Tigers' Lee went from backup to SEC's most efficient quarterback
It was halftime of LSU's Nov. 8, 2008, home game against No. 1 Alabama. The score was tied 14-14, thanks in part to Crimson Tide safety Rashad Johnson's 45-yard interception return for a touchdown against LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee late in the second quarter. For Lee, a redshirt freshman from Brenham, Texas, who'd been pressed into action following the offseason dismissal of expected starter Ryan Perrilloux, it was one of a staggering seven pick-sixes he would throw that season.
In a hallway in the back of the Tiger Stadium press box, writers and assorted dignitaries from the adjoining luxury suites mingled while noshing on hot dogs or watching highlights on a nearby TV. SEC commissioner Mike Slive, spotting the wife of an LSU administrator walking by, reached out to shake her hand. She returned the gesture, but with a dour look on her face.
"Ugh," she said. "We need a quarterback."
Three years later, LSU has itself a quarterback: the same guy who threw four picks that fateful day in Baton Rouge, including a dagger in overtime (again to Johnson) to set up a 27-21 Alabama victory. Lee, who eventually lost his job to fellow freshman Jordan Jefferson and spent most of the past two seasons as his backup, is the SEC's most efficient quarterback this season with a 157.4 rating, and ranks 13th nationally ahead of stars like Clemson's Tajh Boyd, Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and USC's Matt Barkley.
Most impressively, the same quarterback once derisively know as a Walking Pick Six has thrown just one interception in 155 attempts this season, the lowest percentage (.65) in the country. Not bad for a guy expected to back up Jefferson once again before the latter's August arrest following a fight in a bar parking lot weeks before the season started.
"[Lee's] ability to step in has taken LSU from a contender to a mega-force this year in college football," said CBS Sports analyst Gary Danielson.
Saturday night in Tuscaloosa, Lee gets another shot at the Crimson Tide, this time in college football's most anticipated regular season game in years. Lee's 8-0 LSU team is No. 1 in the country. Alabama, also 8-0, is No. 2.
"I've had my ups and downs against Alabama throughout my career," Lee said last week. "It was not so good my redshirt freshman year. You keep your head held high. That's just life, full of ups and downs."
Lee's dramatic improvement would amaze anyone. Just last season he had a miserable 119.9 efficiency rating, averaging a mere 6.4 yards per pass attempt. But those closest to him are most impressed by his resiliency. Beyond a few cursory conversations with coach Les Miles about possible options, Lee never gave serious consideration to transferring.
"I admire the guy," said LSU quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe. "He had a rough start as a young player. A lot of guys that have been in his situation would choose to leave. He could have said, I'm going to pack my bags and press the reset button. He stared adversity in the face and said, 'I'm going to beat it,' and now he's seeing the fruit of his labor."
Kragthorpe's arrival last offseason certainly helped.
Miles hired the former Tulsa and Louisville head coach to replace former offensive coordinator Gary Crowton, under whom the Tigers ranked 92nd in pass efficiency last year (117.6). Kragthorpe relinquished coordinator duties to offensive line coach Greg Studrawa after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease over the summer, but not before installing LSU's new offense.
Lee said Kragthorpe has helped him improve his footwork, an area the former Buffalo Bills quarterbacks coach considers critical. But Kragthorpe's biggest impact was retooling an offense in which both Lee and Jefferson seemed overwhelmed at times under Crowton.
"Instead of having 80 different pass plays, we run 20 different pass plays out of four different formations and try to camouflage them with motion and other wrinkles," said Kragthorpe. "People have used the term 'simplify,' but I don't think it's simple -- we just try to conceptualize the offense [for the quarterbacks]. There's probably not as much volume in the passing game. The way we teach the quarterback how to read the defense has helped him too."
LSU's running and passing games are closely intertwined, and opposing defenses are generally more focused on slowing down the Tigers' stable of powerful running backs: Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard. But they also have to contend with the Tigers' talented receiving corps, led by Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham Jr. Being surrounded by that much talent is a luxury for any quarterback, but Lee's most important task when he does throw the ball remains not giving it away.
"My redshirt freshman year, I had some interceptions that were returned for touchdowns," said Lee, who's completed 63.2 percent of his throws for 1,250 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. "I put my team in a lot of bad situations. I just tried to grow from it, keep the ball in our hands, get smarter with the football."
Merely avoiding interceptions seemed like a step forward in LSU's season-opening win over then third-ranked Oregon, Lee's first start since 2009. He was a modest 10-of-22 for 98 yards and a touchdown, but the thinking was that with such a strong running game (currently averaging 189 yards per game) and dominant defense (No. 4 nationally) the Tigers could perhaps contend with a modest passing attack.
Two weeks later, however, Lee showed he could do more than just manage a game. Leading just 9-6 early in the fourth quarter at Mississippi State, on a first down at the Bulldogs' 19-yard-line, Lee uncorked an unexpected and perfectly thrown fade pass to Randle in the end zone.
LSU's coaches have seemingly entrusted Lee with more each week, and he's been particularly effective in the red zone, where he's gone 12-of-18. Nine of those 12 completions have gone for touchdowns.
Jefferson, too, has been noticeably more effective since his return from suspension four weeks ago. He's 6-of-10 for 123 yards, two touchdowns and no picks while playing in selected situations. In turn, the Tigers have improved from 92nd to eighth nationally in pass efficiency (162.4).
Ask Alabama coach Nick Saban, however, and he'll tell you, much to his chagrin, that the pair first showed signs of a breakthrough in this same game last year, a 24-21 LSU upset. Jefferson, who'd been struggling all season, went 10-of-13 for 141 yards and threw his first touchdown in eight games. And Lee completed a 47-yard pass to Randle for a key third-down conversion in the final minutes to help preserve the Tigers' lead.
"They both have improved," said Saban. "It seems like a long time ago that Rashad intercepted a pass down at LSU and [Lee] threw it. They both have been playing for a long time and they both have made a tremendous improvement. What they do, they are extremely good at."
Jefferson's improvement would not have been entirely surprising, at least before the Shady's incident. Though Jefferson was a constant subject of criticism the past two seasons, Miles had predicted a breakthrough senior season for his quarterback following spring practice, and others who'd seen him work out came away impressed.
But Lee's emergence has raised far more eyebrows simply because the first impression he made on the nation was so utterly forgettable. Though Lee talks nonchalantly now about his early struggles, it had to be traumatic for a 19-year-old to feel the wrath of 92,000 angry LSU fans after throwing a pick-six.
"It was tough, very tough," said Lee, now 22. "I've been booed before. That's just part of it, though. I took the route of just growing from it and learning."
Now, Lee is enjoying what every college player dreams of. After four years biding his time and learning, he'll lead his team onto the field Saturday night for its biggest game since the 2007 BCS championship. And he'll do so having earned the full trust of his teammates, his coaches and even the fans.
"Jarrett, more power to him," said Danielson, who's called numerous LSU games throughout Lee's career. "He stuck with the program. He wanted to finish out what he started there. It was very important that he prove to everybody that he was a little better quarterback than he unfairly had to show as a freshman."
Lee's proved it all right. Even the guests in LSU's luxury boxes must be smiling when they watch him.