Doubted and dangerous: Why QB Brandon Harris holds the key to LSU's 2015 national championship hopes
BATON ROUGE, La.—The key to LSU's national title hopes* was asked last Saturday to interpret offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's play-calling, which on that evening had included some deep throws early and a perfectly executed flea-flicker that went for 52 yards. "I think Cam just wanted to show we could throw the ball," Brandon Harris said. "People say we can't throw it. So, I think that's what it was."
The quarterback waited a beat. Then he smiled. "I'm joking," he said.
Was he? Maybe Harris was kidding about Cameron's intentions, but not about the lingering doubts as to whether he could pilot the Tigers to victory through the air. Those doubts, written and spoken about on this site and plenty of others, drive Harris crazy. The 6'3", 206-pound sophomore from Bossier City, La., isn't shy about admitting it. The only television he watches is ESPN, and he has grown tired of seeing talking heads describe LSU as an offense that will rise or fall based on the production of sophomore running back Leonard Fournette. "It's nothing but motivation for me," Harris said. "I can't stand it."
That's why Harris was so thrilled following Saturday's 35–28 win over Florida. In the first half, against a secondary loaded with future NFL talent, Harris had dominated. For the night he completed 13 of 19 passes for 202 yards with two touchdowns. He had not thrown an interception. In fact, he hasn't thrown one all year.
Harris's irritation doesn't come from a place of jealousy. He believes Fournette is the nation's best player. But Harris also thinks that if there ever comes a day that a team contains Fournette, he and his receivers can keep the points flowing.
*Given the contents of the previous paragraph, this seems like an ideal place to address the outrageous statement in the first sentence of this column. Fournette probably is the nation's best player. Logically, that would also make him LSU's best player. So why would anyone call Harris the key to the Tigers' national title hopes? Because there is at least one team LSU must beat that has a defense designed to stop an offense built around a dominant tailback running between the tackles and a huge line. (Hint: Its name rhymes with Salafama.) Against that team, and possibly against a College Football Playoff opponent should LSU earn a berth, it will likely be the performance of Harris that determines whether LSU wins the game.
That anyone would suggest Harris can't throw is absurd. Watch this clip of the fade route Harris threw against the Gators on third-and-five in the red zone—a down-and-distance that will encourage a coordinator to call a throw even with a talent as prodigious as Fournette at his disposal—and dispel any doubts about Harris's touch. As for deep balls, you already saw the flea-flicker, which Harris completed with future NFL first-round draft pick Vernon Hargreaves III in coverage. The question shouldn't be whether Harris can throw. It should be this: Can he lead the offense effectively when the bulk of the burden is placed on his shoulders instead of Fournette's? Saturday's performance against one of the best defenses the Tigers will face all season suggests that he can.
Why haven't we seen more throws like the ones described above? Because we haven't seen many Harris throws at all. Through six games he has attempted 108 passes, 24 fewer than Cal quarterback Jared Goff attempted in the Bears' first three Pac-12 games. LSU hasn't needed to throw. After all, the Tigers have Fournette. Why throw in bulk when you have a once-in-a-generation back who averages eight yards a carry and an offense in general that averages 6.9 yards a carry?
That is what Tigers coach Les Miles wants Harris to understand. Instead of bristling at the criticism from those who haven't watched closely, Miles would prefer Harris take comfort in the knowledge that he has already proven he can make all the throws LSU needs him to make. "If they watch his film, he's shown it all," Miles said. "What we need him to do is operate the offense and move it down the field."
That may require handing off (most likely). That may require play-action passes (fairly frequently). That may require a seven-step drop followed by a bomb deep downfield (likely only in case of emergencies). "He has the ability to throw it as accurately and as well as guys I've been around," Miles said. "He'll get better and better. There will be days he's going to throw for 300 [yards]. There are going to be days he throws for 100. It's all going to fit nicely with what we need him to do for victory."
Harris's situation aligns most closely with AJ McCarron's first year as the starter at Alabama in 2011. In that fall, the Crimson Tide had a great offensive line, two excellent backs (Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy) and a suffocating defense. After winning at Penn State in the second game of that season, McCarron described the philosophy then-coordinator Jim McElwain—the coach whose team Harris played in Tiger Stadium last Saturday—drilled into his head. "That's what coach preaches," McCarron said. "Touchdowns. Checkdowns. You want to live to play the next down." Miles and Cameron are preaching the same thing to Harris now, but Harris need only remain patient for his chance to do more.
The other striking part of the Harris-McCarron comparison is there was one team in 2011 with a defense stout enough to shut down Alabama's run game. That team was LSU. When those teams met in the regular season in Tuscaloosa, McElwain and Tide head coach Nick Saban remained fairly risk-averse with regard to the passing game. They also remained steadfast in their opinion—expressed forcefully after Alabama's win that year against Florida—that McCarron should resist his natural urge to emote on the field. They wanted a stoic game manager. After Alabama lost 9–6 to LSU in overtime, Saban shifted his philosophy. "After the Florida game, we had a talk," McCarron said in January '12. "He was like, 'Slow your emotions down.' After the LSU game, we had another talk. He said, 'All right, I want you to play with your emotion again.'"
Saban and McElwain also wanted to use McCarron's arm more. When the teams met for a rematch in the BCS title game, Alabama prioritized passing on first down and knocked LSU's excellent defense off-balance. McCarron completed 23 of 34 throws for 234 yards with no interceptions and the Tide won, 20–0. Afterward, McCarron delivered a quote that Harris might be able to crib word-for-word—with the exception of a jersey number change—should he star in another big LSU victory this season. "We've been leaning on No. 3 [Richardson] all year. He's our workhorse. I mean, he's our main guy," McCarron said. "And we knew coming into the game somebody else had to step up, and coach just gave me an opportunity."
LSU's main guy understands how important Harris could be down the stretch. "It starts with him," Fournette said. "We follow his lead. The O-line, wide receivers, running backs follow him. His confidence is what keeps us pushing, what keeps us going forward." Harris should also be able to keep defenses from stacking the box to stop Fournette. "When we have the balance we had in the first half [against Florida], that's extremely beautiful," said sophomore receiver Malachi Dupre, who made four catches for 115 yards with two touchdowns against the Gators. "The defense has to play us honest."
And if defenses still want to pack the box even after watching Harris's play against Florida, Harris will be thrilled. "Teams are going to be out to stop No. 7. He's the best player in the country," Harris said. "If they want to play us with nine in the box, so be it. Thank you, Leonard. I'll throw the ball down the field with one-on-one matchups."
If Harris completes enough of those throws, his detractors could change their minds. He not so secretly hopes they don't. "For those that say that, keep doubting me," he said. "I love it."