-3 to a more multiple 3-4 look. Aranda loves odd fronts, which let him be more flexible in his matchups. And he loves to generate pressure on the opposition with targeted blitzes that overload offensive weakspots without sacrificing numbers in coverage.
For all the criticism levied at LSU’s offense in 2015 – and based on its output for much of November, that criticism was warranted – the Tigers’ defense was the greater underachiever. Kevin Steele never seemed to wrangle the most out of his men.
Miles hired Aranda to correct that very problem. The Professor’s first test is Saturday.
Actually, call it a test-adjacent activity.
Two or three point? LSU’s new defensive alignment will require some ends to play standing up, including Arden Key and Tashawn Bower. Which guys stay in the front three and which drop back into coverage – and how effectively they do it – will be worth noting.
Early adapters? Thanks to Kendell Beckwith’s somewhat surprising return, LSU’s need at linebacker is less than otherwise expected. But Michael Divinity and running back transplant Devin White will want to make their cases for snaps in the fall, as will receivers Dee Anderson and Stephen Sullivan. Defensive back Saivion Smith may be the gem of them all.