Better/Worse in 2016: LSU passing game
Under Les Miles, LSU has been one of the winningest teams in college football, but there has been one statistic that has consistently been perceived as keeping the Tigers from being even better.
Since 2009, LSU has been in the bottom third in the SEC in passing yards in all but one season. It’s been worse in the last two years, with the Tigers finishing dead last in passing in 2014 and 11th in the 14-team league last year.
So when one wants to discuss whether or not LSU’s passing game will be better, the answer naturally gravitates to the positive side. After all, it can’t get much worse than it’s been in the last couple of years.
To be fair, rising junior Brandon Harris was, for most of the year, good at being efficient. Even with a four-game slump towards the end of the season where he completed just 60 of 126 passes with 5 interceptions and 3 touchdowns, he still finished with a passer rating of 130.6, good for seventh in the league.
He protected the ball with just one other interception outside of the four-game slide (which started, interestingly enough, with a loss to Alabama). But he also threw for just 2,165 yards and 13 touchdowns.
To be better, LSU has to be at a point where success throwing the ball isn’t completely predicated on being set up by its dominant running game. Are Harris and the Tigers ready for that?
Passing yards per game (SEC rank): 180.4 (11th)
Passing TDs: 13 (10th)
INTs: 6 (third)
LSU brought in Purdue transfer Danny Etling last year — he sat out 2015 as a transfer player — and head coach Les Miles sold this spring as a competition between the incumbent and Etling, a former starter for the Boilermakers.
Miles said the offense spent an “inordinate” amount of time during the spring working on the passing game.
Did all that work?
Harris completed 11 of 15 passes for 106 yards in the spring game, perhaps a sign that he could be headed to a better season this year.
Etling has something to do with that.
Louisiana sportsbooks are up and running. Residents in the state can now signup at one of the various sportsbook operators and begin betting on NFL, college football, NBA and more.
“The quarterback room is just so much better with Danny Etling,” Miles said.
Harris has all the tools — a strong arm and elusive feet — and he played in a prolific, pass-first offense in high school. So one would think he can eventually make the same leap Zach Mettenberger made in his second year as a starter (a 3,000-yard passing season).
One would expect LSU to be more demanding of Harris. Etling had his moments in spring and provides LSU with a much more palatable second option than Anthony Jennings last year. Not that Jennings lacked a resume — he was the 2014 starter — but after getting in off-the-field trouble during the offseason, he never seemed to be considered an option to do more than handle mop-up duty. Jennings has since left the program.
Receivers/Running backs/tight ends
The good news is LSU returns its most productive receivers in Malachi Dupre (43 receptions, 698 yards) and Travin Dural (28 receptions, 533 yards).
The bad news is they weren’t all that productive, and there was very little production below them.
The receivers do deserve some of the blame for LSU’s passing problems last year. Consistency in running routes and catching the ball would go a long way in helping Harris develop.
Miles said he saw progress in those areas in the spring, saying “The receivers took the responsibility to catch the ball.”
If Dupre and Dural are consistent in those areas, the next step would be finding a third receiver, something the Tigers could not find last year. John Diarse and Trey Quinn took turns, but neither were productive. Highly touted sophomore Tyron Johnson could take this role if he begins to reach his potential, but D.J. Chark, who impressed with an 80-yard touchdown run in the Texas Bowl, is coming off a good spring. Also, watch for up-and-comer Jazz Ferguson as a slot receiver.
At running back, Leonard Fournette caught 19 passes last season and the backs in general were reliable, combining for 33 receptions (including fullbacks). That’s more than all the receivers not named Dupre and Dural, who combined to catch just 27 passes, so Harris should have reliable safety valves at running back.
Tight end Colin Jeter caught 12 passes last season, and between Jeter and little-used reserves DeSean Smith and Jacory Washington, LSU seems to have some pass-catching ability at the position but has done little to utilize it.
When you have a back as talented as Fournette, you’re going to be a run-first team.
But even the mighty Fournette can be stopped by talented teams who sell out to stop the run (see Alabama), so it would behoove Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to find ways to loosen up the run defenses without necessarily using the run game to set things up.
If the Tigers complete some first-down passes early in games, that could give Fournette the room to run against better defenses. If LSU is going to be able to throw well enough to beat an Alabama, it needs to be able to throw it against the Jacksonville States first. It can’t be just a one-man show with Fournette until the Tigers run into somebody who can stop it.
Miles and Cameron know that so while this will still be a run-first team, expect to see LSU trying to establish its passing game early in games early in the season.
One stat that must improve
LSU completed just 54 percent of its passes, a number that was 12th in the SEC and 101st in the nation.
As a result, the Tigers converted just 40 percent of their third downs despite having a talent like Fournette who was nearly automatic in short-yardage situations.
For Miles and Cameron to trust the passing offense, it has to know that if it calls for a safe pass to keep the offense on schedule, it’s going to be completed. Last year, there wasn’t much faith in the passing offense’s ability to be that consistent.
If Harris struggles early, things could snowball like they did last year when he had his first bad game against Alabama.
Right out of the gate, LSU will play a good defensive team in Wisconsin. If jitters, Wisconsin’s scheme and inconsistent receiver play lead to a bad game (particularly if LSU loses), will Harris’ confidence get shaken? Or will another year of maturity help him weather the storm?
One other issue could be a concern: LSU still seems a little unsettled at the tackle position. Can the offensive line protect Harris?
Better or Worse in 2016?
It’s hard to get much worse than LSU was last year in the passing game, especially during the four-game slump towards season’s end.
When you consider LSU returns its quarterback and most of its receiving threats, there should be no doubt the Tigers will be better.
But the question is, is “better” going to be enough? Last year, when the running attack was taken away by elite defenses, the passing game could do little to keep those defenses honest. For LSU to get where it wants to be, it can’t just be good enough to keep an Alabama honest, it has to be good enough to win a game against an elite opponent.
Better? Yes. Good enough to finally get past Alabama? That’s a completely different question.