Les Miles, who ended 2015 by somehow escaping a sure firing, assured the world during the offseason that junior Brandon Harris had improved. LSU was going to get more from its quarterback than it did last year. There was reason to believe the Tigers would, too.
Miles called Harris a "totally different quarterback," days before Harris frittered away LSU’s last chance against Wisconsin in Week 1 with a brutal interception. Miles said he didn’t lose confidence in Harris after that, but he clearly did on Saturday.
Harris was 1 of 4 for 8 yards, part of a moribund offense against Jacksonville State, when Miles pulled him for redshirt junior Danny Etling, a Purdue transfer. Etling wasn’t incredible, finishing 6 of 14 for 100 yards, a touchdown and an interception. But he started a clean 6 of 8, and LSU’s offense picked up when he entered the game. Harris never returned, and now LSU’s got a pretty important decision to make.
My overall impression of Etling, is that he's a general "backup" type. A calm hand who can run the offense in place of the starter, but not a long-term solution. I am by no means dismissing the kid, but an 0-for-7 second half really threw some cold water on the idea of him being the answer to the quarterback problem. That said, he has absolutely earned a chance to show more and should start this week against Mississippi State.
More than anything, he just looked more comfortable than Harris.
LSU’s season and Miles’ job aren’t necessarily on the line this week. The Tigers start SEC play against Mississippi State, and even a loss to drop them to 1-2 wouldn’t fully end their College Football Playoff hopes. Winning their next 10 games, including against Alabama and in the league’s championship, could still punch a Playoff ticket. Whether Harris or Etling starts this week, not every egg is in that basket. Just almost all of them.
But LSU losing this week and then having a successful season requires a long stretch of the imagination. For LSU to become the title-caliber team its talent says it should be, someone’s got to be good at quarterback. And if that doesn’t happen this week, LSU’s going to be 25 percent through its year with no answers at all.
The best thing that could happen to LSU is for Harris to seize back the job.
Whoever plays quarterback will have Leonard Fournette (who was out against JSU with an ankle injury), a good offensive line and some dangerous receivers.
But Harris is a potentially unique fit in LSU’s offense. He has the athleticism to be an active participant in the power running scheme coordinator Cam Cameron operates around Fournette. And he’s shown upside throwing out of a shotgun spread, which could give LSU an excellent change-of-pace option if it needs to lighten Fournette’s load. If Harris is good, LSU’s offense can definitely be great.
But Harris hasn’t been good. Through two games (or, one game and change, really), he’s gone 13 of 25 for 139 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. That’s a small sample size, but it’s a rating of 96, way off the 131 Harris put up last year and an altogether terrible number. He needs to be better.
Etling isn’t some chump, despite what we all might think about Purdue. He was a four-star recruit in 2013, ranked the No. 17 pro-style quarterback in his class. He started seven games for the Boilers as a true freshman that year, and though his numbers weren’t much good on a bad team, at least he earned the job.
He’s a pure thrower, with negative-98 career rushing yards. (The NCAA’s insistence on counting sacks against rushing yards makes that number silly, but the point remains that Etling’s no ground threat.) Harris isn’t exactly Michael Vick, but he’s perfectly mobile and has ripped off some explosive runs over the years. Something like this isn’t quite in Etling’s repertoire:
(Legal disclaimer: Yes, this was against Texas Tech.)
Etling lost the Purdue starter’s job to Austin Appleby two years ago. Appleby later lost the job to current starter David Blough and transferred to Florida. Etling’s clearly got talent, but he doesn’t have the running ability Harris has, and does Miles want to ride with a quarterback who couldn’t hold a starting job at Purdue? Only LSU’s staff can evaluate what Etling’s current upside is, but that trend is not a positive one.
Of course, Harris needs to figure some things out.
Whatever’s ailed Harris against Wisconsin (a good defense) and Jacksonville State (no Fournette, but that shouldn’t matter against an FCS team), he hasn’t been up to snuff. If LSU thinks he’s too erratic to trust against an opponent like Mississippi State, that’s understandable. If the Tigers believe Etling will stabilize some things and not get in Fournette’s way, that’s great for now.
But if LSU’s going to be what it’s supposed to be, Harris probably has to be the guy. That’s the best way for the Tigers to have a third running threat beyond Fournette and backup Derrius Guice. It’s the best way to give the passing attack a spread dimension that can be flipped into quality running plays.
Maybe Harris is broken and LSU doesn’t have a choice. But if that’s the case, the Tigers aren’t making the Playoff anyway. If the quarterback Miles envisioned is in there somewhere, they’ve got to find him, no matter how short time is.