Spring football games mean quarterbacks in no-contact jerseys, early enrollees and the testing of new schemes before fall camp. First-year defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s 3-4 defense might be the most intriguing part of this year’s team heading into the upcoming season, but all eyes were on LSU’s under-construction passing game this past Saturday in the National L Club Spring Game
It’s no secret that LSU’s air attack, or lack thereof, was a main ingredient in last season’s communication catastrophe that put Les Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron on the hot seat. As a result, the majority of spring camp was spent working on balancing an offense that was carried by Leonard Fournette, the nation’s leading rusher in 2015.
Quarterback Brandon Harris went 11-of-17 for 178 yards with two touchdowns in last year’s spring game, so with a full season under his belt, a breakout performance felt imminent. Harris didn’t put up gaudy numbers on Saturday, but he showed signs of maturity that don’t exactly translate to a stat line. His willingness to stay in the pocket and go through route progressions led him to a modest 11-of-16 for 106 yards and one interception.
Even though Harris didn’t throw any touchdowns in the Purple team’s 17-7 win over the White team, he said he was pleased with how he performed in Saturday’s simulated game.
“We’ve had four scrimmages up to this point, and I feel like I have managed them well,” Harris said. “Sometimes scrimmages focus on third down or red zone passing, but today had more of a game atmosphere to it and I thought I handled it well.”
Purdue-transfer Danny Etling also threw for 106 yards in a 6-of-11 outing that was highlighted by a 70-yard touchdown pass to freshman Dee Anderson on the first play of the second quarter. His performance proved that he’ll be a reliable option at quarterback.
Etling’s strong showing will certainly keep quarterback competition chatter on the horizon, but Harris, the returning starter, said the environment at LSU breeds that type of intensity every day.
“You’re always in quarterback battles regardless,” Harris said. “Every position on this field is up for grabs. It’s so competitive, being at a place like this. I feel like I’m in a battle every time I touch the field. I’m competing with myself, I really am. Danny’s a great competitor, Justin (McMillan’s) a great competitor. I thought they did some great things.”
LSU didn’t unveil many new tweaks to its passing game but it did make a concerted effort to give receivers more opportunities to make plays by getting them the ball in space.
Junior Malachi Dupre had seven catches for 77 yards, including an explosive 32-yard-catch-and-run in the third quarter that led to the White team’s only touchdown of the day.
The Tigers weren’t shy about taking shots down the field with speedsters like sophomore Tyron Johnson and junior D.J. Chark in the receiving corps, but a battle-tested defensive backfield kept vertical passes in check for most of the scrimmage.
Senior receiver Travin Dural is expected to help LSU stretch the field once he recovers from last season’s hamstring injury. Dural averaged 19 yards per catch on 533 yards, behind only Dupre’s team leading 698 receiving yards.
Dupre said the receiving corps’ presence in the short to immediate passing game will help balance the LSU offense this season.
“We have a lot of guys who can make plays out of the backfield, but we feel the same way about ourselves in the receiver room,” Dupre said. “I feel the shorter, quick passes we’re able to complete, the less pressure we will be putting on the running game. Doing those things will also open up the deep passing game for us as well.”
Receivers coach Dameyune Craig, a former quarterback at Auburn, has made the receivers and quarterbacks a synchronized operation in just 15 spring practices.
“I think the biggest thing he has helped me with is understanding the quarterback’s perspective of things,” Dupre said. “He was a quarterback himself, so he knows what quarterbacks want to see.”
Passing might be second in the chain of command as long as Leonard Fournette is in Baton Rouge and rightfully so. When the nation’s leading rusher is in the backfield, a consistent passing game is all a team needs.
LSU’s passing game might not be ready for SEC consumption but its fundamental structure is well in place. The play calling on Saturday was reminiscent of the Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Zach Mettenberger era.
If LSU’s talented receiving corps can match the output of its past receivers, a College Football Playoff berth isn’t out of reach.