BATON ROUGE, La. — You don’t need a magnifying glass to spot an early trend among the teams that have qualified for the College Football Playoff in its first two seasons:
Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, Heisman winner. Florida State QB Jameis Winston, Heisman winner. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, Heisman finalist. Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, Heisman candidate. Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook and Ohio State QBs Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett? They were household names, too.
LSU quarterback Brandon Harris not only wants to join the club — he thinks he can be president.
“I know the potential I have, I know what I can do,” Harris said. “I feel like I’m the best quarterback in the country, I really do mean that.”
With the abundance of talent surrounding him, Harris doesn’t have to be the best — but he has to be better than good — like Alabama’s Jake Coker was last year when it mattered the most. It’s no secret an elite quarterback has been the central piece to the playoff puzzle, but it’s also once again the biggest question at LSU heading into 2016, a critical year for coach Les Miles and the program.
On paper, the Tigers seem to have it all. They have five-star recruits and future first-round NFL draft picks up and down their roster. They have a Heisman Trophy candidate in Leonard Fournette. Last year, though, was proof LSU needs more than Fournette. Alabama shut him down, and the Tigers had no answer. The passing game has been in need of an upgrade. The Tigers need Harris to be patient, to get the tight ends involved, to limit turnovers, to be able to shake off mistakes and convert on third downs.
If LSU can finally — finally! — get consistently strong play from its quarterback, the Tigers are good enough to win it all.
“I think we have enough talent on the perimeter that if he just plays his position, we’ll be fine,” said Miles.
After three straight losses, LSU sank fast last year, plummeting from No. 2 in the College Football Playoff rankings to out of the SEC West race by mid-November. The Tigers became an afterthought after losing to Arkansas — a game in which Harris had a fourth-quarter interception, was sacked five times and lost a first-half fumble that led to an Arkansas touchdown.
Remember, though, it was only the first season as a starter for Harris, who was a true sophomore.
“He’s going into his junior year and that’s where you should see tremendous growth in a guy, especially in this conference,” said offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. “It’s a tough conference. The defenses in this conference last year were lights out, and that’s tough on all the quarterbacks. If he continues to grow mentally, he continues to grow in the offense, he distributes the ball around like he has all spring, doesn’t try to do too much himself, I think we can be very successful.”
Cameron said Harris is like “a lot of big-arm guys” who built their early success with deep throws only to learn in college they can’t just out-throw the coverage every week. Miles said Harris came to LSU putting too much power behind his passes. He called it “a rocket ball” that was just “whoosh,” and said Harris didn’t give a hoot if he completed it or not. Miles said Harris was rushing to get the ball out of his hands quickly and get to the next play without letting the first develop.
That has changed, and Harris has done a better job this spring of working through his progressions.
“There was a point in time where he was not as much of a student of the game as he is now,” Miles said. “Now he’s routinely watching film differently — early and late and trying to put his game together. It’s obviously made a tremendous difference to him. He’s not overthrowing a ball that is an easy completion.”
Those within the program have lauded Harris for his improvements, which were on display in the Texas Bowl win over Texas Tech and throughout the spring, where he cemented his place as the starter once again.
Harris said he has spent a lot of time looking at film on his iPad this spring, watching what the defense is doing pre- and post-snap, what the front is, what the coverage looks like, and the stance of the defensive linemen. He said he’s going to fly to San Diego in May to work with quarterback guru George Whitfield, but the most improvement might have come in his mental game.
“I think where I’ve made the biggest stride is understanding that I pretty much run the table,” Harris said. “I control the team. The team is only going to go as far as I take them.”
That seems to be the trend among quarterbacks in the CFP.