Yesterday should have been a celebratory day for LSU Football, and to a large extent it was.
After all, it’s rare to have the good fortune of not one likely high draft pick opting to return to school for his senior year, but two. When Kendall Beckwith and Tredavious White announced yesterday that both would return for the 2016 season – White was rated as high as a first-round pick, Beckwith was likely a second rounder – it solidified LSU as a high-level playoff contender this fall after two years of pretender status.
And head coach Les Miles, who two months ago was considered a goner in his current position, is all of a sudden sitting on a mountaintop. Not only is he keeping all of his draft-eligible juniors save one – and there is now talk that left offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins, who declared for the draft, might pull his name out of consideration by the 4 p.m. Thursday deadline and return as well – but Miles is working on the top-rated recruiting class in the country. LSU has 20 players committed and might sign as many as 27 or 28, with some or maybe most of their remaining targets being in-state recruits the Tigers traditionally land at the end of the recruiting period. By Friday, LSU could well have run that number to 22 commitments, as Monroe Neville defensive tackle Rashard Lawrence and River Ridge John Curtis offensive lineman Willie Allen are both nearly ready to end their recruiting processes and both appear to be leans to LSU. Miles also looks to be in good shape for cornerback Kristian Fulton of Metairie Rummel, who will make a commitment on National Signing Day (though perhaps sooner). All three are rated as five-star recruits by one major service or another.
Few, if any, teams in college football are sitting on the embarrassment of riches Miles is. After all, he has arguably the best running back in college football, Leonard Fournette, entering his junior season this fall, and Fournette’s backup Derrius Guice could well be one of the top 10 or even top five running backs in the country as well. He has a stacked corps of wide receivers which includes Travis Dural and Malachi Dupre, both of whom are likely high picks in the 2017 draft. Miles barely even uses them, but in Colin Jeter and DeSean Smith he has a pair of NFL-quality receiving tight ends who will be seniors this fall. That doesn’t even count Dillon Gordon, perhaps the best blocking tight end in college football who could receive a medical hardship to return to school for a final year; Gordon could even slide down to offensive tackle, where he could replace Vadal Alexander and, if Hawkins stays in school, give Miles virtually the same offensive line he had in 2015. If not, he has a wealth of talent to compete for two offensive tackle jobs including K.J. Malone and Toby Weathersby, both of whom played a great deal last year, and redshirt freshman Chidi Okeke who some believe is the next great LSU offensive lineman.
And on defense LSU will return every defensive lineman who significantly contributed a year ago, including a potential game-changer in Arden Key at defensive end to go with super-productive end Lewis Neal and tackles Davon Godchaux and Christian Lacouture, all getting a second year of instruction from Ed Orgeron, one of the best in the business. Add Lawrence to an already-loaded recruiting class of defensive linemen including Ed Alexander, Caleb Roddy, Glen Logan, Rahssan Thornton and Andre Anthony and the depth at defensive line is as good as it has ever been. Beckwith’s return at linebacker is a godsend, though two outside linebackers must be found. Then again, the three linebackers LSU already has committed – Michael Divinity, Erick Fowler and Devin White (should White play linebacker instead of running back) are all rated either as five-star recruits or in the national top 50 by one service or another, and Divinity and White are both early enrollees. With two other seniors in Duke Riley and Corey Thompson, who’s moving from safety, and a pair of juniors in Devin Voorhies and Donnie Alexander who both saw a good bit of action last year, the depth at linebacker all of a sudden looks pretty good under Beckwith’s potential All-American leadership. In the secondary, four starters will return with White and Kevin Toliver offering a pair of cornerbacks no team in the country can match. Jamal Adams at one safety is a likely All-American and Rickey Jefferson is a steady senior at the other, and Donte Jackson offers one of the most dangerous and talented options at nickel back of any team in the country. Atop that stack of talent Miles now has Dave Aranda, potentially the best defensive coordinator in the country and a coach better-suited than perhaps anyone else to weaponize that roster to make victims of opposing offenses.
It’s all very heady stuff, but you’ll notice what we left out. Namely, quarterback.
Brandon Harris wasn’t the sole reason for LSU’s three-game slide in November which nearly led to Miles’ ouster; there were other failings as well. The defense under previous coordinator Kevin Steele folded badly against Alabama’s running game, then disappeared completely against Arkansas and Ole Miss. But Harris’ inability to supply a dependable air attack meant all three teams could gang up on Fournette and hold him to about half his per-game average in rushing yards, and LSU’s offense didn’t return to any semblance of quality until the bowl game against Texas Tech’s hapless defense. As it happens, Harris’ fizzle in November coincided with his having developed a sports hernia in the Alabama game which required offseason surgery, so there is perhaps some explanation for his inaccuracy as a passer late in the season.
And it’s fair to expect a sophomore quarterback to become considerably better as a junior quarterback. If Harris can improve on his 53 percent completion rate, perhaps getting that into the 60’s, and become a better executor in the short passing game then the wide receivers and tight ends (and running backs too, for that matter) might become a larger factor in the offense. Miles is rightly criticized, as is his offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, for a Neanderthal smash-mouth offensive attack – but one thing which can be said in defense of that philosophy is that Leonard Fournette is amazingly good, and a fairly reliable option to move the chains and beat a defense down. Taking the ball out of Fournette’s hands to diversify the offense is a fine idea so long as the other options are also good, and when the quarterback only completes 53 percent of his passes those options aren’t all that reliable.
But this is the problem with Les Miles at LSU. It’s not acceptable to constantly defend a Neanderthal offense by pointing to your terrible quarterback as the reason why. LSU has outstanding players everywhere but quarterback, and that’s what keeps LSU as an also-ran. You cannot be inadequate at the most important position on the field and win championships.
Take Alabama, which has been the SEC’s representative in the playoffs the last two seasons because offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin has turned a pair of journeymen senior quarterbacks in Blake Sims and Jake Coker into dangerous passers. Bama has been better than LSU in both those seasons across the board, but in both games LSU has played against them it’s been quarterback play and the ability to convert third downs in key situations which has made a huge difference in the outcome.
And take Ole Miss and Arkansas, who in both of the last two years have had much better quarterback play than LSU and parlayed that into a 3-1 record against Miles.
Maybe a veteran Harris will turn the position into a positive in 2016, or maybe Purdue transfer Danny Etling, who has generated some positive buzz for his work in practice during the 2015 season while he was ineligible, might unseat Harris and create something behind center. But fixing the position for the long haul was a top priority in recruiting this year and so far it’s an abject failure. Right now the future of the program at the position is freshman Justin McMillan, a lightly-recruited player who redshirted the 2015 season. McMillan shows some signs of being a potential diamond in the rough, but he’s still trying to put on weight; he was 175 pounds when he signed with LSU a year ago.
Cameron initially settled on Florida prospect Feleipe Franks as his protege’, and secured Franks’ commitment almost two years ago. Then in November Franks decommitted; he’s now pledged to the Florida Gators. Then, Miles and Cameron settled on Maryland blue-chipper Dwayne Haskins as the heir to the position; Haskins had been a Maryland commitment, but yesterday when he switched it was to Ohio State and not LSU. Last week, the two coaches took trips to see both Haskins, who was supposed to visit LSU this coming weekend, and Pennsylvania prospect Anthony Russo; Russo subsequently committed to Temple. One wonders if perhaps Miles and Cameron told Russo to wait on Haskins and he balked at that; now that Haskins has gone maybe there is an opportunity for a reset and a chance to land Russo after all.
Meanwhile, local superstar Lindsey Scott, the Gatorade Mr. Football in Louisiana after leading Zachary High School to a 5A state title, is without an LSU offer. Scott is short, at 5-11, but he’s smart and mobile and has a strong enough arm to execute an SEC passing game. He also rushed for 1,900 yards as a senior, which leads one to think that if he’s not good enough to play quarterback for LSU he could provide value as a running back in college.
But right now, it looks like the most likely addition to the roster at quarterback might be Tanner Lee, the starter at Tulane the last two seasons. Lee, a former Jesuit star who has already redshirted, would have to sit out in 2016 and then would be eligible as a senior in 2017. That means he’s in the same class of eligibility as Harris and Etling, so it’s difficult to see how he could be LSU’s future at the position. He’s not a bad addition but for that reason; Lee has been up-and-down at Tulane largely due to a poor offensive line and not much talent in the receiving corps, but he’s shown flashes at times of being a good college quarterback much as Etling did when he was at Purdue.
But the best solution is to properly evaluate high school quarterbacks, sign the best available, develop them over time and then get good execution from the position when it’s time to play them. This has almost never happened during Miles’ 11 years at LSU and he’s not setting himself up to do it in the future with what is otherwise a mind-blowingly good recruiting class.
As such, it’s become a running joke among LSU fans when good news about either recruiting or junior staying in school to ask, “Yeah, but who’s gonna throw it to him?” Even with Beckwith and White, who are defensive players, opting to stay the joke still fits.
You need a good quarterback to win big in college football. Do Miles or his offensive coordinator have one on hand? Will they find one for the future?