…because I don’t think that firing Miles, who has won more for longer as LSU’s coach than anyone in the modern history of the program, will make things better.
But after watching Miles’ offense hit absolute rock bottom tonight in getting shut out by an Arkansas team which had lost 17 straight games in SEC play before laying a 17-0 whipping on his toothless Tigers, there are things which ought to be said about LSU’s head coach.
The fact of the matter is that Miles might well be the most clueless coach in college or pro football when it comes to evaluation and use of quarterbacks.
That’s not a rash statement, nor is it an emotional one made after suffering through Anthony Jennings’ latest failure to generate more than 150 yards in the air – a streak which has now reached five games; six if you count the Auburn game Brandon Harris started.
It’s a statement made after watching Miles for 10 years.
The first three years of those 10, Miles had Jamarcus Russell and Matt Flynn at quarterback. He inherited Russell and Flynn from Nick Saban, along with Saban’s offensive coordinator and QB’s coach Jimbo Fisher. Russell ended up the first pick in the NFL draft, and Flynn is still in the league as one of its more reliable backup quarterbacks.
But since taking over the LSU program, Les Miles has not recruited and developed a single high school quarterback into an above average SEC player at the position. In fact, Miles’ record of quarterback recruiting and development has been quite possibly the worst in the SEC over the time period he’s been on the job in Baton Rouge.
Miles’ first quarterback recruit was Ryan Perrilloux. Perrilloux was an NFL talent; he managed to stick around for a couple of years as a backup in the league. Of course, he was a colossal character problem who ultimately made himself such a liability that Miles had to jettison him before the 2008 season. The resulting quarterback play that year was so terrible – seven interceptions run back for touchdowns – that the trauma of it has permanently scarred Miles as a coach ever since.
After Perrilloux Miles recruited Jarrett Lee, who was the quarterback who threw those seven pick-sixes in 2008 as a redshirt freshman. Lee never recovered from that season and spent his final three years on the bench as a backup save for a stint as an interim starter for the first part of his last year. But by his senior year, Lee had actually developed into a serviceable passer in a conservative, run-oriented offense who could keep the chains moving on a team headed for the national championship game.
Lee didn’t finish his senior year as the starter, because Miles’ next quarterback recruit took over midway through the 2011 season. Jordan Jefferson was handed Lee’s job after he hurt an ankle in the Ole Miss game in 2008, but his play never merited a firm hold on the job. Jefferson showed signs of becoming a serviceable quarterback as a sophomore, regressed horribly as a junior and in fact LSU needed Lee to come off the bench in a number of games to bail out the offense, and promptly got himself suspended before the beginning of his senior year for engaging in a bar fight and getting himself arrested. Most people will tell you that LSU’s offense regressed pretty badly once Lee gave way to Jefferson eight games into the season in 2011; the shutout loss to Alabama in the national title game that year, which was the last shutout loss LSU suffered until tonight’s debacle, put a pretty solid exclamation point on that theory.
Lee didn’t play in that national title game, likely for reasons that don’t all that closely involve football. Miles will never tell us why Jefferson wasn’t pulled out of the game despite having a meltdown on college football’s grandest stage.
When Jefferson was recruited in 2008, Miles actually had Derron Thomas committed at one point. Thomas ended up as the starter at Oregon, put up amazing numbers in a high-powered offense and played in the 2010 national championship game. Among the other quarterbacks LSU recruited that year but didn’t ultimately offer scholarships were Baylor’s Heisman winner Robert Griffin III and Ryan Griffin, who ended up at Tulane and is now on the New Orleans Saints’ roster.
In 2009, Miles signed two quarterbacks, Russell Shepard, who ended up as a wide receiver when it was determined he lacked a college arm, and Chris Garrett, who ate himself out of the position, transferred to Northwestern State where he couldn’t get off the field and ultimately gave up football.
Miles was supposed to have a savior at quarterback in Texas gunslinger Zack Lee, a truly impressive athlete with a cannon for an arm and, from his high school film, the makeup of an NFL quarterback. Unfortunately, Lee also had the makeup of a major league pitcher, and when he got a $5 million bonus offer from the Los Angeles Dodgers and signed a contract rather than playing behind center for LSU an opportunity to have a quarterback of the quality of Flynn or Russell went by the boards.
That left LSU with a major hole at quarterback, because at the time Lee and Jefferson were about to graduate and there was nobody in the pipeline to replace them. It was then that Miles was able to recruit the one quality quarterback he’s landed to date; Zack Mettenberger, who was in exile at Butler County Community College in Kansas after getting kicked off the team at Georgia. Mettenberger came to LSU as a redshirt sophomore out of junior college and sat on the bench as a third-stringer behind Lee and Jefferson in 2011, then was mediocre as a junior starter in 2012 before breaking out and having the only first-rate season a Miles-recruited quarterback has had at LSU last year.
Mettenberger was more of a free agent signing than a recruit. He was looking for the best program at which he could play, and while he was very highly-rated he was also considered something of a character risk after the incident at Georgia which got him kicked off the team.
Nevertheless, he is currently starting for the Tennessee Titans. Mettenberger is the only Les Miles quarterback recruit at LSU to start an NFL game. At every other position on the field save (I think) kicker, Miles has had a player he recruited at LSU start in the NFL, and at most positions he’s had multiple recruits become NFL starters. But at quarterback, the only one to start was a player he recruited out of a junior college.
Since Mettenberger’s signing, quarterback recruiting has been so dismal as to make one question what LSU is doing as a nationally-respected program – particularly in an age of college football in which dependence on quality quarterback play has never been more complete. You simply can’t have better-than-average success in major college football without better-than-average quarterback play, and LSU hasn’t recruited an SEC-level quarterback since 2011.
Miles took Steven Rivers instead of Dak Prescott in 2011, which at the time didn’t seem like a terrible decision. Rivers, after all was Philip Rivers’ brother, and he was 6-7. But the younger Rivers spent three years failing to get off the bench at LSU even as a backup, and this year he transferred to Vanderbilt and proved it wasn’t a mistake not to play him.
Also that year Miles signed Jerald Randall, a spread option quarterback out of Florida who was supposed to add a dimension to the offense. Randall added nothing and was gone to a junior college after a year.
In 2012, Miles took Rob Bolden as a transfer from Penn State. Bolden couldn’t get off the bench and was moved to wide receiver, before he followed Rivers’ lead and transferred to Eastern Michigan – where he has played in six games and completed just 43 percent of his passes.
Miles was supposed to have signed a difference-maker in 2012, as highly-touted Indiana high school quarterback Gunner Kiel committed to Miles’ program. But Kiel, who was supposed to enroll early and join the program for that season (potentially as Mettenberger’s backup for two years and then as the likely starter now), bailed out at the last minute and went to Notre Dame instead, prompting Miles to question whether he had the “chest” to play at LSU. Kiel only stayed at Notre Dame for a year, which would seem to have proved Miles’ critique of his fortitude correct, but he’s now at Cincinnati and posting a sensational season (60 percent completion, 276 yards passing per game, a 24-10 TD-interception ratio and a QB rating of 156.3).
That’s not counting Miles’ signing of Jeremy Liggins in 2012. Liggins, a 275-pound novelty of a quarterback out of Mississippi, couldn’t meet the academic requirements to get into school and ended up in a junior college. He’s now at Ole Miss playing tight end and occasionally getting snaps as the jumbo quarterback who runs sneak plays on third-and-one.
Last year, Miles signed two more quarterbacks who were supposed to fix the problem of Mettenberger’s succession. One of them was a Californian named Hayden Rettig, the other was Jennings. Rettig transferred this summer after falling to third on the depth chart in spring – which made him the fourth quarterback departing LSU’s 2013 roster, the third to leave with eligibility remaining.
Jennings is the starter, and he’s completing less than 50 percent of his passes. He’s having the worst season of a starting quarterback at LSU since Lee in 2008, and frankly that’s arguable; it might be necessary to go back to Jamie Howard in 1994 to find a more unsuccessful starting quarterback in purple and gold.
But Miles signed Brandon Harris this year, and the Shreveport product is supposedly a future savior of the program. In what limited action he’s had he clearly has a live arm and some talent as a runner. It’s not out of the question that he could be a solid quarterback before he’s done, and perhaps emerge to join Mettenberger as an above-average LSU quarterback Miles recruited. Except if Harris is really that good, why is it he can’t get meaningful action on the field? Jennings has not thrown for more than 200 yards since the season opener against Wisconsin, and tonight’s 12-for-22 performance was the first time he’d completed more than half his passes since an 11-for-18 effort against UL-Monroe. Despite playing nearly every snap since the Florida game Jennings hasn’t completed more than tonight’s 12 passes in a game, nor has he had a game in that stretch in which he’s completed multiple touchdown passes. Jennings hasn’t directed LSU’s offense to more than one touchdown in a game since the win over Kentucky.
And Harris has barely left the bench.
You can chalk that up to Miles’ stubbornness. One senses the problem is worse than that. While Miles has clearly shown himself to be absolutely beyond help in recognizing which quarterbacks can help him win and which can’t, LSU is paying his offensive coordinator Cam Cameron well more than a million dollars a year since hiring him away from an NFL career. If Harris was clearly better than Jennings one would imagine Cameron would be screaming to get him on the field.
But Harris stayed on the bench while Jennings utterly failed to move the football against a team which had lost 17 straight conference games, and this tells you that whatever great potential the freshman might have, he is clearly not inspiring confidence among LSU’s coaches. If they insist on using Jennings and not Harris, they must not think Harris has significantly progressed beyond the disastrous performance he showed at Auburn.
In other respects Les Miles is an exemplary college football coach. He’s won an amazing number of games, he’s filled the NFL with his players, his program is as reputable as any on the major-college scene in terms of academics and discipline and he annually recruits excellent classes. After all, just a week ago Miles’ team outplayed Alabama and would have won the game but for a series of highly questionable officials’ calls all going the other way.
But when Arkansas lays a shutout on you and all but puts your season down the tubes, it’s time to take a hard look at where you are. And right now, Miles’ team is up a creek without a paddle where it comes to the most important position on a football field. His incompetence at filling that position with capable players has come home to roost, and it’s going to ruin his tenure as LSU’s coach unless he can find a fast solution.
Maybe Harris’ light will come on, and that will fix the problem. Frankly, Miles ought to turn the job over to Harris against Texas A&M in the Thanksgiving Night finale and hope for the best. After tonight’s disaster it’s hard to see how the offense could possibly have any confidence in Jennings. If Harris stinks up the joint like he did against Auburn, so be it – you have nothing to lose, and you’ll at least know you don’t have a quarterback capable of playing winning football. That would mean you need to immediately pursue two options; one, another junior-college player like Mettenberger, in hopes one could be found who might stabilize the position next year and fill in the interim until Harris is ready to take it over, or perhaps a senior transfer – he’d better be a lot more like Russell Wilson than Rivers or Bolden, but the right one-and-done senior could be an absolute godsend for the offense and the program overall.
But regardless of what happens in the near future, and we are certainly hoping for the best, the evidence is in. Miles is one of the worst coaches imaginable at finding, keeping and playing quarterbacks. He’s so bad at it that he creates the impression of having a neanderthal offense, which he doesn’t. LSU’s offense was anything but neanderthal when Russell and Flynn were the starting quarterbacks, and it wasn’t neanderthal last year when Mettenberger was a finished product. When Miles doesn’t have a good quarterback, which is every year but last year since Russell and Flynn left, he runs an offense designed to keep his lousy quarterback from costing him games.
Tonight, there was no way for him to do that, indicating the problem might be worse than ever.
And maybe that’s a sign Miles is on the downslope of his coaching career at LSU, finally done in by the inability to produce a capable signal-caller.
Once again, though, we don’t see getting rid of Miles as the solution. It isn’t. We say this, because if you get rid of Miles you’re putting your faith in Joe Alleva, LSU’s athletic director, to find a coach better than he is. Alleva’s major hires at LSU so far were Trent Johnson, the worst men’s basketball coaching hire in the modern history of the program, Nikki Caldwell, the grossly-overpaid and underachieving women’s basketball coach who this weekend saw her team blown out by Arkansas-Little Rock at home while the top player in Louisiana just signed with Baylor (LSU hasn’t signed a recruit so far in the early signing period), and current men’s hoops coach Johnny Jones, who might well end up as a good hire (the jury is definitely out on that question) but was given a $400,000 raise by Alleva after a 39-26 record, 18-18 in the SEC and no trips to the NCAA tournament.
Alleva, with that record of coaching decisions in major sports, can’t be allowed to hire a football coach given the financial stakes involved. He has to be gone before the idea of replacing Miles can be seriously entertained.
And that means Miles had better fix his quarterback problems. Fast.