Jarrett Lee Raises LSU's Ceiling, And It's Not That Big Of A Surprise

Did the apocalyptic nature of Jarrett Lee's 2008 mistakes distract us from the caliber of quarterback he could become? Is he even better for LSU than the 2011 version of Jordan Jefferson would have been?

In 2007, he was a four-star signee from Brenham, Texas, who chose LSU over Nebraska, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, TCU, Arizona and Texas Tech. In 2008, he was a walking disaster, a pick six machine who went just 4-4 as a starter and was replaced by a true freshman. In 2010, he was a designated passer, subbing in when LSU needed somebody to throw a pass they didn't trust Jordan Jefferson to make. In 2011, he is both a surprise starter and an undefeated one.

Jarrett Lee is, if nothing else, a survivor. He was surpassed by Jefferson on the depth chart, but despite one start in two seasons (and a bad one at that), Lee stuck around. He elected to run out the string at LSU instead of transferring even though it appeared his playing days were mostly behind him. One bar fight later, he was unexpectedly named the starter of a Top Five team to begin his senior season, and he has thus far come through in a major way. Is he succeeding at an even higher level than Jefferson might have? Is he simply benefiting from a resurgent defense? Let's take a look.

Here are the per-year statistics for both Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson over the past four seasons. Note that these are only the stats for games which they actually started. Included are LSU's average points for games in which they started, the standard and passing downs run percentages, general passing statistics (completion percentage, yards per pass, yards per completion, interception and sack rates) and yards per play allowed by the defense.

Quarterback Rec. Avg. Pts. Std. Downs
Run%
Pass. Downs
Run%
Comp
Rt
Yds/
Pass
Yds/
Comp
INT
Rt
Sack
Rt
Defensive
Yds/Play
Lee 2008 4-4 28.3 59.9% 33.2% 53.0% 6.8 12.9 5.0% 4.8% 5.3
Jefferson 2008 1-1 34.0 65.6% 43.4% 54.3% 6.2 11.4 0.0% 11.5% 5.2
Jefferson 2009 8-4 24.9 58.8% 37.2% 61.5% 7.3 11.9 2.4% 10.3% 4.7
Jefferson 2010 11-2 29.7 69.2% 43.9% 56.5% 6.8 12.0 4.8% 7.9% 4.7
Lee 2011 4-0 38.8 70.5% 40.5% 64.4% 7.2 11.1 1.1% 3.3% 3.8

Let's focus first on Jefferson. In his first full year as a starter (2009), LSU coaches showed quite a bit of faith in his arm. LSU passed slightly more than the national average on standard downs, though with the threat of Jefferson's legs, they did still run quite a bit on passing downs, both via design and improvisation. When Jefferson actually got the pass off, decent things happened -- he maintained a low interception rate and completed 62 percent of his passes. The problem, however, was that he got sacked all the time. Despite passing a disproportionate amount of time on standard downs, he was brought down once in every ten pass attempts, the tenth-worst percentage in the country. And it should be pretty easy to understand the effect this can have on what was still a rather conservative offense. Sacks are typically drive-killers even if you've got an aggressive offense with a gun-slinger like Brandon Weeden behind center.

In 2010, Jefferson improved ... sort of. He got rid of the ball more quickly, and his sack rate fell by 2.4 percent. The problem: in making quicker reads, he made more mistakes, and his interception rate rose by the same 2.4 percent. Interceptions are, to make the most obvious possible point, even bigger drive-killers than sacks. Still, LSU scored almost five more points per game with a similar defense and a much higher run percentage, and they won 11 games, some in the craziest possible fashion.

With a supposedly matured Jefferson behind center and playmakers galore on defense, LSU began 2011 ranked fourth in both preseason polls. Considering some of the Tigers' personnel losses -- Patrick Peterson, Drake Nevis, Terrence Toliver, Stevan Ridley -- this ranking showed a lot of faith in Jefferson, more than he had maybe earned. But he was arrested and suspended, and Lee beat out junior college transfer Zach Mettenberger for the No. 1 job.

If voters had known Lee would be in charge, odds are good that LSU wouldn't have been ranked nearly as high to start the season. His 2008 season was a terribly scarring experience, and it wasn't even because of the stats above. Passing quite a bit on passing downs, Lee completed 53 percent of his passes and threw 16 interceptions, but that wasn't the worst part, of course; seven of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns. LSU lost three of his starts by double-digits; Jefferson lost only one such game in 27 starts.

Still, if you ignore the apocalyptic nature of his mistakes (as difficult as that may be), he really didn't make more mistakes than Jefferson did, even in 2010. Let's look just at Lee's 2008 season and Jefferson's 2010 season:

Quarterback Rec. Avg. Pts. Std. Downs
Run%
Pass. Downs
Run%
Comp
Rt
Yds/
Pass
Yds/
Comp
INT
Rt
Sack
Rt
Defensive
Yds/Play
Lee 2008 4-4 28.3 59.9% 33.2% 53.0% 6.8 12.9 5.0% 4.8% 5.3
Jefferson 2010 11-2 29.7 69.2% 43.9% 56.5% 6.8 12.0 4.8% 7.9% 4.7

Despite throwing far more passes on passing downs, Lee completed just three percent fewer passes, did a better job of avoiding sacks and managed an identical per-pass average and a nearly identical interception rate. Could a more mature, experienced version of Lee tamp down the size of the mistakes? If so, then perhaps LSU's offense wouldn't be any worse off without Jefferson.

Instead, the offense has been even better.

Quarterback Rec. Avg. Pts. Std. Downs
Run%
Pass. Downs
Run%
Comp
Rt
Yds/
Pass
Yds/
Comp
INT
Rt
Sack
Rt
Defensive
Yds/Play
Lee 2011 4-0 38.8 70.5% 40.5% 64.4% 7.2 11.1 1.1% 3.3% 3.8

Thanks in part to a devastating LSU defense, the Tigers have been able to play things close to the vest on offense. Lee is not a ball-carrier, but LSU has still run as much with him at quarterback as they did with the occasionally mobile Jefferson, and Lee has learned not to trust his arm quite as much as he did in 2008. He is attempting less when he passes (his yards per completion has dropped from 12.9 in 2008 to 11.1), and his completion rate has risen by a full 11.1 percent. More importantly, of course, his interceptions have dwindled to nothing, and he isn't taking as many sacks.

Make no mistake: the LSU defense is driving the bus here. They are the primary reason the Tigers have already beaten three ranked opponents, all away from home, by an average of 17.3 points. With Jordan Jefferson at quarterback, the Tigers would almost certainly be undefeated too. Still, Jarrett Lee's play has been a revelation. He is mature and steady, and in Odell Beckham, Jr., he has an incredibly effective underneath weapon to complement Rueben Randle up top. With Lee, LSU's ceiling actually appears to be higher. Tell me again why we spend so much time previewing the season when so many unforeseen developments make such huge differences?

(Actually, no, don't answer that. It might put me out of a job.)

The Morning Tailgate runs every weekday. Read up on the archives.

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