The story for LSU is a familiar one. A fantastic athlete who’s been mediocre in the passing game is expected to lead a team loaded with talent at virtually every other position.
Something like this has been the case almost every year since Les Miles took over. The only seasons in which Miles’ Tigers enjoyed standout QB play were 2006, 2011 and 2013.
The Tigers figure to have a massive, talented offensive line to go with potential 2017 first-round NFL talent at receiver (Malachi Dupre) and running back (Leonard Fournette).
In offensive coordinator Cam Cameron’s pro-style attack, ground and pound is the name of the game, mixed with some play-action throws to one-on-one athletes freed up by the threat of the run. This rewards quarterbacks who understand how the run opens up matchups in the passing game and can deliver the ball well.
If returning starter Brandon Harris can break through in a few key areas in 2016 and produce a season anywhere close to JaMarcus Russell’s or Zach Mettenberger’s best, the Tigers will be primed for a huge season.
There's reason for hope, as the rising junior's two underclassman seasons compared favorably with the recent SEC average. Among returning likely SEC starters, Harris ranked behind only Ole Miss' Chad Kelly in passer rating last year. That's with a lot of turnover in the conference, but he was ahead of well-regarded passers like Tennessee's Joshua Dobbs and several NFL Draft picks from outside the SEC.
And Harris can contribute a lot to LSU’s power running game.
LSU’s main identity is found in the zone running game, executed out of two-back formations with a lead blocker.
It’s worked well. Fournette led the country in 2015 with 162.75 rushing yards per game, with his 6.51 yards per carry leading all backs who had 250 or more attempts. One of his backups, Derrius Guice, added 436 yards at 8.5 per carry.
With their OL, which regularly includes multiple draft picks, and their stable of massive tight ends and bowling-ball fullbacks, the Tigers can always count on having a physical rushing attack. They ranked 12th overall in Offensive S&P+ in 2015, and there isn’t much reason for the offense to branch out.
But Harris is a good runner, and LSU has a pretty solid QB option game from the shotgun to go with its normal sets. Included in that package is a somewhat unique take on the zone read that’s designed to look like an RPO (run/pass option) but is really a running play all the way.
Receivers initiate what looks like a stick quick-gain concept, while the OL blocks for an inside-zone run.
Harris reads the middle linebacker and either keeps the ball or hands off, depending on whether the MLB comes up in response to the run or stays wide to defend the "route," which becomes a stalk block by the player lined up as a tight end.
The Tigers have two options here. If Harris is running, they’ve got five blockers for five defenders in the box. If he gives to Fournette, Harris can rely on the running back to outmaneuver whoever isn’t blocked, and perhaps Harris can punish the defense later with play action.
The Tigers have also tried leaving a defensive tackle unblocked, instead of the MLB. That DT then has to follow the ball against Harris and Fournette, two much quicker athletes.
Either way, the Tigers get an advantage in the box as a result of the QB running threat. After adjusting for sacks, Harris had 50 carries for 345 yards and three TDs at 6.9 yards per carry in 2015.
Normally, a runner with his talents would get more carries, but Harris had only about 190 pounds on his 6’3 frame, and the Tigers don’t seem interested in revamping their offense around the shotgun or option.
This is evident from the difference between how well the Tigers execute their shotgun running game and their two-back sets. They’re far more comfortable in the latter. Packing extra Tigers around the box generally didn’t hurt their running game, but it simplified things into a battle of brutality that LSU would usually win.
Harris was usually more comfortable in the shotgun spread when it came to throwing the ball, though.
The normal Cameron attack is heavy on play action, with rollouts and various max-protect (seven or more pass blockers) and three-vertical combinations. Drop-back footwork, throwing downfield and throwing to lateral moving targets while on the run are the keys.
For a bizarre reason, Harris was inconsistent in these schemes. He simply didn’t always have much control of the ball. Harris’ misfires regularly squandered the opportunities that came from defenses focusing on Fournette.
Sometimes, Fournette would do things like get open on an angle route by himself, but Harris just didn’t deliver the ball accurately.
At other times, Harris couldn’t count on his targets being where they needed to be, which is always a recipe for disaster:
In this instance, Alabama sam linebacker Dillon Lee forced freshman TE Foster Moreau off track toward the sideline. Harris struggled to adjust to his new trajectory. The target is right, since Lee was bailing to take away the curl route, but the toss is all wrong.
Harris was more than capable of making quick decisions and firing off passes, but he often looked more comfortable in the spread.
This levels concept is pretty well covered. But Harris maneuvers in the pocket and nevertheless fires a strike.
Plays like this are stunning in light of some of his other throws. He vacillates from brilliant to nearly incapable from play to play, and you wonder if he’d be more consistent if LSU was operating either out of the shotgun spread or the under center pro-style systems.
Each has its own rules and approaches. Harris has an aptitude for each, but has demonstrated mastery of neither.
With Fournette and the rest of the pieces in place, it’s clear that continuing with its pro-style approach can work for LSU. But the ceiling is higher than we’ve seen before.
If an offseason of adding weight, evaluating his past mistakes and improving his mechanics pays off, maybe Harris can turn his occasional brilliance into consistently good play. That could mean very good things for LSU.