By Mario Jerez
After an offseason marred with questions about the quarterback position, sophomore quarterback Brandon Harris (@bharrisqb1) has emerged as an efficient signal caller for No. 4 LSU and is playing the best football of his collegiate career going into the Tigers’ SEC West showdown with No. 7 Alabama.
Sophomore running back and Heisman trophy front-runner Leonard Fournette is the focal point of LSU’s offense. However, Harris has quietly been one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the nation to complement the Tigers’ dominant running game during their 7-0 start.
Harris has posted a 153.9 quarterback rating and has thrown zero interceptions this season to go with his 1,098 passing yards and nine touchdowns.
After struggling to grasp LSU’s playbook during his freshman season, Harris is doing everything asked of him by head coach Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron this year. Harris went 3-14 in his first start during 2014, a blowout loss at Auburn and didn’t start again for the rest of the season.
Harris beat out Anthony Jennings for the starting job this offseason and has found his place in Cameron’s offense, winning his next seven starts and helping lead the Tigers into the top five for the first time since 2012.
Junior receiver Travin Dural, Harris’ leading receiver this season, said he has seen major growth in his quarterback.
“One thing about [Harris]: if he goes to scramble, you better cover your guy.”
– Les Miles, LSU head football coach
– Les Miles, LSU head football coach
“He’s grown a lot,” Dural said. “He’s matured so much. He’s letting us make plays for him instead of him trying to make all the plays. That’s the main [area] where he grew.”
Harris had just 145 combined passing yards after LSU’s first two games against Mississippi State and Auburn, but has reached the 150-yard mark in four of the next five games. The last three games in particular have seen Harris’ production rise.
The sophomore quarterback has thrown for 200 or more yards the last three games in wins against South Carolina, Florida, and Western Kentucky.
With Fournette getting the majority of LSU’s offensive touches, Harris averaged only 22 pass attempts in these three games, which means he is making his completions count.
Sophomore wide receiver Malachi Dupre has been coming on strong for LSU lately, scoring three touchdowns in the Tigers’ last two games. Dupre said Harris is improving with each game and playing his best football at the right time.
“Our relationship has been there since day one,” Dupre said. “As the season progresses, he’s getting more confidence and the coaches are getting more [confident] in his abilities. He’s playing great right now.”
Dupre’s 397 receiving yards through seven games this season are already more than his 318 yard total from last year.
Aside from being a threat through the air, Harris has proven he is capable of making plays with his legs. His three rushing touchdowns are second on the team behind Fournette, and he has used his athleticism to avoid pressure and make throws out of the pocket.
“His running ability helps him,” Dupre said. “A Lot of quarterbacks have the ability to run, but they don’t keep their eyes downfield. With Brandon’s ability to run, he keeps his eyes downfield, and that helps him to make plays through the air.”
Harris’ ability to extend plays was on display in LSU’s biggest win of the season so far against Florida.
Right before the half, Harris avoided pressure right up the middle and was flushed to his right. He stiff armed a potential tackler and found Dupre 50-yards down the field for a late-half touchdown.
LSU regained momentum in the game thanks to its quarterback’s ability to evade pressure and throw on the run.
This element of Harris’ game could be crucial when the Tigers face Alabama and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s defense, which is known to generate constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Crimson Tide leads the SEC with 27 sacks.
“One thing about [Harris]: if he goes to scramble, you better cover your guy,” Miles said. “He may be open, and it doesn’t make any difference where in the stadium he is. He’s just got a really strong arm, and he can find an open receiver a really long way away.”
Harris followed the win against Florida with a career night against Western Kentucky, where he went 11-20 for a career high 269 yards and three touchdowns in a 48-20 LSU victory.
Late in the fourth quarter, Harris had more passing yards in 20 attempts than Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty had in 50.
Following the win against the Hilltoppers, Harris is in a rhythm and looks to carry his recent momentum into Tuscaloosa for LSU’s most important game of the season.
If Alabama chooses to load the box to try to stop Fournette, Harris’ play could be crucial in determining the outcome of the game.
If this is the case, Miles said he believes his quarterback is up to the challenge.
“I think we’re throwing the ball better,” Miles said. “Brandon Harris can really throw it, and I think our receivers can get open and compete with a real quality secondary.”